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There should be a joke that starts like this: “An introvert went to a writing conference…” Heck, maybe there is. Today, I think I am the joke.  I feel like I need about two weeks cloistered in a silence observing monastery somewhere.

However – although I feel like I’ve been boiled for hours and forced through a colander afterward, the PNWA conference was a lovely experience and I am so glad I went. As I sit down to write this post I hardly know where to begin – there is too much to hope to share all of it with any coherence.

It seemed that all energy was focused on pitching, at least through ’til Sunday night. Writers met – in the hallways, at lunch, waiting in lines for one thing or another – and jockeyed for the opportunity to pitch each other their stories. Agents looked a bit like deer in hunting season, wide eyed and vaguely alarmed, hoping to meet a marvelous author and get an awesome pitch, and at the same time fearful of being trapped in a corner by a rabid writer with a three page written pitch and the burning zeal to deliver every detail of a 300,000 word fiction novel.

As it turned out, agents and editors are very human after all (who knew?) and were, I think, as nervous and overwhelmed by the whole event as the writers. Some of them were chock full of intelligence, grace, and generosity, with just a few who were, well – never mind. I didn’t meet anybody who might have been a tiny bit egocentric. Not at all.

What did I learn? I don’t know yet. There are bits and pieces of wisdom bobbing around in my head, none of it coalesced just yet, but I would guess the most important things are the ones at the top, the ones that have already moved me to action.

From Bob Mayer – Have a Plan. After listening to Bob, the very first night I opened up my calendar and put some dates on it for goals. The manuscript should be done by this date, revised by this date, queried by this date. I want my book to be published within three years. That sort of thing. Of course, by the end of the conference I had completely revised my goals and added a few new ones, but the lesson remains the same.

From Andrea Hurst, agent extraordinaire – The first sentence and the first page of your novel might be all you get to impress an agent. Does it stand out from the crowd? I actually stopped several hours into my drive home yesterday to revise my first sentence, and am still pondering the first page. Also from Andrea – the reminder that your book should be connected to your blog, and your blog should be drawing people to your book. I have some ideas about this that excite me, although there is a fair bit of work attached.

From my writing friends – one agent might be totally blase about your pitch, the next excited. It’s a subjective business. You need to find the right person.

From editor Paul Dimas and agent Rita Rozenkrantz – I may have a non-fiction book in me. I am inspired enough to do some research, to investigate this niche, to see whether the need I think is there truly exists.

Other random things – have fun. Follow your imagination, but pay attention to the market. The world is changing. We need stories, and will continue to need them whether in book or electronic formats. There is money to be made in the non-fiction market.

Well, I have work to do: material to send out to agents; real life tasks put on hold for the last few days while I focused completely on writing. And, I have writing to do. That doesn’t ever stop, no matter what.

Monday morning, and for once I’m not going anywhere in a hurry.  Kids are still sleeping, I don’t have to work, I’m not on call.  It’s been a good weekend, with plenty of opportunity to both write and relax.  My weekend challenge goals have been met, and there is still more weekend ahead of me.  Luxury.

I was going to sum up some more Donald Maass advice, but frankly, you can buy the books and he can tell you all about it better than I can, so I am moving on to the last presenter at the conference, the one who possibly changed my writing the most profoundly: Brian McDonald.  This man is not a novelist, nor is he an agent.  His medium is film, and my first thought was that he would be interesting but somehow irrelevant to my writing.  Never have I been more wrong about something, and I am profoundly grateful that I decided to stick around on Sunday and attend his talk.

Now, the problem with Mr. McDonald and his Invisible Ink is this:  although I think I grasped the concept of what he calls ‘armature’, it was in a wordless,  ‘gestalt’ sort of way, and I find myself floundering when I try to explain to other writers what I am talking about.  So let’s start with the simple stuff instead.

To begin with, Brian talked about having an open mind, of coming into any potential learning situation and setting aside what you think you already know.  As an illustration, he told a story about the great jazz saxman, Coltrane, who was introduced by a friend to another man with the words, “he also plays the saxophone.”  Coltrane’s response:  “What can you teach me?”

Whoa.  No condescending remarks, no polite tolerance for the little guy, but a serious request to learn.   This is the mindset I want as a writer, in every situation.  An open mind, a quest for information, the belief that everybody and every event has something to teach that will make me better at my craft.

McDonald taught our group a Simple Skeletal Story Structure, which he believes underlies any good plot, whether in print or in film.  It goes like this:

  1. Once upon a time
  2. And every day
  3. Until one day
  4. And because of this
  5. And because of this
  6. Until finally
  7. And ever since that day

 We played with this as a group, making up stories one line at a time as he walked around the room and pointed at somebody to continue.  And as we played, it suddenly struck me:  this might just be the perfect structure for those tricksy little blurbs we need to write for Query Letters. I haven’t actually tried this yet, but I think it will definitely help me structure what I’m trying to do.

 McDonald also showed us how this skeleton fits into Aristotle’s Three act structure, with Proposal, Argument/proof, and Conclusion. 

Now, I have never been a plotter, but this is a structure that I think I will actually use.  Along with Armature, which, as I’m waxing rather long here today, is going to be a whole ‘nother post.

Enjoy today, writers.  If you can’t enjoy it, at least LIVE it.  Learn things wherever you go.  And may your muses be benevolent and your fingers swift and tireless on the keys.


Fortunately, I came back from the conference with more than inspiration.  

It was wonderful while it lasted, but long days at work + busy evenings at home + juggling the usual number of plates = me sitting here wondering where all of that magical feeling of possibility went.  Lucky for me, I also came home with a number of ways to improve my craft and skill as a writer.  And, guess what?  It’s possible to write just fine without fresh new ideas fizzing and popping in my head.  All it takes is butt in chair and get those fingers moving.

While I was at Write on the River, I took in two sessions with agent and master teacher Donald Maass.   In the morning session, he taught from his book The Fire in Fiction.  And when I say taught, I mean precisely that.  No sitting around mindlessly absorbing information with this man.  He made us rework a scene from a WIP right then and there.  I’m not going to pretend to be able to present this like Maass would, I’m just offering the brief report.  I strongly suggest buying the book and really working with it.

Anyway, enough hero worship.  You know how there are those scenes in a book that you end up skimming?  And the scenes in your own work that you can’t decide whether to cut or keep?  Here is the bare bones outlines of the work we did on ‘Scenes That Can’t be Cut”:

1. Identify the parameters of the scene,  using a discrete unit of time if possible.  At what time by the clock does the scene start, and when does it end?  Maass suggested the imagery of a clock actually ticking away in the corner of your computer screen.

2. What will be different at the end of this scene?  What will have changed?

3. Identify the moment in time when the change occurrs – this is the ‘turning point’

4. Freeze frame 10 minutes before this event. As yourself, who & how is your character now?  Do a little character interview, asking things like, “how are you feeling?  What are you thinking?”

5. Freeze frame 10 minutes past the turning point event. Who & how is your character now?  Ask them the same questions.  Has anything changed?

If nothing changes in this scene, it seems to me that either the scene is unnecessary and expendable, or you’d better find a way to make it matter.

Such a simple technique, really, and very powerful.  As I worked through it, all manner of ideas came to me for increasing the tension in other parts of the manuscript.

Which I will do, just as soon as I find the time to write.  My challenge to all of you is to pick a scene that you’re struggling with and actually give this a try.  Then check in here and let the rest of us know whether it worked for you or not.

Coming up on the next blog, a second installment on Donald Maass from Writing the Breakout Novel.

As always, may your fingers be tireless and your muses kind.

“I write for the page. “  Don DeLillo

The Keynote Speaker at Write on the River was Jess Walter, a brilliant author who grew up in the smallish city of Spokane, Washington.

From his website:  “Jess Walter is the author of four novels – THE ZERO, a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award, the 2007 PEN Center Literary Award and the 2007 LA Times Book Prize and winner of the 2007 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, CITIZEN VINCE, winner of the 2005 Edgar Award for best novel, LAND OF THE BLIND and OVER TUMBLED GRAVES, a 2001 New York Times notable book – as well as the nonfiction book EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW (rereleased as RUBY RIDGE), a finalist for the PEN Center West literary nonfiction award in 1996.” 

To be totally honest, I hadn’t read Walter’s work and only picked up a copy of The Zero because he was going to be a speaker at the conference and I was curious.  One page, and I was in love.  This man writes brilliantly, and he is also an entertaining and inspirational speaker.  I couldn’t begin to share all of that inspiration with you, but I offer the parts that have stuck with me for good.

On important concept was this:  What is your own measure of success?  If you’re looking for fame, go be a movie star.  If you’re looking for money, you’re in the wrong profession – 80% of published authors make $15K or less, per year.  As he said, “No one succeeds in publishing – you only persevere.”

Walter’s definition of personal success?  When he can look at a page and say, “It is beautiful, it is artful, it makes the world bearable.”

I was moved by this.  Profoundly.  My own measure of success, as I thought about it, is not being published or finding an agent.  When I write something that moves somebody – to laughter, or tears, or anger – that’s where it is at for me. 

 Walter also offered the following rules for writing:  

  1. Revel in the work
  2. Sweat the sentences
  3. When you finish something, really celebrate
  4. Take joy in the small victories
  5. Trust your instincts
  6. Be nicer to yourself
  7. Keep in mind your story of how you came to be a writer.

And that, in a nutshell, is it.  What about you?  My challenge for the day:  Determine for yourself, what is the measure of your success?  And, if you haven’t already, buy a Jess Walter book – you won’t regret it.


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