Takeaways fom the Writer’s Digest Convention West 2013

I just attended my first writers convention, which turned out to be among the most interesting and informative experiences of my life. Never before have I received so many insights into the craft of writing. The Writer’s Digest Conference West in Los Angeles took place at the end of September. During that time, I was able to meet people I never would have otherwise, such as journalists who have been working in the writing field for ages. There was so much great information it was hard to capture it all, but here are a few points that that definitely resonated:

1) Writing, editing and marketing are totally different competencies, so bucket them, don’t batch them. In a discussion led by Ivory Madison, CEO of redroom.com writers community, writers were advised to keep those activities separate, as they engage different parts of the brain. I’ve been trying out the Red Room Method and can see a positive difference in my writing. It staves off the frustration of trying to do everything at once, and only producing one paragraph an hour. She suggested not to combine the three buckets of writing, editing and marketing. In this way, you end up not only being nice to yourself, but also more efficient as well. Writing is about your relationship with yourself. Marketing is an expression of everybody else. Take one book, make it as great as you can, and then worry about marketing. Don’t wear multiple hats at the same time.

WDCW132) Read your work aloud. You will find a great deal of errors that you might not have otherwise by reading aloud. When you do write, be authentic. Your readers want to be able to get to know you and trust you. Find great people to make your book as good as it can be. Don’t jump the gun just because you want to get it out there. Make your book easy to find and as accessible as possible.

3) Growing scope of the literary agents. Gordon Warnock, Founding Partner of Foreward Literary, has a vision of literary agents taking on a similar role as the agents of actors and songwriters. The future literary agents, he thinks, will manage the author’s entire career. The job scope would become more like an umbrella for their representation overall. This would include creative directing over the author’s website, branding, image, et al.

And above all else – write an outstanding book.

Would You Write A Book Without an Outline?

You probably wouldn’t drive across the country without a map.

You probably wouldn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner without recipes.

Would you write a book without an outline?

The practice of outlining a book in detail takes an enormous amount of discipline. Focusing on the infrastructure of the story is a whole different ball game than writing in free form and letting things evolve as they may. My first book was a result of rambling writing sessions, often resulting in superfluous content which ended up being taken out of the story. Although it was fun to just write and see what happened, it seemed there had to be a more effective method out there, one that would result in a greater yield with less exertion. Most writers have other jobs, and when it comes to writing time, every moment is precious.

Some writing coaches suggest that creating a detailed outline is the most important part of book writing, and the part where most authors struggle. Writers may spend weeks or even months on the outline alone, to provide some frame of reference for how detailed the outline can be. Writing a book is a project, not unlike building a house. There is the foundation, there are the walls, the flooring, the roof, etc. Only when the skeleton of the house is in place can homeowners enjoy working on some of the more aesthetic features of the home – picking out colors, the yard, creating curb appeal, you name it.

A project manager friend who has been intrigued by the writing process asked how my latest book was coming along. Our casual conversation at a wedding evolved into something else when I mentioned being stuck halfway through the book. The project manager asked if she could help me in going back to the drawing board and getting serious about planning it all the way to the end. I started sending her samples of my content and images of people that remind me of my characters. She would go through what I had written so far against our burgeoning outline and provide feedback: “I don’t think the character would say that on page 73,” or “When are the characters ever going to make it to Barcelona? You said that they have been saving up their mileage points for the trip,” etc.

At first I wondered if it had been a little premature to share my work with someone else. She had questions that were not always easy to answer, such as why I chose one title over another. Each time I had to explain an aspect of the story, it helped me figure out how to convey metaphors and messages with much greater clarity. After a few short weeks of this exchange, we finalized the outline. It’s all been downhill from there. Writing to an outline hasn’t seemed restrictive at all. It’s been like driving with a navigational system in the car, so you can better focus on the traffic, the scenery and the passengers.

Compass and Bible
Writing can be a very solitary profession, but creating an outline is a great opportunity to collaborate with others, should you desire to do so. It’s a lot easier to get someone to read an outline than to read a manuscript of 120,000 words or so. If you can have the feedback given to you in a postive way by someone who can deliver it in a manner that makes you comfortable, then your writing will become that much better for having another pair of eyes review it. Having to discuss and explain your work, your ideas, and your story line can be pretty awkward in the beginning. However, writers have to do it eventually anyway, so why not start from the get go?

Writers, do you sit down and just write, or do you use a more formal approach?

The Best Advice I Could Have Given Myself

SignatureCountry artist Brad Paisley released a song in 2007 titled “Letter to Me,” in which he gives his teenaged self advice for the future. It makes me think about what I would have advised myself thirty years ago when I began my freelance writing career. So, with a tip of my own cowboy hat to Brad, here’s my letter to my younger self!

Dear Jan,

I am you thirty years from now, and I want to give you some advice about writing.

  1. Get a day job. You are never going to be on Oprah talking about your bestseller. (Oprah is a person with a very influential talk show in the future. She has a book club, and Tom Cruise jumps on her sofa. Enough said.) Accept the fact that your writing habit will never financially support you. Fortunately, your husband will, so be sure to say “Yes” when a guy named Tom proposes to you. You’re going to think he’s just trying to cheer you up because your car’s water pump broke down, but he’s serious. DO NOT LAUGH IN HIS FACE, because he will never let you forget it. (Although it will make a great blog post. A blog is …never mind. You’ll find out later.)
  2. No matter what you think, your first and second book manuscripts are trash. Really, they are. It would be nice to just skip writing them altogether to save time and effort, but if you don’t write them, you won’t write your third book, which will find a publisher. Just thought I’d let you know.
  3. You’re going to meet a woman named Belinda. Don’t ever tell her you’ve written a book, because even though she’s going to be one of your best friends, she’s going to drive you crazy with her constant stream of ideas for books SHE wants to write. If she ever brings up that she’s thinking about writing a book, immediately change the subject. (You can thank me later.)
  4. Write a YA romance series about a vampire and a high school girl. Believe it or not, it will sell and launch a publishing trend. I’m serious.
  5. Speaking of serious – stop taking yourself so seriously. There are many, many writers out there. The bad news is that you have to compete with them for contracts. The good news is that the writers you meet will absolutely enrich your life, if not your pocketbook. (Reread #1 above.)
  6. Don’t give up writing. You will get published. You will also get rejections, but that’s part of the package, so get over it and get it out of the way. It will give you more time to write and more confidence in your writing. Writing is your gift, so enjoy it, develop it, invest time and effort in it, and it will reward you in ways you can’t even begin to imagine.
  7. Finally, if you ever have a chance to buy stock in a company named Apple, you might want to do that.

Love you!

Jan

What advice would you give your younger self?

“Have I Arrived?” Defining Your Expectations as a Writer

I recently went to a fabulous wedding. It was held at a vineyard in California wine country and everyone was dressed to the nines. I was able to interact with many acquaintances I rarely see.

“You’ve published a book!” A friend’s mother cried, hugging me with enthusiasm.

“Self-published,” I felt obligated to mention.

“Yes, but you always wanted to be a writer, and now your dream has come true! You have arrived!”

As she ran off to be photographed next to the bride, I let her gracious words marinate in my head for a while. Have I arrived? Not by my system of measurement. In many instances, a writing career is something that can take a lifetime to establish. So, how do authors know when they have ‘arrived?’

On the outset of any undertaking, it is important to determine what success looks like. Writers can only benefit from defining their own expectations of success. Does success mean self-publishing a book on Amazon for friends and family to enjoy? Does it mean filling a need or service in the community? Does it mean a lucrative career and multiple bestsellers that are optioned for film?

Plane red carpet

If you aspire to have your work read by as many people as possible, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a popular writer. However, if you only recognize success as a big time book deal and an over-sized cardboard novelty check, you may never reach your ultimate goal. The writing journey is a long one, with many milestones on the path to success. Reaching a milestone goal might be cause for celebration. How about celebrating the first time a stranger approaches you and asks about your writing? Why not celebrate your first book review that goes online? Maybe one of your milestone goals is selling three hundred books and you celebrate by going out for sushi. There are people who have sold three million books and it doesn’t feel like enough to them. That’s the difference between people who walk the earth happy and those who are vaguely dissatisfied and unfulfilled. They never established the finish line, so all they can see is what they have yet to accomplish, not what they have already accomplished.

If your goal is to be the best writer in America, that’s not possible to quantify, and trying to measure your success will only frustrate you. Whatever your endgame, the point is to determine the location of the finish line and create goals and expectations for building your writing career. It’s important to be honest with yourself about where you want to end up. If you can clearly define and articulate where you want to go, you have a much better chance of getting the help you need to reach your destination.

Emily Bronte only wrote one book in her life, but it was Wuthering Heights. She did not live to see the widespread acclaim for her book, but we can all agree that she was an exceptionally successful writer. Many writers wait for their audience to decide if they have arrived. They are waiting for a stamp of approval from the world, a bestseller list placement, their parents, friends, or maybe their high school creative writing teacher. At the end of the day, though, only the writers themselves can determine if their goals have been met and they have finally arrived.

Do you think that success as a writer is about the destination or the journey?

Behind Every Great Writer is an Ideal Reader

Writing can be a lonely business. One way authors can alleviate that issue is to build a relationship with a person that they consider their ‘Ideal Reader.’ An Ideal Reader is a trusted partner, advisor and the first person to read the writer‘s first draft of a book.

The Ideal Reader is symbolic of the writer’s audience overall. This person represents a composite or a common denominator of the author’s demographic, so in this case one size will definitely not fit all. Once common ground and a willing exchange has been determined, what qualities should the Ideal Reader possess? They should be well read in the genre of the book, whatever it is. They need to be a person that the writer trusts implicitly. They should also be able to communicate in a way that the writer will appreciate. Assertive communication occurs when there is open and honest feedback presented in a respectful manner. The Ideal Reader will be able to convey their suggestions in a way that will make the writer think twice. The suggestions are taken under advisement and there is no weirdness if some or all of the suggestions are not implemented.

Girl Browsing Books at the Library

The Ideal Reader should be able to detect structural flaws, such as a deceased character showing up in a later chapter. It is a first draft, after all, and first drafts are usually a bit of a mess. You probably know a few people you don’t mind coming over when the house is in disarray. Those are the people with whom you feel most comfortable, who you trust, who you are willing to let see you at your worst – not just your best. That’s the kind of confidence to have in your Ideal Reader.

You may even have different Ideal Readers for different areas of your writing. Think of them as subject matter experts who can check your content for flaws. Have a friend in the medical field review your story which takes place in a hospital. If you don’t know much about something on which you are writing, give it to a person who does work in that field to see whether or not they find it credible.

Another aspect of the Ideal Reader is that they need to be into your writing. Writers, don’t hold yourself hostage by trying to make an Ideal Reader out of someone with a “you’re welcome” attitude who looks annoyed whenever handed a manuscript. If you have to follow-up with them multiple times over several months, then keep looking. The partner you want will be naturally enthusiastic to see what you have created. They are engaged and interested, and they can’t wait around for several weeks or months or years to find out about your latest opus. They are supportive but provide constructive criticism. They are collaborators actively involved in the process. Once you have established your Ideal Reader, do what you can to maintain the relationship. They are rarer than diamonds and even more valuable.

What is your approach to collaborative writing?

Do you have an Ideal Reader?

The Power of One Word

“… Words are powerful; take them seriously …” (Matt. 12:36 MSG).

I noticed a small typo within a comment that I had posted on a friend’s blog. Instead of the word “power,” I had typed “poser.”

A minor mistake? Not for a writer! And especially not in this case!

My tiny error distorted the entire significance of this scripture: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7 NIV).

One word shifted my focus and the potential attention of my readers. All I could see was my mistake. I lost sight of the message and power of God’s Word. And my readers may have missed the entire point of my comment.

How many times do we let one word spoil things for us? We speak a single word of profanity in the heat of an argument. Or we whisper a little white lie as we try to cover up a mistake. We often regret the unexpected consequences that result from our words. One negative comment or careless thought voiced in frustration or anger can blind us from seeing God’s blessings in a situation.

As a writer, I cringe when I discover one insignificant word choice that turns a powerful point into a grammatical disaster. And I wince when I read an offensive term that will repel an audience of would-be readers.

As a writing instructor, I notice many writers resisting the editing process. They focus on the goal of finishing their writing task, instead of fine-tuning their grammar and mechanics. They get offended if anyone calls attention to one tiny mistake or unclear point, or someone suggests meaningful change. Then, they get angry or depressed when they receive a lower grade for their work, or the piece is rejected for publication.

As a Christian, I’ve also experienced the power of God’s Word. One word of encouragement can pull me out of the deepest pit of despair. A single promise from God’s Word can offer hope to me, when my circumstances seem overwhelming. My simple confession of faith can produce peace in my heart and mind “which exceeds anything (I) can understand.” (Phil. 4:7 NLT).

So, does one word matter? God’s Word answers this question. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

Photo/KarenJordan

Have you experienced the power of one word?

Sticks and Stones: The Highly Sensitive Writer Toughens Up

I recently attended a writing seminar about creating compelling titles for books. A burgeoning writer volunteered her book title for the rest of the group to critique. The consensus of the group was that her title wasn’t catchy enough and needed to be reworked. Several people in the group offered sage advice that would probably have helped her a great deal, had she been open to suggestions – but she wasn’t. The novice writer became incredibly defensive (and borderline angry) about the feedback. She was not ready to be objective about her work. The facilitator had to smooth things over and hastily get a more willing participant for the exercise.

Throughout history, even the most successful writers have to deal with criticism, so there’s no reason why we should consider ourselves immune to feedback. Check out these excerpts from actual famous author rejections from http://www.writersrelief.com:

  1. Sylvia Plath: “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.”
  2. Rudyard Kipling: “I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
  3. J. G. Ballard: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
  4. Emily Dickinson: “[Your poems] are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
  5. Ernest Hemingway (regarding The Torrents of Spring): “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.”

Ouch! So, how does one not get touchy about his / her work? Writers are still artists, after all. Artists are famous for being highly sensitive. Artists who have to self-promote themselves may find it incredibly awkward to listen to face-to-face or written criticism. Once I gave a book I wrote to a professor friend to review. He said. “Well, perhaps you should focus on writing things you know about, as opposed to rock stars.” It was a fair point well made, and my creative writing has become much more real as a result of sticking to what I know.

Boxer Flexing Her Muscles

Aside from writing, I also like to paint. One time, it took 3 months to finish a large 12×12 foot piece and I needed to get a moving company to deliver it to my showing – longdistancemovingcompanies.co is my favorite long distance moving company for that. At one of my showings, I overheard a man telling his friend that my art might be best displayed at a fast food restaurant. “It’s convenience store art,” he said as I looked on, trying not to have any sort of facial expression. The critic didn’t know I was the artist or that I was in earshot. It stung, but feedback is still feedback and should be regarded as just that. It proved to be a valuable lesson – you can’t win them all. If you will accept nothing less than 100% acceptance, you will be plagued by disappointment. But here is the silver lining: You don’t need to win them all. You just need a percentage, and as long as you keep putting your work out there, the correct audience that appreciates you will find your work. It’s all about maintaining perspective.

Why does one need to develop a thick enough skin to withstand criticism? Because unless you have someone else to promote your writing on your behalf, it’s all going to be done by you. You will be the one going into the front lines to promote and defend and champion your own work. Confidence helps, so if you don’t feel you have any, then act as if you do. Pump yourself up until you start to believe it. If one reader doesn’t appreciate your writing, that’s okay – there will be others who will. Instead of harboring hurt feelings, why not just say, “There are other audience members in the literary sea. Next!”

How do YOU maintain perspective about your writing?