A Conference in a Bag

Recently I attended the DFW Writers’ Conference, armed with nothing more than a pen and a notebook. I planned to use these weapons to jot down whatever nuggets of wisdom I stumbled upon, and in the meantime I’d doodle. Turns out there wasn’t time for a bathroom break, much less drawing.

I couldn’t write enough, remember enough, learn enough. But I did capture some damn good words of advice, and they’re now prisoners of war in my spiral.

There’s a reason I’m sharing these tidbits and tips, but I’ll wait to reveal why until the very end. In the meantime, below is my recap of the best advice I heard—mostly paraphrased, with the intent intact.

Tips on the Craft of Writing

  • Hemingway said he didn’t outline, but he did. They were just 100,000 words long. (Edgerton, author)
  • Dialogue without subtext is missing its emotional core. (Honeyman, author)
  • A setting can become a character in your story, but only through the eyes of a dynamic (actual) character. (Maass, author/agent)
  • If you want dialogue or narrative that packs a powerful punch, pick words with Germanic etymology. For example, compare the word release (French) to drop (German). Say them out loud and you’ll see the difference. Apparently, the guttural, sometimes horrible sounds of the German language can lend resonance to a scene. (Thompson, author)
  • “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” –Hemingway. A good story is a sponge with lots of little holes for the reader to soak into and fill. It leaves room for them to do some mental deadlifts. The quote about the baby shoes is a perfect example: a six-word short that has the impact of a three hundred-page novel. (Thompson, author)
  • Descriptive narrative should not be objective reporting. Instead, make it a POV experience so it can become a dynamic part of your work. (Maass, author/agent)
  • Every subplot is subservient to the story plot, and don’t forget it. (Edgerton, author)

Tips on the Business of Writing

  • Market yourself authentically. If Twitter doesn’t feel authentic to you, then don’t do it; it’s better to abstain than do it badly. (Macke, author)
  • Don’t let the numbers fool you—being in print pays off. Though the royalties for an e-book (at 25%) sound like they beat those for a hardcover (at 10-15%), they actually don’t.  An author’s portion of the pie comes from the publisher’s sale price to the vendor, not the retail sale price to the consumer. And publishers sell the e-book rights for pennies on the dollar compared to the hardcover counterpart. End story: You leave money on the table if you’re only digital, especially if you’re a bestseller. (Levine, agent)
  • More often than not, the publisher changes the title of a manuscript once they’ve bought it. So don’t get too attached to that title you’ve stayed awake at night obsessing over. Once the publishing house owns it, odds are they’ll ditch it. (Shea Boutillier, agent)
  • Twitter and Facebook are less effective than newspaper ads when it comes to the pre-purchase awareness of a book. And newspapers are nearly extinct, to put it in perspective. (Maass, author/agent)
  • E-books aren’t taking over as our media of choice. They’re hovering around 30% of the market share, and this is probably because people still like to collect books. They’re a tactile experience we’re not willing to give up quite yet… except for grocery story mass-market paperbacks, which aren’t collectable, and e-books have eaten them right off the shelf. (Levine, agent)

My Miscellaneous Tidbits for You

  • Agents aren’t so scary in person, so if you’re looking for one, a conference might just be the place to do it.
  • Donald Maass, a power agent from New York, is one of the most engaged people you’ll ever meet. He’ll look you dead in the eye when you’re talking to him, even if it’s about your cat Muffy’s ear infection, and he won’t be the responsible party if the chat is cut short. Regardless of the conversation topic, you’ll walk away with a feeling of euphoria, filled with the conviction you will one day write something beautiful, destined for publication.
  • Author Les Edgerton is unapologetically killing himself with cigarettes, and he is doing so with enough charm that you can almost (but not quite) forgive him for it.
  • The prolific Jonathan Maberry writes one million words per year. Yes, that’s a 1 followed by 6 zeroes. 1,000,000.

Was that enough? And to imagine, I missed somewhere to the tune of 60 classes. What I didn’t miss was Maberry’s keynote speech, and in it he said something profound. He broke writers into two camps: the first believes another author’s success takes away from their own; the second believes another author’s success is synonymous with their own. He’s from the latter camp, and he kindly reminded us that we’re all on the same ship, pulling our oars together, heading somewhere incredible.

See, this is why I’ve bundled up these secrets and given them to you, so we can go and win this writing war together. And yes, all you really need for certain victory is a pen, a piece of paper, and a prayer.