The Life of Bon: I went to a writing conference and it was terrifying: A true story.

Monday, April 28, 2014

I went to a writing conference and it was terrifying: A true story.

On Friday I went to a writing conference.

It was not a conference I was paid to go to by my school.  In fact, I had to pay to go to it- 130 big ones!  AND I had to use a personal day.  For a conference! I've lost it!

My sister invited me to go with her back in February.  My sis is very good at doing things that are totally out of the comfort zone of 99% of the population.  She talks to anyone and everyone, starting up conversations with total strangers on the street.  She had a wide variety of friends- one time she invited me and my friends over to Sunday dinner and we were surprised to find that the other dinner guests were the people from Israel who sell lotion at kiosks in the mall.  My sister had made friends with them and invited them over.  I mean, why not?

My sister knows I like writing and has invited me to writing groups and collaborations and all that jazz before.  But mostly I've said no.  Not because I don't have an interest, but because I'm terrified.  If I go to a writing group, then that means that I am actually trying to be a writer.  That makes it harder if I fail, you know.  On the contrary, if I never make a solid effort to be a solid writer than I don't have to feel too stupid when the whole thing doesn't pan out.  Flawless logic.

Obviously this is a real crappy way to live your life- not taking opportunities so that you don't have to tell people that you took the opportunity and sucked at it.  Plus, I have been working on this book since January and I needed a push.  Or some motivation.  Or some fear.  Something.

So I paid the money and signed up.

That was in February.

By the time Thursday night rolled around I was totally regretting the whole thing.  I'm an extrovert, yes, but is there anyone in the world who likes showing up to a conference with hundreds of people they have never met for a skill that they are not at all confident they have?  The night before the big day I was feeling very intimidated, scared, and out of my element.  I already had my personal day for school approved.  I considered just staying home- sleeping in, playing some Mario, treating myself to a little 1:00 ice cream.  It couldn't hurt, right?  I mean, it's just $130 to the drain, I make that much an hour.

Wait.  No I don't.  I make piddly squat.  $130 is hard earned cash.

And so, in the end, I dragged my butt to the conference.  To be totally honest I checked the refund policy and only once I saw it was too late to get a refund did I really commit myself to going.  I'd like to say I went because I was brave, facing my fears, chasing my dream, yada yada yada.  I went because I'm cheap and I couldn't stand the thought of losing that chunk of change.

Let me just tell you this, if you have ever been to a "blogging conference", a writing conference is very different.  A good different too.  I showed up in yoga pants and a hoodie because I wanted to be pretty incognito.  And guess what? I was pretty much over dressed. People were in jeans and sneakers, over sized T shirts, and mismatching socks.  Anything went.  Some people, were dressed extremely well., but no one really seemed much to care what anyone else was wearing. I didn't see any red lipstick or top knots or bubble necklaces, I promise you that.  No, these were not bloggers.  (DISCLAIMER:  I love bloggers.  But sometimes I feel very intimidated by them in large doses.  So many bloggers!  So much cuteness!  So much lipstick and puppies and DSLRs!  It can just be very overwhelming.  That's all.)

The day ended up being fantastic- it surpassed my wildest hopes for the day.  Within 20 minutes I realized I had nothing at all to be worried about.  The day consisted of six hour long classes on a variety of subjects as well as lunch and snack.  Yea for snack time! I was supposed to stay Friday night for the nice sit down dinner and the keynote speaker (Orson Scott Card!) but my cousin was getting married, so I booked it after the classes.

Still.  I learned so much.  So much! I felt inspired and motivated and like my brain was just soaking in all this knowledge of the terrific writers around me.  These are people who are successful in their field, writers who have been published, agents who accept or reject thousands of books a year.  I wondered a million times why I haven't done this sooner. There was an energy and electricity about the conference.  It was fun to be surrounded by like minded people.  To be honest with you, I'm usually really embarrassed to tell people I'm writing a book.  Probably the whole fear of failure thing.  But here it wasn't embarrassing- it was acceptable, it was exciting.  People were open, warm, inviting.  Everyone there was doing the same crazy thing I was and I guess I just liked being surrounded by the craziness.

Now!  For some things I learned!  Writing lessons and some life lessons too, because everyone needs lessons on life!

  • Readers like to feel smart.  I understood this somewhere in my brain, but never really put it together like that.  That's why I hated Divergent.  The writer was too obvious and I felt like she was talking down to me, like she didn't trust me to figure it out on my own.  I didn't feel smart.
  • Exclamation marks and caps locks are jarring on the eyes.  Don't use them.  (BUT I AM STILL GOING TO USE THEM IN MY BLOG POSTS!)  (See.  Point proven.  Jarring.)
  • Characters are better if they are plagued with discomfort, problems, and inner demons.  Make them struggle throughout the entire book.
  • Why agents stop reading (and ultimately reject) a manuscript:
    • Too much internal dialogue
    • Too many typos
    • Not enough physical context
    • Too much information in the first chapter/ too heavy on logistics
    • Not hooky enough
    • Nothing special about it
    • Borders on cliche
    • Not enough dramatization
    • Characters not likable or redeemable.
  • Do research on agents- find someone who is a good fit for you .
  • Be willing to be vulnerable and open to critique.  Don't jump to explain right away, listen to suggestions.  (Also great rule for blogging!)
  • Don't worry so much about being right, but worry about getting it right.(Also feels like a great life rule.) 
  • Writers learn by intimidating writers they admire.  It's not cheating.
  • When reading, put sticky notes on the pages where you had an emotional response and mark the passage.  Then go back and analyze it- what about the writing caused you to react that way?  Mimic that writing.
  • Tighten your writing- use specific nouns and beware of pronouns.  Use verbs, but go easy on the adverbs.  Instead, find a better verb.  Every word needs to be doing work.  Brevity is the soul of good writing.
  • When writing dialogue, just use said.  Don't use mutter, whispered, shouted, etc.  These words draw the reader away from the conversation and distract. (I thought this was especially interesting.  I have never thought about it, but it makes sense.)
  • Tell stories out loud to becomes a better writer- notice your natural pauses and you convey meaning.
  • Don't treat your protagonist as an emperor- love all your characters equally.  Secondary characters can't exist only to serve the protagonist.
  • Your book is about a group of people, not just one person- good writers always use minor characters well.
  • Make your characters REAL.  Ernest Hemingway-  “Don't let yourself slip and get in any perfect characters... keep them people, people, people, and don't let them get to be symbols.”
That's a wrap!  I went out of my comfort zone and I lived to tell the tale!

Wanna go to the next writing conference with me?  If I haven't convinced you yet, maybe this will do it for you- they give you soda all day long.


  1. Those are good writing tips! I think that what has been keeping me from jumping in to writing a book is that fear of failure-- well that and just lack of inspiration. Best of luck with your book!
    - Rachel @ With Love, Rachel

  2. This is a really great blog post. Although my writing is nothing special yet, I am trying to challenge to write more often.

    I haven't been able to find many writing conferences in Sydney, so I will have to keep an eye out.

  3. I'm still dreaming of going to a writing conference! I'm so jealous. But this was fabulous advice. Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. I loooove to write. I wanted to be an author as a little girl... I still want to someday. It sounds like I need to go to a writing conference! Seems amazing.

  5. I went to a writer's conference once and I'm dying to go back. It was so inspiring!

  6. I want to go to a writer's conference so badly, I loved reading your review and now I need to go look one up in my area! Yee!

  7. What I agree with most is the minor characters. My favorite characters are always the secondary characters. I remember when I read The Prince of Tides and it was over I cried and cried because it was over and I didn't want to say good-bye yet.

  8. Anonymous3:00 AM

    I believe you mean that writers learn by "imitating" other writers. If not, I need to procure a set of brass knuckles and look up some addresses. It's not cheating after all... :)

  9. My aunt presented at that conference last weekend! About the first chapter, and how to make it appealing to manuscript readers. Glad you got to go!

  10. I am going to try to type this reply without an exclamation point, even though I love them. That is some fabulous advice they gave you. I love the tip of making sure to love or focus even the secondary characters. Also the getting it right vs being right is great too.

  11. Love the Hemingway quote. He has to be one of my favorite writers of all time. The Sun Also Rises is just, wow.

    “She was looking into my eyes with that way she had of looking that made you wonder whether she really saw out of her own eyes. They would look on and on after every one else's eyes in the world would have stopped looking. She looked as though there were nothing on earth she would not look at like that, and really she was afraid of so many things.”

    One of my favorite quotes of all time. Sounds like a great conference. I've really been inspired to take a look at not only what I blog about but what I WRITE about. I know those may seem like the same things, but the idea of using my blog to develop as a writer is new to me, but I am enjoying it so far.

  12. Finally writing one of the 6 book ideas that have been burning a hole in my Evernote is on my bucket list/New Year Resolutions too! I've done approximately 0% up until today. But yes. I want to go to a conference. I gotta motivate myself somehow!

  13. Thanks for sharing the tips, they're great!

  14. Sounds like a wonderful conference. I would've been scared to death too!

    You came back with awesome advice. Thanks for sharing it with us. I need to take notes.

  15. Thanks for sharing this. I'm at the end of my novel now and these were all VERY interesting things to read as I struggle with my ending. Writers conferences freak me out. So do blogger conferences. Never been to either. They are totally different. Writers are writers and bloggers are not necessarily writers (but they can be).

  16. I actually learned the "said" rule in my first magazine writing class. Our professor made us all raise our right hands and promise not to use extraneous tags when having our sources speak. It really makes a world of difference!

  17. I have to say something that hasn't been said here in the comments yet - your sister sounds like such a fabulous person to hang out with.

    Glad you enjoyed the conference - makes me intrigued to read more, as well as write more. I watch too much TV.

  18. I'm glad we don't have to pay 130 big ones to read all the secrets you learned! That is a pretty awesome list. I learned the "said" rule when I interned for a newspaper, but in general, this is list better and less of a jerk than my college creative writing professor. Thanks!

  19. I can't imagine I'm the only one who read this and immediately looked for writing conferences and creative writing classes in my area. Great post. This is something I'd never considered doing but now definitely will.

  20. I'm writing something as well at the moment, and I'm always embarrassed telling people about it as well. I'm definitely going to find a writing conference I can attend. Interesting about the said, I always try my hardest not to use said. I've been doing it wrong all this time!

  21. I agree! I tend to like books with more detail and intricacy. It makes us feel intelligent, but it also makes the characters more believable and the book more interesting. I read a book last week and when I was done I was asking myself if it was supposed to be a young adult book as the prose just seemed to be too simple.

  22. I feel like in this sense you and I are kindred spirits. I know I should go to a writers conference one of these days. I mean... I'm in freaking Chicago now. There's gotta be one happening one of these days, right? But I'm completely terrified. I know it'll probably end up great and all, but I'm still super scared. LIke people will look at me and my novel and be all "Aw... that's cute. Nice try." But I wanna be a REAL writer! I promise!

  23. This sounds like such a great time and it looks like you learned a lot. I kind of wish blogger conferences were more like this. Take away all the "trying to impress" and "look at me" stuff, and focus on the art and business of blogging, you know?

  24. This is on my bucket list for sure! So amazing that you ended up loving it!

  25. I want to go to a writing conference! This sounds fantastic. I am SO glad you shared what you learned with us. Remembering to love all your characters equally is such great advice. Also, I have a weakness for inner dialogue. Thanks for the reminder to cut the crap. I know, you didn't say it like that. But that's how I took it, and it was helpful.