The annual James River Writers Conference is becoming one of the best weekend conferences around. This was its second year in the Greater Richmond Convention Center and as a part of the Library of Virginia’s literary week celebrations. The conference has grown to accommodate the larger space and the uplift in prestige. This year’s attendees came from all over Virginia and the several surrounding states but also from far western Canada and the U.K.

Like many other conferences I’ve attended, this year JRW classified its panels into tracks, so you could concentrate your attendance in specific areas: Exploring Genre, Getting Published, Improving Your Craft, The Life of a Story, and Promoting Your Book. I spent most of my time for the two days in the “Improving Your Craft” track, because, well, that’s why I’ve been conferencing and workshopping so much in the past year.

The conference started off with a plenary session on Saturday morning featuring poets Brad Parks and Gbari Allen Garrett. Gbari is an eighth-grader in Richmond and rocked the house with poetry which seemed to come from a wise, old man. He’s a rising star. Then, we had pep talks by three people from various aspects of the business, non-fiction writer Christopher McDougall (Born to Run), publisher Carey Albertine, and graphics designer Chip Kidd. Kidd gave a wonderful presentation on the evolution of a book’s cover.

After the Library of Virginia Literary luncheon, featuring the finalists for the Virginia Literary Awards, the panels started. My first one was “Suspense Across the Genres,” which offered techniques for heightening tension. The panelists were Philippa Ballantine (Geist), Christopher McDougall, children’s author Kevin O’Malley (Bruno, You’re Late for School), and Howard Owen (The Philadelphia Quarry). Ballentine writes epic fantasy and steampunk; McDougall is non-fiction; O’Malley writes children’s stories with an edge; and Owen is a mystery writer, so an excellent cross-section of how to imbue your writing with suspense. Each writer emphasized that one way to build suspense is to put characters in “hot-spots.” However, you have to develop that character to the point where he or she matters to the reader, so the reader cares about what happens to the character. An excellent discussion with many concrete examples.

Next was the panel featuring the Virginia Literary Award finalists for fiction, Gigi Amateau (Come August, Come Freedom), Clifford Garstang (What the Zhang Boys Know), Lydia Netzer (Shine, Shine, Shine), and Kevin Powers (The Yellow Birds). Because the questions to the panelists were about their writing process and what inspires them, this was truly a great primer on the craft of writing.

Sunday’s program started off with “First Pages.” Frankly, I always cringe at this type of session, where you submit the first page of your work to be publicly critiqued by a panel of agents and editors, and, in this case, suspense writer, David Robbins. The critique is gentle, and JRW did try to trip up the panel by inserting first pages from authors at the top of their genre, but I never take anything useful away from this, mainly because if you go to more than one of these over a year’s time–and I have–you’ll find the advice from one panel contradicts what another had to say.

“Issues in Personnel Management: All About Characters” was a panel where authors Philippa Ballentine and Lydia Netzer used standard management principles (motivating employees, setting goals, delegating responsibility, communications, and egalitarianism) to describe how the characters in their novels get developed and infuse themselves into the writing process. As a former manager of (way too many) employees, this was an interesting exercise in “managing” the characters in a novel and time well spent.

“Voice Lessons” with panelists Elizabeth Huergo (The Death of Fidel Perez), Lydia Netzer, and Virginia Pye (River of Dust) went beyond point of view to whose voice they used to tell their stories and why it’s important to pick the right voice or voices. The conclusion of the panel was that for a first-time novelist, stick to third-person limited, get that first novel published, then experiment with other voices (e.g., first person).

I went a bit “off track” to the publishing side and attended “What to Do Before You Query.” Agents Deborah Grosvenor, Beth Phelan, and Paige Wheeler covered what they liked to see in a query letter, what they didn’t like to see, and how to prep your manuscript to make an impression on an agent.

I skipped “Pitchapalooza” because I still don’t have the guts to subject myself to that, but I drove home with a lot of ideas rumbling through my head and heightened enthusiasm. JRW’s conference is a great place to meet up with writing friends, old and new, and to pick up tools to help with your writing. Not to mention, picking up quite a few more books for the “to be read” pile.

And congratulations to my writer friend Clifford Garstang, whose What the Zhang Boys Know won the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction.

Friday Fictioneers from Richmond

I’m sitting in my rather nice hotel room in Richmond, VA, so I can make a bright and early start to the annual James River Writers Conference–#JRWC13 if you want to follow the goings-on via Twitter. This is my third year attending, and this is the second year the conference has run concurrently with the Virginia Literary Festival at the Greater Richmond Convention Center–a notch up in prestige and a larger venue.

As part of the Virginia Literary Festival, the Library of Virginia holds its literary awards dinner. One of the nominees this year is my writer friend Clifford Garstang, also the founder of my wonderful writing group, SWAG Writers. So, I’ll be at the dinner tomorrow evening with my fingers and toes crossed that his book, What the Zhang Boys Know, wins the LoV literary award.

If you follow me on Twitter @unspywriter I’ll be live-Tweeting from some of the panels I attend. Should be fun.

Friday Fictioneers LogoThis morning’s drive to Richmond meant today’s Friday Fictioneers story is a bit late. I know I promised a horror theme to each of October’s stories, but this one could be stretched to portray a monster perhaps. Why don’t you read “Adaptive Trait” and see what you think? As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title in the line above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

James River Writers Conference 2012

As with anything that’s successful and grows, change can be upsetting to some. James River Writers had held its annual writers conference at the Library of Virginia for several years. As a first-time attendee at last year’s conference, I saw it was obvious the conference had outgrown the Library, wonderful venue that it is. Last minute room switching because some presentations were more popular than others meant clogged hallways and confusion.

The Greater Richmond Convention Center hosted this year’s James River Writers Conference (the tenth!), and I was pleased. Light, roomy, airy, the space almost made the conference seem small, but the meeting rooms were larger, as was the exhibit space. The conference fee this year included lunch for both days of the conference, which was very convenient, and the food wasn’t too bad either. Also, the conference was part of the Virginia Literary Festival this year, and it’s a good fit.

Still, there were plenty of people who lamented not being at the Library of Virginia, but some people just can’t handle change. I, for one, am pleased to see the success of James River Writers’ annual conference. It has the potential to be a showcase event for the Commonwealth–and heaven knows we need to emphasize our contributions to the arts since we’re stuck back in the 19th century in so many other areas.

I attended a total of six workshops over the two days, all good, but one in particular stood out: Writing Diversity. I almost didn’t go to this one, and am I glad I changed at the last minute. I had slated myself to go to “Publishing Industry Issues Demystified,” but when I arrived at the conference on Sunday morning, I realized this would probably be repetition of several articles/blogs I’ve already read on the publishing industry. “Your Day Job and Your Book,” wherein you learn how to apply project management concepts to writing, seemed too much like my old job, and “How to Survive a Plot Collapse” just didn’t sound appealing. So, “Writing Diversity” it was.

The description didn’t do this workshop justice: “Panelists discuss the importance of diversity in fiction and nonfiction, issues of cultural appropriation, and ways they write people of many ages, ethnicities, classes, and more.” It was a powerful discussion of why literature should reflect the make-up of society and a challenge to writers to write outside the boundaries we find so comforting.

The panelists were Jonathan Coleman, Camisha L. Jones, Malinda Lo, and Lila Quintero Weaver. They are, respectively, an older white guy, an African-American poet, an Asian who proudly describes herself as “queer,” and a Latina, who lived the life of a South American immigrant in rural Alabama. That’s probably the most diverse panel I’ve encountered in two years of attending writers conferences.

The panelists told us that by sticking to characters who reflect us (in my case, a middle-aged white woman), we limit our focus as writers, and in that aspect we limit our voice. There was understanding of the reluctance to write a character who’s gay but you’re straight, who’s ethnic but you’re not, but, as Malinda Lo said, you can overcome that by “doing your research.” Lo emphasized that the overall civil rights struggle is ongoing, especially for gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people. “There is a need,” she said, “for stories where it’s okay to be gay, stories that normalize what we now consider the ‘other.'”

Most of the panel directed their remarks to writers of young adult or middle-grade fiction with an emphasis on showing those age groups strong characters who are like them. Jones said by doing this, writers “help people see one another’s humanity” through their stories.

A question from the audience encompassed what many of us were thinking: If you write about a character you’re not, will you be taken seriously? Coleman replied, “If your writing is good, if it’s your best work, you’ll be taken seriously. Just don’t over think it, and take a risk.”

Jones added, “Just because you’re white doesn’t mean you can’t write about diversity. I would like to see stories by white people about the pressure on them to conform to racism. That’s an important story to tell.”

Weaver said, “When you don’t see yourself reflected in literature, it’s not interesting to you. You have to have characters who look like all your potential readers.”

The final question engendered a passionate response from Lo. A writer indicated that she deliberately wrote characters for her middle-grade books so their gender and ethnicity were “ambiguous” and asked if that weren’t the better way, so any child could see themselves in the story.

“Say what a character’s race is,” Lo said, “because ambiguity reads as white. A character should not be a blank person.”

I could have gone to a day-long workshop on this subject with these panelists, and this was one panel whose challenge I’ve accepted. This panel and these writers, more than anything, made this conference a complete success for me.

The Year of Conferencing Writerly

At the beginning of 2012, I vowed to make regular attendance at writers conferences and workshops part of my writing life for the new year. So far, I’m on a roll.

March was AWP in Chicago, IL. Very intimate. Just me and 10,000 other writers. But it was an energizing experience, and I got to hear Margaret Atwood speak–one of my inspirations. I went to amazing panels and heard amazing writers read from their works. I came away thrilled that I was a minor character in such a life-affirming play.

March also brought the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, VA. It’s a bit disingenuous to call this a local conference because, though it highlights Virginia writers, the reach goes beyond the Commonwealth. The panels here are not entirely craft-focused, but they are practical. Where else would I have learned how to use Pinterest to market books?

In June there was Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop in Roanoke, VA. I blogged a great deal about that week, so I won’t belabor any points previously made. I’ll just say I’m still aloft on that cloud of euphoria. And I’ll be back for more next year and not just for the strength of the workshops and the quality of the instructors but also for the friends I made there.

Upcoming is the Virginia Writers Club’s “Navigating the Writing Life” on August 4 in Charlottesville, VA. This is a one-day conference packed with useful workshops, and if you’re within a few states of Virginia, I encourage you to make the trip.

Also in August on the 18th, is a one-day “Gathering of Writers” sponsored by Press 53 and held in Winston-Salem, NC. I’m making a weekend of it and am looking forward to a packed day of craft workshops and meeting great writers.

And last, thus far, and certainly not least is the James River Writers Conference in Richmond, VA. Last year I only went for the day and missed out on a lot. This year because the conference has grown in attendance, it’s moving to the Richmond Civic Center. Friday will be two intensive workshops, then Saturday and Sunday craft panels and readings by Virginia writers. I haven’t yet worked up the nerve for First Pages or the five-minute agent pitches. There’s always next year.

Has it been worth it? Oh, yes. There’s always something more to learn about writing, about yourself as a writer, and the writing life. And writers network, too. There’s nothing like shared experiences to bond people, and it’s always great to know you’re not the only one being rejected by publications.

The only problem is, once you starting going to writing conferences, you keep going back! In this case, that’s a good thing.


Author Interview – Gulp

In my years as an aviation magazine reporter and editor, as a manager, and now as a sometimes newspaper feature writer, I’ve interviewed a few hundred people. The aviation  folks were easy; we spoke a common language. Interviewing prospective employees meant a prescribed set of questions for each applicant, and my recent work writing features means researching some things (like blacksmithing) before I conduct an interview.

Being on the other side of the interview–the one being asked the questions–is even more daunting. Did I say the right thing? Did I really say that? Am I always that inarticulate?

I had some trepidation when an interview with me was to be published at James River Writers’ web site. It just goes to show, even with interviews, having a good editor is important, so many thanks to Melissa P. Gay, author of the blog This Common Reader, for making me sound as if I know what I’m talking about.

To read the interview, click here.