Observations and Thoughts on #WDC16

This past weekend, I attended the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City. It was my third WDC in a row, and I’ve enjoyed them all. I plan on attending next year as well, as I’ve learned something from each one. You can read my impressions of the previous two here and here.

I think I’ll start with a review of the three sessions I loved (yes, there are sessions you attend and don’t like for one reason or another, but I’m not going to hammer anyone (even though a few deserve it)), and then wrap up with some general observations. Long post ahead, so get comfy (or scroll to the bottom for the tl;dnr version).


Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules

Steven James

There was a palpable undercurrent to this conference–which I’ll expand on later–which I first noticed after this session.

Steven James is a marvelous presenter. I knew I was in for some fun (which is not as common in the presentations and you might think) as soon as he started speaking. Funny and direct, Mr. James spoke about what in the writing world is unflatteringly called ‘pantsing’ (as in by the seat of your pants), which is writing without an outline. His main point was that an outline is restrictive, resulting in you forcing your characters to do things that don’t make sense for them so you can stick to your prefabricated plot structure. While I didn’t agree with everything he said (you can have my outline when you pry it from my cold, dead hands, fella!) ‘organic’ writing as he called it obviously works for him.

Notable quotes:

“People say a story must have a beginning, middle, and end. Well so does everything else!”

“There are no character-driven stories or plot-driven stories, there are only tension-driven stories.”

“Don’t impose a formula on your story.”

Personal takeaway:

I learned I’m what I’m going to call a ‘hybrid outliner’. Yes, I create an extensive outline for each book I write, but I expect my characters to go in directions I never conceived. When that happens, I don’t wrestle them into the situation I need, I just go with it. These are their stories, I’m just typing them.

Opening Keynote: Saying Yes to the Writerly Life

Kwame Alexander

Sweet. Merciful. Crap. I want to be around Kwame Alexander all the time. I want to have lunch with him, do yoga with him, watch movies with him, go camping with him, play basketball with him, walk dogs with him, drink whiskey with him, and say things to him like, “Hey Kwame, are we going to the mall today?” just to hear him answer, “Yes!”

If you couldn’t tell, I’m a fan.

Mr. Alexander’s keynote was all about believing in yourself, putting in the time and work, and saying “Yes” when opportunities present themselves. While building his career, this included writing a play and asking his father, who owned a publishing company, to publish the work, only to have the elder refuse. This included writing a picture book when on a writer’s retreat HE created and funded, and then selling that book at farmers markets on weekends while holding down a fulltime day job. This included writing a book that was turned down again and again while in development, that once completed his then-agent said he sent out but actually didn’t (ugh!), that eventually he self-published, had picked up, and that won a Newbery Medal.

How could you not love this guy?

On top of that, Mr. Alexander is a tremendous presenter. Engaging, funny, personable, and quick-witted, he owned the room. Owned it. Best keynote I’ve seen in three years of writing conferences, no question.

Notable quotes:

“You’ve got to learn to say yes to yourself, even when you’re getting crushed by the no’s.”

“Make sure the people around you are encouraging and at least as smart as you.”

Personal takeaway:


Pulling the Rug Out: How to Craft Twists Your Readers Will Never See Coming

Steven James

Yes, I went to Steven James other session, too. After how badass his Story vs. Structure was, how could I not?

As you can tell from the title, this session was all about twists. When considering Mr. James’ writing style (pantsing), he was the perfect writer to talk on this subject because he doesn’t know what his twists will be until he writes them. He didn’t disappoint.

The session was more structured than Mr. James’ previous one, with him running through several specific things to do and not do with your twist(s). I won’t go into every point (because you should go to conferences to see these things in person, and because I have no interest in ripping Mr. James off), but will share one: the four things a good twist is/does:

  • Must be unexpected (but not out of nowhere)
  • Must be inevitable (but not obvious–see previous bullet)
  • Must escalate what proceeded it (this was a lightning bolt to my brain meat)
  • Must be a revelation that adds meaning to what’s already occurred (use foreshadowing)

Jeez. So simple, yet I’d never thought of twists in that framework. This alone was worth the price of admission, and immediately showed me where I could improve the twists in my WIP. Amazeballs.

Notable quotes (this one had a lot):

“A twist is a way to give readers something they didn’t know they wanted.”

“Dream sequences are de-escalation because the reader learns things aren’t as bad as they thought.”

“Good storytelling is showing the reader things are worse than they thought.”

“Every story can have one coincidence, but readers don’t want more than that.”

“Your climax can have no coincidences.”

“The final twist must be the most satisfying.”

Personal takeaway:

My WIP has several twists with a ton of foreshadowing. I’m thrilled about that, but I also now realize I have a few big problems in where two of those twists occur. Revising will be a challenge, but is doable. This was the best craft session of the weekend.

Other Sessions

I attended several other sessions that were OK, but contained no revelations worth highlighting here. Most were rehashes of information I already knew, and none were delivered in any way that surprised me. Keep in mind I’ve seen much of the information presented before (this is me foreshadowing something below–shhh!). I met several first-time attendees who were wowed by sessions I found meh. *shrug*

General Thoughts

Conflicting Messages

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned I noticed an undercurrent to the conference. That undercurrent was a frustration with conflicting messages. Attendees would sit a session in which a presenter would say something, and then go to another session where that presenter would contradict the previous. An example would be, “Get working on your writer platform now!” vs. “Platform doesn’t matter, only the writing matters.” An attendee in one of the ‘OK’ sessions, her annoyance obvious, even asked the presenter, “I feel like we’re getting mixed messages. In my last session, {presenter} said we should always {some ‘rule’ for getting published}, and now you’re saying we shouldn’t. Which is it?” It was an interesting thing to watch develop through the weekend, and I think it came mostly from new writers who didn’t recognize the separation between writers and agents/editors/publishers.

As a new writer, I went to my first WDC looking for roadmaps and templates for ‘Writing That Breakthrough Novel’ and ‘Creating a Captivating First Paragraph’ and ‘Crafting Three Dimensional Characters Your Readers Will Love’ (note: I just made those up off the top of my head–I’m not calling anyone out, but you get the point). What I learned was this:

Successful writers tell you to break rules and write amazing stories, while folks in publishing give you guidelines to help you get started writing amazing stories.

You should start with the guidelines and write until you’re confident enough to break the rules. If you don’t know this, though, it can be frustrating.

Another thing to know is jumping between subject tracks can be jarring. Sit a session on ‘Craft’ followed directly by a session on ‘Publishing’ and you’re going to hear two very different messages.

Keep these things in mind and everything should be easier to process and follow.

The People. My God, the People

Each year I attend WDC, I meet the most amazing people. Two years ago, I met two writers who have become cherished, trusted friends I love to death. Last year I met a writer from my home state of NJ, with whom I occasionally hang out and drink and talk about writing and tattoos and family, and someone from halfway around the world who just finished her first novel (congrats, J.). This year, I had the pleasure to connect with around a half-dozen people with whom I’m going to do my best to stay in touch, all bright, talented, and fun-as-hell. This aspect of these shows cannot be understated. Sign-up for the sessions, attend for the people.


Wow, 1500 words. If you made it this far, thanks. If not, here’s the tl;dnr version:

This conference was great, a little different from past ones I attended because of my level of experience, and everyone I met was awesome.

I hope to see you next year, whether we already know each other or not 🙂


Thanks for reading,



7 thoughts on “Observations and Thoughts on #WDC16

  1. Hey Ron – nice summation! And yes, I agree – there are often lots of conflicting opinions on writing, how to do it, how to get published, etc. and not always contrasting the writer vs. the publishing side – sometimes within one side or the other. Many a time have my writing buddies and I shaken are heads on that subject at conferences. Love the memorable quotes above. Never underestimate this one from Kwame – “Make sure the people around you are encouraging and at least as smart as you.”
    Tx for the write-up. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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