Washington Writers Conference 2018

"Nobody's asking you to write the book."


That comment by David O. Stewart at the Washington Writers Conference yesterday captures my own compulsion, frustration, drive, joy, and occasional dismay about writing. Sure, some people are asked to write a book, but for most of us, it's of our own obsession, er, I mean volition.

Gotta do it, though. 

And that's why the conference gave me a shot in the arm. As I investigate a new topic, I think, Why am I putting myself through this? Several years of research, trying to get a contract, if successful then having to promote it and worry about every review and sale. Because I just will.

So that's why hearing from others. I spoke on a panel with three other debut authors--two fiction, two nonfiction. It was at the end of the day, but I took advantage of the invitation to attend other sessions. 

A few things I picked up....

Writing a Page Turner: Sally Shannon, Ed Aymer, Delancy Stewart, and Art Taylor

  • Start strong. Present the conflict in the first 5 pages. To cut closer to the chase, the blog "The First Two Pages" features entries from mystery writers about how they deal with their openings.
  • Structure with pinch points. A pinch point is "a structure component within your story that gives the reader a glimpse of the dark forces facing your character"
  • Use language to pace the story. Short chapters, short paragraphs. Ed brought up Edgar Allen Poe's "The Telltale Heart." It is almost unbearable.

Tools of the Trade: David O. Stewart, Peter Cozens, Paul Dickson, John F. Ross

  • Proposals have to be "fulsome." Save the subtleties for the manuscript, you need to come on strong. (One memorable first line, for a biography of baseball great Satchel Paige that resulted in numerous offers: "This is a book about two American institution--Satchel Paige and Jim Crow." 
  • You don't have to be an expert. But you have to want to learn about the topic, the  period, the culture around it. It's all about the story. Tie in the history, but also show the universal themes. (I think of this for biographies.)
  • Focus on 10 outlets for reviews and publicity. One author draws up a list of 10 priority places. Rather than scatter-shot all over the place, he focuses on those 10.

(This was billed as a panel of experienced authors, which it was. But hard in 2018 to hear from such a panel and they are all older white men.)

Conversation with Alice McDermott, with Tayla Burney

McDermott says she finds "inspiration everywhere." Language, character, and setting follow--she puts herself "in the service of the character." She considers writing her job, sitting down at 9 a.m. And she does her research after the fact. One of her characters in her most recent book, Ninth Hour, is a laundress a century or more ago. She found old laundry manuals and read the women's sections of newspapers, but after she had gotten her story spun. 

Debut Sci-Fi Authors: Tara Campbell, Kathy MacMillan, Nik Korpon, Meg Eden

These panelists were perhaps the most intrepid of the day. Each recounted many years and many rejections before publication. Thus, most of the discussion focused on getting from no to yes, including:

  • @Pitchwars and #pitchmad on Twitter
  • Duotrope and Submission Grinder to look for places to publish
  • Janet Reid (a literary agent)'s blog

Sci-fi authors have conventions and other get-togethers to go where their fans/readers are. That is pretty cool.

Debut Authors across Genres and Publishing Paths: Jenny Yacovisi, Caroline Kitchener, Jacob Weber, Melissa Scholes Young, and Paula Tarnapol Whitacre (i.e., me)

Of course, with all my note-taking and listening, I forgot to take notes about my own panel. What do I remember?

  • We proved the many paths to publication. Kitchener was approached by an editor after she published an article in the Atlantic as an intern. Weber won a contest with Washington Publishing House, with publication of his book of short stories as the prize. Young had published short stories; one was rejected but with an encouragement by the editor to turn it into a novel. And I went a more linear route, from agent to proposal to contract.
  • Blog or write other pieces on topics related to your book. START EARLY, before the book comes out. 
  • None of us know how many copies of our book have sold. (I thought I was the only person in the dark.)
  • Next time around....I need to make better use of advance copies and follow-up to get reviews in places like Library Journal.

So at the end of the day, I am ready to write another book. (Even though nobody is making me do so.)


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