Here we are again, ya’ll, deep in the post con funk that is the week after the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in the greatest city in the world (don’t @ me, people from everywhere else, I didn’t come up with the nickname). This was lucky number five for me and, as always, it was a trip. New tips found, new writing depths explored, and new doubts over which to panic (I kid. *weeps*). Old friends and a metric ton of new ones, all there to get better at this insane make write words thing we does.
Maybe I should keep practicing.
Anyway, that brings us to my follow up post where I wax poetic about all the sessions I adored (like I did for past WDC cons here, here, here, aaaaaaaaand here). Let’s keep it tight this year, I think, yes? Simple day by day format, maybe? Okay, you convinced me.
What No One is Telling You About Character Development – Steven James
The first day of the traditional conference started off, to use a word (which is a weird phrase because what else would you use?), awesome, with Steven James’ session on Status.
To say this session tossed my brain meat in a Cuisinart, added pineapple and lemon juice for freshness, smashed the pure’ button, and served me back a gray matter smoothie would be an understatement. The gist is that people are always jockeying for status, and that includes your characters. If you look at your writing you’re bound to see this, but may not have noticed it as it’s a subtle thing we all do. How are you using social/relational/situational status to elevate/diminish characters, and how will your readers perceive the switches?
Did I lie about the Cuisinart thing? Eh? Told ya.
AND I won an ARC of Mr. James new book just for knowing his Twitter handle. Get thee to Twitter, people.
Query Letters for Those in the Query Trenches – Janet Reid
If you’re a writer and don’t know who Janet Reid is, well, you should know who Janet Reid, aka: The Query Shark, is. Literary agent by day, query adviser by all the time, she is knowledgeable, witty, and tells it like it is. Her second session of the day on querying covered where to put your metadata (she prefers it after the pitch), pitch length, showing the MC, and more. Great stuff from someone with a lot of experience reading queries and rep-ing writers.
Opening Keynote: Cassandra Clare
Full disclosure: I haven’t read Ms. Clare’s books, but I did watch The Mortal Instruments movie (mostly because it had that guy who played young King Arthur in that Starz show that had Joseph Fiennes as Merlin and Eva Green, who’s a badass, as Morgan. I miss that shitty show) and dug it. Her keynote focused on the truth and lies about “making it” in publishing, including keeping her day job at the Enquirer when she’d already reached NYT Best Seller because money. Personable, professional, and funny, she gave the type of ‘the reality is’ opening keynote everyone needs to hear.
Friday night highlight
Yes, you plunk down you money to attend writing conferences in the hopes of honing your craft and uncovering those nuggets that’ll get you an agent and published. But don’t underestimate the comradery. I’ve met some of my most cherished friends at these shows. Even if that doesn’t happen, you might still end up out to dinner with 20 writers. Wonderful, genuine people. I heart them all.
The CPR Technique: Avoiding the Mid-Story Slump – Whitney Davis
We’ve all seen it and most of us have wrestled with it in our writing. The Second Act Slowdown. The Mid-Book Slump. The Fizzle in the Mizzle (okay, I made up that last one. Big respect to Snoop Dog). Whatever you call it, it generally (read: always) sucks.
In her second session of the weekend, Ms. Davis talked about exercising the filth demon of story hell by doing three things.
C – Make sure there’s enough Conflict
P – Pivot the story by providing new info to your MC
R – Revisit things like your subplots
Smart, well-paced, and fun, this was one of those sessions writers walk away from with immediately applicable tips.
Plotting with an Unreliable Narrator – Jane K. Cleland
I’ve long said my MC is an unreliable narrator. Not only did Ms. Cleland confirm that, she provided an enormous number of techniques to think about. I’ve already identified spots in my book to ramp up the drama with more, um, unreliable-ness, I guess? And the idea trauma can prevent memories from forming, so the brain will fill in the holes with what it believes is true? Head-asplode-ing.
Writing s Damn Fine Story – Chuck Wendig
There are two types of sessions at writers conferences.
The first are the ones where you madly scribble notes based on the presenter’s slides, fearful you’ll forget some technique/device that could put your writing over the top. In these, the presenter and their stories often take a back seat to the content.
The second are the ones where you smile a lot, listen to the presenter drop wisdom, and walk away entertained, fulfilled, and inspired. Delivery and anecdotes rule the day in these sessions.
(I guess there’s a third kind – the hybrid of those two, but sessions like that are unicorns – at no fault of the presenter – mostly because your brain will drag you in one direction or the other, so YMMV.)
Chuck Wendig’s session was the second kind. No slides, no lists, no promises. Just a writer who knows what works and shared stories and examples to back up his message – which, in a nutshell, was that readers need to care about characters. You achieve that by giving characters problems and then complicating the resolution. Each character will act to address THEIR problem (hella important to remember this), even if that goes against another character. This generates both conflict and plot.
“Characters poop plot,” he said. I’d so wear a t-shirt that said that.
Simple, yes? Yet often ignored for the sake of fabricated plot points rather than to support them, ala ‘I need this to happen so I can’t have these guys disagree because…’ type stuff. As a plotter, I know.
One of my favorite sessions of the con, which is why I went and bought Chuck’s book, and so should you.
Central Keynote – Walter Mosley
Keynotes are meant to be inspiring not informative, but Mr. Mosley’s central keynote achieved both ends. He discussed concepts like write every day and show vs tell, but also how story imposes order on your world while plot is the structure of revelation (his example: character finds out the woman they’re engaged to is their half-sister). He also dropped my favorite quote of the conference: “If you approach your novel with confidence and humility, it might even teach you something.” Wisdom.
Saturday night highlights
Saturday night is usually pretty chill because after having a good time Friday night and then attending sessions all day Saturday, chill is what you want. We (about 10 of us) found a cool pub called Faces and Names right around the block from the venue, which served great food and drinks. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. I want to keep this place a secret.
Closing Keynote: Jeff VanderMeer
I attended a couple of sessions Sunday morning but, if I’m honest, they weren’t newsworthy. I’m sure others got more out of them than I, and I won’t go into anything about them here.
BUT the Closing Keynote was pretty great.
Mr. Vandermeer delivered a keynote similar to Ms. Clare’s opening keynote, telling stories from his earliest days in publishing. He intended these to serve as warning to writers beginning their professional journey, but with an I-can-laugh-about-it-now feel. One story told of a French publisher who agreed to put out his High Fantasy novel, but wanted him to change the setting to modern-day Paris and remove all the fantasy elements (what?). Another related how he’d written a faux-article about a fictional fresh water squid and the popular Florida festival built around it. The funny part is that to this day people call the town inquiring when the festival is held, if it’s family friendly, and where they can buy tickets online. BBC even planned to film a documentary about it, and called him to see if he’d visit the town and walk them around.
A lot of fun, and some amazing stories that fall right in the you-can’t-make-this-up category. Useful for people who, you know, make stuff up.
And so, here endeth another long-ass WDC post dedicated to another great conference. As always, I recommend, if you can float it, you get yourself to this show next year.
Thanks for reading,