I just returned from the Jackson Hole Writers Conference with my dear friend, and director of the Northern Colorado Writers, Kerrie Flanagan. We decided on this conference frankly, because of the location. Kerrie’s husband is a pilot and the idea of piling into a 4-seater and getting to Jackson in half the time it takes to drive was well, scary at first, but simply perfect.
Me and Kerrie
Kerrie has put on seven successful writers conferences with the NCW and I have been helping out as part of her Creative Team for the last two, so of course we were anxious to see how the JHWC stacked up. We’ve also attended other conferences such as the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference and Pike Peak in Colorado Springs. The JHWC is in its 20th year and had a great lineup of presenters, so it really was a no-brainer. Now that I am starting a new novel, it seemed like the perfect time to take in a conference. By the way, I should point out, that no matter where you are in your writing career, whether you’re a beginner or an established author, you will benefit immensely from attending conference workshops and hearing presenters. Every writer could use a kick in the pants to get started (or to keep going), so I highly recommending attending conferences when you can.
We weren’t sure exactly how large attendance typically is for this conference and were pleasantly surprised to find that it was certainly on the small side, about 100-125. It was held at the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts, located near downtown. Luckily, we were able to find affordable lodging in walking distance to the center. A lot of conferences are held at hotels which is nice when there is downtime between conference events. There seemed to be a lot of downtime between sessions at this conference. The conference schedule was posted on the JHWC website, however, workshop descriptions were not, so we expected the program to be more detailed. It wasn’t. We received a folder with a one 2-sided piece of paper with the schedule, but no description of the workshops—sometimes a title, but no description.
The conference opened with a fabulous keynote from freelancer and author, Michael Perry. Perry’s humor and witty presentation got the conference going. Up next was a an author panel with Anita Diamant, Margaret Coel, and Alyson Hagy. Then it off to the one and only “craft class” of the day. So you had your choice: Poetry, Fiction, Social Media, and Nonfiction. You basically picked which presenter you wanted to hear because there was no description of the workshop. I write both fiction and nonfiction, so how do I make my decision? Not only was it difficult to find a person to ask, the workshops were difficult to find. I ended up taking Margaret Coel’s Plot Your Way to Success. I figured since I’m starting a new novel, this would be a good place to start. I’m glad I did. She provided some great tips on outlining a novel—she’s the author of 17 novels for Pete’s sake! Here’s some highlights:
- Look for ideas everywhere, i.e. newspapers and real life
- Then ask the what if questions
- Know your characters! What do they want? What drives them?
- When it comes to outlining, start with note cards. Write important events, one on each card and start arranging them.
- For pacing, make an action graph by rating each event 1-10. If you find you have a straight line at 5/6, then you know you have to beef up the tension a bit.
- Let your characters go off on bunny trails; readers like to be surprised.
- Characters must be proactive. Don’t just have them react to things that happen to them. Have them cause events, as well.
The session ended at 4:30 and the next event wasn’t until 7:00—the cocktail party. Since we stayed close to the conference, it was fine, but for those who did not, I could see how that much downtime would be difficult…unless you’re a shopper. There’s certainly a lot to see in Jackson if you’re up for it. We met some great people during the cocktail hour, but decided that after the early morning flight and long day, we knew we’d unfortunately never last for the 8:00pm talk from Naomi Shihab Nye.
Day two opened with a presentation from Margaret Coel. She authored three nonfiction books before diving into fiction, so it was nice to hear that it’s ok to genre jump! She also said, “Don’t write what you know. Write what you want to know.” She knew very little about the Arapahos when she got an idea to write about them. 17 books later, she’s an expert. Write what you’re interested in—you don’t have to know it—you just have to have the desire to know it.
Next up, Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent, spoke about why she writes historical fiction. I was excited to hear her speak since I’ve decided to tackle historical fiction myself.
She joked that her editor, after reading one of her drafts, said, “Your research is showing,” as in, your slip is showing. It’s essential to do research for historical fiction, but don’t bog your reader down with every historical morsel or tidbit you’ve come across. Historical facts are less important compared to the characters; weave in those details little by little.
Next up came Q&A with the agent panel. Alex Glass, Lisa Bankoff, and Robert Guinsler answered various questions from the audience, but we didn’t feel there was anything said that we hadn’t heard before. It comes down to subjectivity and pure luck.
The Craft Classes were next and again, there was only one and our choices were Poetry, Fiction, Nonfiction, and Going Digital. I decided to stick with fiction and attended Alyson Hagy’s workshop called Physical Fiction. Again, I had no idea what that entailed, but I wanted to stay with fiction. She provided a one-page handout about creating realistic and engaging characters.
- Don’t forget to use all five senses in your fiction: “…use of smells, tastes, sounds, and textures in your work can really create authority with readers.”
- Remember that your characters have bodies. We tend to just describe our characters’ faces, hair, or height. “…don’t present a reader with every physical detail about a character all at once. Parcel it out in the early pages or scenes of a piece. Then remain aware of your characters’ bodies—and how they might change throughout the kinds of niche fiction.
- Think about the careful use of physical gesture in dialogue. Best to use “he/she said” but every so often, let your character do something with their hands, or show where their eyes are looking when they say something.
- Read and Observe. Analyze characters from authors you love. “Borrow from them. Improve upon their strategies…you want to be a writer who is known for being evocative, for drawing a reader so deeply into your written world that they forget the real world…for just a while.”
Individual conferences, or pitch sessions began after the workshops. Since neither of us planned on pitching anything, we sat this one out and attended A Conversation with Anita Diamant. A moderator posed questions to Diamant and it was certainly fun to hear about her processes of researching and writing. I love that she said, “Breaking rules makes things interesting.” This seemed to be a theme throughout the conference.
We decided to attend the wine and cheese walk with cowboy poet, Jayme Feary who did a poetry reading. It was a great chance to enjoy the outdoors with fellow writers.
I also got to see what a half-ass looks like…
Her name is Big Mama.
Next up were some more craft classes, but frankly, by 7:15, we were exhausted. The poetry workshop went to 9:45pm, another until 9:30, and one to 9:00. After the wine and cheese event (and I don’t eat cheese!) it left little time for dinner, so we decided to call it quits for the night.
Saturday opened with a presentation from NY Times bestseller, Brandon Mull, who wrote the middle-grade series, Fablehaven and Beyonders. I was looking forward to hearing him speak, as my son and I really enjoyed reading the Fablehaven series. He’s a great speaker and a lot of fun. I’ll paraphrase some of his gems of advice:
- To get published, you have two audiences: You and your readers. Please both.
- Write something that fits squarely into an existing category, which allows publishers to know who your audience is. BUT, it has to be different—in a cool way.
- Like Margaret Coel, Mull said to look for ideas and writing prompts in real life. Constantly keep your eyes open for ideas, then ask the what if questions. The cooler it gets, you’re on a roll. Be a good observer.
- He builds roller coasters with his books, creating twists and turns.
Dennis Palumbo, a former screen writer, and “psychotherapist to the stars” talked about The Three Cosmic Rules of Writing. We really enjoyed Palumbo and learned a great deal from his talk.
- Rule One: You Are Enough. The fact that you are writing is enough to get you published. “Everybody thinks the party is happening somewhere else. It isn’t. This is your party.”
- Rule Two: Work With What You’re Given. This goes to write what you know. “No one else has your perspective.” He said that there is more inside of us than people can see, so look for those things and write about them. Focus on what readers want: Feeling, consequences, conflict and stakes. “Your feelings are the root of your writing.”
- Rule 3: Writing Begets Writing. This is certainly my favorite. “Writing anything is better than writing nothing at all.” It doesn’t matter what it’s about—write it down because it can lead to something. “It doesn’t have to be good, just there,” and waiting for inspiration is just plain stupid. Write. “Keep giving [publishers] you, until you is what they want.”
Editors, Sarah Bowlin from Henry Holt, and Denise Scarfi from W.W. Norton & Co., took the stage next for some Q&A. Here’s what I took away from them:
- Publishers are looking for original and surprising voices in fiction. Voice is so important at getting their attention. They are looking to be transported from their world to your character’s world.
- Editors are looking for authors to be their partner in the publishing and marketing processes.
- If an author feels forced when it comes to publicity, it will appear forced. Marketing your book has to be authentic to you and what works for you. It’s a myth that authors have to do all the work once the book is released.
- Editors are reading literary journals and magazines, so write those short stories and submit, submit, submit! They find clients through magazines.
- The jury is still out on whether or not social media really sells books.
Sticking with the fiction theme, I attended Kyle Mills‘ Making Sure You Get the Easy Stuff Right: The Nuts and Bolts of Novel Writing. Mills focused on the basics of novel-writing. Much of it was review, but it doesn’t hurt to hear it again:
- Tell the story through dialogue as much as possible; avoid data-dumps.
- Follow correct grammar as much as possible; avoid trying to get fancy with accents and dialects, or spelling phonetically. It will distract your readers and pull them out of the story.
- Recommends past tense, unless you have a compelling reason for present tense.
- Research is at your fingertips! You have no excuse when it comes to getting facts wrong.
- Don’t get heavy on description based on your research, especially because your reader may not share the same passion.
- When it comes to repetition, Mills chalks it up to a lack of confidence. Trust that your reader got it the first time. If you did it right the first time, there should be no need to reiterate a point.
- Breaking rules is fine, as long as you know the rule and know how to properly break it. Understand what you’re doing and why.
The last day involved more individual conferences, so Kerrie and I attended Mark Hummel‘s Learning to Listen to the Voices. This was about developing your characters, which was ideal for me. You really can’t write or even know your story until you know your characters—as real people, Hummel suggests. It was the only workshop I attended that actually involved writing exercises, which I love. Hummel had us pick a character we’re working on and ask him/her questions, in which your character would answer—in their voice. 1. Ask your character about their mother. 2. What does he/she fear? 3. What do they desire? And ask questions you don’t want to be asked yourself—you’ll get to the heart of your characters. Don’t let them off the hook, make them answer. I found this exercise extremely helpful.
The conference went on to Student Readings (with beer apparently), book sales and signings, and then a buffet dinner from 8-10pm. We decided to forgo these and enjoy dinner with our husbands who spent their weekend fly fishing. Overall, the conference was a lot of fun. I don’t know that it was worth the hefty $390, but I still came away with bits and pieces of great advice and with a fire lit under me. Nothing like a writers conference to get you inspired to write!