Tag Archives: writing conferences

Take Time To Learn

Writing fiction is problematic. Most people who decide to write a novel have already been writing most of their lives. Some have had success in school. Others have developed their writing skills through blogging or in some other Internet capacity. None of that is fiction, however.

Fiction is a different animal.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have the skills that non-fiction requires. But the grammar, the structure of an article, even of a non-fiction book, is not the same for fiction.

Many who decide to write a novel have been life-long readers. And that’s great. Steeping ourselves in good books is one way we can develop our own writing skills—much as we did our speaking ability. We heard others talk and we imitated them. But let’s face if. If we were still speaking as we did when we were children, we would only talk in simple sentences and our vocabulary would be quite limited. In other words, imitation can take you only so far.

If we are serious about writing a novel—a good novel that will draw readers—we need to do the hard work of learning fiction technique. We need to read writing instruction books. We need to attend writing conferences—and not just for the relationships we can build. We need to allow others to critique our work, and we need to revise, revise, revise.

Writing fiction isn’t for the faint of heart.

Too many people think they are ready to publish when they haven’t taken the time to learn as they should. They have an idea for a story but they haven’t taken time to study story structure. They pepper their manuscript with cardboard characters. They don’t hook the reader with their opening, and they wonder why their manuscript isn’t picked up by an agent or why their self-published book isn’t more successful.

I was just such a person when I first started writing fiction.

Now I know, all these years later, after reading and studying, writing books and teaching on the subject, after editing numerous manuscripts and participating in various critique groups, that nothing replaces taking time to learn fiction technique.

There are various was to go about studying fiction. One is to do the hard work of tearing novels apart yourself to see how they are structured, what makes the characters interesting, and so forth. That’s particularly hard because fiction, while different, is still a living, breathing animal. One novel of quality is quite different from another. In addition, writing fiction goes through fads and trends. So you might study your three favorite novels and discover that they are very different from the novels that sell well today.

Another way to study fiction is to subscribe to a magazine like Writers Digest to read articles about fiction and fiction techniques, written by industry professionals that are currently involved in the business.

A third way is to subscribe to writing blogs like this one and others written by agents or editors who willingly share their knowledge.

Still another way to learn fiction technique is through how-to books. Many I would suggest are listen on the Resources page here.

A fifth way to develop skill writing fiction is to attend writers’ conferences. A new one which is coming up in June is the SoCal Christian Writers Conference. An old one that will take place on the West Coast in the fall is the Writers’ Digest Novel Writing Conference.

Finally, if you can’t get away and if you want more interaction with your own particular work in progress, there are on-line courses. Some of the best I know are put out by agent Sally Apokedak. Her latest is “Writing Novels That Move: Write Page-turning Fiction

Whatever method or methods work for you, employ them often. Writing fiction is a different animal from writing non-fiction, and the best way to develop the techniques that will help you is to be willing to learn, learn, learn. Keep an open mind—the professionals might actually know something. Your critique partners or agent or the editor you hire might actually understand the way fiction works better than you do. But you’ll never know if you assume you’re already at the top of your game and nobody can teach you anything. That would be unfortunate.

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Filed under Resources, Writing Process

Writers’ Conferences

2015 OCW keynote speaker Jane Kirkpatrick

2015 OCW keynote speaker Jane Kirkpatrick

I had the privilege of teaching a workshop last week in the Oregon Christian Writers’ Conference held at the Red Lion Inn in Portland. I hadn’t attended a writers’ conference in a number of years, so it was a delight to be back with familiar faces and people of like interests.

Mostly, though, I was reminded of how valuable writers’ conferences are.

First, I was inspired—to write well and to write for a greater purpose. OCW had two keynote speakers—one a pastor known for his nonfiction and the other a sought-after speaker and fiction writer (pictured here).

In the extended learning classes held each morning, I also received excellent instruction. Some classes dealt with marketing and promotion, others about writing certain kinds of nonfiction, and others about the craft of fiction writing, from novels to screenplays. I chose a class about novel writing, taught by agent Sally Apokedak. Though directed at children’s book writers, the information was relevant to all levels of fiction.

The afternoons offered a variety of one-hour workshops (such as “Blogging And Blog Tours—The Whys and Wherefores,” which is the class I taught). Again, there was something for everyone during these afternoon sessions which included such topics as self-editing, essentials for a nonfiction book, voice, marketing, story beginnings and endings, synopsis writing, and more.

Third, I had a chance to attend both an editors’ and an agents’ panel during which these professionals answered questions from the audience. These panels offer a window into the business side of the publishing industry, and I never tire of hearing from those on the other side of writing talk about their work, their expectations, their advice for those of us who have not broken into publishing.

Another important part of writing conferences is practical, hands-on learning. OCW offered a pitch session, in which writers could learn how to write a brief pitch they might wish to use when they met with agents and editors, or to hone the one they already had.

The second night I led a critique clinic which allowed writers to break into small groups, and with the guidance of a more experienced writer, offer each other critiques of the first three pages of their work in progress. At the same time there was a poetry class and one on web design.

All this learning and inspiration is important, but another vital aspect of writers’ conferences is the opportunity to schedule an appointment with editors or agents. In some cases a writer can also request a pre-conference critique from the professional of their choice (some conferences offer this service as part of the conference package and others make paid critiques available), meaning that the professional with whom the conferee meets may have already read a sample of his writing before their meeting.

In other words, the agents or editors likely have an idea about how the conferee writes, if they’re interested in seeing more, and what she might need to do next.

OCW provides something I hadn’t encountered before—mentoring sessions. These are thirty-minute meetings with available staff—usually more experienced writers who can field questions, give encouragement, and offer advice to those who aren’t sure what direction they should take next. With so many changes in the publishing industry in the last five to ten years, this kind of help is so valuable.

Writers’ conferences offer one additional help—time to meet, talk, and connect informally with other writers. There’s something encouraging and challenging in getting together—beginners with multi-published authors and mid-list or self-published writers. Conferences seem to point to our commonalities, but beginners can be spurred on to greater heights by seeing successful writers who were once like they.

And published authors can remember how they started, the work it took, and the drive, determination, and enthusiasm they had to keep going. They can give of their time to help others as a way of paying back those who helped them.

Certainly writers’ conferences aren’t essential. As technology improves, and instructional sites such as Udemy and WOW (Women On Writing) proliferate, writers can receive instruction in the comfort of home, saving travel and lodging expenses. These classes can even bring writers into contact with an agent or an experienced writer or a freelance editor. In addition there are Facebook groups and Goodreads groups where writers can congregate online with other writers.

And yet . . . Writing conferences offer the intangibles of face-to-face contact. In a post back in 2013, I included the following information (with some minor editing) about writing conferences:

There are hundreds of writing conferences. Wikipedia has compiled a partial list, but a Google search will uncover many more. The key is to refine the search based on genre and location. Some of the more well known conferences include Writer’s Digest (East and West), SCBWI (LA and New York, as well as smaller local gatherings), and RWA. Christian writers’ conferences include Mount Hermon, Colorado Christian Writers, Oregon Christian Writers, American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), and Blue Ridge.

Conferences may not be essential, but they are valuable. My recommendation is to plan ahead—pick a conference that seems to be a good fit and start now saving for 2016.

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Filed under Goals, Research

Writing Groups

PowerElements_of Story Structure finalWriting groups are invaluable. They may provide critiques, encouragement, inspiration, friendship, brainstorming, and beta readers. Maybe all of these.

Some people may not live in a place with easy access to a physical writing group, but in this day and age, the computer solves that problem. There are online critique groups, Yahoo! groups, forums, Facebook pages, team blogs, editor blogs (like this one), writer blogs, agent blogs. There’s even an author, Donita Paul, who holds weekly chats on Mondays (and I just learned that she’s presently discussing Power Elements of Story Structure–how cool is that!?!) If a writer wants to find a community, one is out there waiting to be found.

Some writers may think they don’t need a writing group because they have lots of support and encouragement from their family and friends. Which is great! The problem is, our family and friends may not be as hard on us as we need. And they also may not be as educated in writing techniques us as we need.

Why should they be?

Most lawyers don’t ask their sister or cousin to critique their brief, do they? Not unless those relatives are also lawyers who have studied the law and know what they’re talking about.

Yet we expect anyone to be able to give knowledgeable feedback about fiction or memoirs or devotionals or how-to instruction.

Of course readers can tell writers what they like, and that’s always helpful. But to learn what needs to improve–how to make an argument flow logically, how to structure a story for maximum impact, how to correct passive voice, what point of view is strongest, and a hundred other particulars–other writers who have and are studying the craft will give what non-writers cannot.

Writers are essentially on a continuum, some just starting out and some working on the crowning project of their epic career. Wherever we are in between those extremes, there’s someone we can help and encourage, and there’s someone from whom we can learn and find inspiration. Consequently no one should shy away from a writing group because they think they have nothing to offer or nothing to learn.

I remember years ago attending a local writing workshop. I had considerable insecurity about being there–until I started talking to the people at my table. As it turned out, I was the only person who had been to a writing conference. I’d talked to agents before and to editors. I knew some things about formatting manuscripts and following guidelines. Of course, as the day wore on, I learned a great deal too, from others more experienced than myself who had signed book contracts and had agents.

That’s the way writing groups work.

Mind you, I’m not saying a writer can’t work in isolation. For years, that’s what many writers were forced to do. But even before the Internet, writers sought each other out. See for example, English writers such as Byron, Keats, and Shelley during the Romantic Period or the Inklings in the twentieth century or Americans Emerson and Thoreau during the early 1800s.

Today, with so much information available, and with self-publication on the rise, it seems more necessary to me, not less, that writers take advantage of the opportunities writing groups afford. After all, traditional publication “gatekeepers” aren’t there to tell writers that their work isn’t ready. And honestly, many of us think our work is ready to be in print much sooner than it actually is. That’s because we don’t know what we don’t know.

Other writers, however, might know what we don’t know. And they just might have the unbiased guts to tell us. That’s what you hope to find in a writing group, though it may hurt at times. But honest feedback is the road to better writing, and better writing is the best road to publication, whether via traditional means or through self-publishing.

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Filed under Resources, Writing Inspiration