This article was contributed by Mr. Marvin Mayer who attended the annual conference of the Northeast Texas Writers Organization recently. Thanks so much, Marvin!
Overview of NETWO conference 4/28/12
The conference began on Friday, April 27, but I was present only during the sessions on Saturday, April 28. At check in, I was handed a nice cloth tote bag emblazoned with the NETWO name, logo, and website. Inside were: a 16 page program, a copy of the Spring 2012 Guide to Writers Retreats Poets & Writers magazine, a 2012 Your Connection magazine apparently issued by the Mount Pleasant-Titus County Chamber of Commerce, the April 2012 issue of The Writer magazine together with a separate (The Writer) supplement titled “How to be a Better Writer, a promotional brochure titled “Mount Pleasant … Sweet,” a small (automobile size) trash bag with the Mount Pleasant logo, a couple of pens, a few pieces of candy, and some miscellaneous “stuffer” items including promotional material from some of the speakers. Two conference evaluation forms also were inside the tote bag; one to evaluate the speakers we would hear that day and one to make suggestions for improving next year’s conference.
The program included the daily schedule, photos and short background info on all 8 speakers, and a layout map of the interior of the Mt. Pleasant Civic Center. The outside cover and back pages were devoted to the host/sponsor.
New York literary agent, Mary Sue Seymour, was the lead off speaker. Her topic was “Hooks, Books, and Great Beginnings.” She stressed the importance of the opening line, paragraph, and/or first few pages, saying that a book in a book store is purchased when a customer/reader is “hooked” with the first few lines or pages. A poor or weak opening results in few sales. She mentioned and gave examples of what she called the short form (opening line or paragraph) and the long form (6 – 8 pages that disclose the story’s theme.) The handout she circulated allowed each attendee to write, or rewrite, an opening for some plot situations she brought with her. These examples might be good tools for a Nutz & Boltz meeting.
Ms. Seymour was followed by another New York literary agent, Weronka Janczuk (no, that’s not a bunch of typographical errors!) Her topic, “How to Get the Attention of an Agent,” dealt with the same do’s and don’ts we have heard often; send in a “dynamite” query, follow guidelines, be business-like (check for errors before sending in,) critique the query letter before sending it in, etc. As for the manuscript, again be certain it is as compact and error free as you can make it. She repeated the admonition to show, don’t tell, and gave examples of how telling could be redone to do more showing. Reminded us to use action verbs and write in an active voice, not a passive one. She also said we should minimize our use of participles, using as few words as possible that ended in “ing.” She suggested we think about each part of our story as a scene, and visualize that scene before we begin writing. She spoke at such a rapid rate it was hard to understand her.
Speaker #3 was author Syliva Dickey Smith. Speaking on “Techniques That Turn Your Flat Story into Fabulous,” she summed that up as being 3 key elements: 1, make the story wonderfully eccentric; 2, make the story deliciously exciting; and 3, make the story satisfyingly surprising. Her thoughts were that we (writers) are story tellers, and our success depends on how we organize our thoughts. She emphasized the hook (again) and said to follow that hook with a strong purpose, either through the characters or a series of events. She made repeated reference to those three elements, eccentricity, excitement, and surprise. She also encouraged us to use the “power” of repetition.
Editor/publisher Vivian Zabel rounded out the morning’s list of speakers. “Making Your Writing Snap” was the title of her program. To do this, she said we should study, learn, and practice. Those skills can be developed through conferences, classes, workshops, and by reading writing books and magazines. She said to know what makes good writing and what doesn’t, read both good books and bad books, and check to see what makes each [what it is.] As with others there and elsewhere, she told us the foundation of our writing is our use of grammar, mechanics, spelling, and punctuation. Our plots should have our protagonist face complications and conflict. Without that, the story is limp. Somewhere along the line, the story should reach a turning point – the point at which conflict is addressed, leading to resolution of the issue. There can and often should be more than one conflict. Like others, she reminded us to use active verbs as activity enhances the story. She also reminded us that POV should be consistent, changing only at appropriate intervals such as new paragraph or chapter. With respect to characters, we were admonished to guard against “information dump” by giving too much detail about the characters too soon. Rather, we should weave details throughout the book, and to do so through showing. She encouraged us to develop characters that live, and to do that through our words. Dialogue should be used to advance the plot; if it doesn’t do that, don’t use it. The same could be said for narration. Actions should be believable, and so should the dialogue. She warned us not to interrupt dialogue with actions that don’t fit the situation. As for “tags” (said, asked, etc.,) we were told not to overuse them or let them become obvious. In her hand out, she gave us 10 steps for revising and preparing a manuscript. (Possibly, another topic for a N&B meeting.)
Easily the most entertaining speaker of the day was Award winning author, Jodi Thomas. Her inter active program, titled “Developing Charisma,” attempted to build our self esteem by getting us up and moving around, seeing how different we were and how much alike we were. She encouraged us to be honest about ourselves to ourselves and to have unconditional acceptance of others. (This is where we dressed in trash bags!) She talked about getting out of our comfort zone by doing radio and TV interviews. At those times, be prepared by having 3 things you want to say. Like a politician who doesn’t answer a reporter’s questions, don’t answer the interviewer’s questions, but acknowledge them and then talk about the 3 things you want to discuss, i.e., your book, book promotions, yourself, etc. She told us never to say “I can’t do that.” Also, we should be nicer than we have to be, and the bottom line was, release your inhibitions and enjoy life.
“Writing is Murder: Confessions of a True Crime Writer” was Corey Mitchell’s topic. An interesting speaker and obviously a successful non-fiction writer, he spoke mostly of some of the people and even killers he had interviewed. His best advice was for us to be prepared to network, and try to network with those you admire; successful authors in your genre, successful authors in general, publishers, etc. While we all know that non fiction requires significant research, he said we fiction writers also should do a significant amount of authentic research. Research can add depth to our fictitious work.
Jaye Wells, another successful author, titled her piece, “Kaleidoscope Method: An Alternative to Plotting and Pantsing.” To create her stories, Jaye uses a story board. She showed us an example of how she is plotting one of her vampire stories. Although I was not able to be present for her entire program, the gist was that hers was a visual way of plotting a story. Using sticky notes on a poster board, she divided her story into the usual essential parts; beginning, middle, end. The sticky notes covered scenes or characters she would use, and after the board was finished, she would flesh out the pieces on the story board. She mentioned she uses software created especially for writers. I think it was called scrivener, and it was offered on line at literature & latte.com.
The day’s final speaker, Jacque Graham, is an editor for 4RV Publishing. Vivian Zabel’s company. A published poet and retired English teacher, she was, in my opinion, the best of the lot. Her topic, “What Responsibility Does the Author Have to Edit,” honed in on an earlier theme, make the product the best it can be before you submit it. She told us most manuscripts are read by an Acquisitions Editor. That person can “kill” a story before it goes any further, so it is important to submit work that has been carefully and frequently edited before submission. Once in the slush pile, chances are slim it will ever get in front of a line editor. As before, she reminded us to edit our work to fit the submission guidelines of the publisher to whom you are sending it. This applies to style (i.e., Chicago Book of Style or some other style format) as well as to spacing, how much to be submitted, should it be queried first or should it be accompanied by a query letter, what about a synopsis, etc. For her, she found that reading the manuscript in reverse helps find errors. She also suggested we put the manuscript aside for a day or 2 before re-reading it. Brevity is king, so unnecessary words, lines, paragraphs, or even chapters should be cut. Retain ONLY what moves the story along. She suggested we use every day speech, and not try to write using words we wouldn’t use ourselves. We should kill unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. A hand out was provided that gave us a formula to follow as we edit our manuscripts. If appropriate, we might want to hire a professional editor to help clean up our manuscripts. At the very least, someone we trust to be brutally honest, and who has some knowledge of the genre, should read the manuscript for us.
In addition to these 8 interesting and informative speakers, there were vendors who had books, (editing) services, and (self) publishing services to offer. One-on-one interviews with any of the speakers and with another independent Texas publisher were available for attendees.
NETWO is known for hosting a very good conference. This one did nothing to diminish that reputation.