The Introvert’s Guide to Writers’ Conferences, or How I Learned to Stop Hyperventilating and Leave My Hotel Room

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I spent most of this past week encouraging (forcing) myself to leave my room at the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans. It was a nice room, with a lovely view of the city framing the not-so-lovely hotel on the next block. The first room I was assigned was on the fifteenth floor, but before I left the desk, five bucks and a request to not be situated near the elevator bumped me up to the twenty-third. (Also, the thing about being away from the elevator is in my Marriott profile. So much for profiles.) But if I hadn’t had a long list of plans and obligations, I would have been sorely tempted to stay in that room and write and look out the window and order room service and fiddle with the television’s satellite connection to improve its HGTV reception (HGTV is my secret hotel vice because we don’t have satellite at home).

Last week was, of course, Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention—four days of fun with crime and mystery lovers, readers, writers, agents, booksellers, and editors. I’m not exactly sure about the numbers, but I heard there were almost two thousand attendees, three hundred of whom were writers.

Writers. You know, those people who sit at computers (or with notebooks) communing with the voices in their heads instead of real people.

As a writer who has been in the business for a lot of years, and who doesn’t live in a major metropolitan area, most of my networking is done on the Internet or on the phone. Less frequently in person. Networking can sound a little off-putting: net working. I know what a network is, but the words, separated, bring to mind an image of a fisherman (fisherperson?) handling a huge net full of fish, gathering and sorting, selecting and touching. What if you choose the wrong fish? What if it bites? What if they all escape and you end up with nothing? What if they all dislike you? What if they think you’re pushy and rude? (Okay, maybe that’s not a great analogy.)

Conferences can be tough for someone who doesn’t get out much. I get overwhelmed, which is one of the reasons I often want to hide in my room. But I (and I think I can speak a little bit for other introverted writers) do it because it’s my job. When you meet someone, you never know what kind of influence they’re going to have on your life—or the influence you might have on theirs. You might be looking at your new best friend. Or your next editor. Or your next favorite author. Or the person who will spark your next story idea. Or the person who will talk smack about you in the bar because you didn’t bother to introduce yourself. Does it sounds like a minefield? A game of Risk? Well, it kind of is.

You can sit in your room at home or even at the conference hotel and write. And write. You might even sell your story from that room. You might become the next J.D. Salinger or Don DeLillo or Emily Dickinson. Or not. It can be scary, but in order to give yourself and your work your best shot, you have to venture out. I promise you that venturing out feels just as risky to ninety percent of the other writers you will meet. (You can always return to your room later and throw up, faint, hyperventilate, burst into tears, or tear off all your clothes and crawl into your bed and pull the covers over your head in relief. I have done four of the five.) Sometimes you’ll walk away thinking, “Oh, my God, I sounded like a complete idiot!” But more often you’ll be glad you reached out and risked rejection.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to pop out of your writing cocoon and go to a conference or other gathering of industry folk:

Be confident.

This sounds difficult, I know. Sometimes you just have to fake it until you feel it. The NYT bestselling writer waiting in the coffee line ahead of you sits in front of the same blank page that you do every day, thinking, “What comes next?” You have that in common. You’re there for a reason, so act like it.

Be professional.

This is part of your job. Be sure you note the name of the person you’re talking to. It’s okay to ask, and asking is far preferable to ending up halfway through an impromptu lunch, petrified that you’ll be called on to perform introductions if someone else shows up. If small talk is required, talk about a panel or interview you just attended, or a book you recently read. Not your gallbladder, kids, or most recent tooth implant.

Be ready to learn.

Immerse yourself in the conference agenda. People who are interested in the same things you’re interested in put the panels and events together. It’s not all about networking.

Be curious.

Most people love to talk about themselves. Ask questions about their work, their pets, their hometown, their (professional) passions. Most wildly successful authors are good at making other people feel special in a short space of time. Really.

Be modest.

We’ve all gotten the FB messages: “Hey, we’re friends now. Buy my book!” Every writer wants other people to know about their work. But don’t make that your main goal. Your goal is to learn things, make new friends, and reconnect with old friends. There’s always a good time to exchange cards or bookmarks or websites. Name-dropping is a bit gauche, but allowed in small doses if it’s relevant to the discussion—or makes a better story.

Be gracious.

Be as nice to the mid-list or self-published writer standing beside you as you are to the editor you would kill to have publish you. Chances are you’ll have far more contact with that writer in your career than you will the editor. Not everything is about getting ahead. It’s about being a decent human being. Few things are uglier than people who spend their professional lives sucking up and kicking down.

Be generous.

You didn’t get to where you are as a writer all by yourself. I guarantee that someone around you has less experience. Introduce yourself to someone who looks as uncomfortable as you feel. Make them feel special. It won’t cost you anything, and the benefits are precious.

Be on time.

Even if you consistently run five minutes late every other day of your life, when you’re in a professional situation like a conference, be on time. Schedules can be tight, and people often do things in groups. (But don’t fret about sneaking into panels late, or leaving during. Just be discreet.)

Be available.

If you’re not Cormac McCarthy, or Emily Dickinson, leave your room! Put on deodorant, brush your teeth, comb your hair, and attend a panel, a cocktail party, or a lecture. Or even go hang out in the bar. You’re over twenty-one, and you’re allowed. See and be seen. That’s the way it works.

As I said, you can always go up and hyperventilate in your room—later.

 

Have you ever attended a writing or publishing industry conference as a writer, or as a fan? Did you find it challenging, or just plain fun?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest suspense novel, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel, will be released on October 11th. Read an excerpt here.

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How To Write A Young Adult Novel

By Mark Alpert

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I love Young Adult novels. For many years I read the books aloud to my son and daughter, and when my kids got old enough to read the books on their own, I would sneak into their bedrooms late at night and swipe the novels from their desks so I could keep up with them. I longed to write a YA novel of my own, and a couple of years ago I had an idea for a science thriller that might appeal to teenagers, a story about robots and artificial intelligence and whether a person’s mind or soul can really outlive the death of the body. Titled The Six, the novel will be published in July, and it’s already received some advance praise from R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series (my son’s favorite bedtime read when he was a second-grader), and Michael Grant, author of the Gone series (which my kids also loved). Now I’d like to share some of the things I learned while writing the novel.

1) It’s all about The Voice. One could argue that the best YA novel of all time is The Catcher in the Rye. My daughter, now in eighth grade, read the book for her English class this year and was completely enthralled by the adventures of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield. It was Holden’s voice that grabbed her, the vivacious, confused, sometimes angry, sometimes wise voice that ridiculed all the phonies at Pencey Prep and wondered what happened to Central Park’s ducks in the winter. For a few weeks she adopted Holden’s voice as her own and spoke exclusively in Holden-speak, complaining nonstop about her “goddamn homework” and declaring “That kills me!” every time she saw something interesting on the street.

Of course, the narrator’s voice is important in all novels, but I think it’s absolutely critical for YA books. Young adult readers are especially eager to identify with the protagonist. They want to see the world through his or her eyes and maybe learn a thing or two in the process.

2) YA can be more daring than adult fiction. Writing in first-person is a very effective tool for creating a compelling voice. The main character can quickly establish a wonderful sense of intimacy when he or she is speaking directly to the reader. The problem with writing in first-person is that it’s hard to do well. If J.D. Salinger had been less adept at it, Holden would’ve come across as a whiny snot-nose. One of the keys is balance: the narrator has to be forthright but not arrogant, courageous but not stupid, compassionate but not a sap.

Because first-person is so difficult to pull off, I think many writers shy away from it. I don’t have any definite numbers on this, but I feel confident that the overwhelming majority of thrillers are written in the more conventional way — that is, third-person, past tense. That’s the way I wrote all my thrillers for adults. But YA authors seem to take more chances. Suzanne Collins made a brilliant choice when she wrote The Hunger Games in first-person, present tense. If it had been written in third-person, I don’t think readers would’ve fallen so madly in love with an unusual character like Katniss Everdeen. And the use of present tense energized the book’s gladiatorial combat scenes.

I decided to write The Six in first-person, present tense, and I think it made a world of difference. The book’s narrator, Adam Armstrong, is a seventeen-year-old suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. He’s been in a wheelchair since the age of twelve and his heart is starting to fail. He has less than six months left to live. And yet he’s also a bright, funny kid who writes virtual-reality programs and loves the New York Giants. I don’t think I could’ve successfully portrayed this character if I wasn’t inside his head, telling his story in real time and talking directly to readers.

3) YA is usually shorter than adult fiction. A hundred thousand words is LONG for a Young Adult novel. Cut as ruthlessly as you can.

4) It’s good to have both boys AND girls in the story. What’s Harry Potter without Hermione? What’s Katniss without Gale and Peeta? One of the things I really liked about Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave is that it’s split almost evenly between female and male point-of-view characters.

My YA novel focuses on five teenagers besides Adam, three girls and two boys. They’re all terminally ill, which makes them eligible for an experimental procedure that scans their brains in such detail that the full contents of their minds — all their memories and emotions and virtues and flaws — can be digitally recorded and stored in advanced electronic circuits. I call the six teenagers the Pioneers because some futurists believe that all people will be able to make this leap from biological tissue to computer processors, perhaps by the year 2050.

5) Give the kids special abilities. Those abilities don’t have to be supernatural or futuristic powers. Maybe one of your characters can have a fantastic memory or an amazing pitching arm or a remarkable singing voice. Special talents are actually pretty common among teenagers. If a kid has a passion for something, he or she will practice constantly and get absurdly good at it in a relatively short amount of time.

Growing up is the subject of most, if not all, YA novels, even the most fantastical ones. I remember when my daughter was a toddler she had very poor balance and was always slipping off chairs and benches. One day we were sitting on a bench on a concrete patio, and she started tipping backwards. She would’ve hurt herself very badly if I hadn’t swooped my arm around her, grabbing her in midair just before her head hit the concrete. It was really no big deal, one of the routine things parents do everyday, but at the time the thought occurred to me: To her, I am Superman. I have powers of speed and strength and agility that are far beyond her poor childish abilities. But when she becomes a teenager, she too will gain those physical and mental powers, and she’ll have to learn how to use them. Then I understood why I enjoyed the Harry Potter series and all the other books about teenagers struggling to control and take advantage of their newfound abilities. They’re all metaphors for the primary challenge of growing up.

6) Give the kids someone to love. Teenagers fall in love all the time. When I was seventeen I fell in love with a different girl every week (and ninety-nine percent of them were blissfully unaware of my passions). That’s one of the charming things about teens: most of them haven’t been really hurt yet, so they’re still willing to open their hearts. And that’s why love triangles are so popular in YA novels. These kids don’t know what they want yet. They’re still experimenting.

This experimentation often involves sex which you can see video examples of its depiction at cartoonporno. No other toon tube can touch cartoonporno.xxx, and the best YA books don’t shrink from describing sexual situations (I’m thinking of Holden Caulfield’s sad encounter with the prostitute in Catcher). In my YA novel the relationships are a little more unusual because the teenagers are transformed into giant clanking robots with bullet-shaped torsos. This is an advantage in some ways; the robots lack sexual equipment of any kind, so I don’t have to worry about disturbing younger readers (and their parents) with any graphic descriptions. But even though my teenagers are trapped inside machines, they still find ways to experiment. Adam figures out how to share circuits with one of the female Pioneers, and while they’re occupying the same machine each teenager has full access to the other’s memories and emotions. It’s a romantic connection that’s actually much more intimate than ordinary sex.

7) Don’t be afraid of the dark. Authors of YA novels no longer have to avoid the more upsetting aspects of adolescence. You can delve into heavy subjects like suicide and drug addiction without alienating your readers. Teenagers are talking about these things anyway and learning about them in their health classes. If a YA novel treats these subjects with the proper sensitivity, then reading the book might help kids make better decisions.

I was a somewhat morbid teen, appalled by the inevitability of death. It seemed ridiculously unfair. In The Six, I tackle these fears head-on by describing the death of Adam’s body. The teenager dies and is reborn as a machine. Then he and his fellow Pioneers must confront an even greater threat, an out-of-control artificial intelligence that’s seeking to exterminate the human race. If our species goes extinct, what was the point of all our struggles? Yes, it’s a dark thought, but teenage readers can handle it.

8) Above all, it has to be fun. Even the most serious YA novels have some humor in them. Kids are amused by the absurdities that adults have stopped noticing. The other day my son told me, “In a hundred years, people will be living to the age of 150. That means there are fifty-year-olds today who will still be alive a hundred years from now. So cheer up, Dad. You might be one of the lucky ones.”

It’s a funny quote, right? I’m going to try to fit it into another YA novel.

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