Roanoke Regional Writers Conference – The Finale!

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.

 

Roanoke Regional Writers Conference – Part Two

On Saturday, after the great Friday evening social hour and opening events, we got down to the nitty-gritty. The first session started at 0830, and there were three possibilities to choose from: “Ten Things You Can Do Now to Promote the Book You Haven’t Even Sold Yet,” presented by Gina Holmes and River Laker; “Why New Media Changes the Way We Write and What We Can Do About It,” presented by Bill Kovarik from Radford University; and “Writing Cookbooks,” by Waynesboro, VA, author Mollie Cox Bryan.

I chose Kovarik’s presentation on New Media, which was a brief primer on social media. We introduced ourselves and told how involved we were in social media, which ones we used, etc. I was surprised by the number of people much younger than I who were terrified or who lacked knowledge of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. So much for the Gen-Xers and Millennials who are supposedly the most cyber-smart of us all. Kovarik did a fascinating measurement of the number of monks it would take to produce the amount of information moved about in one day on the Internet. He used monks because they were the ones who first delved in media by reproducing by hand the Bible and other, then-rare books. Basically, it would take billions and billions (sorry, Carl Sagan) of monks to generate the information we have access to today, but it was a fascinating way to show how media have grown over a couple of millennia.

We got into a debate about whether we, as writers, adapt to technology or whether it adapts to us and concluded it was probably a little of both, but Kovarik got the point across that today’s social media “has changed the way we write, publish, and promote,” and that we definitely need to adapt to media as they evolve.

The second morning session offered “Refining the Pitch for Your Book,” presented by Neil Sagebiel; “Writing Humor,” presented by Michael Miller; “Legal Protections for Writers,” presented by Roanoke attorney Erin Ashwell; and “The No B. S. Guide to Networking,” presented by Sarah Beth Jones, a freelance writer.

Because I’m in the process of developing a query letter to obtain an agent, I opted for “Refining the Pitch for Your Book.” This was perhaps the only disappointment for the conference. The conference brochure clearly said, “Refining the Pitch for Your Book,” but the presentation itself was “Refining the Pitch for Your Non-Fiction Book.” And the presenter noted the process was somewhat different, namely when you’re pitching a non-fiction book, it doesn’t really have to be completed. The agent bases his or her decision on  a lengthy and detailed proposal. Why didn’t I leave? Well, climbing over a row of people in an auditorium would have been too obvious, and Sagebiel had an interesting story to tell of how he turned his love of golf into a best-selling book about a little-known but significant event in golf history.

In the third and final morning session, we could choose from “Marketing Your Own Work,” presented by Kathleen Grissom; “Self-Publishing How and Why,” presented by Brooke McGlothlin; “Memoir: What’s So Important about Your Life?” presented by Judy Ayylidiz; and “Making Your Photos Better,” presented by Christina Koomen.

I’d enjoyed Grissom’s keynote address from the evening before, I attended her session. Grissom indicated after she finished a draft of her novel, The Kitchen House, she set out to understand “the business of publishing.” Through trial and error, she learned that one of the most important aspects of that business is “don’t send a manuscript out too soon,” which she sees as the reason for all her early rejections. By chance she encountered another writer in the town where she lived, and that writer became her mentor, assisting her with a re-write and a second, successful agent-querying round.

However, Grissom may have a leg up on the rest of us: She had previously worked in marketing and promotion and had built a career doing that. She did, though, explain to us how she took that knowledge and applied it to marketing and promoting her book. For example, once she developed a list of bloggers who reviewed books, she familiarized herself with the blogs, contacted the blogger directly and sent review copies, then followed up. When she got a review, she sent a thank-you to the reviewer, whether it was a good review or not, and she followed any comments on the review–and responded to them.

Grissom also made personal contact with independent book stores and libraries within a three-hour drive of where she lived, i.e., she went to those places and gave a copy of her book, then set up a reading or signing event on the spot. She also emphasized the use of social media– “Make sure each book has its own Facebook page”–and drove home the importance of positive interaction with commenters on social media.

Yes, a busy morning with lots of note-taking, discussion, and great ideas. In Part Three, we’ll move on to the equally busy afternoon sessions.

Roanoke Regional Writers Conference – Part One

Yes, this writers conference was two weeks ago, but when a cold puts you low, low you are. This small, regional conference was such a positive experience, I decided to rise from my sickbed and finally give it its due.

Okay, that was way dramatic–too much Downton Abbey. Being sick meant I watched all three seasons in two days, so I’m overly influenced.

The Roanoke Regional Writers Conference had been planned for the final weekend of January, but a snowpacalypse (which never arrived) forced a one-week postponement. So, we gathered the evening of February 1 for a writer meet-and-greet. You know, this is where you approach, or are approached by, complete strangers with the question, “What do you write?”

An aside here–I was almost the only attendee NOT writing YA paranormal romance. There may or may not be a lesson in that.

After the meet-and-greet and some great writerly conversations, we had the opening session for the Sixth Annual Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, the fifth sell-out in a row. Hollins University, whose writing program has earned it the nickname “Pulitzer U,” was the host, and probably the most encouraging words came from Hollins’ current Writer in Residence, Karen Osborn (author of Centerville), who spoke on “Working in a Changing Publishing Environment.”

Osborn said, “Getting published has always been difficult, but failure to publish is not a marker of your work’s value.” And after that garnered a loud round of applause, she added, “Publishers are most interested in selling books, but they seldom know what will actually sell.” She reminded us that traditional publishers are focused on the bottom line, but she didn’t discourage. “If your agent won’t send out your book, send it out yourself,” she advised and emphasized university and small presses. Osborn believes we have more options than ever before for publication, ones which allow us to take more control of our work, but, she said, “Believing in the work is the most important step.”

The evening’s keynote address came from Kathy Grissom, author of The Kitchen House, and her topic was “Becoming a Writer.” Grissom was a perfect candidate for this topic because, as she admitted, she never intended to become a writer. “Writing,” she said, “was something only extraordinary people could do.” She learned through inspiration that writers are “ordinary people who write extraordinary things.” Grissom outlined her writer’s journey, from poetry and journaling to being inspired by an unusual event in her life. The inspiration led to research, and a chance conversation with her father led her to a “story I knew I had to tell.” The result was The Kitchen House, a novel about a young Irish orphan who finds her real family among the slaves of a southern plantation. Now, Grissom says, “My job is writing.”

We were treated to a song written by Greg Trafidlo especially for the conference, and the chorus said it all, “You have to sit on your butt and write.” We also participated in the presentation of scholarships from Hollins to “non-traditional” students, women who have returned to school after a break for marriage or children. The Horizon scholarships are funded by the faculty for the conference, who forego being paid to endow the scholarships. Applicants have to write an essay on why they want to return to school, and the scholarships are billed as “recognition of writers by writers.” The recipients are students in Hollins’ writing program, and this was an uplifting way to end an evening of writerly discourse.

Next Post – Day Two–Down to the Nitty Gritty

An Artful Friday Fictioneers

Friday Fictioneers LogoI’m off to my first writing conference of the year today–the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference at Hollins University. It was supposed to be last weekend, but The Weather Channel convinced the organizers that Winter Storm Khan (cue William Shatner voice) would make the road messy. So, they postponed the conference to this weekend.

Winter Storm Khan didn’t materialize, at least here in the Shenandoah Valley, but it was too late to make a change to the change. I’ll report on the conference next week.

This week’s Friday Fictioneer’s inspiration photo immediately brought to mind one of those inane conversations you overhear at a modern art museum. You know the one that usually poses the question, “But is it art?” I’ve even participated in a few of those myself.

On purpose, there are no dialogue tags and no indication of the gender, or number, of speakers. I leave it up to the reader to delve the meanings behind “Hephaestus’ Wedge.” (A Google search for “Athena’s birth” might reveal one of them.)

If you don’t see the link on the title above, then click on the Friday Fictioneers tab at the top of this post and select it 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.