Navigating Your 2012 Writing Life

The Virginia Writers Club held its second annual writing conference on August 4 in Charlottesville, VA, and the aptly named conference (see the post title above) was a lot of opportunity packed into one day.

Just a little aside here. I’m ever-so-grateful that my commonwealth, Virginia, which occasionally makes me SMH over its backwardness, invested taxpayer money in our community college system. It’s second to none, in my opinion, in the nation. The VWC conference was held on the campus of Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville in the Dickinson Fine and Performing Arts Center. As writers we know setting is important, but it’s also conducive to learning to be in a comfortable, modern building surrounded by an appealing, well-maintained campus. Thank you, Virginia. ‘Nuff said.

Subtitled “A Symposium for Writers of All Ages and All Stages,” the conference had two morning sessions, one afternoon session, and a keynote speaker to end the day. After the keynote, several authors who had served as panelists or presenters had a book sale and signing. From each session you could choose from three presentations. Here is what the conference offered:

1000 – 1045:

Show AND Tell – Presented by Cliff Garstang
Writing Mysteries – Presented by Alan Orloff
Contemporary Women Poets – Presented by Sara Robinson

1100 – 1145:

From Page to Screen: Turning your Book into a Movie – Presented by John Gilstrap
Charming the Gatekeeper: How to Land that Perfect Agent and Why You Will Need To – Presented by Brad Parks
Why We Chose E-Book Publishing – Brooke McGlothlin, Bill Blume, and Wayne L. White

1300 – 1345:

Publication’s First Heartbeat: Critique Groups – Presented by Tracy S. Dietz
A Way With Words: Hook Your Reader with the First 100 Words – Presented by Lauvonda Lynn Young and Linda Levokove
eBook Marketing: Strategies and More – Presented by Mary Montague Sikes

Keynote Speaker: Charles J. Shields

As you can see, quite a packed agenda for a single-day conference. I sorely wished I could defy physics and be in more than one place at a time. I started the morning with Garstang’s “Show AND Tell,” the premise of which is that the creative writing course maxim “show, don’t tell” isn’t quite right. I won’t go into much detail here because Garstang covered the presentation in one of his own blog posts, which you can see by clicking here. Of the three presentations I attended this was far and away the best, and I say that not because Cliff is a writer friend; but because he’s an incredibly good instructor.

Next I went to “Why We Chose E-Book Publishing,” the title of which shows there’s still confusion about the difference between e-book publishing and self-publishing. Not all e-books are self-published and vice versa, but this was a good insight into why three people who write different things opted to publish electronically. For Bill Blume, the choice was obvious: he publishes a comic. E-publishing is the perfect medium for graphic novels, animation, and comic strips. Brooke McGlothlin had already established a large following on her blog about being the mother of boys and heeded her fans’ call to assemble her posts into a book that might reach others. I must say her record is impressive–three book, 8,000 sales. She did, however and much to my gratitude, stress the importance of hiring people to do the things you don’t have a talent for, e.g., creating a cover, editing and proofreading. Wayne White had retired and wanted to participate in something other than the “honey-do” list his wife had made throughout their marriage. He’d been told he was a good story-teller, so he began to write, tried the agent route, got frustrated, and opted for Kindle Publishing.

In all, they covered the typical reasons why someone opts for self-publishing, including writing in a genre or a mash-up that’s not easily classifiable and the fact that traditional publishing is difficult for a new author to crack.

eBook Marketing focused heavily on social media, including several aspects I’d either never heard of (Triberr) or never looked into (Digg). There were some great tips on how to use your web site and blog to highlight your work–some of which I went home and put into place–and how to connect what you write to a specific kind of art work, which you can then use for drawing attention to your books. The presenter, Mary Montague Sikes, is writing a romance/thriller series about archeology in some fictional Mayan ruins, so she uses her personal collection of Mayan art as a marketing tool. And you got a free book, Published! Now $ell It! A “How to” Book, as well as a handout of links you can use for developing marketing materials.

As for the keynote speaker, Charles J. Shields, I’ve gushed about him before as the biographer of Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut, but he gave an inspiring talk about how he walked away from a teaching career to become a writer/biographer. His key point was when you tell people you’re a writer, don’t qualify it. You’re a writer; be a writer. Shields took questions from the audience, and when I asked who would be the subject of his next biography, Shields indicated he was now trying his hand at fiction. He’s an incredibly thorough biographer, so that was disappointing news in a way (He’d been thinking about taking on Maurice Sendak next.), but Shields’ fiction is something I’m definitely looking forward to reading.

It’s always a great day when you spend it among writer types, and I’ll certainly sign up to navigate my writing life next year.

Reading and Writing

No, this isn’t a rant about the importance of the three R’s–reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic–but a chat about the connection between writing and reading. They go hand in hand, and some of the most helpful advice any writer can hear is, “If you want to write, read.” I’ll add, “Read. A lot.”

Of course, you say, my shelves are lined with writing self-help books, and I’ve read them all.

I’m not knocking any of these books. In fact, one of my bookshelves groans with the weight of them. What I mean is, if you write fiction, read fiction. Let’s go a little deeper. If you want to write romance, read romance; if you want to write science fiction, read science fiction, etc.

In an on-line forum I belong to, someone recently posted, “I’ve decided I want to write science fiction!!! How do I go about that?” I responded that the aspiring writer should read Asimov, Pohl, Dick, Bester, LeGuin, Butler, Atwood, and so on. “No, no. I don’t want to read science fiction! I want to write it.”

I washed my hands of it.

You get your best writing instruction on technique, mechanics, and what people want to read by reading what you want to write. And I have to caveat that–read good, established writers of the fiction you want to write. I’ll suggest, for now, in the fledgling state of your writing in a genre, read traditionally published writers. There are exceptions to this, of course, but if all you read is unedited indie fiction, it will only reinforce negative writing habits. I’ve posted about this before, so I won’t repeat my indie-writers-must-proofread-and-get-an-editor riff.

Reading what you want to write can be instructive in another way. You can learn the valuable lesson that a particular genre is not for you. For example, I love mysteries of all kinds–from Agatha Christie to Janet Evanovich–but I’m not sure I could write one that wouldn’t be a re-hash of something a better mystery writer than I has already done. The same with sci-fi. That was what I wanted to write when I first set pen to notebook to write stories about Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk when I was a freshman in high school.

The sad truth was, and is, sci-fi is not my forte. Granted, my short story published in eFiction Magazine last year had a sci-fi background. “Without Form or Substance” is about a young professor who finds her dream job, only to discover it involves time travel. I found, because this was a character piece, I didn’t need to go into the scientific details of time travel, which I doubt I could pull off. I learned that from reading Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin, among others.

Of all the reading I’ve done in my life, it was the characters who stood out most for me or, rather, the way the particular writer developed and wrote a character. Most of what I read is character-driven, and as a result, my strength is in the characters I’ve developed. I wouldn’t have learned how to make them “real” people if I hadn’t read great, character-driven works by authors across many genres.

Balancing reading and writing can be a chore, though. If I want to devote the time I need to writing, I can’t read all day long, which I can do at the drop of a hat. I’ve shifted the brunt of my reading to the weekends, though I still read a little in the evenings or when I need a break from staring at the blank computer screen. When I’m reading something I enjoy, which engrosses me, it’s the hardest thing to set it aside. I’m currently reading And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields. Not only is this a book about a writer, it’s a page-turner, and I regret every time I have to close the book and move on to something else I’m supposed to do.

Shields’ biography of Vonnegut is instructive on many levels. Not only do you see the mechanics of how to construct and research a biography, but you also get a glimpse into the life of a writer and how he wrote, what inspired him, and his struggle both to be published and to be accepted by other writers. I’ll give no more details than that because I want to review this book later.

I’ve found, for me, that when I hit a brick wall with something I’m writing, the best thing I can do is put it away. Then, I pick up a book and read.

What about you? What writers and what books have taught you how to write?