Thursday, August 8, 2013

Top Twelve Lessons I Learned at the Willamette Writers Conference

Inspiring. Educational. Challenging. These are the words I keep using when I tell friends about last weekend’s Willamette Writers Conference held here in Portland.

As a child might look forward to a trip to Disneyland, so I spent weeks looking forward to the conference. I wasn’t disappointed. It was an E-ticket ride. Over the course of the three days I attended eleven workshops that were taught by talented authors from all genres. I’ll confess I was occasionally a little star struck. Though most attendees were also pitching to editors and agents I didn’t feel ready for that quite yet. This was my first WW conference, and I wanted to get the lie of land this time, and soak up as much as possible at the workshops.

I’ve put together a list of a dozen things I either learned or had reiterated at the conference. I say reiterated because sometimes we need to hear things several times, in several different ways before it truly sinks in and becomes a permanent part of our writer’s toolbox. At least it’s that way for me! [Of the eleven workshops I attended, five were on YA writing, so several of the lessons learned are specific to that age group. Bracketed names are the presenters.]

1.     Your reader must vicariously experience what your characters are experiencing. They have to be in the story—feeling everything the characters are feeling. (This is especially true for YA.) Use sensory detail to bring the reader into the scene—the brain won’t know it isn’t really living it.  And for your reader to be in the body of the character first you, the writer, must experience it. The writer must be in that moment in time, right along with the character. [Jennifer Lauck and Pamela Smith Hill]

2.     A great story isn’t just about something—a great story is about something HAPPENING. [Larry Brooks]

3.     Your Big Dramatic Question must be COMPELLING and the reader’s need for the answer IRRESISTIBLE. Think: will Katniss survive the Hunger Games? [Larry Brooks]

4.     YA should be stripped down to the essentials: emotion and action. Also, you should be aiming to write like Hemingway, not Faulkner. [Christine Fletcher]

5.     In YA make sure your characters are acting like teens, NOT miniature adults. They should feel passionately about how things affect them. Teens feel passionately. [Christine Fletcher]

6.     Torture your character. Conflict conflict conflict. Raise the stakes. Make sure there’s tension on every page. Throw obstacles at your character…constantly. Throw your characters to the wolves! [Everyone, every workshop]

7.     YA shouldn’t contain heavy-handed messages, no Afternoon Special messages. Sam Goldwyn said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”  Remember you are telling a story, not indoctrinating. [Christine Fletcher]

8.     When writing dialogue, keep in mind that people rarely say what they are exactly thinking. We tend to talk around the topic—YA author Bill Konigsberg calls this Off Topic dialogue and using it in your writing can make it more realistic, reveal character, and keep the dialogue interesting for the reader. [Bill Konigsberg]

9.     Show Show Show Show. Don’t tell, or if you MUST do so sparingly. [Everyone-every workshop]

10.  Having trouble getting to know your YA character? (or any character, for that matter) Try this tip: Have the character send an email to a friend of yours telling your friend about themself. As the email is written, a lot of character can be revealed. [Bill Konigsberg]

11.  When writing YA first person, every word must come from the character, there is no room for the author! Stay true to the character’s voice. [Bill Konigsberg and Christine Fletcher]

12.  If you aspire to be an author, but don’t yet feel like you are an author try this manifestation trick from film maker Gordy Hoffman: When someone you are meeting for the first time asks you what you do, don’t hem and hah, just say “I am an author.” It will make it true. He did this, though he was telling people he was a screenwriter and director—before he was either of these things—and it became true. He believed it—it became true.

These are just 12 quick take-aways, from the pages and pages of notes I took. I hope you found one or two salient points that you can add to your writer’s toolbox.

Thank you to all the talented people who made the Willamette Writers Conference a wonderful experience!

Happy Writing!