League of Utah Writer’s Conference 2014

I had a great time at the League of Utah Writer’s Conference last weekend in Layton. I visited with old and new writing friends, had good talks with an editor and an agent, survived a harrowing game of Werewolf, and picked up several awards for my writing, including first place prizes in the categories of media article, spiritual essay, and creative non-fiction, and second place for flash fiction! I will be posting at least some of those pieces here on the blog in upcoming months.

My favorite moment in the workshops was when Daniel Coleman took on Alexander Gordon Smith in mock battle during Christine Haggerty‘s class on fight scenes. There were many other great presenters, and I’m an obsessive note taker, so I thought I’d share some of my favorite writing tips:

First, from Alexander Gordon Smith (whom you should talk to if you ever get the chance–it surprises me how upbeat and cheerful most horror writers are) on pacing and characters. He suggests that books are like living things, with their own physiology, especially their own pulse. Just like people, it’s important for their pulse to vary, sometimes speeding up to keep things exciting, sometimes slowing to allow for rest. His first rule of writing is to know your characters inside and out and let them drive the story. Immerse yourself in their point of view and try to see everything as they do, capturing all five senses. Let your sentence structure reflect their experience (i.e. fast, short, choppy, versus pleasantly slow and relaxed).

On a related note, Bradley Beaulieu spoke about story tension. He demonstrated how a good story has tension on every page, but that the tension should vary in intensity and in type. Types of tension can include unresolved questions/mysteries, romantic suspense, action, danger, interpersonal conflict, emotional issues (loneliness, homesickness, etc.), moral dilemmas, political drama, failed personal expectations, flawed social systems, etc. Constant high tension (like peril and action scenes) will make most readers numb or tire them out. Low tension (like unresolved questions) is more long-term and tends to be the thing that keeps readers turning pages for the whole story. When one type of tension slackens (i.e., an argument comes to an end), a new type of tension should increase (the character feels guilty for the terrible things she said to her sister). Varying light tension (romantic) with dark tension (danger) makes both feel sharper. Resolving tension/conflict too quickly leaves readers feeling cheated, but dragging it on too long makes them frustrated–it’s a balancing act and requires practice. He recommended not worrying about these things during the rough draft, so the story can flow naturally, but paying attention to them when revising.

Nathan Croft presented on the elusive topic of voice (the writer’s unique style of storytelling). He believes voice is ultimately your own passion showing through in the context of the story. He warned against waiting for your voice to come to you–instead, you have to seek it out, such as by studying it in books you enjoy, by experimenting with writing styles and techniques, and by paying attention to your own emotions as you write, your own personality (i.e., outgoing versus reserved) and the things that inspire you, like music, art, nature, etc.

These were just a few of the great presenters, but they were the ones that gave me the most food for thought. Something they all agreed on was that writing is an ongoing journey. Keep writing, keeping learning, keep having fun! I’m excited now to jump back into my current work in progress and apply these ideas.

Why it’s great being a writer (even when it’s not)

People say all the time that you have to be crazy if you want to be a writer. Most of the people saying this are other writers. If you wonder why, take a look at my week.

First–good news!–I found out the wonderful Molly Lee chose me to be her Pitch Wars alternate! I buzzed on this high for days, especially when I learned she fought off another mentor to get me.  This means I’ll get her feedback on my pitch and have a spot in the alternate showcase–a chance to get some more exposure and maybe catch the eye of an agent.

On the down side, I got rejection letters for two separate projects I’m trying to get published. Rejection is part of the process of trying to find the right home for your work, but that doesn’t make them sting any less. Of course, writers aren’t supposed to take things personally. Publishing is a business, after all. Even a stack of rejections doesn’t necessarily mean our work is bad, just that we haven’t found the right agent or editor. But we’re human. It still feels like a kick in the gut.

Then I found out that the Mormon History Association included an article I published last year in Pioneer magazine, “Growing the Kingdom: Mormon Pioneer Gardens,” in their “Book Notices/Selected Articles.” So, again, I feel pretty cool. It turned my week into a cycle of “I’m awesome! I suck. I’m awesome! I suck.”

Dealing with those ups and downs can be rough, especially because there are usually more downs than ups. Stack on top of that the fact that the majority of writers don’t make enough money to give up our day jobs, even when we do get published. In the meantime, we’re doing all this for the love of the craft, stealing hours from sleep or other pastimes to get our work done–writing, editing, critiquing, blogging, tweeting, querying, entering contests, reading, researching. All the while there are plenty of people rolling their eyes when we say we want to be authors, telling us to stop wasting our time.

I’ve asked myself why I’m doing this. Why I give up other things I enjoy–things that might even bring a steady income–to slave away over my computer and collect stacks of reject letters. At the heart of it, I keep going because I love writing too much to quit.

Aside from that, I’ve thought of some other things that make writing great, no matter which stage you’re at or what your ultimate goals are for your writing:

  • Everything is research. Seriously. Rereading your favorite book is research. So is going to a movie, playing with your kids, clicking endless links about food in 6th century China, working in the garden, having the flu, people watching, shooting a black powder musket, staring at clouds. If you’re paying attention, everything teaches you more about life and makes your writing better.
  • Writers can ask the strangest questions and get away with it. I was working on a scene where a character finds a bone (possibly human) and tries to use it as part of an escape plan, but I wasn’t sure if the scene was feasible. So, I went to the butcher ‘s counter and told him I needed a bone about the size of a human arm bone. The guy looks at me, at my two little kids smiling happily in the shopping cart, and raises an eyebrow. I add, “I’m a writer. It’s research for a book.” He relaxes and smiles. “Oh, all right. I have something that should work.” Now there’s nothing weird about it at all. Decomposition rates? How to make gun powder? The color ether produces when it burns? They’re all fair game.
  • In the balance between consuming and creating, writers are adding more to the world, contributing to the great dialogue of what it means to live and be human. At best, writers share their ideas with others, but at the very least they explore them themselves. Writing teaches you to look and think about things differently, including yourself.
  • When you get serious about writing, you reach out to others in the writing world, whether looking for feedback or advice or people who want to read or publish your work. This is a network of awesome people. Sure, you’ll find some you don’t get along with, but overall this is a great community to be involved in.

So, if writing is your thing, don’t give up on it. It’ll drag you up and down, but  there’s a lot to learn from the ride. Your goals may change over time, but that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You’re way ahead of the people who never try. (This pep talk is mostly for me during the down times, but you’re welcome to listen in 😉 ).

Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and psychologist, said, “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself …”