How to best benefit at writers’ conferences

How to best benefit at writers’ conferences

You learn early that writing can be a very isolated and sometimes lonely process. Days at a time in a room with nothing but your computer and your thoughts can get start climbing the walls and dare you to join them. Perhaps that is why social media can be such a gem to writers. (It can also be the bane to your success if you aren’t careful.)

To be involved, to network and to learn your craft takes concentrated effort. Writer workshops and conferences can be a perfect resource for all of the above. Workshops and conferences not only offer a reprieve from the isolation and the “butt-in-chair” experience, but so much valuable and useful information can be gleaned if you go with the right attitude and expectations. Below are some points to keep in mind in order to get the most out of writers’ workshops and conferences.

Set your goals

As I’ve said, mingling and networking can definitely be achieved at these gatherings. But what else do you want to achieve? Are you looking to tighten a particular skill(s)? Are you looking to talk with an editor or agent? Know what goals you have in mind and that way you can make the most out of your time. There will most likely be a bevy of seminars and events happening simultaneously. Your key will be to focus on what you need for that particular time in your writing career.

Be realistic about your expectations

Hoping to sell a manuscript or land an-on-the-spot commitment is not only lofty, but also unlikely. These are not realistic goals for a conference—neither agents nor editors make snap judgments at such gatherings. Most likely you will be able to meet and talk with agents for a short period of time. You may also be able to find out what type of material they are looking for and follow-up with a query if you are invited to do so. Remember everyone is clamoring to sell their work. It may not happen on the spot, but a meeting-even a brief one-with an editor or agent may be the start you need.

Choose the conference based on your needs

If you are a Christian Fiction writer, attending a murder mystery writing weekend will probably not be profitable to you. Likewise, if you are looking to talk with editors and agents look for conferences that specifically indicate you will have that type of opportunity. If you are a beginning writer, trudging through your first few chapters focus on workshops geared toward beginning writers.

If you are in a position where you cannot get away for a conference consider other opportunities like online conferences. The panels and workshops all take place in a virtual setting. You can learn skills and even network in your PJs and slippers. It is completely interactive and can often be much more intimate. Also asking questions may be a lot less intimidating.

 SORMAG Conference registration

Come Prepared

You won’t leave empty-hand, but don’t come empty-handed either. Bring your business cards or copies of your manuscript. Bring pens and notepads or even your tablet. Be prepared to write down questions and take notes. Have your “elevator pitch” in your head so that you aren’t bumbling when it is time to spout a short blurb about your current project. Come prepared to get as much out of the writers’ conference or workshop as you can. And what you don’t learn from this one, you can get it from the next one.

Join me online at the SORMAG Readers and Writers’ Conference, November 1-3.


Fact or Fiction: Is it OK to write about friends and family?

If I had one share of Amazon stock for every time I’ve been on the receiving end of some juicy news and thought to myself, “Now that would make for a good story,” I could write for free. I suppose it is the nature of fiction writers; we see situations–no matter what they may be–in terms of a good story. We’re always thinking: “what if.” Now this is not to say that we can’t be trusted with your most intimate secrets and such because we are not gossipers (at least not by the nature of the craft) but writing it out, helps us to figure it out. It is a necessary therapeutic action for dealing with and figuring out our world. But when does that cross the line? When do we have to pull back because the lives of our friends and relatives are being written in ink for the world to see…forever?

Several years ago I’d written a story which I loved and thought would be great material to be published. It was one of the first full-length novels I’d ever written. I gave it to a close friend of mine to read. She was in fact, my beta reader.  Sometime afterwards, she choked back tears and slowly handed it back to me. She stood silent. I couldn’t for the life understand it. She finally asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to write about me? Not cool at all.” You?…huh…what? Was she kidding me? How full of yourself could you possibly…It was a character birthed through my imagination!

But at second glance I could see that subconsciously her life was an open book (pun intended) in my hands. Yikes. And it wasn’t pretty—provocative–but not pretty. I played around with it hoping for a neater, sanitized version, but it just didn’t work. The first draft came from a pure place. The second and third drafts were bedtime stories. And by this time the story had lost some of its chutzpa with the subject matter breathing down my throat in hopes of a more appealing character. It didn’t matter. I was done. I knew that I wasn’t willing to risk a friendship for a best-seller (one can hope). I wrestled with it and finally ended up storing it in the back of my closet. It may have eventually become scrap paper. As I said, we were and still are very close.

“It has to be permissible to draw on your real-life experiences. Otherwise, you can’t write fiction.” Martin Garbus, lawyer for Penguin USA.

A former lover of author Terry Mcmillan sued her for defamation in the 90’s, claiming he was the basis for the character Franklin Swift from her novel, Disappearing Acts. His $4.75 million dollar suit rang with bitter resentment over the “hostile, angry, lazy” way the character was portrayed. The suit was eventually dismissed. And considering the “chilling effect” it could have posed on writers, this was good thing. Chilling effect simply means that other writers may be dissuaded from using their rights to draw on personal experiences from which to write because of fear of legal sanctions. In other words, a verdict in favor of the “victim” could be very bad for free speech.

Thankfully the First Amendment gives us great leeway when it comes to expressing ourselves (lots of it). According to the law’s definition:  Libel requires a false and defamatory statement of fact “of and concerning” an identifiable living person (or business entity). Not only does it have to be about that person, it has to be false and defamatory.

The problem for writers often isn’t so much the law as it is a moral obligation. Who wants to loose friendships or create bad vibes with the people they love for the purpose of writing a killer novel? Often drawing on personal experiences make for the best stories but there are ways to get around it without it resulting in being shunned from family picnics and reunions or having friends bad mouth us on the sly on Facebook. Here are some tips:

  • Disguise the character beyond recognition. Keep the essence of the character. But change the ethnicity or location. If the real-life person is a college grad with a plethora of degrees, make your character a college drop-out who absolutely hates schools. Make it difficult for the person to say, “that’s me.”
  • Write a disclaimer. O.K. most of the time we do this anyway. But it does say to anyone who may be suspicious, “Hey, dude, not about you.”
  • Don’t defame. In other words, don’t paint the person in a bad light. Defamation is a necessary element in a libel suit. Brighten them up a bit and save the unsavory stuff for the other characters

We can never get away from writing about real life people—and who would want to? But simply keep in mind that we must tread lightly.

What are your thoughts? I love hearing from you.

We were not designed to fail

My hubby is a Discovery Channel nut. His wind-down time is spent ogling the mating habits of the cheetah or the hyena as both prey and predator. It’s intriguing to watch, this big burly dude describe the beauty of the circle of life. I didn’t get it at first–not the animal’s behavior–but his wonderment of them. I usually only see that look during basketball playoffs.

But at second glance, it’s pretty clear. I’m no animal behaviorist, but I do realize that animals in all their complexity stay within the realm of their design and purpose, to watch reminds me that they are created beings. Although they do not move and perform with exactness, their instinct is superb, even if it is not precise.  They know when they’re predator, and when they are potential prey. Animals understand their challenges and use their ample paws, teeth or stealthy moves to maneuver, pounce and conquer, or to escape sudden death. Sometimes they fail (not quite quick enough), others times they savor the kill. They seem to realize what they are born to do and move with confidence even in the wake of danger and uncertainty.

For humans, it’s complicated. We struggle and fumble even as we are equipped with these tools of reasoning and emotion. They are both our greatest assets and most blatant weaknesses. We overthink and second guess; we allow jealousy guised as competition to rule our good sense and move us in the opposite direction of success. But in fact,  even as we struggle, we have all we need to do what is necessary and move with purpose–including emotion and reasoning. Once we realize this truth we will know what God knows about us; He did not design us to fail.

Sometimes I look up to the heavens, seeking  God for some great sign;  a Red Sea parting or a burning bush for the secret to success. Then he reminds me that I have everything I need—it was part of His masterful design, turns out, he’s pretty good at creating stuff. All I have to do is look inside and trust Him.

We are teeming with resources. Sometime one falters, but another will arise strong. My eyes may not see it, but my ears hear it; perhaps I can’t hear it but I can feel itgraceful-predator-108267. My emotions allow me to empathize with others, show deep affection, forge relationships. My reasoning moves in and allows me to make swift decisions or ponder at other instances.

Sometimes I wonder if  my writing will matter. Will anyone even care about these stories? Maybe they’re a big deal in my head only. And again he reminds me that he isn’t a God who imparts haphazardly or insufficiently. His gifts come with intent. Yes, there is a plan in it. And as long as I put Him first they will reach those for whom the stories matter. The gift to breathe life into these works of fiction resides inside and just needs to be stirred and sometimes shaken.

He has created us with purpose and on purpose. We are of perfect design despite the flaws and setbacks. To those of you who write, I say write on. Don’t stop. Someone needs/ wants to hear what you have to say, whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction.

We were created to succeed and to accomplish. We were not designed to fail.

Write your story your way: creating good fiction


David and Goliath a lithograph by Osmar Schindler c 1888

Remember when you first start writing you’d say things like: I want to write just like… As you were determined to make your fiction stand out you wanted to write in the style and voice of someone else. (The life of a writer is filled with irony.) With such a plethora of good writers in every genre it’s difficult not to cling to your favorite writers and try to mimic their style. Some people even mention this in their query letters as if it were a get-in-for-free card: Dear Sir, If you’ve ever read any of John Grisham’s work you are going to love…

And you know it may even work– for a while. I mean, you’ve read so much of Grisham’s work, your fiction rings with the same intensity and suspense. You’ve even captured his vocabulary.

In the Bible story about David and Goliath, David is just a boy when he declares that he will fight the giant Goliath. The Israelites are petrified by this brawny ten-foot-tall nemesis. King Saul said, cool go for it. I’m sure the king figured within minutes they’d been scraping bits of David from the ground with the tip of the sword, but he humored him anyway and dressed him with armor, helmet and a sword. But when David tried to move in it he found it big, awkward and unfamiliar. He may have looked the part, but it wasn’t going to work for him. He opted instead for a slingshot and a few stones. Perhaps they thought he was either too young to know better or too peeved to care. (I Samuel 17) This uncircumcised Philistine has the audacity…

Even Goliath laughed at him. (Of course the snickering tapered off as he watched one of those smooth stones sail toward his skull at the speed of a sand storm.) But the point is it’s amazing what you can do when you’re walking in your own truth.

Writing is a tricky thing. You can convince yourself of your non-existent originality or pride yourself for your uncanny resemblance to that one Daniel Baldacci book that just melted the charts. You’re clinging to the coattails of a New York Times bestseller in hopes you can take a ride with them to the top. But it is not until you get into the story that your eyes upturn toward your beloved mentor so that they may impart inspiration. As it turns out the essence of the story can’t be taught or imparted; that is the part that comes from the heart of every writer. It is what draws us to put pen to paper. It is our interpretation of experiences, fears, hopes and such; it is our quest to define the truth or unearth new questions. If that could be copied we’d all be turning out bestsellers.

When I first started writing I wanted my writings to ring with the fierce honesty of Terry McMillan’s work. I thought, easy enough. I can write like that.  But the more I read about her as a person I realized that her works were interpretations of her truth. How could I possibly mimic her interpretation?

Some place, in our souls as writers are the questions begging to be asked or answered. It is that place from which we write. I remind myself: only you can write your story.  And it must be written your way.    

The Mundane Parts of Fiction: How to Move Your Story Along

dog-12Let’s face it; every part of our story doesn’t pop with excitement and drama. There is the humdrum of the everyday life that is about as interesting as a plate of food grown cold. Sometimes we don’t know how to navigate through these sections without boring our readers.

In my last blog I talked about life’s mundane moments–the daily, tedious rituals or habits that on the surface appear to be meaningless at best and completely mind-numbing at worst. But daily habits establish character and sometimes tell us more about people than dialogue. It is those unspoken words and movements of how, when and where we do what we do that reveals more about us than words can ever reveal. In writing fiction, instead of simply moving characters along or having them perform mundane tasks, turn these into opportunities to advance your story.

Do it with purpose

Using the mundane routines can help with character development and you can drop information by bits this way instead of large chunks of seemingly endless exposition. For example, your protagonist, Sean tends to drink too much when he gets upset:

Sean walks inside and smells dinner being prepared. He mixes himself a cranberry juice and vodka–light on the juice. He settles down in the recliner, thinking of his fight with his boss. He shouldn’t have gone on about that account the way he did. He sips as he wonders why he always allows Richard to get to him that way. Looking down at his empty glass he gets up and prepares another drink, this time leaving out the juice and the ice altogether.

Dropping information throughout the story at various opportunities while your characters are performing everyday tasks will help develop your characters. Think of the way you truly find out information about people. Yes, sometimes people tell you about themselves but more often than not you find out much more through careful observation of what they do. It is the same in fiction writing.

If you don’t want to write it, they probably will not want to read it

Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty said, “Skip the boring parts.” Sometimes we feel we must include every step of a task to give the story a sense of realness or to ensure that our story doesn’t appear to jump from scene to scene with no transition. Wait. He was just in the car driving home. He’s eating dinner already?  Seamless movement requires transitional words. If we know that Sean is on his way home from work, we don’t have to record him pulling up into the driveway, going up the steps, unlocking the door, closing it and locking it.  Summarize certain areas and trust that your reader will know he had to unlock the door to get inside, unless of course there is a reason that the door is unlocked in the first place or you are trying to build suspense for what he finds once he steps inside. Recording every little step is cumbersome and frankly, your reader won’t even care.

Once is enough

Every day after work Sean leaves and heads home. Chances are he takes the same route, passes the same stores, neighborhood and so on. Therefore it isn’t necessary to rehash the same scene unless of course your point is to show how mundane his routine really is and his frustration for the routine. And even then switch it up a little.  It’s similar to that guy who tells the joke and after the punch line everyone is laughing and instead of him relishing in his successful execution he explains the joke. We get it. Keep it moving.

Trust me, they get it. Keep it moving.