5 Things I Learned at the Willamette Writers Conference

In the pitch practice room. Nerves galore.
In the pitch practice room. Nerves galore.

Last weekend I volunteered at the Willamette Writers Conference. I attended as an author rather than as a writer trying to snag the attention of a literary agent. Off the hook! But man, did I feel the miasma of desperation that hung over the place. I just looked up “miasma” … “a heavy vaporous emanation or atmosphere” and “a contagious power that has an independent life of its own.” Yep. That was about it.

I waded through the miasma into the pitch-practice room, where the vaporous contagion thickened with dreams upon dreams upon dreams colliding into each other as twitchy writers readied themselves to meet their makers literary agents.

What a relief to be on the other side of the pitch-practice table, helping the twitchy-eyed!

What I learned on the other side of the table:

1. Despite the fact that I don’t know much of anything, come to find out that I do. I don’t retain facts. You ask me to talk in bullet points about the three basic elements of a pitch, and my mind will go blank. Yet, when I sat with the amped-up budding authors, I entered into a state of recognition. As they talked, I recognized what felt wrong about their pitches and what felt right. I’d put up a hand, interrupt them, “Right there! That’s your hook! Start with that. The rest is backstory, and the agent won’t care.” I surprised myself. I do know stuff, and I can help people out, and that felt great.

2. Forget Twitter and Facebook, apparently Google+ will endow us with super-duper powers of self-promotion. Yeah, didn’t get this…In fact, my head spun during sessions about nifty topics such as platform-building, tactical social engagement, and advanced keyword searches. The self-proclaimed web warrior guy (he knew his stuff…but oh. my. god) told us that to do it right we needed to spend hours a day online. SO WHEN ARE WE SUPPOSED TO WRITE, BUDDY?

3. So the thing about Google+? We’re supposed to be over there because when we’re using it, our posts automatically rise to the top of Google searches. Something like that anyhow. I think. See Martin Shervington on YouTube for more information. <shrug> I’m still getting the hang of Twitter.

4. Use a book landing page. One of the presenters discussed an experiment he performed. He had an Amazon book page, and he also had a dedicated book page on his website with a link to the Amazon page. He found that when he sent people to his dedicated page (say from Twitter, Facebook, a blog post, or a Facebook ad) rather than directly to the Amazon page, he was twice as likely to sell a copy of his book. Interesting, right? His theory was that Amazon is dedicated to selling anything–it doesn’t care whether it’s a “Dance the Macarena” VHS tape or your book–but your book landing page is you and only you, baby.

I'll remember this next year.
I’ll remember this next year.

5. Last but not least, never leave home without your cajun spices. No one expects five-star food at a conference, but come on, Airport Sheraton, you could have done better than that! The food was–ready for another great word?–inexecrable (“deserving of being cursed”). Evan Lewis, an old-hand in the pitch-practice room (not to mention a fab short story writer) brought his cajun spice with him. Bland, runny scrambled eggs made from an egg-like liquid product? Cajun spice! Vegetables drowning in a suspicious-looking “cream” sauce? Cajun spice!

I had fun. Just that. It’s grand being on the other side of the table–and with KILMOON debut novel postcards too!

Reapplying the Bum Glue

My fiction shall not go the way of these African violets!

It’s not that I haven’t written since the economy tanked and my financial situation turned precarious and the contract work I found took over my life in an incredibly stressful way…It’s that I haven’t truly been writing either. Know what I mean?

There’s a self-discipline to sitting down to the writing. There’s also a self-discipline to clearing life-stuff out of the way so I can sit down to the writing. I’m out of practice with both.

So, this morning, I gave myself a lecture:

  1. Whatever you do, do NOT roll over for the return journey to slumberland. It’s your own blasted fault you accidentally read until 1:oo a.m.!
  2. One hour, just one hour, of writing is a-okay. Self-sabotage alert: my all-or-nothing mindset is not working! Look at Michael Robertson, who spoke at the writers conference a few weekends past; he mentioned that given his day job, he writes in 45-minute chunks. A little before work, a little at lunch hour, a little after work.
  3. Turn on the computer and. just. WALK. AWAY. Do not pass go, do not collect stressors from the email queue and distractions from Facebook! However, do open the manuscript so that it greets me when I return with my coffee.
  4. For a change of pace, maybe I can relax with my coffee for 15 minutes before starting the computer hunchback routine. Maybe I can open a novel by an author I admire, turn to any page, and read to get my juices flowing.

Happily, I achieved the written word today. It’s still not enough — there goes Little Miss All-Or-Nothing again — but it’s what I can do right now.

The truth is, I wrote for one and a half hours. The truth is, if I can wiggle past the daily distractions and day-job triggers, the one hour often turns into more.

The Through-Line

My beloved nephews are dogsitting Luna.

I’m in Corte Madera, California, at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference. Here in my hotel room, all is quiet. Traffic is a tide over on
I-5, and my brain is saturated from the past three days of authorial
info-dumping. At a conference, this is a good thing. I want the author faculty members to info-dump all over me.

Many craft terms have been bandied about, but I heard a new one (to me) yesterday in a plotting lecture given by Robert Dugoni and Cara Black: the through-line. What is the overall question of the story?

Of course, me being me, after a day with writers, and then an evening of conversation, food, and two great Zinfandels, I returned to this here hotel room, exhausted but unable to sleep. I got to thinking: What is my through-line? I’ve had a cantankerous, broody relationship with fiction these past few years. I haven’t been writing. Not really. I’ve developed three new novel ideas, and set them all aside, uninterested. Somewhere along the way I lost my way, no longer following my personal yellow brick road…

Which is why I decided to attend this conference: to step onto the writing road again. So here I am, on this page at least, attempting to write my way back to my through-line, which, in the end, is the simple fact that I can’t let the fiction go. I don’t know what’s going to become of me. I’m not saving for retirement, for example. I work as a contractor and as little as possible so I’ll have time for fiction. I don’t have a supportive husband to help me through the financially tough times.

But that’s okay. I do feel inspired again, and I thought I’d put that out there on this humble, much-neglected blog. I do want get back to the honest and difficult work of writing first drafts and then revising the you-know-what out of them.

One of the story ideas that I set aside…I got to talking about it with a new Canadian writer friend last night. The truth is, it’s not such a bad idea, after all…