Are Writing Conferences Worth the Investment?

Of course, the wishy-washy answer to the question about whether writing conferences are worth the money is “it depends.” But there’s more to that question and, as I’m preparing to go to a huge writing conference this month in Denver (RWA18), I’d say there’s a lot more to the simple answer of “it depends.” Writing is often a solitary experience. As I’m writing this, I’m at my keyboard all by myself. However, in a little over two weeks, I’ll be surrounded by romance writers, eager to soak up information about the craft and business of writing and eager to network until they return to their writing caves. For me, as for so many writers, a conference’s cost is not only weighed in terms of money, which is a huge factor, but also in terms of time away from my family. So, are writing conferences worth the money? While everyone has a different experience, I’ll give some reasons why they’re worth the cost, the time, and the commitment.

 

A shove in the right direction. While the cliché states “a push in the right direction,” a conference can be a huge wake-up call about the publishing industry. And while expensive, it can wake a writer up to whether or not she is willing to commit to writing as a career, or keep it as a hobby. In 2013, I attended my first writing conference. I’d attended five Georgia Romance Writer programs before that, and the topic of RWA being in Atlanta had come up during the business portion of the program. Wanting to pursue a career in writing made my mind up. My husband and I saved our pennies (and cleaned out the couch to find a couple of dimes), and I commuted to the conference. This was a wake-up call for me. Attending workshops and listening to conversations around me, I learned I had a lot to learn. For a couple of days, I was overwhelmed, but then I used the tools I’d learned about productivity, about craft, and about networking and I went to work. I had a lot to learn, and I still continue to have a lot to learn, but that first conference made me hungry for learning from others, reading books in my genre, and for sitting down and actually putting the stories in my head on paper (or in my case, on a hard drive and on back-up drives).

 

Networking. RWA2013 provided me with more than just a hunger for learning about the industry and the craft. Since it was in Atlanta, I ran into writers I had met at Georgia Romance Writers. One writer had also joined in January, same as myself, and we found ourselves at some of the same places at the hotel and in some of the same workshops. We agreed to exchange notes and ideas about the different workshops, and within a few months, we exchanged chapters of our books. That writer is now my critique partner, and if I hadn’t gone to RWA2013, we might never have talked as in-depth as we had. One of the workshops at RWA that year that I was unable to attend but that my critique partner did was a talk about writers who had formed a writing blog. My critique partner told me about Seekerville, a writing blog, and I began to follow the blog where I’ve made some genuine connections with other writers. Even the “ships-passing-in-the-night” conversations have made an impact on me. I’ve sat at lunch tables with writers from Australia, France, Canada, and more. Hearing their stories of their travels and their stories about their writing experiences have inspired me to make sure I have one lunch or meal where I pick a table where I don’t know anyone and introduce myself.

 

Those are two reasons to think about going to a conference. There are so many great conferences in every part of the country. They are a commitment. They cost money, and some involve travel. But your characters deserve a commitment to make their story the best you can right now in your writing career. Writing conferences, though, are often a step outside a writer’s comfort zone as many writers, including myself, are introverts. Yet stepping outside your comfort zone is sometimes the best way to make your writing that much better.

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Blogs, Podcasts, and Craft Books, Oh My!

When I started writing, I’d go to the library and work on my romance novel. The concept of trying to find other writers and learn from them didn’t dawn on me. So, I started off not knowing about writing blogs, podcasts, and craft books. Instead, each day after I dropped off my children at school, I’d travel to the same library, open my word document, and write. Without letting anyone read my work and without editing, I made twenty copies of my voluminous novel and sent them to agents and editors. I received nineteen rejection letters in short course. Then, I found out I was pregnant with twins and stopped writing every day until they entered preschool. When they started Mother’s Morning Out, I knew I had to write again. My fingers were itchy, the stories had been brewing and, more than anything, I wanted to write a book. This time I heard about a writing class offered at a local bookstore. When I attended the class, I discovered a new world. The authors defined literary fiction and genre fiction, and I knew I was a genre author. Equally as important, the authors talked about local organizations and I resolved to attend one of these local programs to find out about romance writing. Fast forward almost six years and now I see so many offerings to writers of all levels. Everything from craft books to blogs (exactly like this one) to podcasts to conferences to websites and beyond. There are so many writing tools an author could get lost in the “dos” and “don’ts” if she’s not careful (although I’d like to say that no one way to write is the right way. What works for me might not work for someone else, and what one author might consider a rule of writing might be something that another author learns so she can break the mold). With every tool that’s out there, what is worth an author’s time and what isn’t. Here’s some advice for writers of every level.

  1. Bottom in chair, hands on keyboard. Yes, it’s important to work on your craft and learn from other authors, but it’s important to have something to work on. Writing a book is hard work, and it requires day in, day out perseverance. Otherwise, there are enough podcasts for you to do nothing but listen to podcasts rather than producing words.
  2. Find writing groups whether in person or online. Writing is solitary. When it comes down to it, it’s your imagination and you sitting down at a keyboard (or pen and paper) and writing. Writing friends can get you through the hard times and understand what you’re going through in ways no one else can. Whether you have a critique partner, a street team, faithful beta readers, or a local writing chapter, it’s important to have another writer you can open up to, brainstorm, share good news and the bad, and celebrate typing “the end.”
  3. Know yourself. I like reading craft books a little at a time, and I seek out recommendations from friends. I’ve discovered I love reading James Scott Bell’s writing craft books. For me, he’s easy to relate to, he explains concepts in an easy-to-understand manner, and his observations are worth the investment and time. As far as blogs, there will always be certain bloggers you read a couple of times and then you want to shout from the rooftops, “A-ha.” With podcasts, I like to vary my time between listening to a writer or motivational speaker and listening to something for fun. I’ve rediscovered radio programs, such as the Lux Radio Theater, where actors and actresses would act out a recent movie. These are a great way for me to pass the time in traffic, but they have the extra advantage of making me think about acts, character arcs, and plots. Hearing a movie as a radio program makes me listen to the dialogue and think about what I like or don’t like about the characters. By knowing how much time you have for learning about the craft and knowing your schedule (for instance, you might travel an hour to and from work every day and might want to listen to a podcast one way and an audiobook or a radio program or music on the return route), you’ll get an idea of how to prioritize according to your learning style.
  4. Try something new. If you like reading craft books, reading blogs for a couple of days might be able to help you target an area of writing where you’re having trouble. If you like podcasts, an audiobook might be a nice change of pace or vice versa.
  5. Don’t break the bank. Libraries are great places if you want to check out some different craft books, and many offer audiobooks to download if you have a library card. Blogs are free, and many blogs will give you a free writing book if you sign up for the author’s newsletter. Along with not breaking the bank, decide beforehand how much time you have each week to read about the craft of writing or about marketing your book and stick to it, making sure not to cut into your actual writing time.

Regardless of what fits your learning curve the most, thank you for taking time to read my blog today. If you’re a beginning writer, reread your favorite book taking note of how the author writes her characters and uses strong verbs. If you’re a writer who just published his or her first book, read blogs about marketing books and making good use of your time before a book launch. If you’re a more experienced writer, continue to learn.

And please feel free to share your favorite blogs, podcasts, or craft books below.

 

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Write-at-home mom

Write-at-home Mom

I stole this phrase a while back. I immediately identified with it and started using it. There’s only one problem with it. I rarely write at home. During the school year, I write anywhere except home. I’ve tried to write at home, but there’s always a load of laundry to fold or a dishwasher to unload. When I’m at home, my loving Basset Hound, Vera, believes my purpose is to pet her (or make her a sandwich, if I would be so inclined, instead of feeding her kibble) and pay attention to her. If the kids have a day off, they conveniently stay out of my way if I’m cleaning, but the second I open my WIP, there are problems galore that only Mom can solve. So, I’ve learned to write at libraries, at Panera Bread (a huge thank you to all the employees who kindly let me wear out my welcome, and I do leave at peak hours), and in the parking lot. The question then becomes where to write.

One of my favorite television shows of all time is a little known gem called Ellery Queen. A precursor to Murder, She Wrote, this mystery show followed the adventures of a mystery writer who helped his father solve murders. Why it was only on for one season astounds me. There’s one episode that features Ellery working furiously to finish a book before a deadline. He only had a couple of days to finish forty pages and he had hurt his finger which was wrapped up and unable to be used to write or type. (One other aside: the show is set in 1947 before word processors and computers.) With a busted finger, he hired a secretary, one Miss Margie Coopersmith with a “C,” to write down his dictation. At eleven thirty at night, Miss Coopersmith asked Ellery if he would like to continue writing at the automat. Ellery looked at her as if she were crazy. “Writing? At the automat? It’s too noisy.” He told her he wouldn’t be able to get any work done in the noisy confines of the automat, instead preferring the interior confines of his New York City apartment.

Unfortunately, I’m the opposite. When I’m at home, it’s too busy. Writing in the busy atmosphere with four kids, two pets, one husband, and a myriad of chores is almost impossible for me. The good thing about writing at someplace other than my house is that it gives me a couple of minutes beforehand to think about my writing for the day: where I’m at in my outline, dialogue, setting, POV, and so on. The bad thing is that it eats up time as I travel to different places.

What’s important for me, more than where I write, is working on consistency. Writing deliberately every day is crucial for me to get the character’s story on the written page. This summer, I’ll be the one at the library or Panera with my gaze glued to my computer screen.

Where do you like to write?

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Where’s the Beef?

When I grew up, I either had to get up off the couch to change the channel or watch the commercial. Often I had a book nearby so I’d just crack open the book while the commercial played on. Nowadays it slightly amuses me that as many people watch the Super Bowl for the ads as watch the game itself. Nevertheless, I remember hearing the catchy slogans as I turned the page of a Trixie Belden novel. Where’s the beef? Silly, rabbit, Trix are for Kids. Tastes great; less filling. Those are three slogans I can recite off the top of my head. Even today when three of my kids look at me and say “not me” to the question of who left the towel on the bathroom floor, I often want to burst into the jingle from Oscar Mayer where my bologna has a first name and it’s O-S-C-A-R. All of these slogans, though, show my age. Nowadays, slogans are even shorter and to the point: Just Do It. Think Differently. Coffee Inspires Everything. While some slogans stand the test of time (such as M&M’s Melt in your mouth, not in your hands), advertising executives come up with new slogans for new products and new companies. As a writer, however, I have to be careful that my twenty-five-year-old heroine doesn’t spout a slogan that probably stayed in the eighties or nineties. The same applies to certain words that apply to fads or past products. Memorex? Album? Floppy Disk? Those were all part of my vocabulary a while back. Now? Not so much. Our vocabulary changes and adjusts to the times. If you’re a writer, you need to adjust and know what your character would and wouldn’t say. In the same regard, if you’re writing a book set in 1985 or earlier, your character would look at you with a blank stare if you brought up an emoji or claimed you were hangry or refer to the web as anything other than something a spider weaves. Even phrases that refer to a person’s type changes with the times. When I was a teenager, a boy might be asked if he was a Ginger or Mary Ann type of guy. A while back, I’d heard this had changed to Betty or Veronica. I just googled it. Thanks to Riverdale, the question of Betty or Veronica is still in common usage.

Popular slang words or phrases or slogans change with the times, but they can just as easily reveal a person’s age. What word or phrase or slogan do you catch yourself saying (let’s keep it clean, please) where your child or teenager looks at you as if you’re from another planet? If you’re a writer, let me know what phrase your character said that you had to delete during revisions because you realized someone younger than yourself wouldn’t say that?

How Television Can Help Your Writing (Part 3)

Television is more about than great characters. It can also transport you to places around the world: the outback of Australia, the islands of the Caribbean, the peak of Mount Everest. While cameras, technology, and budgets sometimes allow for on location shooting of some shows (think Downton Abbey or Death in Paradise among others), many television shows are still shot on a set in a different part of the world. Yet a good show gives a sense of the setting, and the setting enriches the show’s atmosphere, tone, and mood. Writers too can use the setting of their book to provide a rich layer, almost to the point of creating a character.

Atmosphere. I didn’t watch every episode of Downton Abbey, but from the time the dog appears on the screen and a rolling list of actors’ names flickers on the screen, the viewer gets the sense this is not a sitcom. The lack of bright colors, the staid splendor of the upstairs, the stark contrast of the kitchen all point to high drama. Writers of historical romance can evoke a similar tone with details of a world long gone. Writers of women’s fiction can evoke the setting and use the weather and time of day to layer in more sensory details. Mystery writers especially can use setting for atmosphere. A cozy mystery heroine is far more likely to inhale the smell of old books or coffeehouse coffee whereas a hardboiled detective may note the smell of a police precinct or inky coffee from an ancient coffeemaker. Don’t lose a chance to evoke atmosphere with sensory details such as the smell of the setting, the weather surrounding the characters, or the feel of objects around them.

Tone. Theme songs can often tell a lot about a television show. For decades, catchy theme songs often set the tone for the show. Who could forget that Gilligan was on a three-hour tour? Or not laugh at petite Lurch, neat Uncle Fester, or sweet Grandmamma Addams? Books, however, don’t have theme songs, but a writer’s voice and pacing can add to the tone. Fast, action scene? Your theme song then has punchy, short sentences. Other times you might want long, lyrical paragraphs when it’s a longer piece of exposition with description.

Mood. I’m not a huge fan of overbearing laugh tracks, but when someone else laughs, it’s easier to laugh along with them. When Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) picked himself off the floor after falling over the ottoman, all while having a smile on his face, we knew we could laugh with him at whatever happened to Laura or Ritchie or Sally or Buddy. When a character laughs at himself or shows his or her sense of humor, we can laugh along, and in romantic comedies, that’s a plus. By setting the mood through the characters’ actions and by their surroundings, a writer can help the reader bond to those characters and relate all the more. When Penny and Leonard and Sheldon all share takeout with Bernadette and Raj and Howard, the viewer knows it’s okay to laugh. When Beckett was called to a crime scene with Castle on her heels, the viewer knows she’s not going to rest until the real killer is apprehended and justice is served. As writers, establishing the mood and the tone can set the stage for the reader and hook the reader into the story all the faster.

Watch your favorite television show and notice how the writers incorporate the setting to create atmosphere. Whether it’s the Addams’ museum of a house or Central Perk or the Caribbean shore, the setting will help tune the viewer in to what type of show and add layers to the show, making us appreciate the show all the more.

How Television Can Help Your Writing (Part 2)

Television shows are a blessing and a curse. A chance to escape, a chance for education, a chance for adventure. While people tend to watch television for different reasons, the characters bring them back to the same television shows. If you don’t like the characters of a show, you aren’t likely to give that program a second chance. Last week, I discussed three heroines whose characters sparked imagination and became favorites of viewers. As writers, learning from television characters can help with our own writing. Lucy Ricardo had goals and wanted stardom, Mary Richards had heart and formed a family of her friends and co-workers around her, and Jessica Fletcher found more conflict and more dead bodies than any of us would ever want to encounter but we loved watching anyway. Today, I’m going to delve into secondary characters, three sidekicks who writers can learn from in how the complement or create a foil for the main character.

Dan Fielding (the womanizing foil). In the eighties, I loved being able to stay up past my bedtime and watch Night Court. Yes, Judge Harry Stone was a great main character with magic tricks up his sleeve, Mel Torme on his record player, and wise decisions flowing from the bench. However, Dan Fielding was the reason I kept watching. A perfect foil for the optimistic prosecutor Christine and for the magician judge, Dan Fielding had a pick-up line on his lips and a swagger on his step. A great deal of Dan Fielding’s character is owed to the acting skills of John Larroquette, for it would have been easy to play Dan Fielding as a pure womanizer who didn’t care about anything or anyone besides himself. Yet underneath those smooth lines and leering looks, there was something about Dan that compelled you to keep watching, compelled you to see past those lines and hope his cynicism was just that – a foil to the other characters and a mask to the world. And the finale proved it. For when the gang split up, Dan himself had the biggest surprise up his sleeve. He was following his heart and going after Christine. Her rose glasses and optimism struck a chord in his womanizing heart, and he didn’t want to let her out of his life. The romantic in me who thought all those years Christine and Harry should get together was much more satisfied with this. The foil and contrast of the prosecutor and defense attorney and judge trio kept the show going and kept me tuning in. What could have been a stereotypical character was transformed into a breathing person.

Niles Crane (the stuffy relative). I still remember when Cheers was about to pour its last drink and go off the air. I read an article that said there was going to be a spinoff. I waited with anticipation about which supporting character was going to get his or her show. Would I get to meet all of Carla’s crazy relatives? Would I at last see the elusive Vera? Would Woody leave the bar? None of the above. The spinoff character was going to be my least favorite Cheers character, Frasier Crane. I was hesitant about tuning into the first show. While Frasier had been the center of my all-time favorite Cheers episode (the one where the incomparable Emma Thompson played Frasier’s ex-wife, Nanny Gee), I wasn’t sure if I’d like the new show. Then I watched the first episode and fell in love with Martin, Roz, Daphne, Eddie, and Niles. The producers had created an ensemble cast for the ages. Writers can learn something from each of these characters: how a physical handicap didn’t stop Martin, how a romantic spirit led Daphne to keep looking for love, how to be a strong woman in a male-dominated workplace like Roz. Yet the character who could have been a stuffy relative and nothing more was fleshed out and became likable anyway. Underneath his pretentious mannerisms, Niles longs for love. He’s trapped in a loveless marriage with a toothpick of a wife, but he doesn’t stop yearning for a caring relationship, both with his family and with the woman of his dreams. And by the end of the series, Niles has a son of his own with the woman of his dreams. Layering your supporting characters and making sure they go beyond a stereotype can enrich your writing.

Marie Barone (the meddling mother). Just thinking about Doris Roberts’ portrayal of the meddling Marie brings a smile to my face. The writers didn’t hold back punches with Marie. It was clear she played favorites. It was clear she had opinions of her own about how Ray’s wife should put him on a pedestal. And it was clear she had aspirations of her own when she tried her hand at sculpture. Had the writers just stopped there, Marie would have been the stereotypical mother/mother-in-law character, but fortunately they layered her character with such richness that Doris Roberts sunk her teeth in the role and made her very memorable. How did they layer her character and go beyond the stereotype? They latched onto everyday topics and magnified the humor. In the pilot, Ray tells Marie and Frank he bought them a gift: he enrolled them in a “fruit-of-the-month” offer. Marie and Frank replied they didn’t need it and what became a seemingly minor, run-of-the-mill topic was magnified for laughs. The writers did the same thing for canisters, salmon, and sculptures.

By layering your supporting characters and going beyond stereotypes, you can perk up your writing and make those supporting characters all the memorable. Who are some of your favorite television supporting characters?

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How Television Can Help Your Writing (part one)

While watching too much television can hurt your writing if you’re using television as an excuse not to write, television can also help your writing. Think about your favorite television shows. Think of some of the most memorable characters to ever jump off the screen into your heart. Everyone has his or her own favorites. I still love Lucy after all these years. From strong leads to secondary character to entertaining dialogue, television is a good starting place to think about how to write a book and how you want your characters to fly off the page. This week we’ll look at three of my favorite lead television characters to see how their goals, motivations, and conflicts can be a starting place for you to think about your own characters.

Lucy Ricardo. I Love Lucy premiered in 1951 and ran for six years. A simple enough premise, a housewife longs for fame under the watchful eye of her bandleader husband, was a comedic goldmine, thanks in no small part to its leading lady. Her goal of wanting to be a star was relatable, and Lucy herself made Lucy Ricardo likable. The conflict? While Lucille Ball’s talent was real and she worked hard to make herself a star, Lucy Ricardo was rather klutzy and worked harder at trying to get a break rather than develop her talent. Not to mention she always found herself in zany predicaments. Do a search for vitameatavegamin on YouTube if you’ve never seen any episodes of I Love Lucy. While Lucy is convinced this commercial will launch her career, she fails to take into account the alcoholic content of the tonic she’s pitching with hilarious results. After all these years, though, Lucy Ricardo still resonates. Why? Because her constant struggle for fame is relatable and after all these years, her sense of humor makes her likable. Think of a goal that is universal and relatable and that can be the starting point for your main character.

Mary Richards. The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered in 1970 and went out on while still on top in 1977. The theme song of the show set up the premise: a working woman who was intent on turning the world on with her smile. When Mary threw her cap up into the city square, you knew she was a gutsy girl who wasn’t afraid of going after what she wanted. As associate producer, Mary brought together a cast of diverse characters and made a makeshift family. People loved Mary just as much as Lucy because nothing kept her down. Best friend moved to New York? That was okay. A love affair gone wrong? That was okay. She had guts, determination, and a smile that showed she wasn’t going to give up. That motivation of persevering with a smile? Relatable and likable. Think of a motivation for your main character that is also universal and make sure your character has the perseverance to follow her dreams.

Jessica Fletcher. Murder, She Wrote premiered in 1986 and ran forever. The show revolved around a mystery writer who solved crimes. She confronted murder, after murder, after murder, and you get the idea. More than once, I’ve heard people say that if Jessica Fletcher was a real person, they’d run whenever she was around because she kept finding dead bodies. Why am I bringing up Jessica Fletcher? Talk about conflict. Every week she was either a suspect or one of her closest relatives/friends/daughter of her beloved college roommate was also a suspect in murder. Her personal freedom and the accused’s freedom were on the line. Not only that but Jessica strived to find justice for the victim, and did so, week after week after week, and you get the idea. High stakes leads to high conflict. Although no one I know would want to live in Cabot Cove, Jessica Fletcher confronted conflict each week and emerged victorious. That type of high stakes and high conflict is important for your protagonist.

Think of your own favorite characters and their goals, motivations, and conflicts. See if the characters you love can add depth to your writing. And let me know who your favorite television characters are. I’m always on the lookout for a new television show.

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