This July’s PNWA Writers’ Conference marked my third go, and while I learned six cups of coffee, three glasses of wine, a gallon of water, two Advil and a 90-minute “recovery” massage worth of stuff, the most important bit of enlightenment from it all was this: I’m still in it. What I mean by those four trite words is that for the first time, I recognized, and congratulated myself on, my commitment to writing this book. Persistence. Thick-skin building. Dedication to honing my craft. Call it whatever, but in and of itself, Year Three was a gorgeous accomplishment.
In 2012, I was a conference newbie, excited by other people’s excitement (that includes writers, speakers, agents and editors), but feeling uncertain with regard to my ability to write a really good memoir. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I still had five months to go before I would even complete the first draft, and it lived up to Anne Lamott’s expectations in every way, shape and form.
In Year Two, mild embarrassment took hold: “Yeaaah, I’m still not done, but soon, I hope!” I told myself I should have had the book completed by then, and doggone it, 2013 was the last time I’d be pitching that sucker. As always, the conference was fantastic, and then I went home and promptly developed writer’s block from all of my self-imposed conditional thinking (my writer friend Molly Greene picked up on this in an email, immediately called me, and imparted this wisdom: “Since when does how you feel have anything to do with what you need to do? Get writing.”). Tough love works; back to it, I hustled.
This year was different, starting from about February, when I really began to study mindfulness, and even practice it sometimes. Bestest thing ever, after pugs. By the time the writers’ conference rolled around, I had both supinating feet on the ground, and my head neither lived in the clouds, nor hid in my ass. I was comfortable in the knowledge that I have now written a good manuscript—it’s not really good yet, but with the right help, I can get it there. I also have the experience of “being in the biz” (sort of) long enough to more easily navigate the terrain, and am realistic with regard to what I can expect. And happily, I’m finally enjoying the writing journey. What stops a large number of book writers in their early days is pure, high-grade neuroses. But Year Three, people! I’ve waded through. I’m still in it.
Enough about me, let’s get to conference highlights. I attended a number of workshops, and this is my chance to give a shout-out to some of the presenters, and share some bits.
- The Many Ways to Be a Writer – Laurel Saville
Writers can get stuck thinking that the only path is to earn an MFA degree, get published in a few lit journals, write a book, and get on Oprah. There are other ways to practice the craft, and earn money, including work-for-hire books, specialty publications (niche topics), corporate communications, and blogging. Also, volunteering to write for non-profit organizations can be a win-win, because you gain both clips and networking opportunities with board members.
- From Slush Pile to Printed Page: Giving Your Poems, Short Stories, and Essays the Best Chance for Publication – Tanya Chernov
A former editor at the Los Angeles Review, Tanya emphasized the importance of taking a fresh approach to old topics, and building familiarity with a publication before you submit to it. You don’t need to subscribe to everything, but in 30 minutes on their site, you can usually read enough of what they’ve put up digitally to know what it’s about. Be wary of publications that charge reading fees. Finally, two good website tools for researching publications and tracking submissions are Duotrope.com and Newpages.com.
- Moment-by-Moment Character Development – Terry Persun
Consider character development in a three-level fashion. Level 1 is “the police report,” e.g., height, weight, eye color, location, clothing, etc. Level 2 is “the military report,” e.g., what are the character’s skills and talents, quirks, beliefs? Finally, Level 3 is “the psychological report,” e.g., the character’s feelings, motivations, dreams. Know your character before you start to write so you understand how they would respond in a given situation.
- Clean Up Your Manuscript Before You Submit – Cherie Tucker
The definitive grammar resource is the Gregg Reference Manual by William A. Sabin, 10th or 11th edition, Cherie says. An ellipsis is for a partial quote or a trail off, THAT’S IT! For an interruption, use a dash. There is no “alright;” it’s “all right,” TRUST HER. “Further” is deeper, “farther” is distance, “exact same” is redundant, and if you “feel badly,” it means you have Novocaine in your fingertips and can’t read Braille (“feel bad” is the correct usage).
- Takin’ It to the Street… Team – Sabrina York
In the book world, street teams are marketing volunteers, made up of fans, other authors, reviewers, etc. Set up a secret Facebook group, only invite as many people as you can effectively manage, make it fun, ask them specifically for what you want, and give them things (blurbs, tweets, etc.) they can cut and paste. Use your street team to spread out your efforts. Members can go lots of places you can’t, like libraries and bookstores in Omaha (unless you actually live in Omaha). Finally, start them out with a welcome packet that lists the benefits of being a team member, e.g., using their names in books (as character names, or in the acknowledgments), prize drawings, swag, first look at ARCs, etc.
My last words (not!): As writers, we tend to be incredibly hard on ourselves. My advice to those who are in Year One or Two (or Three, or Seven, because really, nobody is counting except you), and still working on their book manuscript, is the same advice my dad ripped off from Winston Churchill: Never, never, never give up. The Boston Tunnel Project wasn’t completed in a year or two (or three, or seven). Go to conferences, learn, write, learn, write, learn and write. And if you’re in the Northwest, or have a desire to visit, make sure to hit PNWA’s 2015 Writers’ Conference, which will celebrate the organization’s 60th anniversary. I’ll be there with bells on. Very soothing, mindfulness-inducing, zen-like bells.
Were you at PNWA 2014? What did you think? Or have you been to any other writers’ conferences recently? I’d love it if you shared your experiences in the comments.