Reader Conferences – Sliding Back Into the Groove
I 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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?
Available Now. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.
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