Monday, May 5, 2014

My First Writers' Conference

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the esteemed DFW Writers' Conference, where I listened, learned and talked more than I probably have in the last ten years. Whew, what a workout for this typically quiet gal who works from the comfort of home! But I have to say it was definitely worth the effort. Here is a rundown of my conference highlights:

Donald Maass' Workshop: Writing 21st Century Fiction

This was a 4-hour class on Friday with one of the VIPs of the publishing world, super-agent Donald Maass. He's an extraordinary speaker, sharing with us his observations about what separates good novels from great ones. Maass told us that the "holy grail" in publishing was a story that combined the excitement of genre novels with the beautiful writing and bigger meaning of literary works. I found this to be very encouraging, as this has always been my aim in my own writing.

He also stressed the importance of grabbing a reader's attention and empathy for the protagonist within the first five pages. Ideally, within the first page. I had heard this before but never really accepted it until he acted out what a typical reader in a bookstore does before buying a book: skim the first few pages. Due to this advice, I'll be swapping the order of my first two scenes so I can get my protag front and center on the double.

I encountered Maass a few other times during the conference, even having the pleasure of speaking with him personally. His enthusiasm for story is infectious. The vibe I get from him is one of near-obsession with finding stories that offer meaning. That is one feeling that I can identify with all-too-well.

Query Critique Session

Here, sitting around a table with several other spec-fic writers, I read a sample of my query letter aloud for agent Jennie Goloboy and editor Amanda Rutter to comment upon. I was pretty nervous about this one, since I was scheduled to pitch to Jennie later that afternoon. As it turned out, I had good reason to be nervous, because my query letter was completely off the mark. I had attempted to follow advice that it was important to keep a query letter simple, focus just on the main character and most gripping story line. In the case of my story, that happens to be a tale of unrequited love that is the impetus for the hero undertaking the quest that propels the overall story arc. My treatment of it in my query letter, however, turned out sounding to Jennie and Amanda like a romance novel! Obviously, this is going to require a trip back to the drawing board.

Pitch Session with Jennie Goloboy

After my dismal performance in the query critique session, I was pretty sure this was going to be a bust as well. However, Jennie put me at ease at once. She said she could tell that my query letter didn't exactly match my story, and wanted me to tell her a little more about the overall world. Now I was cooking with gas! It's so much easier to explain my complex, philosophically epic world verbally (hand gestures are really necessary to do it justice) than in a one-page letter format. Here, I was able to describe in better detail my world's "spiritual cosmology," which she seemed very interested in. She asked me for the first three chapters so she could examine my writing style. Now I have a whole new reason to be nervous!

Punch Up Your Prose by Tex Thompson

Of all the events I attended that were billed as classes, this was BY FAR the one that I got the most out of. Taking the class all the way back to the ancient historical roots of the English language, Tex explained why certain sentences sound better than others, arming us with concepts like assonance and consonance. These are things that, as writers, we often do intuitively without realizing it. But once we actually become aware of the phenomena, we can more actively use it to emphasize certain parts of our writing. Very simple, very easy, very EFFECTIVE.

In addition to being so informative, Tex's delivery was among the most entertaining of any class I've ever attended. Normally, I have a hard time sitting still and listening to a lecture for more than 30 minutes, but was completely unfazed by the 90 minutes Tex took to illuminate us on the hidden secrets of our language. She has an equally entertaining and informative blog here.