Sunday, April 6, 2014

Writers Out Loud

I spent last weekend in Madison, WI near the university campus, and not for a basketball game. It was the 25th Annual Writer's Institute Conference, sponsored by the University of Wisconsin Continuing Studies Division. About 300 writers gathered to pitch to agents and one editor, learn about the craft, meet colleagues and be inspired.

Writers are generally introverted people, but in the din of the chatter in the ballroom at the Concourse Hotel, I wondered if I was the only one who hadn't overcome that handicap. I tend to hang back and observe, too afraid to make the first move.

Except when walking up and down State Street between my on campus housing and the hotel. Downtown Madison is an energetic, friendly place, but not where I want to walk alone. My aloof, shy nature took a backseat as I easily approached and assimilated among couples, runners and college students who happened to be headed in the same direction.

I am not particularly comfortable with networking opportunities, such as conferences, but I always learn something and even with my wallflower tendencies, I make at least one new contact. We must step outside our comfort zone to a writer and a person.

The first keynote speaker, Nathan Bransford, seemed to be outside his comfort zone. He gave good advice in quotable nuggets, but didn't appear as at ease as his online presence. Perhaps he was tired or too busy shivering as it was snowing and blustery on that first day, causing delays in travel for many of the presenters. One of his best pieces of advice was to keep writing, as it could be the solution to every problem encountered in writing.

Next, I sat in on Ron Kuka's presentation on the Deep Edit and heard mind blowing advice for revisions. Words on the page became a sensory experience under his red pen, and he showed how to make that happen without overdoing it. He instructed writers to invoke at least three senses on each page, but touch each image once.

Christine DeSmet led an active discussion on plot, helping writers narrow it down to a central question. She also encouraged writers to have puzzles to solve and said an object is crucial. Every story must have an object. I keep thinking that can't be true, but haven't identified a story without one.

It warmed up by the second day, for nearly everyone. Writers were more eager to participate in discussions. While agent Laura Biagi gave advice on what made a stellar opening, volunteers from the audience demonstrated that a lot of writers start their stories with characters waking up naked.

That made me wonder about the pitch sessions going on throughout the conference. Agents and editor were taking eight minute pitches from authors. It is hard enough to have my own stories rattling around in my head. I can't imagine hearing seven and a half more stories every hour.

Jane Friedman, as much a capable and knowledgeable guide for writers in person as she appears online, gave solid advice on query letters.

She also gave the last keynote on Sunday, when the sun came out and warmed the world. She showed the business end of authoring, backed by slides with graphs showing the changing landscape.

By the end of the conference, I had a head and notebook full of advice, new goals, and a bunch of new websites to check out. I also love Jacquelyn Mitchard even more in her role as editor for Merit Press. Or maybe I just love hearing editors gush about the books they acquired.

As a touch of magic to the weekend, I walked up State Street each morning hearing the call of the Mockingjay. That is not as impossible as it sounds, since the movie makers had to use the call of some kind of bird to represent the mockingjay. Yet it was fitting for a weekend where imagination, play and dreams were business as usual.


  1. Good post! I also attended, and it was my first writer's conference of any kind. I didn't know what to expect, and I think I observed the action from the same type of perch you did as one who doesn't mingle with new groups easily. I was fortunate in that another writer from the same writing group I belong to also went. During the conference I was overwhelmed, intimidated, and wondering if it was a waste of my time and money. When it was all over, I had been inspired to craft a new opening line for the book I'm working on, I gained a new perspective for conducting yet another edit, and I had gained renewed hope that my project will indeed see the light of day. I look forward to going again next year and picking up a few more gems.

    1. It sounds like money well spent for you! Inspiration, perspective and hope are precious rewards. I may go back as well, but maybe not pay to pitch. I think networking at the conference is more valuable. They need practice sessions on doing that. ;)