The Joys and Perils of Writing Classes, Conferences, and Retreats

by Elizabeth Engstrom

Disclaimer: I have taught writing classes for more years than I care to claim, and am currently on the Board of Directors of Wordcrafters in Eugene. We hold writing classes, retreats, and conferences.

I love writing conferences, retreats, and classes. I love attending, I love teaching, I love networking. I love picking up that writing tip, that craft detail, that golden nugget that I never knew, or once knew but have forgotten. I love making new friends (introvert that I am) who are as socially inappropriate as I am, because being with a group of writers is where I can be comfortable being my weird self.

Susan Wiggs speaks at Wordcrafters 2014

Susan Wiggs speaks at Wordcrafters 2014

Before I was published for the first time, I became a member of a small “teacherless” writing group where we all taught each other and ourselves to write. When I was first published, I suddenly realized how little I knew, and went on a quest to find out more. I went to as many local, regional and national and international conferences that I could afford. When I became proficient enough and published well enough, I went to them because I was invited to be a presenter, but the best part was always sitting in the other sessions, taking notes, listening to those who had gone before, sucking up their wisdom and the droplets of truth that fell from their lips.

But there is an addiction lurking in there, at least for me. Staying in a hotel room in a new city, hanging in the restaurants and bars with my friends—old and new—sharing war stories of the publishing world, meeting people who could possibly further my career, finding new ways of promoting myself and my work… this is all great fun, but it does not put words on the page.

And really: Writers write.

Eventually, we must pause in this quest for writing knowledge, because truth be told, nothing will teach us to write like writing. And being edited by a professional editor. That is where the real learning takes place. Practice. If all we did was party with our friends, nothing would get written. We would very successfully avoid the empty page and think we were busy being writers.

And then, once published, there is a short window of time in which to promote that book. This also takes time away from the keyboard.

So over my long career of writing, editing, teaching, publishing, and helping give a leg up to those coming along behind me, I have formulated time-constraint advice for those within whom the fire of fiction burns:

  1. Go to as many local, regional, national, and international conferences as you can. Go to as many writing classes as you can, go on as many retreats as you can. Invest in this real-life education, which you will not get in a far more expensive MFA program. Go to some conventions, as they’re different and fun. Soak it up. Learn all you can. Have a concrete goal—written down—for every event you attend, and make sure you accomplish that goal.
  2. Stop after two years and put your butt in the chair and get some writing done.
  3. When your book comes out, set aside promotion time—six weeks, I say, and hit the road. Take advantage of every person you ever met at any of the conferences, workshops, retreats that you attended when you were learning (you got their email addresses, right?). You might revisit some of those conferences while you’re promoting, because promoting is a completely different skill set than writing. And again, you’ll learn a lot by talking with those who came before you.
  4. After your designated promotion time is up, go home, put your butt in your chair and write.
  5. As long as a book is in print, keep promoting yourself and your work, but go easy. This is no longer your main focus, and you can burn out your friends by talking about it. Most people don’t bombard you with the details of their working life. If you want to impress them, write another book.

My very first editor told me: “You take care of your writing and your career will take care of itself.” While there is much truth in that, it isn’t entirely my experience, as I care more for my career than anyone else does. But if I don’t take care of my writing, I don’t have a career at all.

So: Go. Learn. Enjoy. Network. Have fun.

And then go home and do the painful thing: Write your truth.

The Lagniappe of the Inaugural Wordcrafters Conference

A photographer friend of mind uses the term “lagniappe” to describe the little extra that makes his pictures special.  He is always searching for it.  Sometimes it is the gift of the wind opening a petal just as the camera clicks, or a sunbeam illuminating a bird in flight.  It is unpredictable, but when it happens, it changes everything.

The first annual Wordcrafters Conference was full of lagniappe; little extras, unexpected gifts that added up to make the experience extraordinary, from the remarkable lineup of top-notch workshops, sessions and speakers to the craft labs which offered one on one time with best selling authors, to the Introverts Ball.

The lagniappe for me was the spirit and feeling of the conference.  During the conference Terry Brooks said, “Every time I write, I am reborn into the world again.”  Elizabeth George said, “When I write I feel whole.” Every writer in the room felt a kinship with them.  This is what it means to be a writer.  Writers are a tribe, a family and are connected by the passion that drives them.  This conference managed to tap into that deep well of inspriation and enveloped everyone who showed up in its loving embrace.

Best selling authors like Terry Brooks, Elizabeth George and Susan WIggs didn’t have to show up at an unknown conference in a small town in Oregon, but they did.  And not only did they show up, but they brought their passion and open-heartedly shared their experience, knowledge and presence because,  “We have all been where you are.”

The mentoring, the sharing and the generosity of all of the writers, presenters and authors surprised me.  Every presenter poured themselves into their work, answering questions and making connections. Every writer I know, from the seasoned professional to the first time published finds ways to take time from their writing to share their hard earned knowledge, either by mentoring, teaching, facilitating critique groups or blogging.  This conference pulled on that drive to reach out to others.  For example, newly published authors Lisa Alber and Christina Lay reached out during a ‘lunch and learn’ sesion and showed  what to expect when your first book is published.

We learned in Elizabeth Engstrom’s workshop on ‘How to Write a Sizzling Sex Scene’, that the most important part of the scene is the afterglow.  You know a conference is good when it’s over and no one wants to leave that wonderful afterglow.  People started towards the doors, but found reasons to stop and talk, to have just one more cup of coffee together before parting, to enjoy another laugh about the introverts ball or to exchange cards and phone numbers.

Mark your calendar for March 20th, 2015.  You need to be there.  In the meantime, may all your writing be full of lagniappe.

5 Things I Learned on the Way to Publication by Lisa Alber

Me, NYT bestseller Susan Wiggs, fellow debut author Stacy Allen

Me, NYT bestseller Susan Wiggs, fellow debut author Stacy Allen

On March 18th, KILMOON, the novel that has at times rendered me into a weeping ball of self-pity, will fly free. I can’t control how well it sells, and I can’t control what readers think about my creation. I’ve got to let it go and continue my education—which is why this week I come to you live from the Wordcrafters Conference in Eugene, Oregon.

It’s interesting to be sitting in a writers retreat with mostly aspiring novelists. Now that I’m officially a published novelist (close enough anyhow), shouldn’t I feel differently? Apparently not. In fact, this heads up my list of five things I’ve learned on the way to publication.

#1 When it comes to the work-in-progress, I’m just like everyone else.

I’m participating in a workshop led by New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs, and let me tell you, published novel or not, I feel the same old doubts about my current work-in-progress as I have with previous WIPs. The fact that I have a novel coming out means nothing. The blank page is the blank page, and the messy draft is the messy draft.

#2 Publishing contract? Now it really begins!

So you think you’ll glide off into the happy sunset when you finally get the thumbs up for your first novel? HAH! Dream on, my friends, dream on. That’s when the work really starts. You are in the publishing machine, and this is true whether you have a traditional deal or you self-publish. You must get through editing, copyediting, and proofreading, and you must, as “they” say, “build a platform,” which means getting out there on social media. Publishing houses big and small have all kinds of expectations about platforms … sigh … So basically you’ve now got two jobs: sweatpant-wearing storyteller and “author.” (I used parens because that’s the way I think of it my head.)

And, let’s face it, most of us still have our day-jobs while we’re doing all this stuff.

#3 No matter how well you think you’ve gone over your story, typos and other gaffs still happen.

This has got to be one of the most aggravating aspects of the publication process. After editing, copyediting, and proofreading, I STILL found typos when I read the galley proofs. In case you don’t know, galley proofs are your typeset novel pages as they will look in the book. Reading the proofs is your last chance to catch typos. And I couldn’t believe what I still saw! Grrr. For example, a car door that was locked for a zillion drafts? Uh, no, it’s supposed to be unlocked. Or that character outside the house? No, Lisa, she’s been outside the church since the first draft!

#4 I have an issue with dashes.

I like to create compound adjectives and nouns. It’s just my thing. Here’s a list of just a few the copyeditor corrected.

hen-pecked –> should be –> henpecked
mid-air —-> midair
wolf-like —-> wolflike
under-lit —-> underlit
old-world —-> Old World

Nouns

bog-hole —-> bog hole
web-porn —-> web porn
sofa-bed —-> sofa bed
line-up —-> lineup
screw-up —-> screwup
half-mile —-> half mile

#5 Reviews: They matter, yet they don’t.

I’ve received some good and very good reviews. At first I was disappointed by the average-ish good reviews. But a well-established novelist friend pointed out that as long as you’re not panned, it’s all good. Lesson: Celebrate your average reviews!

Also, reviewers/readers read the craziest things into your words. One reviewer said KILMOON was romantic suspense. All I can say is that the reviewer must have some pretty dysfunctional romances under her belt.

Last but not least, one-star ratings happen, and I guarantee you that most of the time those reviews have nothing to do with your book. There are lots of trolls out there who love to be a-holes. I have a friend who received a one-star review because her protagonist’s wife is morbidly obese. You can’t tell what will set readers off.

In the end the only thing you can do about reviews is let them go and commit to writing what’s in your heart rather than writing to the market. Because, I’ll tell you what, one-star ratings are like typos: they happen.

So, it’s been a whirlwind, and I keep saying I can’t wait for KILMOON to launch because THEN I’ll be able to relax. No, a wise woman friend said, that’s when the self-promotion really begins!

Writing Emotion

by Elizabeth Engstrom

I heard my friend Susan Wiggs say one time that the hardest thing in the world to write was the scene of a woman crying. I was happy to hear that, because that is also my experience.

I have no patience with scenes that have tears running down a point of view character’s face without any precipitating, gut-wrenching emotion. And that is damned hard to write.

I don’t know about you, but occasionally I have a genuine, world-class meltdown. When that happens, it’s hard to step out of myself to view my emotions so that I might capture the physical sensations along with the “fuck you and the horse you rode in on” attitude, but occasionally, I am able to do that. The physicality of a good cry is delicate and profound.

But those things that make us cry are not the only emotions that we—and our fictional characters—have. We have the blushing madness of infatuation, we have the soul-crushing realization of having been betrayed, we have the satisfaction of achieving something we never thought we would be able to do, we have nagging suspicions that drive us to obsession. We engage in fantasies far beyond what is healthy. We justify ourselves into true delusions (I can handle a couple of cocktails. I don’t eat that much ice cream. They’re just nickel slots—how bad could it get? I know he’s married, but…). All of these things come with intense physical reactions that many writers ignore for the expediency of either telling instead of showing, or just letting those tears run down a cheek.

But if you’re going to craft something truly worthy of your talents, you must step into the skin of your point of view character and describe exactly what he/she is feeling as well as thinking, and you must do it without “she felt” and “she thought”. Be it. Live it.

Let the tears not fall down her cheeks, but into your keyboard.

It’s harder than you know, but then you’ll have that satisfaction that I mentioned, and someday you will write about that, too.