Saturday, April 4, 2015

My Experience at the 2015 Madison Writer’s Institute Conference

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the 26th Annual Madison Writer’s Institute. This was my second time at this conference, and if you are a writer in the Midwest, I highly recommend you check it out!

Here are some of the highlights of things I experienced, enjoyed and learned while in attendance.

John Dufresne was a fun keynote speaker. I’d like to check out his books on writing, Is Life Like This? or this one The Lie That Tells A Truth. A few of my take-aways from his address:
  • Sit your ass in the chair. (One of the secrets of writing.)
  • Writing is a choice—and so is not writing.
  • I liked his comparison of revision as sculpting—where what you throw away is an important part of the process.
Inspirational Writing Quotes (heard at the conference)
  • “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Chuck Close, painter.
  • “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” ~ E. Hemmingway
  • “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.” ~ Brendan Behan
New Terms
  • Movellas – (trending in Japan, apparently) are novels written entirely on mobile devices, like a cell phone. Most can be read in fifteen minutes.
  • The Unicorn Effect – when your book’s characters are so great at everything in life that they are no longer real characters but rather they become unreal mythical creatures that poop rainbows and fart glitter.
  • Sex-camp = slang term for college (I hadn’t heard this before, but I like it.)
Good Writing/Good Writing Habits
  • Write to please yourself.
  • Learn to finish things.
  • Be willing to fail at bigger and bigger things.
  • People need to see their lives reflected in stories.
  • Connect with your readers in an emotional way on the page. Emotion comes first before action. Make the readers care.
  • Make sure it’s clear what’s at stake/why things matter for your characters.
  • Beware authorial intrusion: don’t summarize emotion for the reader—you (as a writer) should be invisible except in terms of voice.
  • Good stories have mystery.
  • Scenes in your story must move us from hope to fear or fear to worst fear or hope to fonder hope.
  • Characters: make them sympathetic and don’t be afraid to hurt your protagonist—a lot.
  • Writing is a collaborative act between the writer and a reader. The writer starts the process, but the reader finishes it (often filling in the blanks with their own experiences and baggage).
There were lots of great workshops to attend, and I got to most every one I wanted to. Some ideas/tips I gleaned from them:
  • In her workshop, “Putting Power in Your Novel..” Christine DeSmet talked about a lot of things, but one tidbit that stood out to me was how she talked of setting. Setting: Think of it as a character in your story. As you revise, ask yourself how does your setting change (as a character). Ask: why this setting, why now? Does your setting have a fatal flaw?  I thought this was a cool idea.
  • Ann Garvin spoke at the conference and also held a couple writing workshops. She was great. I did not get to her “Anatomy of a Query” session, BUT the handouts she supplied for that session are fabulous—and were very helpful letting me think about my story and how I might frame it up for a potential agent or publisher. (Practice for my agent pitch sessions.) Ann also used the Maya Angelou quote during one of her talks, “At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”  To her point, the thing I most remember about Ann was that she made the audience (including me) laugh. I’ll also try to paraphrase something that I believe Ann Garvin said during one of her talks at the conference: “Write so that your reader wants your story like a 15-year old boy wants a girl.” Good advice.
There were plenty of opportunities to chat with other writers between sessions and also some lunch and after-hours opportunities. Mostly I failed at taking full advantage of these—but I did meet some very nice fellow writers, a couple of which I hope to hear more from in the future. Some (published) authors have told me that at many conferences the best place to actually pitch your writing is in the bars after the day’s events are officially over. (I opted to hang out with friends and family instead—which I have no regrets about. We had fun together in Madison!)

Social Media
  • Twitter tip: During lunch one day a mystery writer named Heather told me about the Twitter hashtags #Pitmad and #mswl. These are ways on twitter you can either pitch your own book’s “log line” or find out what agents are looking for.
  • I heard a rumor that some agents present were telling people if they had no online presence, that this might significantly hurt their chances for publication. So, if you are looking for a reason to start blogging, tweeting, facebooking, etc.—this might be it.
  • I also attended a session on “Using Video to Promote Your Book.” There were some good tips given, although I was hoping for more of a “how to” session. I plan to do this with my books. The examples shown in the workshop also made me want to go out and buy some of the books from the trailers shown—so I think it works. Here’s one for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
Critique Groups
Many a time throughout the conference I head about the importance of belonging to a writing critique group. As a person who belongs to two (and has actually considered joining a third—don’t know where I’d find the time so this won’t happen) I concur. One recommendation I heard from one person in particular (sorry I don’t recall the source or I’d cite it) was that in their writing group each person is required to submit at least 10 pages per month to the group for feedback. This sounded like a great idea to me, as setting writing goals (a certain number of pages or words over a certain amount of time) seems to be a practice that works well for a lot of writers.

More and more I’m becoming a fan of the idea of self-publishing, mostly because of how the money comes to you, the author. There was a great session on “Assisted Self-Publishing, Done Right” with April Eberhadt and Mary Driver-Theil that reinforced this idea for me.

Success Stories.
In my opinion, a strong focus of the Madison Writer’s Institute is about publishing and publication. If you are in a place where you’ve advanced enough as a writer to consider publication, this is a great conference to attend.
  • One success story in particular that was shared was by guest speaker Amy Zhang. I have not read her work (sorry Amy) but her story is amazing. As a high school student she wrote and sold her first book. Now as a college student (age 19?) she has another two-book deal (six-figure $$$$$$) that she is working on. Her story is so fabulous that I, as a fellow author (who has been writing longer than she has been alive!) sitting in the audience, I could not help but feel a little like Salieri to her genius Mozart. Throughout the conference anytime I would see her the sounds of Mozart’s Requium would play through my head. For this reason I did not attend more than one of her sessions. J
Young Adult and New Adult Writing
There were some good sessions on both, and for me I learned the distinction between them.
  • New Adult is about characters age 16 – 24, who may be in situations where they have to behave legally as an adult—but they don’t have their act together yet. The characters are probably experiencing a new setting, like going off to college, or maybe graduating college and starting a new job. They may be suffering from a “quarter-life crisis.”  YA or NA writing is not a genre, it’s a category (of audience).
  • The big question people seem to have about writing YA or NA is around things like sex, drugs, etc. You don’t necessarily need to add or exclude things like this to make your book fit into these categories—most importantly the advice I heard was don’t add artificial elements to your story to try to make it fit a category.
  • My personal finding: I don’t have a desire to write either YA or NA, at least for now.
Misc. Writing Resources
Trends in Writing
There was a pretty good session on “Trends in Science Fiction” (and that incorporated Fantasy) by John Klima. He was very informative and had lots of charts showing the good, the bad and the ugly of current sci-fi trends—but, my take-away from this session, and others that talked about writing trends was: Don’t write to trends! However I must mention (as someone with a horror novel about vampires) that on the very bottom of all the bad lists, just under books about toe fungus and killer garden slugs, was horror novels about vampires. #$@$%&^#!

My interpretation of the current downward trend in Paranormal Fiction - and the lowest of the low, Vampires
Agent pitches
My book wasn’t necessarily pitch-ready, but as I wanted to go to this conference, I decided to “pitch it” anyway. The agent I most wanted to see cancelled, and I went with the “automatic replacement” agent. Not sure if that was a good call on my part, because my book Sunlight is of the horror/paranormal variety that wouldn’t necessarily appeal to all agents.
  • My first pitch went OK, but the agent declined on two counts. 1) Vampires—they’re not selling now and 2) No Hollywood ending.
  • My second pitch session went even better, the agent in question saying that my pitch might be one of the best she’d heard all conference—but she still wasn’t interested—for the same reasons (Vampires, non-Hollywood ending).
  • As I’m committed to my book and me loves me some vampires, I don’t think I’ll change anything at this point. My belief is when I find the right agent and the timing is right, my book will sell—or I may self publish. Note: I’ve intentionally excluded the names of the agents I pitched to. I neither wish to promote nor disparage them in any way. I’m sure they are both good at their jobs and have good, financial-based reasons for why they choose to work with whom they work with. I wish them all the best.

Writing Contest
For people who know me, they already know the contest was the highlight of the conference for me. I entered the “1 page” contest in three writing categories—and came away with three prizes. I was both shocked and pleased! I won Genre Fiction (1st prize), Flash Fiction (1st prize),  and Poetry (3rd  prize). All 3 of my pieces will be published in the 2016 Midwest Prairie Review.
My take-away: Contest rule! And if you don’t enter it, you can’t win.

Biggest Personal Learning
I heard it said over and over again in different ways throughout the conference, but to summarize:  If you are driven to write a certain story, write it! Write what you love.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my recap.

Keep on writing! Oh, and POWER TO THE VAMPIRES!


Disclaimer: This post is for informational and educational purposes only.