It’s Time to Choose Your Writing Conferences for the Year

At the beginning of a new year, we plan to exercise, set our professional goals, and then often spend the rest of the year backsliding and lamenting how it all went wrong. When it comes to our writing careers though, one thing we can commit to early and guarantee is our participation in writing conferences and retreats. Application and registration season is here now so if you want to snag a spot and grow your craft and publishing knowledge, this is the time do it.

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In several of my writing communities, people have asked for recommendations on the best conferences. That’s a tough question because it’s really about which opportunities will serve your needs at this moment in your career. Over the last five years, I’ve participated in a variety of writing events that have bolstered my skills, fed my flagging spirit, and broadened my network. These are just a few of the vast options available to you as well.

  • Juried Writing Workshops: One of my journalist friends raved to me about a conference in sunny South Florida founded by the legendary crime fiction writer Dennis Lehane. It’s Eckerd College Writers in Paradise and I’m now a three-time recidivist, the nickname we give to multiple attendees. This is a juried conference, one where you submit an excerpt of your novel, short story, memoir, or poetry to be considered for admission.

For the first time, I workshopped my novel-in-progress with eleven other writers and learned the delicate dance of giving and receiving critique. Every workshop discussion is led by a successful, published author and I had the privilege to study with Ann Hood, Laura Lippman, and Lori Roy. Half the day is spent workshopping student manuscripts and the rest of the time you’re attending lectures and author readings. For those of you who want an immersive, deep-dive into character development, scenes, plotting, and sentence-level work for your manuscript, these workshops are invaluable. The best kept secret is that you learn more from analyzing your classmates’ work than you do from the critiques of your own manuscript.

  • Large Writing Conferences: Last year, I attended Grub Street’s The Muse and the Marketplace  in Boston for the first time and will return again in April. It was literary nirvana! While it’s a conference of more than 800 attendees and presenters, I sat in sessions next to bestselling authors and top literary agents and editors. Besides the plethora of sessions on everything from novel revision to book promotion, there were unique opportunities at this conference. For an additional fee, I participated in Manuscript Mart where two literary agents critiqued an excerpt of my manuscript and met with me on-site to discuss it. We ended the conversations with both agents requesting my full manuscript. I also participated in Shop Talk, a happy hour event where I joined two literary agents and two writers for an intimate cocktail reception chat about books and the inner workings of the publishing industry. If you want to hone your writing craft and gain exposure to industry insiders, this is the perfect conference to achieve both goals.
  • Writing Retreats: For the past three years, I’ve traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, an area steeped in culture and history, to join more than 70 writers for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s annual retreat. Starting before sunrise, we sit on the patio writing on our laptops and conversing, surrounded by lush gardens. We participate in workshops on topics ranging from craft to publishing and the writing life. Published and unpublished writers share the joys and frustrations of this journey we’ve chosen. The informal bonding experience defies description and I marvel at the relationships that develop there. I’ve made lifelong friends in this writing community and these are the people I turn to when I need someone to read one of my scenes, talk me off the ledge when I want to give up, or cheer me on when an agent requests my full manuscript. Retreats like this one are small and intimate enough to nurture you for the long haul and that’s why many of us return to New Mexico every year to re-charge and renew.

Right now, I’m evaluating my options for writing experiences this year. I plan to return to the Muse and to the WFWA retreat but I’m exploring a new juried writing workshop, one where I can study craft with other writers under the tutelage of authors I admire. You really have to think about where you are on your journey and decide which opportunities will help you take your writing and your career to the next level.

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o_mag_nov_realyou0710Nancy E. Johnson is a senior communications leader with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning journalism background. She contributed to O, the Oprah Magazine which published her personal essay. Nancy is an active member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and she served as secretary for Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter. When she’s not reading, writing or pontificating about politics, she’s running and eating chocolate, sometimes at the same time. The Chicago native is writing her first novel. 

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Thinking Through Your Brain … and Then Your Fingers

Last week, an author I follow on Facebook (Larry Correia, best-selling author of the “Monster Hunter International” books, among other awesomeness) made an interesting observation about his writing process:

Ten years ago when I was starting out, I wrote my first book while I had two jobs. I had to write super late at night, or marathon weekends. So I beat myself up trying to crank out as many words in one sitting as possible. I’d often write until 3:00 in the morning.

But I wrote a ton of stuff that wound up not being that good, which got thrown away. After the first couple years I learned to never bother writing past 1 in the morning, because there was a 90% chance anything past that, no matter how awesome I thought it was at the time writing it, was going to suck.

Then when I only had one job, but my career was taking off, and I was writing less crazy hours every night, and then shooting for 5,000 word days over the weekend. It made for a ton of really late nights and long ass Saturdays and Sundays.

And I still ended up throwing out a bunch, or spending a lot of time editing and cleaning.

For the last few years I’ve written full time, I do about 2,000-3,000 a day consistent, and I usually wrap up around 4;00 in the afternoon or so because my creativity is worn out by then and my mind is starting to wander.

But now, I seldom have to throw away much, and the editing time is a lot shorter. Because when I’m not pushing as hard, the first pass is far cleaner.

So even though I was cranking out more words in shorter amounts of time back then, the overall productivity is better because when I’m not pushing crazy hard, there is less clean up time later.

As Howard Tayler would say (for those of you who listen to the Writing Excuses podcast): “LUXURY!” It would be great to be able to quit my job and write full time. But I have this weird addiction to food, clothing and shelter, so I still haven’t quite made that jump. Someday, I hope. But not today—not yet.

I imagine there are more TTOF readers who are in the “starting out” phase, as opposed to writing full-time like Larry Correia. We have no option but to write when we can, always during the times when our day jobs and other responsibilities aren’t commanding our attention. For some, that means getting up early and cranking out words. For others (like one of my writing group friends), that means arranging our schedules for long lunchtime writing sessions. For me, that means blocking out the last several hours of the night for writing time.

Discovering your most productive time of day is just smart. Some other important considerations include location (kitchen table, home office, coffee shop, public library?) and auditory stimulus (this music, that music, silence?). Timing and environment can have a profound impact both on how quickly we write and on the quality of what we produce. But I suggest you can become more productive as a writer by paying attention to the length and frequency of your writing sessions.

Brain-Writing vs. Finger-Writing

In general, I believe that “trying to crank out as many words in one sitting as possible” can be counterproductive. I have a non-scientific explanation for this. Your brain may work differently (or maybe mine is defective), so all of the standard caveats apply. I’m basing this on my own experience, and of course your mileage may vary.

I think writers have two brains. We have a normal one that allows us to walk, do our jobs, recognize our spouses and progeny, tie our shoes and make it to dentist appointments on time. Deep inside our skulls, we also have a “writer’s brain” that generates story ideas, dreams up characters and conflicts, makes connections between plot points, and generally does all of those other things related to the weird stories that pop into our heads.

During the “brain-writing” phase, our writer’s brains spin like crazy to queue up ideas for us to put on paper. Then we sit at the keyboard and do the “finger-writing,” during which we transfer those ideas onto paper (literally or figuratively) so they can be revised, edited, and cherished forever. (Or thrown out—that’s always an option.) While finger-writing only happens when we’re actually at our keyboards, brain-writing happens all the time—while we work, play, and even sleep.

(The only time brain-writing might actually shut down is when we watch television. I could be wrong on that, though. Remember: I said this was non-scientific.)

The concept of brain-writing explains why we sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for a current or future project. Our ever-restless writer’s brains tend to spit things out on their own schedule. We have to write down those ideas immediately or they can be lost forever.

I don’t know about everyone else, but it seems there might be a practical limit to how much stuff my brain can queue up at one time. When I try to finger-write beyond the point in a story where my writer’s brain has brain-written, the quality of my prose (and my storytelling) tends to suffer. In Larry’s parlance, I can always tell when I’m “pushing crazy hard,” meaning that I’ll end up with stuff that either gets tossed out or requires a lot more work to hammer into shape.

Brain-Fingers

Guessing at Larry’s Schedule

The idea of brain-writing and finger-writing helps explain the pattern of production (both in quantity and quality) that Larry described in his post. What it sounds like is that, when he was writing part time, he was trying to cram his finger-writing into a few long sessions. Today, as a full-time author, he’s producing fewer words, most likely in shorter bursts.

Based on what I know about Larry as an author and a guy, if he’s producing between 2,000 and 3,000 words per day, he probably has a schedule that goes something like this:

8:00: Get up. Scratch. Eat something manly.
8:15: Shoot a moose using ammo he crimped with his own teeth.
8:30: Personal hygiene activities of various kinds.
9:00: Sit down at computer. Destroy Internet trolls. Drink the tears of his enemies.
10:30: Write stuff.
12:00: Eat a manly lunch. More scratching.
1:00: Wrestle a bear or blow something up. Whatevs.
1:30: Destroy a few more haters. Twerk on their disemboweled arguments.
2:00: Write more stuff.
4:00: Done. Go out and fell trees with karate. Bench-press a Camry. More scratching.

My point is that he’s probably writing his 2,000 or 3,000 words in a couple of sessions per day, with some time in between for his writer’s brain to front-load more content for his afternoon session. And then, of course, he has all evening and overnight (while his regular brain is fighting ninjas, plotting the overthrow of a small South American country, and possibly even sleeping) to do the brain-writing ahead of his finger-writing the next morning.

Personal Writing Retreats

Two Novembers ago, I did something that I’d always wanted to try during NaNoWriMo: a personal writer’s retreat. Since I live relatively close to Las Vegas, I threw some clothes in a bag and drove to Sin City for a veritable orgy of word-cranking. My goal was to see if I could produce 15,000 words in a single long weekend. I managed to do exactly that, but only by spreading my production across multiple short sessions.

On Thursday, I wrote for about two hours as soon as I got to town. Then I had some dinner, saw a show, and wrote for a couple more hours. Boom: 3,000 words my first night.

Friday morning, I went to Einstein’s for a bagel, caffeine, and another thousand words. I returned to my hotel, where I showered and watched a little TV, then cranked out another 1,000 words before the housekeepers knocked on the door. I went out and did some shopping, then camped out at a public library for a while, pounding my keyboard like a rented mule. I was able to generate over 6,000 words that day in six sessions. I did essentially the same thing on Saturday, slept the sleep of the dead and drove home on Sunday with a draft that was 15,000 words longer. And doggone it if many of those words didn’t turn out to be pretty good ones.

I guess I could’ve tried it a different way, chaining myself to the hotel desk first thing in the morning and saying, “You’re not allowed to eat, sleep, or do anything else until you produce 6,000 words.” Would that have worked? I don’t know. But that’s not how I work. And that’s the point.

By the way, I repeated the experiment again in 2016, with similar results.

Add Sessions, Not Hours

What I’m trying to say here is that it is possible to increase your production, but if your fingers get too far ahead of your brain, the stuff you produce might not be the best.

If you want to produce more, instead of adding hours to a single regular writing session, try adding another session to your schedule. If you’re a morning writer, tack on an hour at lunchtime and see if that helps. If you’re a night writer, try pounding out some words right after work, then returning to the keyboard after your writer’s brain has had time to get ahead of the story again. If you want a high-production weekend, you might do better with four sessions spaced out rather than a single marathon of frustration.

Your brain might be totally different from mine, but maybe not. Who knows? It never hurts to try.
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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Retreat to Move Forward

Recently, I was invited to be one of two special guests at a writer’s retreat that was organized through the LDStorymakers Tribe. I was flattered to be asked, but I was also a little unsure of what exactly this would entail. Because all my years of writing, I’d never actually attended a writing retreat before. I have friends who attend writing retreats regularly, and talk about the rejuvenation they experience as though they had just returned from a weekend at a spa resort.

I was a little more skeptical. My inner introvert wasn’t relishing the thought of other people seeing my in my pajamas with a fresh case of bedhead. What if my roommate snored? What if I snored? What if I couldn’t think of anything to write, and ended up staring at a blank Word document for three days? Not to mention that the idea of sharing a house in the mountains with a group of strangers felt a little like the beginning of every slasher movie I’d ever seen. Was I being cast as an extra in Writer’s Massacre IV: The Revenge of the Red Pen?

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I asked my sister Lisa—who was to be the other invited special guest that weekend—to help fill me in on the details.

“So, everybody just sits around and writes?” I asked.

“Pretty much,” she said.

“Are you allowed to talk?”

“If you whisper. Most people put their headphones on, find a comfortable corner, and tune everyone else out.”

“But everyone is essentially writing in silence.”

“Yep.”

“For the whole weekend?”

“Yep.”

“And that’s it?” I said. “Nothing else happens?”

“No, they will probably have writing sprints from time to time,” she said.

“And writing sprints are what, exactly?”

“Everybody still writes, just faster.”

This was going to be an interesting weekend.

Shortly after arriving, I dropped my stuff off in my room and took my bag with my writing gear in search of a place to hunker down. I found Lisa sitting in the home theater room, feet already up in a leather recliner, laptop already open. I sat in the chair next to her.

“Just to clarify—this is it?” I said. “Everyone just writes now?”

“Yep, this is it until dinner. Start writing.”

I looked around the room. Other people were plugged in to their headphones, and the air was filled with the clicking of fingers against keys. Most everyone was either working on a NaNoWriMo goal, or some other lofty work in progress they had in mind. Their eyes were fixed on their screens, and their brows were furrowed with determination.

Then there was me. I wasn’t hip-deep in a novel, and I wasn’t trying to hit a word count. I had zero preconceived notions about what was going to happen. I opened up my laptop and stared at the blank document. What now? Someone was going to look over at my screen and see nothing but white, and then they’d know I was a fraud and a hack. They’d laugh and point and run me out of the house in shame, I just knew it. I began to panic a little.

I nudged Lisa. She took her headphones out of her ears.

“So, one more time. . . ” I began.

“Yes,” she interrupted, “everyone just writes. So write something.” She put her headphones back in and her fingers resumed their steady staccato.

I stared at the blank screen for a bit, then took a deep breath, and wrote the first thing that came to my mind. It was the title of a song Lisa and I had been listening to in the car earlier: Blood Red Skies.

It looked good there on the first line. I center justified it, and at looked even better. I had the title to a story. And then I started typing. I imagined a creature on Mars a billion years ago, the last of his kind, spending his final moments in a dying world. I imagined what his thoughts and feelings must be like, and what it would be like for him to gaze up at the blood red skies of his home one last time.

Before I knew it, I had a perfectly decent little story right there before my eyes. It hadn’t existed an hour before, and yet here it was. It wasn’t great, and it wouldn’t be winning any awards, but doggone it—it was my story, and it was alive.

I was feeling good, and I wanted more. I opened up an old file I keep that is filled with random thoughts and brainstorms, and scrolled down until two words caught my eye: Last meals. Maybe it was because it was getting close to dinner, but I found my thoughts turning to food. I imagined the chef of a fancy, Michelin starred restaurant who volunteers her time to make last meals for prisoners on death row. I could see her face, I could smell the kitchen where she worked, and I wondered why she would do this on the side. So I started writing her story. I imagined what condemned prisoners would ask for their last meal, and what that might say about them. I explored the chef’s motivations, and found an interesting backstory on her that explained why she did what she did.

Just as before, this story wasn’t going to be sounding any alarms at the Pulitzer committee’s secret world headquarters, but I was liking where it was going, and it felt so good to just write, unencumbered by any kind of distraction.

The rest of the weekend was spent in a similar manner: I felt the ideas flowing in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time, and I just wrote story after story. Old ideas got dusted off and reexamined, and brand new ideas tapped me on the shoulder and asked if they could play. Whenever I finished one story—or, more often, whenever I felt myself getting stuck on an something—I kept hearing Lisa’s words echoing in my mind: “Everybody writes. So write something.” And instead of getting frustrated, I’d switch gears and write something else.

It was amazing to me how the simple act of writing proved to be the end-all, be-all solution for any problem I faced. Stuck on a plot point? Keep writing, and see if you can bust through it. Written myself into a corner? Keep writing, and see if you can turn it around. This idea just isn’t gelling like I’d hoped? Keep writing, and write something else that does. It’s like what the Marines are taught, when faced with an obstacle: Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.

By the end of the retreat, I didn’t have anywhere near close to the highest word count, but it didn’t matter. I had recharged my creative batteries, had written some good words, and I was moving forward. In fact, I think it’s ironic that the weekend was called a “retreat,” because I ultimately learned it’s the forward movement as much as anything else that is the key to success. So long as my fingers were keeping a reasonable pace with my mind and heart, I was headed in the right direction. And it feels good to move in the right direction.

So if you feel like you’re stuck, or if you feel like giving up and retreating, I offer you the same words from my sister that helped me through that weekend:

Everybody writes. So write something.

And move forward.

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Five Steps to a Dreamy Writing Retreat

Recently, I went on a dreamy writing retreat with some of my bestest of friends. We wrote and laughed and ate and hiked and wrote some more.

Seriously.

It was brilliant.

Are you wishing you could go on a writing retreat?

Well… why not plan one yourself?

Here’s how you do it:


Step #1: Find a place to retreat to. 

If you’re lucky, you know someone willing to lend their gorgeous mountain cabin to you for the weekend. But, if not, you can find lovely vacation rentals on sites like VRBO, Vacation Home Rentals, and Flipkey.

Ideally, you’ll find a beautiful, yet secluded, setting for your retreat. Our retreat had very (very!) limited internet service. Which was awesome! And probably one of the major contributors to our success.

Step #2:  Pick who you want to run away with.

What kind of retreat do you want to have? One with a little bit of writing and a whole lot of socializing? A little bit of chatting and a whole load of writing? Maybe you want to do some critiquing of each others’ work or have readings where attendees have a chance to share what they’ve been working on.

Decide what kind of retreat you want to have and then invite writers who’re on the same page as you. (Pun intended.)

All the writers at our retreat were there to get as much writing done as possible. Sure, we enjoyed chatting here and there, but then we put our game faces back on and got busy.

Step #3: Plan meals.

It’s not going to much of a retreat if you have to cook all the meals. So, divvy up the work! We set up a schedule in Google Docs in the form of a table with slots for people to sign up for each of the meals. It was set up so it could be edited by anyone with the link.

We then signed up for different meals and wrote in what we planned to make. Two attendees helped with each of the meals. It worked really well! And the meals were fantastic. We had sweet pork salads, paninis, chicken and roasted asparagus, chocolate chip cookies and brownies and strawberries.

Step #4: Share retreat goals.

Giving everyone a chance to share what they’d like to accomplish at the writing retreat is a great way to not only give everyone something to shoot for, but also helps everyone encourage each other.

Over a yummy lunch of greasy burgers and fries, we shared what we’d like to accomplish during the retreat. And during the weekend we asked each other how we were coming along with our goals. I’d hoped to hammer out a new outline for my previously single POV middle grade fantasy which has now mutated into a dual POV. (And this new snarky POV is so crazy fun to write). It was nice being asked, “How’s the outline going?” And it was even better to be able to say, “The outline is done!”

Step #5: Decide to plan or not. 

Maybe you’ll want to keep your retreat super casual where everyone simply finds a spot and writes. And every now and then you all take a break, eat some snacks, chat a bit, and go back to writing. This is what we did. We wrote and wrote and wrote and then someone would say, “Who’s up for a hike?” and we’d set aside our laptops for a little bit to stretch our legs and ooh and ahh over our splendid surroundings. Then we’d drift back to our cozy spots and start writing again. This worked really well for us.

But you could also set up a schedule with planned breaks, meal times, writing sprints, critiques, and/or readings. It’s totally up to you!

A writing retreat is a great opportunity to really dig into your work in progress and accomplish major writing goals. It’s also fantastic to be surrounded by people you can bounce ideas off of, people who get this crazy writing thing you do, people who are supportive and encouraging.

If you’ve always wanted to go on a writing retreat with friends, don’t be afraid to plan one yourself!

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Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she’s a grand artist.