Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Writers' Conference from a Newbie's Perspective

This is a pretty long post - at least for me.  But I had so much to say!  I don't imagine I will have another quite as long again, I do appreciate your time with this one. :-)

In one of my bolder moments I went ahead and signed myself up for the Connecticut Fiction Fest.  Then, I started having second thoughts about actually going.  There were going to be a lot of published authors at this conference.  There would be a lot of writers there to pitch their books (completed books) to editors and agents.  I was going to be around people that knew the industry well.  Here I am with nothing completed, nothing I was happy with.  I was going to a writer’s conference?
I am so glad I did.
I met Christyne Butler, Harlequin Special Editions author, the night before the conference.  Our conversation was exactly what I needed to cement a couple of things in my mind.  First and foremost, writers rock!  I knew this already; I just wanted to say it. J Second, I was trying too hard to conform to advice that just did not work for me.  I was speaking to a multi-published author whose approach to writing was similar to mine. Yes!  Can’t tell you how good it was to hear this.
In the morning, by the time the conference doors even opened, I had already met and spoke to at least six more writers.  All of them in varying stages of their career.  So, in case anyone missed this point, you can be just starting out and go to a writers’ conference.  In fact, I highly recommend it.
Eloisa James was the keynote speaker.  I had the good fortune to meet her while standing in line for the toaster.  Never, to my recollection, have I been “star struck”.  But, I was.  I admit it.  And apparently when I am awed by the person standing before me I become an awkward loser.  Complete mental shut down.  This would happen again later when I met Kristan Higgins.  Perhaps even worse.
Eloisa’s speech was warm and witty with a touch of outrageousness that was refreshing.  Really set the tone for the day.  Never mind that seeing her throw on a pencil skirt over her pants (and still look great!) made me want to go work off the bagel I just ate.
There were four breakout sessions with three topics to choose from during each time slot.  Very difficult as I wanted to go to them all.
The first one I attended was Annette Blair’s “What I Wish I’d Known Before I Started Writing”.  One of the first things she said resonated with me.  (And I am only paraphrasing from here on out as I don’t want to misquote anyone).  Everyone is worried that what they write won’t sell, but the only sure thing about writing is if you don’t write, you won’t sell.  I put this in the same category as you can’t edit a blank page.  Getting the words down is key.  Something else to think about; A page a day equals a book a year.  I put that in the same category as losing a pound a week equals fifty-two pounds in a year.  Not sure which is easier.  A couple of other things; You need other writers and they need you.  And, voice matters more than technical perfection (over polishing can wash out your voice – been there and done that!).
Now, for the second session and the driving reason I signed up for the conference in the first place – Kristan Higgins “The Top Ten Mistakes in Characterization”.  Before I go on, I have to say I am a huge fan of Kristan’s work.  If you have not read her – DO!  Now that that’s out of the way, she spoke about common mistakes authors make with characters - while craftily weaving in pictures of James Franco every chance she had.  Sure we all know it’s our job to make a reader connect to the character, at the same time making them unique, multi-layered and let’s not forget likeable and memorable.  But how? 
She went through the top ten reasons characters fall flat and how to fix them.  I will not go through all ten but her presentation was very well done, giving us examples we can all relate to.  For instance; for Lack of Motivation she used the classic Sleeping Beauty vs. a more modern Rapunzel.  One slept while waiting for the hero to rescue her, one clubbed the hero on his head, held him captive and made him take her to see the floating lights.  Then, my personal favorite, Too Stupid to Live (TSTL).  If you have a character that is too stupid to live, the reader just won’t sympathize or care what happens to them.  So true.  Characters should have good, believable, reasons to do what they do.  The last one I will mention here is Failure to Grow.  Characters need to grow and learn – otherwise what really is the point?  Fix this by focusing on the character instead of the plot.
Next I went to Sarah Wendell’s “Reviews; Receiving and Reacting to them Like a Seasoned Pro”.  For all those that know me, or have even read this far, you all know I am not a published author and in the scope of things nowhere near the point of receiving a review.  But I was very much interested in what she had to say, she’s Smart Bitches after all.  I’ve been following her on Twitter for months and I think she’s intelligent, has a great handle on romance, and is just downright funny!  To prove that last part she brought what she referred to as “big girl pants” as a visual aid – literally a pretty large pair of undies.  The point – that’s what you need when you are reading reviews of your work.  That and a big grain of salt.  She recommended sea salt as its grains are fairly large.  Oh, and chocolate.  How could I forget chocolate – she handed out M&Ms. J  Her advice is to not respond to reviews, especially bad ones.  Nothing good can come of it.  And if you want to thank a reviewer its best to do it privately.
Another point she made and it was echoed later during the Chat with Eloisa James session is that you should want varied reviews as readers want to see a variety of opinions.  Further, both Sarah and Eloisa spoke about logarithms websites (like Amazon) employ to direct people to other books.   Those “If you like X, you may like Z” suggestions that pop up when you are purchasing books through their sites are all based on ratings – and more likely lower ratings because research has proven that is what sells.  It’s all very complicated and won’t even try to explain it further at the risk of getting it wrong, but that was the gist I got.
The last workshop I went to was Diana Holquist (aka Sophie Gunn) and Ellen Hartman’s “The Virgin Widow’s Heart Stopped When She Saw the Workshop That Would Change Her Life Forever: How to Recognize Cliches and Use Them to Make Your Writing Shine” (Whew, that’s a mouthful).  They used excerpts from their own first drafts to depict empty, clichéd words and how they turned them into something substantial.  And lists!  They had “Top Cliché” lists; Descriptions, Characters, Situations, Openers, Love Scenes, etc.   I’ll list  the ones I have been guilty of; “hearts” pounding or stopping, the supportive friend, Wills, excessive eating or drinking (need to get the characters out of the kitchen), opening with a heroine in transit and she’s running late, dressing scene, fascinating (not!) thought process, great sex “like never before” (LOL!), oh, and biting (but I’m keeping that one – sorry).
They also read from a list readers had put together of the Most Hated Phrases in Romances.  These included, but not limited to; “quivering”, “smelled of _____ and _____ and man”, slanting mouths, “secret place”, “smoldering eyes”.  And I’m sorry but I’ve never in my life read a book with “burning sword of manhood” used, however it apparently made the list.
Lastly, before the book signing and cocktail hour, Eloisa James spoke about the industry and how it is changing; e-books, Amazon’s line, Kindle and the promise of more money, the previously mentioned logarithms, etc.  I asked the question; what is the best way to keep up with the changes, what source should we be looking to?  Her answer was Twitter.  Yes, on Twitter following the publishers and key authors.  So if you are not already tuned in to Twitter I guess it’s safe to say you should be.
So that was my day.  Fun and filled with great information, meeting some wonderful writers published and unpublished alike.  I got a picture taken with Kristan Higgins - she looks great in it, me? short and not so much. 
And to top it all off, I won one of the raffles.  I didn’t think I was going to win.  After all, I just won an iPod Touch at a work related conference last month.  But, do you want to know when I predicted I would win something? (Because you did have to go up in front of everyone to get your prize).  It was the moment I spilled coffee all over myself.  And I don’t just mean a little on my pants or shirt.  I am talking from my SHOULDER down my entire right side and even into my shoe.  Yes, you heard that correctly.  How did I manage to do this?  I have no idea - it's a blank spot in my memory.  At least it was at the end of the day.


  1. Wonderful post, Tara! Thanks for sharing. I really wanted to go but my schedule is too crazy right now.

    And p.s. if you write like your post I think you are well on your way...

  2. Awesome post! I'm glad to hear you had such an great time at the conference. I wish I'd known about it before it happened! Next time!

  3. Thank you, Wendy. That has to be one of the nicest things I've heard. :-)

    Heather - Thank you! I already plan on going next year. Hope it works out next time, too.

  4. I'm so happy you had a good time. Sounds like you learned so much. BTW, was just scanning the events for national and Sarah Wendell will be offering her workshop again there -- a panel with several others, including Angela James -- and I also saw a mention of "The Virgin Widow's Heart Stopped..." workshop.
    So just're a veteran!

  5. Fabulous post Tara! Sounds like you had a blast! :)

  6. Thanks Taryn, That's funny - me a vetran! LOL. Maybe one a galaxy far, far away. :-)

    Shoshanna - Thanks. I did have really enjoy it. I think I'm addicted to conferences now.

  7. Tara, Sounds like youhad a good time and learned a lot. Glad for you.

  8. Sounds like you had a fabulous time, Tara! How good that you pushed yourself to go.

  9. Thank you, Talli! Yes, I am glad I did not let myself back out at the last moment.