It’s Over. Now What?

Whenever I had to plan an event at work, e.g., a three-day training session for a few thousand supervisors and managers, I always treated it as if these were people coming to my house. The food and accommodations had to be top-notch, the content of the training well worth coming for, and the opportunities for networking plentiful.

Needless to say, for me that meant weeks of obsessing over the minutia, loss of sleep, and constant fretting that it wouldn’t be good enough. Back then, I had a staff and usually a contractor working on the event. All I had to say was, “I want this,” and it happened. Boy, was I spoiled.

Last year, when I accepted the nomination to be the first vice president of the Virginia Writers Club, I knew one of my duties would be to plan and execute the annual one-day symposium, Navigating Your Writing Life. I’d attended three of those events, I’d put on symposia for thousands (see above), so this should be easy-peasy.

It should have been.

I took on the role of 1st VEEP in early November last year and started cogitating on the kind of symposium I wanted to put on. My vision was big, huge; then, by the end of December I was sick with the flu. As in hospitalized twice and down for the count for a solid two months, woozy and confused for another couple of weeks, and lacking energy to do much of anything through the middle of March.

Two and a half months of key planning time gone by the wayside. I was already way behind the power curve, but when I had a dozen volunteers sign up to be on the symposium planning committee, I felt much better about the loss of time. This was going to be the best symposium ever!

Because we were so spread around the Commonwealth, I opted to use telephone conferencing to hash over most of the details. Before every telcon, I’d email an agenda, a list of tasks from the previous telcon, and an update on accomplishments–pretty standard stuff for me. The government paid for a lot of good management training for me, and why not put it to use?

Long story short, by the third telcon, the committee had dwindled from a dozen to three, including myself.

In the ensuing months, I’ve reflected on this. A lot. Obsessively. I’ve been seeking some fault in my behavior that made people drop out. (I’m the child of an alcoholic; others like me will understand that in addition to trying to make everything right, we’re also right up front to take the blame for anything.)

I’m an organized, focused person who has high expectations of myself, first, and people who work with me. Work being the operative word. It’s very, very, very, very different with volunteers. Though I stuck to my guiding management principle, which is basically do unto others, etc., it doesn’t always work with volunteers. Likely I forgot that people have lives and obligations and not the same level of enthusiasm and drive (i.e., obsession) I have when given a task to accomplish.

What this meant was three of us, and a fourth who came in toward the end, had to do everything: contact and manage presenters (and OMG, writers are such divas, self included), arrange catering, put together a schedule, design and have printed a conference booklet, do name tags, do tent cards, do… You get the picture. It’s a lot of work for a one-day conference, and we got it done.

But things can and did slip through the cracks. At 1030 on the morning before the conference, I realized no one had done an evaluation form. No big deal, you say. Really big deal because feedback is crucial. I ginned one up in about a half-hour, stopped by Staples on my way to the hotel, and, voila!, evaluation forms. (I’ve yet to read the completed ones. I’m waiting for a good time to have my image of success dashed.)

And it all went off perfectly! I had seen or anticipated so many opportunities for failure, but the buzz around the venue was good and positive, people stopped me on their way out the door to tell me how much they’d learned, I’m getting emails and Facebook posts that make my heart swell with pride, and, oh joy, I get to do this again next year!

(Psst! I can’t wait.)

At least nobody found out about the snake who decided navigating its writing life was something it needed to attend, albeit briefly.

(Note to self: Next year, assign someone to snake duty.)

The Year of Writers Conferences Redux

A new year brings a new round of writers conferences and workshops. The first for me is the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. I tried this one-day conference last year and was amazed by the depth of the too-short workshops, but I’m back for more this year.

Hollins University is also the site of the week-long writing workshop I attend, Tinker Mountain, but this one-day event is rather like an appetizer for that.

The keynote speaker is Virginia novelist Sheri Reynolds, and among the workshops are ones for non-fiction and fiction, YA, self-publishing, marketing, and getting an agent. Yes, some of these are topics you see at any writers conference, large or small, but sometimes it’s the different perspective on the issue which is most helpful.

I’m looking at attending Dan Casey’s “Telling Stories: The Greyhound Bus, the Swedish Gal, and the Flophouse in Seattle” first thing on Saturday morning. Casey’s workshop last year was hilarious and educational, so I’m looking forward to this presentation.

Next I think I’ll attend Sheri Reynolds’ workshop, “Dreamwork for Writers: Using Your Dreams to Deepen Your Story.” I love incorporating my odd dreams into my writing, so this workshop should be fascinating.

I’ll close out the morning with some non-fiction work in Bill Kovarik’s “Who Killed the American Newspaper and Where do we Go from Here?” Since I’ve done freelancing for my local paper, and I’m still enough of an old fogey that I start the day by reading two actual newspapers I can hold in my hands, I think this will be an interesting and topical discussion.

After lunch, and because I’ve never thought of doing a YA novel, I’m going to attend Tiffany Trent’s “Science Fiction and Fantasy in YA.”  This is a growing genre, and, who knows? Maybe I’ll get inspired, even though I think with The Hunger Games and Divergent series, we may be reaching the apex of this trend.

I’ll end the day with “The Rebellious Essay,” a workshop hosted by Cara Ellen Modisett. I do some political blogging I consider a bit rebellious, so maybe this will move it to the next level.

A full day of workshops, networking, and connecting with writer friends–I’m looking forward to getting back into the writer conference groove.

 

JRWC13

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.

A Gathering Of Writers – Redux

As promised, I’m finally getting around to discussing the workshops I attended at Press 53’s “A Gathering of Writers” a couple of weekends ago. Thanks for your patience.

I started the morning off with “The Compelling Story,” presented by Michael Kardos. Kardos teaches creative writing at Mississippi State and is the author of the novel, The Three-Day Affair. Kardos started off by telling us the one thing, the one question we ask ourselves but will never admit: “How do I know if it’s good?” A collective sigh of relief told us we had all, indeed, asked that question. After a brief discussion about understanding when we submit something it’s all about “hitting the right editor on the right day,” Kardos went on to explain our stories have to establish “high stakes”–something which has to matter to the person in the story or which has to be a moment in time in the character’s life most important to him or her.

To help us find the “high stakes,” Kardos gave us the “Motivational Continuum”:

Presentation1We should use the Motivational Continuum for our characters and map out their expectations, hopes, fears, etc. In both the “Fears and Dreads” and the “Hopes and Dreams” sides of the continuum is where we’ll find the characters’ high stakes. “Character desire,” Kardos said, “fuels everything.” Then, he quoted Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character has to want something, even if it’s a glass of water.”

We got other great tidbits–“don’t confine a character to a single place,” “use compressed time periods,” “create suspense,” “withhold information,” among others. Kardos sent us off with a worksheet of exercises, but we all wanted more of his workshop.

Henriette Lazaridis Power was the instructor for “Picking Your Perspective.” Power is the author of The Clover House and editor of the on-line literary magazine, “The Drum,” which is unique in that if she selects your story, you record yourself reading it, and that’s how she publishes it.

After a review of the various perspectives you can take for a particular piece of work (first person singular, first person plural, third person limited, third person omniscient), we did an exercise:

“Two people sit opposite each other in a subway car; one wants to speak to the other but doesn’t. Write that scene.”

We each had to pick a perspective, then write the scene. After a few read theirs aloud, we had to re-write the scene in a different perspective. I started out in first person singular, a POV I only use for very short fiction, then for the re-write I went to what I’m most comfortable with–third person limited. Needless to say, different aspects of character emerged in the two different perspectives. I’ve always found third person frees me up to “say” more than first person POV, and I even found I incorporated some “high stakes” hopes and fears from Kardos’ motivational continuum in the two pieces.

Try this; I think you’ll not only find a POV you’re comfortable with, but you’ll also get out of your comfort zone.

After lunch the next workshop for me was Mary Akers’ “How to Haunt Your Readers,” and not in the supernatural sense. The night before we’d had the launch party for Akers’ most recent collection of short stories, Bones of an Inland Sea. From the reading she gave at the launch party, I knew we were in for a treat in the workshop.

By “haunting,” Akers means things appearing in a written work which continually recur to us; poignant or persistent memories; work that evokes sentimental or enchanting memories; or something you’ve read you just can’t let go. What haunts us is personal, then, and that’s what we have to inscribe in our own writing. “The way to haunt the reader,” Akers said, “is to get to the universal by the personal. If it’s personal to you, it’s personal to the reader.” Moreover, “writing is a brain transfer. You write, but it’s not complete until the reader reads it.”

Then, we had to list five things we’ve read which still haunt us. After a few of us read our lists aloud, we had to go back and find the common theme among the five. My five were:

  • The scene from Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot where a person in the downstairs of a house hears a vampire sucking blood from someone in another part of the house.
  • The climax of W. W. Jacob’s “The Monkey’s Paw,” when there is a knocking at the door of the parents’ house.
  • In Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, the scene where the cabbie horse dies from exhaustion. (This was the first book ever given me as a gift, and my parents almost took it away from me because I cried so much over that scene.)
  • In Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, I’m haunted to this day by anyone knitting after reading how Madame DeFarge kept count of who went to the guillotine.
  • The scene in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice where Sophie makes her horrendous choice.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the common thread in my list is, well, death. Sheesh.

Then, Akers brought out her bag o’ prompts, and we each selected one to write on for fifteen minutes. And I had a bout of writer’s block at the damnedest time. The prompt, “Write about a time when you were completely unprepared,” did nothing for me. As my kids will attest, I do nothing unprepared. Comes from being a pilot, I suppose, but it was embarrassing.

Still, give the “five things which haunt you” a try. I think you’ll see what’s haunted you will show up in your writing.

The workshop part of the day ended with “Inhabiting Story Through Images of Place,” given by Darlin’ Neal, author of Elegant Punk and Rattlesnakes and the Moon.

After a good discussion and some examples of how to evoke place without coming out and saying “we’re in Podunk,” we got down to a lengthy exercise. Neal called for “tangible objects” from the class, and we gave her thunder, boxes, carpet, a fireplace, and a bed. She then threw in the color orange and told us to write for fifteen minutes and invoke a place using those prompts but without saying where the scene was. I got over the writer’s block pretty quickly and came up with a scene, which I finally had the guts to read aloud. After reading, we each had to state the unasked question about the scene. Then, as the workshop ended, Neal tasked us to go back to that scene in our leisure and write the part which answers the unasked question. Great stuff.

The evening ended with readings from each of the instructors, which can be daunting. Sometimes hearing a published author read can be depressing, but Press 53 managed to bring together a group of completely unpretentious writers. The reading was a delight.

If you’re within easy driving or flying distance of Winston-Salem, NC, consider taking in this one-day conference next year. It’s well worth your time and funds.

A Gathering of Friday Fictioneers

If it’s the weekend, I must be going to a writer’s conference. This weekend is “A Gathering of Writers” in Winston-Salem, NC. Press 53, a small, independent press, sponsors this one-day conference. I attended last year and enjoyed the presentations and the camaraderie. So, I’m off again–though the three-hour drive while still recovering from my cold is a bit daunting.

There”ll be a book launch on Friday night–Mary Akers’ Bones of an Inland Sea, published by Press 53–then the panels begin on Saturday morning. I’ll actually be attending a workshop given by Mary Akers entitled, “How to Haunt Your Reader.” No ghosts for this, just the use of language to evoke mood that resonates.

I’ll also be going to “The Compelling Story” workshop, given by Michael Kardos; “Inhabiting Story Through Images of Place,” given by Darlin’ Neal; and “Picking Your Perspective,” given by Henriette Lazaridis Power. We’ll close out the day with faculty readings lots of writer networking.

Friday Fictioneers LogoToday’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt is one of those shots you can’t plan, and most of the time you don’t realize you have “the shot” until you look at it later. There are lots of things to focus on in this picture, but you’ll see in my story, “Prima Ballerina,” what stood out for me. As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

Let the Writing Conferences Begin

I was so overwhelmed by the AWP Conference last year (just me and 9,999 other writers), I decided I needed a warm-up to get ready for AWP Boston in March. And at least it’s something close to home.

Hollins University, site of Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop, hosts the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference this coming weekend: a meet and greet and some speechifying on Friday evening, then a jam-packed Saturday of workshops. And, oh, those workshops. They make you want to defy the laws of physics and be in two–in some cases four–places at the same time.

From book promotion to pitches to writing humor and/or cookbooks to marketing and memoirs to self-publishing to craft to blogging, there is something for everyone. It’ll be a long, but invigorating day.

I’m looking forward to attending workshops by writers I’ve not met as well as one by Jim Minick, who is a Tinker Mountain classmate and previous presenter at my local writing group, SWAG Writers. I look forward to all the pointers and advice I know will be forthcoming from all the presenters.

And just so February won’t feel left out, that same SWAG Writers is sponsoring a playwriting workshop on February 23. The location is yet to be determined, so stay tuned for the details. If you find yourself in the Shenandoah Valley that weekend, consider giving it a try. I’ve taken a “writing for movies” workshop before, but I’m eager to stretch my boundaries a little–or a lot.

March will be a two-fer: AWP then the Virginia Festival of the Book. In May I’m attending my first writing retreat, and I’ll write more about that later. June will be a return to Tinker Mountain, so right now I have April open. Suggestions, anyone?

I’ll report on each workshop after it happens, and I hope to see some of my writer friends at each.

 

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.