AWP is Association of Writers and Writing Programs, with the conference open to faculty, students, and writers (independent of a college) held in San Antonio this year. So here's some cool new stuff on the relationship between persona (typically discussed in regards to creative nonfiction) and character.
[As background, I have both an MFA (fiction) and an MA (creative nonfiction) in creative writing]
When I went through my MA, I started with a personal essay class because my mentor needed one more student for a particular class to go. I fell in love with the genre and proceeded to take every class I could. In the personal essay class, we studied Dinty Moore's book on the topic. In my memoir class, we studied Sue Williams Silverman's Finding Innocence and Experience: Voices in Memoir. The first personal essay I polished and submitted won a contest and a Pushcart nomination. Jill Christman was the judge.
So, imagine walking into a workshop where all 3 of these writers were presenting. It was surreal, and wonderful, and educational. :)
Persona isn't something we talk about in fiction, because we know the characters are fiction. There's no need for a persona, but in CNF, the writer is on the page, yet it's not fully the writer. It's a persona. It's a piece of self without the whole being.
Dinty Moore, during the presentation, said that persona is the embodiment of self but tidied up. “Constructed of the truth but not fully the truth,” creating a more consistent character than the self. "Persona is a consistent and engaging personality on the page." Persona is a glimpse of who we are. We dial it up, emphasize, and stretch" without embellishing or misleading.
[the same can also be said of plot in CNF... Books have a consistent plot, but real life does not.]
Jill Christman clarified more: "The I is a mark on the page. It is not you on the page. You can try to make it a version of you, but your 3-dimensional self is a multitude of I’s. The persona will not contain all your selves."
Ok, so how can we use this information in fiction? On the face, there is no tie, because we're not writing about flesh-and-blood people, but when we look deeper, persona ties directly to characterization. It's very easy to write flat characters, those one-dimensional beings who are there to serve the needs of the writer and the plot, but easy doesn't equate to good. In this case, a flat character annoys or bores the reader, so the same elements in selecting character traits also applies to fiction.
If you want a round character, you have to demonstrate their roundness. You need to find those ticks and traits that you want to demonstrate. The character must remain consistent (a thief doesn't suddenly become a priest... at least without motivation/change), but the character should show some of their different traits when encountering different situations.
Here's an example I use with my undergrads. You use a different voice on Facebook (where grandma can see it) than you do in Snapchat where it's just your friends. You know, often intuitively, what type of posts you can get away with on the different social media platforms.
The same is true of persona. As the writer, you can adjust the character's behaviors based on who is around, so a character in a thriller might act one way with a client, another with a coworker, and yet put on a different persona when they're dealing with criminals (or suspects). Give your characters some depth, some roundness, by pulling out true-to-life traits and personas.
If you're struggling with a character, consider what some of his/her traits and personas might be and how they would manifest within the story. If you don't like the character, or feel they're flat, consider giving them different personas that makes more sense for the story.
In the end, fictional characters will never be wholly human, wholly realistic, but we can give them multiple dimensions so they're interesting and full. How can you use persona in your work?
I'm a big fan of turning points. Well, not in real life, because in real life, turning points are messy things. Turning points are the chaos leading us inevitably into the storm.
My father died when I was thirteen. It was life altering before I was old enough to understand the implications and repercussions of such an event. From that point forward, my life was broken into before and after.
Before my father died:
Turning points are messy things because of the effects they have on our character's lives, as they had in my life, as they have in your life. Turning points are story events that cause the story to turn in a new direction.
The new direction in fiction is typically caused by a choice the character makes (or doesn't make) or a dilemma they face, such as if my mother had chosen to keep living on the "good" side of town by getting married rather than going back to college.
These turning points should lead your character into something new and significantly different. If the choice your character faces is whether to eat dinner at a Chinese restaurant or Taco Bell, that's probably not a turning point, but if the trip to the Chinese restaurant leads our character into China Town where she is faced with a life-changing choice--find the treasure your boss stole or your best friend dies--that's a turning point.
The crossroads in this fake story is the character's before and after, and like those traumatic before and afters in your own life, the character's life will never be the same.
For instance, the protagonist who was just going to dinner with a friend is there to discuss a job offer because she can't work for a dishonest so-and-so any longer, but after her friend is kidnapped, she has to stay with the employer to find the treasure and save her BFF. So the dinner in China Town becomes one of the character's turning points.
In real life, turning points are traumatic, but isn't that exactly what we want for our characters? If the character is not faced with significant turning points and equally disastrous choices, then we may not have a turning point that will keep the reader reading.
In the opening of this post, I said turning points were the chaos leading us into the storm, but the storm is where our character will grow. Give them that opportunity by giving them a worthy turning point.
Some thoughts on how and when to build your platform
This is an honest and complex question. So many publishers, editors, and agents say a writer needs to "have a platform," which is a lot like the need to have credit to get credit.
How do you build a platform before you have a product to put on that platform?
When I first met my publisher face-to-face, having a contract and a release date in the far distant future, I asked her the number one thing I could do to set myself up for the release. She told me to get active on Twitter. My response (not wise, considering... publisher) was "I hate Twitter."
She had the marketing department scour my website and social media pages to give me suggestions. Not all publishers do this, but it was invaluable. They sent me a 6 page report on what I was doing right and what I should improve. The good news is that traditional publishing takes so long you have time to build before the release. The bad news is that every editor/agent who is serious about your work is going to ask about your platform. Do you have a website, a FB page, a Twitter handle, etc?
I have since reevaluated my opinion on Twitter, as I'm fully an addict, and I now despise Facebook, but I also think the publisher is both right and wrong about "get active on Twitter." Twitter is great for many reasons, but Twitter is not the place to sell books. Mind you, people try, but it's really just yelling into the wind. Facebook is a good marketing tool for writers, but the targeted advertising is part of what makes Facebook a burr under my saddle.
Where do I begin? How do I put myself out there when I hate "selling myself."
The biggest thing pre-publishing is to get onto your preferred social media platform and start making connections. Follow authors in your genre (as your writer page). Join conversations in Facebook groups or follow Twitter hashtags like #writingcommunity or #amreading. On Insta, it's #authorsofinstagram. You're not selling yourself, not yet, what you're doing is forming bonds and friendship with people who like books and your particular genre. You're building an online network.
Minor digression on the value of online networking
I graduated from Regis University with an MA in creative writing in 2015 (Regis now has an MFA program). A fellow student at the time just released her first book of literary nonfiction. She reached out to me on social media. I shared her release to my readers. I shared articles about her release on everything from social media to LinkedIn. This isn't a quid-pro-quo, as I don't expect anything of her in return. It's just the right thing to do to support fellow writers. You can do the same with published authors before you're published.
How do I "sell myself" as a writer before I'm published?
You're not bringing attention to something you haven't done yet, you're bringing attention to the thing you love: books. My publisher gave me a list of 15-20 top influencers in the form of bloggers and book reviewers that I should "get to know" or connect with online. I found that too artificial. Instead, I engage with other writers and readers. I like/share/retweet other writers whose work I like/love to build good will with others, and even if they don't directly reciprocate, I figure I'm growing my good karma (and that it will come back to me in some way in the future).
When is the best time to build a platform? Pre or post contract?
There's no "right" time to build a platform. Honestly, and I mean this, writing comes first. Let me say that again:
Writing. Comes. First.
It's easy to get sucked into the social media mud pit and get stuck, but if you're already active on a certain platform, getting to know other writers and readers shouldn't be too big of a stretch to start with. Things like a website or a blog can wait until the book is finished, but social media takes time to grow, so starting now would definitely be a move in the right direction.
Where do I start? Social media is overwhelming.
There's so many ways to get active in a way that is authentic, which I think is what you should focus on. Don't think of it as selling yourself. Writers for the most part aren't really good with that. Instead of "selling" or "marketing" which are dirty little words, consider social media as community building. You're finding a community to interact with, and you can do it no matter where you live, no matter your publishing stage... as long as you have Internet.
As for where to start, ask yourself: What social media platform do I prefer?
I know some publishers push you to be active on all platforms. Good luck with that. Although I do have someone help me with Facebook (she posts what I send to her onto my writing page because I don't have a personal account on FB), I don't have the time or money for a personal assistant, so spending an hour a day building my social media isn't in the cards, but I do focus on being active on Twitter, because I'm there anyway, and I enjoy the interactions. I even use it for my undergrads instead of online discussions (see one of my Twitter hashtags to see what they post).
Follow writers. Stephen King is on Twitter, and full of all kinds of fun posts from directly related to writing (like when a new book or movie releases), but he also posts pictures of his dog, retweeting other writers (including his son) and generally posting several times a week. JK Rowling used to be much more active, being quite vocal about things that matter to her, but seems to have slowed off the last year of so. Still, she's a good follow. Start with those writers you love, and even if they don't respond, you can interact with those commenting on their posts. And guess what? Those people are probably readers.
But it makes me feel like a fraud
Posting to someone who is not your family or friend is weird at first, but I promise, you're not a fraud. You are a writer. You are writing. You are connecting with readers and writers.
Remember the line from Field of Dreams. "If you build it, they will come."
My mother quoted both Shakespeare and Newton and others I have yet to divine, and as a child, I was completely unaware. It's completely shocking to read a work of great literature, or science, and hear my mother speaking the lines from decades past.
When it came to Newton's laws, her recitation tended to follow a complete kid klutz moment. For instance, putting books onto the dining table, push back, spill milk across the dining table. Mom would spout Newton's 3rd law:
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
I guess that was better than yelling at us for spilled milk.
But here's the thing. Newton's laws apply to people and characters as well as the universe. Newton's law of inertia, states that an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside source. In this example, the object at rest is our character before the story begins.
Jennifer Brody, in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, writes:
[momentary pause wherein I acknowledge my mother's genius]
In this analogy, the character is the object at rest. The character is living their happy or unhappy life in stasis, or as Christopher Vogler (The Writer's Journey) calls it, the Ordinary World.
The character may be unhappy, but they're not unhappy enough to move. Take Luke from the original Star Wars. He's completely unhappy working for his uncle on the farm at the far end of the universe, but he's there anyway, plugging along, dreaming about leaving, "some day." He has the desire, but not the actionable force. It takes a droid, a crazy old hermit, and the death of his aunt and uncle to "force" him from his Ordinary World. Vogler called this the Call to Adventure, but in Brody's version, the events that take place are the equal and opposite force that compel the object at rest into an object in motion (or, a Character in Motion).
Once the character is in motion, their wants and goals keep the plot moving.
When a hero wants something, it sets them in motion. It gets them off their butt and into the action (Brody 13).
As the story progress, the equal and opposite force that Brody discusses can come to life through either conflict or a nemesis (antagonist). It is the equal and opposite force that acts against the character in motion.
It's the question "[w]hat is standing in the hero's way?"
The force standing in the hero's way must be strong enough to push him off course. For instance, think about what it took to force the Millennium Falcon close enough to the Death Star to get captured? And yet, isn't that where Luke and Han were destined to go?
Think about your current work in progress (WIP).
I never stopped to consider that something in science, one of my least favorite subjects, could impact my writing world. That was a deficit in my viewpoint. Everything in the world and on our planet can impact our writing world. From years ago, my mother was teaching me how to apply universal laws to my life, and I am the better for it.
Now, if I could just find that outside force to get the rest of my life in motion.
One of the most common suggestions I make to students in the MFA program is to include more analysis of the works they read. There is a difference between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer (and learning to analyze). An MFA is not simply a writing degree. Of course, MFA students will be writing, and are writing, quite a bit, but the most time is spent on reading and analyzing what other writers have done. Stephen King has famously said "[i]f you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write."
Being a writer is first being a reader, and many (most) writers learn through their reading to become writers. In an MFA program, we focus on the valuable work that reading does to writing skills. During my MFA, I read and wrote critical analyses on three books each month for the first two years of the program. I was numb by the end, but I learned to be quite efficient and effective at reading critically. It has taken me longer afterward to incorporate what I learned into my writing, but that element is equally valuable.
We read critically, we write analytically, and then we reflect on the elements and apply them to our own writing.
Summary (a brief description of the plot) is lower-level learning. Analysis is higher-level (or critical) reading and writing. And genre doesn't matter. From romance to literary fiction, writers need to analyze what other (sometimes great) writers have written.
But all reading is not created equal. When we read for pleasure, hopefully we can actually enjoy the work without picking it apart (I really struggle with this). But when we read as a writer, our job is to pick the work apart. We should read slowly to see the brush strokes of the writer we're studying. We should ask questions of the text.
First, Taylor D wrote:
For most stories, conflict drives the characters and plot while causing readers to become invested in watching it all play out. In The Left Hand of Darkness, the conflict arises during a meal the main character has with someone they had trusted. Over the course of the dinner conversation, the main character comes to feel utterly alone in this strange world, realizing that their allies may be more foe than friend. As the main character attempts to understand how the person he trusted to help him, and who had been doing just that up until this point, he continues the conversation in hopes of discovering what has caused this shift. “He looked at me curiously. ‘Well, then, to put it this way. There are some persons in court who are, in your phrase, in favor with the king, but who do not favor your presence or your mission here’” (Le Guin 15). This sets up the conflict in the book, that the main character is attempting to make changes to a world where he is not welcome.
The way in which Le Guin creates and reveals the conflict, through a conversation between two acquittances, one who has all but betrayed the other, is something I want to explore in my own writing. As the reader, this intrigued me, and I wanted to read more to find out what exactly the main character was doing on this planet that would cause others to not want him there. I found the way the conflict between the two characters gave way to a large conflict in the book and it is something I will attempt in my own writing, using my characters and their conversations as a way to create and reveal conflict, both interpersonal and on a larger plot scale.
Taylor provides a summary of the scene to provide context for the initial conflict, and then looks at evidence from the book (quotes), and finally, discusses how Le Guin's technique impacted her (Taylor) as a reader, and then figures out what exactly she has learned from the reading.
Now, let's look at what Candace M. wrote:
It is only right to look at storytelling elements first because they are vital and occur in all stories, Adeyemi and Rosoff are not exempt. In Children of Blood and Bone, the reader is thrown into the mind of Zeile. We are able to experience her desperation and hope that she will be chosen for the graduation battle, “Its all I can do not to scream. I dig my nails into the marula oak of my staff and squeeze to keep from fidgeting. Beads of sweat drip down my back, but I can’t tell if it’s from dawn’s early heat or from my heart slamming against my chest” (Adeyemi 3). These opening lines quickly and effectively clue the reader into the inner desire of an unnamed character. He or she is nervous yet excited and desiring to be selected for what we will soon know as a graduation combat match. Conflict is presented off the bat at the possibility that our narrator may not be chosen. Adeyemi goes on to mention that our narrator has been passed over for “moon after moon…,” thus verifying what the reader has been led to believe; participation in this match is a must (Adeyemi 3). The excitement of a combat match also aids in creating pacing and suspense.
Here, you can see that Candace's style of analysis is different. She has a back and forth between her discussion and evidence (quotes) from the book. She reaches a conclusion in this paragraph without discussing how she (Candace) will use this information. Later, however, Candace adds her own analysis about her writing:
Although Rosoff’s lack of dialogue is a showstopper, Adeyemi’s use of dialogue to reveal conflict, details about her characters, and bring the fictional land of Orisha to life is nothing to sleep on. Prior to reading Adeyemi’s work I really tried to find equal balance between dialogue and narration, I saw this as a rule to writing. Adeyemi, doesn’t seek to balance dialogue with narration but uses her dialogue in a meaningful way so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. My current project could greatly benefit from a revision that focuses more on meaningful dialogue and narration so that they are being used to drive the plot rather than fill the space.
While most writers won't need or want to write an academic paper analyzing a work of fiction, the act of analyzing is an invaluable tool and can be accomplished while reading. Writers should consider writing techniques as they read them, and then consider how and in what ways the reading and analysis can impact their own writing.
Embrace analysis. It will help set your writing on fire.
ADDENDUM:This kind of analysis also helps writers to critique other writers. Once a writer has torn apart a book by someone like Stephen King, they should have the skillset and vocabulary to help critique and improve the work of their critique partners.
King, Stephen. On Writing. Scribner, 2000.
An anti-hero by any other name would still kick ass and go home bloody
I had a great question about villains as heroes that I wanted to share for those of you working in the dark arts section of the card catalog (i.e. dark YA, speculative fiction, horror, etc).
Writers often struggle with creating a nonconventional hero. I first became interested in this when a 74 y.o. librarian I worked with at the public library told me about her favorite TV show "hero" who was a serial killer. The show was Dexter, based on a novel by Jeff Lindsay entitled Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004). I was fascinated by the concept that readers could love and root for a serial killer. Essentially a villain with an unhealthy dose of rationalization. I wanted to know HOW the writer was able to make a serial killer sympathetic for (mostly) law-abiding readers/viewers.
If you struggle with a nonconventional hero, anti-hero, or Byronic Hero, read on...
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: First and foremost, this is one person's opinion. Publishing is an interesting industry in that there is no ONE right answer. Some is up to genre, some to publisher, some is up to current trends, and some to reader expectations.
Some traits of a tragic hero (aka villain as protagonist aka anti-hero aka Byronic hero aka dark hero):
They're more full-bodied rather than perfectly imperfect (no one really likes the villain with no redeeming qualities...it's too trite). Giving characters imperfections/weaknesses/tragic backstories makes them more rounded, interesting, and relatable.
As definition, an anti-hero is a central character in a story who lacks conventional heroic attributes.
The great thing about Wick is that he's a badass assassin for the mob who got out of the business when he married, but when his wife dies [tragic backstory] and someone kills his dead wife's dog [motivation], Wick comes back with a vengeance, kicking ass and killing pretty much everybody involved.
Wick is in no way a conventional hero. He's a criminal, he's violent, he's ruthless, and yet he has a certain code of conduct. He has loyalty to friends (many of whom do not reciprocate his loyalty). But Wick does have weaknesses. I mean, he can kill with impunity, so his weakness isn't physical (even when he's majorly injured, he still wins), and yet his trust in friendship and loyalty causes many complications. Remember complications? They are the cornerstone of conflict, and conflict is story. If Wick had no weakness, the story would be over in 20 minutes:
Sad death of dog. Kill everyone. The end.
But instead, the writers give him complications and weaknesses that they exploit to make his life more difficult and the story more fulfilling. Readers want the complications. In addition, the weaknesses humanize a character that the average reader may find unrelatable (i.e. a serial killer or mob hitman).
So, to summarize, two possible reasons for giving the villain a weakness are 1) to humanize him and 2) to complicate the story.
If a villain can explode a planet without complication (think Darth Vader in the first Star Wars), where's the conflict? But Vader has many weaknesses hidden behind a horrific mask, and some seriously tragic backstory. For that matter, think Snape from the Harry Potter series (that scene makes me cry every damn time, and for more than half of the series, I hated Snape).
Here's a YouTube video from Troped! that talks more about anti-heroes:
But wait, there's more...
As long as we're discussing nonconventional heroes, let's talk about the Byronic Hero with info from the fabulous site TV Tropes (honestly, you should check them out, but be forewarned, it's a pretty deep rabbit hole):
Byronic heroes are charismatic characters with strong passions and ideals, but who are nonetheless deeply flawed individuals who may act in ways which are socially reprehensible because he's definitely contrary to his mainstream society" ("Byronic Hero" par. 1).
As a general rule, they're highly conflicted heroes (think the comic hero in Grosse Pointe Blank) who ponders and wrestles "with his struggles and beliefs" ("Byronic Hero" par. 1). They often have a tragic back story (sound familiar?). In literature, think Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (the monster or the creator) or The Count of Monte Cristo.
As the earlier video demonstrates, the anti-hero is quite popular in movies, books, and comic books at the moment. Why that's true is open for debate, but I think that the anti-hero exists when we, as a culture, begin to feel that we're getting the shaft (economically, culturally, familial, etc.). We need the anti-hero who doesn't want to or have to obey society's rules/laws. He makes his own rules, and whether you call him villain, anti-hero, or Byronic Hero, he's fascinating, and readers want more of him (or her... think the heroine from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
If you're inclined to read and write dark stories, here's where you can find out more about the dark/anti/Byronic hero.
As a general rule, and of course there are exceptions, writers are introverts, but even extraverts acknowledge that writing is a solitary act. It's easy to get stuck in our heads and in our stories rather than live in the real world. It seems easier, I think, because our families--no matter how supportive--don't really get writers.
Last semester in one of my undergrad creative writing classes, I asked the students why they write. A young lady, about sixteen (we have dual enrolled high school students on our campus) with long hair and thick glasses spoke up. She's rather shy, and this may be the most she spoke in class. She said, "I write to shut up the voices in my head." Immediately several people nodded in agreement. When I told this story in a faculty meeting, several of my colleagues looked at me like I'd lost my mind, some suggesting that maybe it was time to refer the student to behavioral intervention, because they really don't get it. If our families struggle with understanding our writing world, the people in the math department really don't understand creativity.
So we go to writing groups, develop writing communities, and eventually go to a writer's conference, because the only people who understand writers are other writers. Once or twice a year, we need to step out of our writing cave and visit with the only people on the planet who do understand.
Writing conferences have personalities just like people. If you go to the ThrillerFest, you'll be surrounded by thriller writers and will likely have workshops on law enforcement procedures, autopsies, and forensics. Mystery writers surround themselves with stuff of mystery, romance writers talk relationship building and romance tropes, while YA authors talk about everything. A general writing conference might have tracks for fiction writers, poets, and another for creative nonfiction. There might be someone who talks about memoir and another who talks travel writing.
So when you pick a writing conference to go to, make sure that they're your people. For instance, writing poetry is not my jam. SO if I ended up in a poetry-writing conference, I would be out of my element, which is the exact opposite of what we want in a writing conference. So do your homework and make sure the conference covers the topics that are of interest to you and your genre.
Once you sign up, or as you're signing up, you'll have to answer questions about food choices (yes, most conferences support vegan or gluten-free eating), but then it gets down to the nitty-gritty. Do you want an agent or editor appointment? Who with? Spend some time researching the agents/editors who will be there so you know which is most likely to appreciate your book.
For an editor pitch, this is a great way to get past the slush pile to submit directly to an editor. Make sure, however, that you've checked to see if they accept un-agented work/writers. Do your research and know what they publish, what lines they have, and what their current submission guidelines are.
For instance, at dinner during the conference last weekend, a writer at my table said the editor she pitched to was really nice and helpful, but "she doesn't edit horror." While the editor did make some recommendations for next steps for this writer, the writer should have known going into the conference that this editor wasn't an editor for a horror line. That's basic research that would have given the writer better options for her one pitch appointment.
If you're considering an agent appointment, figure out why you want an agent. There are oh so many reasons, but here are some from "How to Find a Literary Agent:"
If you're looking to pitch to an agent, here are some things to consider as you pick who you want to pitch to:
One of the interesting things I've noticed the last couple writing conferences is how my attitude and expectations from the conference have changed over time. When I first started going, I was all about the workshops, spending hour after hour in a clogged hotel conference room absorbing information, but as I've progressed in my career, those workshops hold less appeal. Of course there are exceptions. The two hour workshop presented by a coroner talking about dead bodies (DB) and the kinds of evidence we can retrieve from the body was the most amazing workshop I've ever attended, but typically, the workshops are things I've worked on through my coursework and my reading, and now I'm looking to focus on publishers or agents, so I know who the industry players are.
Which leads to the next reason every writer should go to conference: to network.
Yes, dear introverted writers, I know this sounds like hell. For some of us, networking is worse than hell, but we need to know who works for which publisher. Did they move, did they change to a different line, did they become agents or move to Hollywood? These are the kinds of details you really only get by becoming involved in a writing community and going to a writer's conference.
Last summer I attended RWA's conference because it was in Denver, so I didn't have to pay for travel expenses, which makes many national conferences an expensive proposition. Before my kids were born, I had been highly involved with RWA, even acting as president for my local RWA chapter, and I went to conference every year. I absorbed the workshop materials, enjoyed hanging out with my friends at the bar (every writer's conference ends up in the bar), but I didn't do an agent or editor pitch because I wasn't ready for it.
But when I went to RWA last year, I wasn't interested in the workshops (except the autopsy one and another on self-defense for writers), because I was there to make industry contacts. A good friend of mine, who has been even more actively involved than myself, took it upon herself to help me network. I didn't realize this until halfway through conference when I legit hadn't attended a single workshop... But she had me at lunch with one group of writers, drinks with another, and after hours with yet another group. She hosted a tarot reading so I would get to know yet another group of writers all in much more advanced stages of their careers than myself. She was like a publicist who was getting my name out there and connecting me to industry professionals. It was a fabulous (and exhausting) conference.
When to go to a writer's conference is a personal and financial decision, but when you do take the plunge, know why you're going and what you want to get out of it. This last conference at Pikes Peak Writers, I had two goals.
First I wanted to grow my writer's resume by building a reputation as a presenter and speaker. This worked out well for me and has led to another conference gig this fall at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Second, I wanted to pitch to an agent. My publisher didn't require an agent (some do), and since I had researched my publisher's contract terms before signing with them, I didn't *need* an agent, but now I'm at a crossroads with my career. I have 6 books and a novella out in the world, and I really want an agent to take some of the business stress off my shoulders so I can focus on writing. Because I knew my book, my goals, and my pitch so well, the agent asked for the proposal within two minutes of me walking into the pitch room. That gave me the last eight minutes to simply have a conversation and decide if I think this is the person (or the kind of person) that I want representing my work.
Writer's Conferences are amazing opportunities for writers at all stages of the writing career. They build your writing skills, your industry knowledge, and your networking options.
The only question left to ask is when are you signing up for your first conference?
On Saturday, I participated in a mini-conference and book signing at the local library. It's free, a writer's favorite word, and had 2 panel discussions and a keynote speaker. Between sessions, readers and writers were able to talk to local writers who signed books. All proceeds benefitted the Friends of the Library. I love doing this event. Book sales are light, but it's a great way to network and stay connected to the local community. Plus, I worked for the library for years, and they take good care of me. I want to give back.
Now, for the interesting stuff.
The first panel had a publicist, an agent, and an editor. They talked specific to the business side of writing.
The keynote speaker discussed something no one likes to talk about. The dark night of the writer's soul when the words won't come. Writers tend to avoid this discussion out of some strange taboo, but every writer will go through it at some point. Stephen King threw out his initial notes on the book Carrie, convinced it was a dud. His WIFE was the one who believed in it enough to literally pull it out of the garbage. Take the time to go read that article about Stephen King. Trust me, it's inspirational.
The speaker pointed out that it doesn't matter if it's your first book or your eighth, all writers experience this moment of doubt. Hang in there.
Finally, the best part of the day was seeing one of my former students signing books! She took my novel writing class two summers ago. She said "your class is what gave me the final push and helped me put it all together." She has 2 books with another due out in June. I'm so proud! Her name is Adriana Carlson and you should checkout her website.
That's it for my notes for now. Hang in there. You're doing great!
First, a confession...
When I first started writing, a decade or two (ouch!) before I actually published, I wanted to be a historical romance writer. My favorite stories to read were Regencies and, because I read them, I wanted to write them.
Historical romance in general, and Regency in particular, has very demanding fans. Get something wrong about the Regency era, and the readers WILL haunt you. And, as much as I loved to read them, I really didn't want to do that kind of research.
Years later, I worked in the public library system in the reference department (yes, I see the irony). And I really do love research now, but I no longer want to write Regency. :)
I learned a few things in the process, though.
Most of it is fun. Often it is distracting from the real work, but necessary all the same.
The best advice I can give, however, is to enjoy the ride. Research can and should be mentally engaging. It should be interesting and intriguing.
Consider it playtime. Have fun!
A writer does the same. We tear things apart to figure out the how and why, so we can duplicate the techniques in our own writing. Reading is the primary means of learning to write, which is why it makes me sad when new writers tell me they "don't read." I typically sic Stephen King on their heretic asses:
Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. (King)
Reading as a writer is a good talent to have, as reading is the sole training ground for writers. You don't have to have a background in "how to write fiction," you don't have to have an undergraduate degree in Literature or an MFA in Creative Writing in order to be a writer. You just need to start as a reader.
But as often as English teachers or writing professors or well-meaning friends tell you to "read like a writer," most of them aren't as explicit at what they mean by that. Some call it close reading, because you're reading very carefully, but I like the phrase read like a writer, because it gives reading a purpose. I'm reading like a writer so that I can become a writer (or a better writer).
Mike Bunn, in his essay "Read Like a Writer," says that
When you Read Like a Writer (RLW) you work to identify some of the choices the author made so that you can better understand how such choices might arise in your own writing. The idea is to carefully examine the things you read, looking at the writerly techniques in the text in order to decide if you might want to adopt similar (or the same) techniques in your writing. (Bunn)
Before we know what to write, we need to know how to write, and the how is reading like a writer. Asking questions, annotating, figuring out how a writer accomplished a certain technique. Like the seamstress, we are taking apart a shirt so that we can use it as a pattern for making our own shirt.
Mimicry is part of the learning process. In middle school I wrote a noir detective story my teacher said sounded "borrowed." Nevermind that her destructive commentary became that negative voice in my head (and most writers have them). The point is that I started at a point of mimicry, but I grew past it. I learned the rules so I knew when, where, and how to break them effectively. I still read like a writer, and I'm reading a book a week (or more). I read across the card catalog: fiction and nonfiction, literature and genre fiction like romance, mystery, thrillers, women's fiction, and just about any genre but horror (sorry Stephen King). Speaking of Stephen King, he continues the quote about the value of reading with the following:
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in … Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway" (King).
Reading is an invaluable part of a writer's toolbox. In fact, it may be THE essential tool, but only if you're reading like a writer. So what does that mean? Check out Mike Bunn's article, published free as part of an OER (Open Education Resource), for specific, concrete ideas on what it means to read like a writer. Also, see the video below on how to annotate as you read.
Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.