After a great lunch–I discovered during Tinker Mountain last year, Hollins has a wonderful cafeteria–we settled in for the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference afternoon sessions. First up, we could choose from “Experiences and Options in Self-Publishing,” by Michael Abraham; “The Diverse Ways Writers Manipulate Time on the Page,” by Jim Minick; “Structuring Song,” by Greg Trafidlo (who bills himself as a “troubadour”–how cool is that?); and “Writing Dark Fantasy and Horror for Young Adults,” by Tiffany Trent.
I went to Jim Minick’s workshop. He and I were at Tinker Mountain together, and he had been a guest reader at SWAG last year. His wonderful memoir, The Blueberry Years, was a delight to read, and he now teaches at Radford. His workshop got us to look at ways we convey time in our writing, on the macro and micro levels, but he emphasized that we have to keep the reader’s perception of time in mind. The reader experiences our writing in real-time as he or she reads it, but we control the pace. How we break a work into chapters or scenes (macro level), the sentence length and type of punctuation we use (micro level) all determine the pace for the reader. This is all unconscious on the reader’s part but very conscious on the writer’s part. We speed up or slow down using dialogue or the choice of specific verbs. “You are gods,” Minick told us. “Every word choice, sentence length, etc., creates a world.” Minick also suggested a time-honored way to check how you’ve used time–read your work aloud. A great workshop, and it would certainly be great luck to be one of his students.
The mid-afternoon sessions were “Understand Your Publishing Options Before Your Manuscript is Finished,” by Teri Leidich; “Visual Images as the Source of Stories,” by Carrie Brown; and “Telling Stories,” by Dan Casey.
I went to Casey’s workshop because he is a journalist and editor of a local paper in Roanoke, and journalists, not to mention those from an Irish background, are the best story tellers. Casey’s method of workshopping is to demonstrate by action–he told story after story, and in so doing taught us about chronology and setting, how to inject humor and suspense, and showing not telling. The latter is particularly interesting in the telling of the story, but he managed to do it. He reminded me of the times I spent with my Irish grandmother listening to her spin tales; she’d tell the same ones over and over, but with each telling she showed me something different. Casey bore that out when he emphasized that when we revise and edit, we are telling the story over and over until it’s the right one.
The final workshops of the day were “The Craft of the Art,” by Amanda Cockrell, who is also a professor in Hollins’ writing program; “Developing Ideas That Publishers Will Buy,” by Roland Lazenby; and “Selling Your Young Adult Novel 101,” by Angie Smibert.
“The Craft of the Art” workshop was a condensation of a semester-long course Cockrell gives at Hollins, and frankly it would be worth auditing, if that were possible. Through a series of interactive, workshop exercises Cockrell emphasized that the typical aspects of a story (POV, setting, characters, etc.) comprise a toolbox we should draw from and that we should use the right tool at the right point in the story.
Cockrell had us spend five minutes writing down our earliest memory as a way to delve into our own subconscious. Several participants read theirs aloud, and I was surprised at how much detail I could recall about my earliest memory when I got quiet and thought about it.
The next exercise was to write the letters of the alphabet in a vertical column then write a vignette about something that starts with that letter. Again, a few people read their vignettes, but Cockrell made us promise to finish the exercise on our own or use it as a way to overcome writer’s block. “You may be surprised,” she said, “to find you’ll end up working bits of this exercise into a story you’re writing. Everything we write comes from somewhere in us, of our knowledge of other humans.” Cockrell noted that the things most people read aloud came from their childhood or teenaged years. “We draw from childhood,” she said, “because it’s new and from our adolescence because it’s tense.”
The final exercise Cockrell offered was to have us draw a picture of the childhood bedroom we spent the most time in, and that was quite the challenge to recall. As the minutes went on, though, I found I recalled more and more detail, including the spot where I started writing stories at my desk and in, first, spiral notebooks then on a manual typewriter. Great fun and very instructive.
The final session of the day was a panel on the future of blogging. Unfortunately, I opted out of that because yet another snow-maggeddon loomed, and I wanted to get home without driving in the dark in a snowstorm.
Overall, my first experience with the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference was a very positive one. There was a lot of depth and breadth in the workshops, and in many cases it was difficult to choose which one to attend. The presenters were all excellent, and I took away useful advice and plenty of writing tips. I think this will become a regular conference for me, and I’d recommend it whether you’re in Virginia or not.