Reader Conferences – Sliding Back Into the Groove

Reader Conferences – Sliding Back Into the Groove
Terry Odell

Left Coast CrimeI very recently returned from my first in person author/reader get together since the pandemic began: Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque, NM. I refer to this as a way to ease into dealing with being surrounded by people, inundated with information, and having to speak in semi-coherent sentences.

Left Coast Crime is a Reader-based conference. Presentations are panels of authors addressing a topic, not craft workshops. Thus, in a Writer-based conference, a workshop or discussion of setting, for example, would focus on how to deal with setting in your books. What to include, what not to include, examples of vocabulary, why it’s important, etc. In a Reader-based conference, the panelists will be authors selected because their books are set in “interesting” places and they’ll talk about the locales they use.

A Reader-based conference gives you the chance to talk to … readers. If you’re me, it’s likely very few have heard of me (unless they’ve picked up my lip balm—I get lots of “I love your lip balm”; very few “I love your books.”)

If you’re an introvert or just need to get away, for a writer, a Reader-based conference allows more chances to escape to your room or a quiet corner without the guilt of missing Very Important Craft Information.

However, there was the opportunity for learning craft in a pre-conference add-on workshop given by David (Rambo) Morrell, and I attended it. Four hours, even with breaks, is a lot of brain time, but I survived—in part, I think, because he spent quite a bit of time talking to aspiring or new writers, so I could coast in neutral for brief periods of time. Not that his “beginner” advice didn’t contain gems, but they broke through any mental meanderings.

Some of my takeaways from his talk:

He first addressed what it takes to be a serious writer, going into Myers Briggs personality tests. Basically, you have to know how long you can sit at the keyboard in isolation and maintain your focus. If you need to interact with people, this could be your biggest problem. Bottom line: whatever your approach, you have to have a schedule and stick to it. Morrell said Stephen King claims he writes 5 pages every day except Christmas and his birthday, which isn’t true. He writes on those two days as well, but he didn’t think people would believe it.

Next, you need to know why you want to write and what you hope to accomplish. (Hint: a goal of being a best-selling author and making a ton of money isn’t a smart move.) Morrell’s goal was to write something that would influence other people the way Stirling Silliphant, the screenwriter of so many shows Morrell watched as a youth, affected him.

Per Morrell: Being a writer is an insane thing to want to do. Become a hermit to write something other people will find interesting.

Two mantras Morrell gave as advice.

  1. Be a first rate version of yourself and not a 2nd rate version of another author.
  2. Don’t chase the market; you’ll always see its backside.

He mentioned Nicholas Sparks as an exception. He looked for a niche and found there were virtually no other men writing romance, so he exploited it.

Other bits:

  • If you set out to write the book you want, you’ve met your goal when you finish even if it doesn’t sell.
  • If your goal was to write a best-seller you’re imitating and you won’t have anything to show for it.

As a professional, if something interests you, you ask yourself WHY? Look at how it was made rather than plot. He spoke of the importance of awareness and told the story of not being able to come up with the character’s name in First Blood. He was busy working, and didn’t appreciate his wife interrupting to show him the apples she’d bought. He gave her noncommittal responses until she insisted he EAT one of these apples. Reluctantly, he did, and it was exceptional. He asked her what kind of an apple it was, and she said, “It’s a Rambo apple.” Ta Da.

He gave us an exercise to do when starting a project—have a conversation with yourself and write it out. Pages and pages of dialogue, what you want to write about and how you’re going to do it. Eventually, you’ll have enough information to start writing the book. It’s writing on the page. Writing is a perishable skill. If you don’t write something every day, it won’t stay with you. The conversation will help bring you back when you get stuck.

Other questions Morrell threw at us:

What can you do that nobody else can do? What is your dominant emotion? Examples: Anger, lust, envy, fear. Find yours and dig deep into it.

Morrell does his homework, probably more than most of us are willing or able to do. He studied photography, got a pilot’s license, drove race cars to be aware of what his protagonists could do.

Once you know your direction, you’ll find the questions you’ll need to answer. Fill in the blanks, one step after another until you find the story and where it begins. He adamantly cautioned against starting with a flashback. Emphatically. His example: “She woke up with the worst hangover she’d ever had”…and then the story shifts to where and what resulted in that hangover. If it’s important, start there. He related this to a sign Frank Sinatra had on the door to his house: “You’d better have a damn good reason for ringing this bell.” Because it felt right isn’t an acceptable answer.

  • We all find archetypal situations inherently interesting. “A stranger comes to town.”
  • Daydreams are an excellent source of information.
  • To tighten dialogue, take out every other response.

On the use of senses. Morrell suggests taking sight for granted, then including two others, but ‘sneak them in’ so it isn’t obvious. The object is to make the reader feel, not see. Be very light. Don’t tip your hand. Makes a book feel three dimensional.

(I liked this better than the “use all 5 senses in every scene” approach, which to me, often feels forced.)

The writer’s job is to keep the audience paying attention. You have to decide if the window they’re looking through is cleaned by Windex, or if it’s stained glass. Whatever you do, you need to be clear and not require the reader to do extra work.

One thing (probably the only thing) David Morrell and I have in common is part of our writing process. We both believe in printing out the day’s work and looking at it away from the “office.” I do it in bed at night, and he does it as his first step of work the next day. Seeing it “off screen” helps fool the brain into thinking we’re seeing it for the first time.

In his words: Yesterday’s work is terrible the next day. Writing is Fixing. We think, “In my head it was a lot better.” Our task  is to make them the same.

What about you, TKZ peeps? Have you joined the live and in person group yet? Did it take readjusting?

In the Crosshairs by Terry OdellAvailable Now. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy.

Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.

32 thoughts on “Reader Conferences – Sliding Back Into the Groove

  1. Great post, Terry. Thanks for sharing some of the highlights of David Morrel’s workshop. Good stuff.

    In answer to your question, no, I haven’t joined the live and in person group yet. But I’m working on it. Meantime, things are too “live” at home. Grandkids showing up in five minutes.

    Thanks for the info, and I hope you have a quiet introverted day.

    • Laundry day here, Steve. Maybe back to a little writing time but I have another trip to prep for. Enjoy the grands.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Terry. David possesses a wealth of knowledge because he never stops learning. The creation of a world-famous literary and film iconic was not by accident.

    My conference plans at this point consist of attending Bouchercon in 2024 and 2025. Maybe we’ll see each other there!

    • Morrell’s stories of how deeply he researched–like getting a pilot’s license–were impressive.
      I went to my first (and to date, my last) Bouchercon when it was the Albany fiasco. Maybe I’ll have recovered enough to give it another shot by 2024 or 5. Meeting you in person would be a big draw.

  3. “Per Morrell: Being a writer is an insane thing to want to do. Become a hermit to write something other people will find interesting.”

    Becoming a hermit isn’t an insane thing. I’ve been after that all my life. LOLOL!!!! One of the great perks of writing.

    • I agree, BK. But Morrell tested as an extrovert on the Myers Briggs scale, so I guess that led to his quote.

      • Yeah, it would be different for extroverts for sure.

        Had to re-read this post on lunch break today because I didn’t have time to pay close attention to the full thing as I was in a rush this morning. I really like this tip and am going to try it for a book that I’ve been fumbling around with:

        “He gave us an exercise to do when starting a project—have a conversation with yourself and write it out. Pages and pages of dialogue, what you want to write about and how you’re going to do it.” Maybe that will help me break the stale-mate like nothing else has.

  4. Thanks for the notes, Terry. Morrell’s craft book, Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, is one of my favorites. He talks about needing to find that “inner ferret” that gnaws at him to write a particular project—why it matters to him in a deep way. He writes his “letter” and keeps asking questions until he finds it. That’s what turns a plot into a plot that matters.

    At last we are back to live meetings. I’ll be doing a six-hour workshop in Sept. for ACFW. Time to get back in shape.

    • Everyone who took the workshop got a copy of Morrell’s book. It’s a keeper.
      I have excellent memories of your workshop for Pikes Peak Writers. The ACFW attendees are in for a great day.

  5. Wow, Terry! This is a Packed Post. Loved the writerly advice and tidbits, especially Two mantras Morrell gave as advice.

    Be a first rate version of yourself and not a 2nd rate version of another author.
    Don’t chase the market; you’ll always see its backside.

    It’s a serious temptation for a new writer (such as myself) to follow another’s path. I have to be me, I have to write like me, and my life must look like me.

    Thanks for this . . . going into my Learn Me file for sure.

    • Thanks, Deb.
      For the record, those mantras weren’t original to Morrell, but they are good ones.

  6. Thanks, Terry, for sharing the information from Morrell’s talk. You take great notes! I liked “Be a first rate version of yourself and not a 2nd rate version of another author.”

    I haven’t been to any live conferences since Covid took a break, but my husband and I plan on attending the ACFW in September, mostly so we can attend JSB’s workshop. My dream is that all the TKZ folks show up at one conference some day. Wouldn’t that be a learning experience?

  7. Good morning, Terry. This is a great post that gives a really fantastic rundown of David’s advice. I know, because I was very fortunate to attend a day-long workshop he gave back in 2009 in Portland, organized by the Oregon Writer’s Colony. Your write-up brought that back to life. I had taken extensive notes on computer, but had lost them. I remember the high points of David’s advice, and have also read his book.

    Above all, I remember how sympathetic David was to the challenge all of us face as writers. He told us about knowing some incredibly talented writers whose work had never taken off. We couldn’t control that, we could only control whether or not we wrote. He also talked about how harder it might be for extroverts to spend hours alone writing, unlike introverts, and how we needed to find ways to get our contact in order to fuel our isolation.

    I’m so glad you took that workshop. Thanks for sharing it. Have a wonderful day!

    • Thanks, Dale. Morrell did spend significant time about dealing with finding your process, especially if you’ve got extrovert tendencies. (I think he said he was 52% extrovert.) I have no trouble sitting at the computer for hours at a stretch, but others who need to interact with people, or do “other stuff” need to find what works for them and then stick to it.

  8. Writer’s throat the second day because you talked yourself hoarse the first. I remember it well.

    My local science fiction convention was reader, not media based. I always enjoyed the wall-to-wall writers. Allen Wold was always a guest, and he was a master at making himself standout among the much bigger names. He wore a 2×4 inch needlepoint name tag in bright colors, and he always figured out the best spots where fans hung out, plopped his rear there, and held court. He also joined the Toastmasters in his early days of writing so he not only stood out as a speaker, he came prepared to talk about the subject unlike most of the writers who didn’t even know what the panel was about when they walked in.

    • Thanks, Marilynn
      There’s a knack to getting noticed. I always bring my own badge holder, filled with pins from previous events. And I wear my hat.
      I think some of the panel moderators don’t know what the panel is about, either. Or don’t care and prefer to take things in another direction.

  9. Always love listening to David speak about our craft. He said one thing in a speech once that I never forgot: What is your greatest fear? Write about it.

    Fear is a potent emotion. That thought has stayed with me for a long time and has been the basis for several characters.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kris. I think I remember David Morrell at a SleuthFest conference years ago.

      In his workshop, he spoke to finding your primary emotion and developing it. His was fear, which is probably why he focuses on it.

  10. I’ve never heard of this guy but will definitely look him up.

    I wonder if he’s an ENFP like me.

    I’ve been straddling two worlds. I work at a hospital so nothing much changed for us except masks. Theatre has pretty much disappeared and a lot of my actor friends literally have not left the house in two years and are terrified of doing so.

    I loved virtual conferences because I can’t afford to fly and stay in a hotel very often.

    • Worth a look, Cynthia. His craft book was retitled and is now published by Sourcebooks, I believe.

      I think a lot of organizations are going to offer both live and virtual options, at least for a while. It does expand who’s able to attend. I know a SiNC chapter invited me to speak in August, and neither of us will have to pay for transportation or lodging.

  11. Fantastic post, Terry. Pure gold. Thanks for sharing the writing wisdom.

    I sat on a panel at Crime Bake last November, and it was amazing. Loved it!

    • For me, simply sitting on the ‘stage’ for 45 minutes helps erase some of the imposter syndrome. It is fun, isn’t it.

  12. Our MidSouth Writers group opted for virtual again this year because when we were having to decide, Memphis was in lockdown. By the time mid-March rolled around we probably could’ve had it, but…Next year it will be live, barring another outbreak. I have attended a smaller retreat at a state park that was fun for the extrovert.
    Even though I’m an extrovert, I can write for hours…maybe because I prefer the company of my characters to real people. lol I have to look David up! He gave you really good tips.

  13. Thanks for sharing the Left Coast Crime experience with us, Terry. At writer-based conferences, I’ve experienced brain overload you describe. You madly absorb every tidbit and feel as if you don’t dare miss a single session. I always come home utterly exhausted but also energized.

    You inspired me to try a reader-based conference next opportunity I have. A different kind of exhaustion but equally inspiring. Love David Morrell’s advice.

    Here’s a blatant plug for my local con–Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, MT, Sept. 30-Oct. 2.
    You can attend either in person or virtually. Always fun with friendly people so it’s esp. good for first-timers.

    • Thanks for the link, Debbie. Sounds like a great conference. I’ll have to look into it.

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