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Fueling the Fires

When your work involves being creative, it can be hard to come up with new ideas day after day, hour after hour. To maintain a creative life, you need to feed your creativity. Visit new places, look at new works of art, eavesdrop on new conversations, read new
books/articles/posts, try your hand at a new kind of project … the list is endless.

But sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we get stuck. We need a little help to keep that  creative fire burning. I use three million and ten different tricks to help myself out of fire-buring-public-domain
sticky situations. Okay, that might not be the exact number. But as I’ve mentioned before, I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve. In fact, I stuff them into every pocket, hat, bag, and even undergarment that I own! The one I’m about to share may seem strange at first. You might wonder how what results will possibly work with your particular project. That’s okay. Let it sit and simmer for a while. Keep it on the back burner because I promise that at some point when you’re stuck (which happens to the best of us) it’ll be ready and waiting for you to turn up the heat.

journal-public-domainSo what is this different little trick? It’s called “On This Day…” and its inception came from my many years of homeschooling and teaching writing to children. When my girls were in grade school, I made it a habit of having them start each day with a journal entry. Young children almost always benefit from a prompt to help focus their wide-ranging thoughts. Heck, many adults do, too. During school hours, at least once per week I used the “On This Day”-prompt where I took an event (or offered a list of events and let them choose one) and asked the girls to use it to write creatively in their journals. Being a writer, I always joined in during journal time and wrote my own entry. I found that sometimes the historical event filled in a blank spot in a story or essay I was writing. I didn’t necessarily use the event itself, but rather the idea it sparked.public-domain-women-and-history

Because it was so helpful, I’ve returned to this trick whenever I’m stuck in a story and need a little help lighting the creative fires again. During NaNoWriMo last year, I used my “On This Day”-technique when considering what might be going on in the world around my characters. It helps me to have a picture of possible events in their lives, even if they don’t all make it into the story. I also use it to spark questions and thoughts for my characters – where might this or that lead? And, I’ve used this trick to inspire drawings and encaustic paintings. For example, reading about an event in history during Prohibition led to a wax painting involving wine and dancing.

Finding information for “On This Day” is extremely fast and easy. I have several daily journal books I used when homeschooling that had interesting and different kinds of information for the day (e.g., Today Hershey produced its first chocolate bar!), and sometimes I still pull them out. But more often, I use the internet because it is simple to gather additional information on a topic if it strikes a chord. I can see this being especially helpful for historical fiction writers who might want specific historical details.

So where do you look? I like History.com‘s This Day in History page, but there are many to peruse when looking for the day’s events. Here is a brief and very incomplete list:

Once you have the list, how does it work? Let’s take today. October 10th. Many things porgy-and-besshappened on this day throughout human history. I like to look at a long list of possible events because usually something strikes me and my brain is off and running. Today, the event that jumps off the page at me is that on October 10, 1935 Porgy and Bess, “the first great American opera,” premiered on Broadway.

Whoa. I love this opera. I used to sing songs from this opera in middle school concert choir. How did I forget that today was the day it premiered? Okay, I probably never actually knew what day it premiered, but nonetheless… reading about this event triggers a host of thoughts and creative avenues for me – even though on the surface it is not at all related to my current writing project.

As I follow the thoughts, I jot notes to myself. Many don’t get used, but I write down – without judgment or too much thought – everything that comes to mind for 5-10 minutes. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote for today:

  • In middle school, I learned “Summertime” (song from P&B) for concert choir – I then got into the opera and insisted on seeing it in person; led to trip to the city where we got lost – what if the main character does similar… what happens when she’s lost?
  • What if the main character wants to play Bess in the high school production but she isn’t black? Or maybe it’s not P&B but some other show … What happens? How does she go about getting the part? How do others react?
  • What if the main character is trying to write an American opera and uses P&B as the basis/inspiration – what could this be about? What is relevant today from P&B? What has changed? How can I change the opera to be new? How does impact the M.C.’s life? 

You get the idea.

I think everyone can benefit from trying this technique at least once. It may not find its way into your story or art the first time, but the brainstorming process that results from looking at “On This Day” forces your brain into creative mode. And in creative mode is always a good place be.

If you try this technique, let me know how it goes! And if you do something similar, please share! I’d love to read about it in the comments so I can tuck it up my sleeve or into a pocket when I need another trick! 

Looking for a literary agent?

literary-agents-public-domainI’m not currently looking for an agent, but merely thinking about the process makes me break out in a cold sweat. Finding a good match, writing a stellar query, knowing how to spot a fake… Never mind actually having a polished manuscript to submit!

Fortunately, there are many great resources to help writers along. Websites galore, how-to articles, Facebook groups, manuals, agencies … And every year, Writer’s Digest puts out a new guidebook to help connect writers and agents.wd-guide-to-literary-agents-2017

So if you’re in the market for an agent, check out Chuck Sambuchino‘s blog post, which includes a giveaway for the new 2017 Guide to Literary Agents! Entering is easy – simply comment on his blog. And if you are on Twitter, you can tweet about the giveaway for an extra entry.

Good luck!

Are you looking for an agent? If you’d care to share about the process, let us know in the comment section below!

NaNoWriMo: Creating a book cover

nanowrimo-crestI was on the fence (again) this year about joining NaNoWriMo, but the idea of writing during the month of November with my amazing Platformed Challenged friends has convinced me. I’m in!

Still…

I worry.

This year, November for me means not only all of the usual busyness of Thanksgiving, family, and work because in addition there is a 100% chance of (FINALLY) moving into our new house. It’s been delayed and delayed and delayed, and we’ve been moving from temporary housing to temporary housing. But finally – in November – it will be done. And right smack in the middle of it all? NaNoWriMo.

So with these immense tasks looming large, I need all the motivation I can get. Little things can get me pumped when I’m feeling intimidated, so this morning instead of focusing on the writing, I thought I’d focus on something easier:

Creating a book cover for NaNoWriMo.

I have no plan when it comes to NaNo. I don’t plot – as much as I want to be the writer with the outline, character sketches, and full-blown plan for novel writing, I am a pantser through and through. In fact, I don’t have a clue as to what this year’s NaNo book will be about. Or at least I didn’t until I started making a cover. It’s one of my tricks up my very tricksy sleeves. I force myself to complete the first step, and the rest follows. Eventually. And if I change my mind or the Muses gift me with another story? I’ll change the cover. Easy as pie.

So for anyone who would like a nudge in the pants(er), here is a quick and painless way to create a NaNoWriMo book cover to display with pride (or any other emotion you choose) on your dashboard…

(1) Log in to Canva.

Canva is a free, online site that comes fully loaded with easy-to-use tools that make it possible for everyone (well, maybe not my mother but she still can’t figure out her email) to design graphics, presentations, social media bling, headers, buttons, and yes, NaNo book covers. For free. Just register with your email address and you’re good to go!

(2) From your Canva dashboard, click “Use custom dimensions” and enter 230 x 300 pixels. It will look something like this:

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You’ll then end up on the layout page with a blank slate, like this:

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(3) From here, you can get as creative as you’d like OR keep it as simple as you like.

Simple cover – For a crisp, clean cover, simply add a background color and lettering, like so:

canva-step-3

All I did here was select existing text from the left sidebar and edit it. For the author’s name, I used “Add a little bit of body text.” You can change the colors, size, etc., by simply selecting the element. Playing around and experimenting is the best way to find what you like.

Fancier cover – Or add photos (choose from free stock photos, pay $1 to use protected images, or upload your own photos), graphics, fancy fonts from your personal library, and other elements. Here’s an example using a free stock photo:

canva-step-3-and-a-half
I selected “Elements” from the left menu bar, picked “Free photos,” then entered “train” in the search box. To make the photo fit the cover, I dragged the corners until the image filled the 230 x 300 pixel template. Then I added text as above.

(4) After you’ve played around and are happy with the cover, click “Download” from the top menu bar and save the file as a JPG or PNG, the forms compatible with NaNo.

canva-step-4

(5) Finally, all that’s left is to visit your author dashboard over at NaNoWriMo and upload the cover!

I promise this is a very easy process and was actually faster than the time it took to write this post! I created my 2016 NaNoWriMo cover this morning after deciding to take the plunge. And while I didn’t know going in what my book would be about, the creative process got the juices flowing and an idea sparked. Now let’s hope it catches!

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Let me know if you create a NaNoWriMo cover! And if you have a different technique or use different software please feel free to share in the comment section – it’s always good to learn different ways to accomplish the same task since you never know what you’ll like best until you try it!

The Writing Life: Lions and Tiger and Titles – Oh My!

books_public_domainIf you’re anything like me, you start writing because a character (or an interesting situation) comes to visit your brain. And you write and write and write and begin to bring to life the story. You start to get excited about your wonderful writing so you share bits and pieces of the project with your friends and/or fellow writers. And then, inevitably the question arises:

“So … what’s the title?” 

And you pause for a never-ending-moment before answering, “Uh … n-n-nothing yet.”

You say this even if it is titled because you only have a working title and no one in their right mind ever wants to share a working title because it is usually embarrassing or silly or unimaginative or anything but the perfect title you know your masterpiece deserves.

Speaking from experience, I can say this traumatic title trouble also happens with poems, flash pieces, works of nonfiction both long and short, essays, research papers, academic works … and yes, even blog posts.

So what’s a writer to do? 

Well, I wish I could give you a one-sentence magic answer … but sadly, I have yet to master that mystical power. However, I can give you a list of some pretty nifty websites that have helped me tack title trouble in the past. Here they are in no particular order:

    • From indiebooklauncher.com comes the post, How to Pick a Title For Your Book (doesn’t get more obvious than that). What I like about this post is that it presents a number of options to brainstorm – I particularly like the suggestion to look for snatches of dialogue.
    • I love this post from Scott Berkun entitled The Truth About Choosing Book Titles because he hits on what matters and what doesn’t, which helps when whittling down that endless brainstorm list of possible titles – I especially like #10!
    • The helpful Tucker Max over at Book in a Box has provided this detailed article aptly named Picking the Perfect Book Title covering everything from titular research to social media to your own gut – very helpful and full of jumping-off points for your title adventures.
    • Don’t forget the value of old-fashioned brain picking – friends, family, even strangers in the supermarket might have the perfect title on the tips of their tongues. My husband was instrumental in helping me figure out the title to a nonfiction piece I recently wrote for a workshop and the first thing everyone commented on was the amazing title.
    • Really stumped? Check out these random title generators from TaraSparlingWrites. I’m happy to see that if I were to ever write Chic Lit (highly unlikely), the title could be Where Smiles Might Tell — mysterious and strange, just like me!
        And when all else fails, keep in mind that if you decide to publish your baby via a publishing house, the editor and marketing peeps may make the decision for you! So sit back, relax, and keep writing. The title will appear, one way or the other. At least that’s what I keep telling myself!

Do you have any tips for title choosing? I’d love to read them and add your wisdom to my writing arsenal! So please – share away in the comments section!

Top Seven Takeaways from Writing Conferences (Part 7): Enjoy the Ride

relax public domainMy final takeaway after attending myriad writing conferences for a year is to sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself. I know it can be stressful to network, have your work critiqued, or pitch to an agent. But it’s important to remember that writing conferences are not put on to induce stress. They are there to help you grow as a writer, make new writing contacts, and have a good time.

You’re probably asking, How do I do that?

Well, everyone is different – what is fun to some might be torture for others. But I think the following tips are fairly universal and will help you enjoy your next writing conference.

1. Play! Sign up for at least one workshop or session that lets you play. Or daydream. Or
laugh. Some of my favorite sessions have been ones where I spent time playing with the craft – literally. We cut and pasted. We colored words. And I left with a long list of possiblemuses-dancing-public domain characters and situations. Another that comes to mind involved humor writing – the presenters were a riot and had me laughing for most of the hour. Another involved incorporating tricks and techniques from the theater to improve writing (and trust me, I don’t have the drama bug). All of these were a departure from my normal approach and all made the conference fun.

 
2. Take a break. Let’s be honest – conferences can be exhausting! Especially multi-day conferences. If you’re feeling like you can’t maintain, take a break. Go for a quick walk. reading public domainFind a quiet space and doodle/journal/read/stare into space. Do you have a hotel room? Take a 20-minute power nap or a quick shower. I know when I’ve felt like I’ve reached the end of my rope at conferences, taking a break allowed me to re-enter with a positive mindset and renewed energy

3. Indulge. There is usually a spread of delectable goodies at writing conferences. And I’m not talking food. Check out the books and other writing-related items for sale and allow yourself an indulgence or two. I’ve picked up books at writing conferences that I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. They were a real treat for me and as an added bonus, I got that wonderous feeling that comes from having supported my fellow writers.

4. See the sights. If you’re attending a conference in a city you don’t usually frequent, takesightseeing-tour-bus-public domain
time after the conference to see the sights, hit a local bar or restaurant, or visit an independent bookstore. If you’ve hit it off with a writing buddy or two, take the initiative and invite them along for the ride. One of my favorite experiences was going to lunch with a group of successful writers at a local “green” cafe. Another conference was by the beach, and after the conference I kicked off my shoes and walked on the sandy shore.

grateful public domain5. Gratitude. Congratulate yourself from stepping away from your desk and out into the writing world by making a list of the positive things you are taking away from the experience (even if you’re feeling like the conference wasn’t the best). Being conscious and mindful of the experience and framing it in a positive light allows you to leave feeling more fulfilled and happier about your time at the conference.

I’m thrilled to have shared some of what I learned during the past year with all of you. If you attend a writing conference in the future, let me know how it goes!

And finally – how do you enjoy the writing conference ride? Haven’t been to a writing conference? No sweat! Let me know a tip or trick you use to relax and have fun in any situation! 

Top Seven Takeaways from Writing Conferences (Part 6): Bang for Your Buck

one-dollar-billThe cost of attending writing conferences can range from my all-time favorite, FREE, to hundreds (and hundreds) of dollars. Additionally, a writing conference can last one day or multiple days, which, unless you live relatively close to the venue means a hotel room and meals out. How do you know which conference to attend in order to get the most bang for your buck?

I’ll be honest. When I first started my year of writing conferences, I had no idea what to look for to answer that question. I lucked out with my very first conference being a grant-funded (read: free admission) conference that happened to have amazing speakers and workshops. But after that, I ran the gamut of reasonable to ridiculous in pricing. And spending more money did not necessarily ensure a better conference.

So please. Learn from my mistakes. My lost money is cash in your pocket. Here are some tips I found useful when determining how to get the most for your conference dollar:

1. Do your homework.
Spend some time looking at upcoming conferences, the list of presenters, the schedule of sessions and workshops. Are there critique sessions? Pitch sessions? Networking activities? Who is the keynote speaker? If a conference costs $300 but three of the four sessions rank as an “eh” in your book, you’re probably better off at a different conference or waiting until next year. Not sure where to find conference listings? Poets & Writers has a database as does New Pages. In addition, START LOCAL. If you don’t need to get a hotel room, eat out as much, etc., you’ll automatically save hundreds of dollars. Check with your state’s writing associations, community and local colleges, bookstores, and libraries. That conference I mentioned above? The free one? That was run through a joint state and library grant program. public-domain-checklist

2. Know what you want to get out of the conference.
There are general writing  conference, genre-specific conferences, writing retreats, pitch conferences… The list goes on. Are you looking to land an agent? Improve a specific part of your craft? Rub elbows with other writers? A little of everything? Knowing what your goal is can save you money and more importantly, it can save you time. There is nothing worse than feeling like you spent a day in a conference that wasn’t worth your money when you could have spent that time writing. So my advice is to look for a conference that best meets your needs. Just getting your feet wet? A general conference is probably the best bet. Looking to grow in your chosen genre? Check out conferences run by your genre’s organization (e.g., SCBWI, Romance Writers, Mystery Writers, Christian Writers, Sci-Fi & Fantasy Writers, etc.).

3. Consider add-ons carefully.
Many conferences have optional “add-ons” that writers may choose to attend or not attend. These can be extra sessions, workshops, one-on-one critiques or feedback sessions, and so on. I’ve had good experiences with the add-ons and not-so-good experiences. The difference? Careful consideration of the added value. They may cost a few extra dollars, but they can also make the difference between a wonderful conference experience and a “blah” experience. The best money I spent was for an add-on at an SCBWI conference – I got more out of those three hours than I did the rest of the two-day conference. But be cautious – not all add-ons are created the same. I researched before adding on that extra session at the SCBWI conference, and in fact did not register for the other add-on even though it was on the same day. I used that time to write.

woman with money public domainWriting conferences can be a wonderful way to grow as a writer and to network with people who can potentially change your writing life. But unless you are independently wealthy, the cost of attending is something to carefully weigh against the benefit. I hope that some of these tips help when you decide which conference(s) to attend this year!

Do you have any other thoughts on how to get the most bang for your writing conference buck? Please share with us – we all like to spend money wisely!

Top Seven Takeaways from Writing Conferences (Part 5): Critique Sessions

concritMany conferences offer critique sessions in a group setting or one-on-one feedback meetings with a professional writer, editor, or agent. Is it worth missing out on another session to attend a critique?

YES!

Even if you are in an MFA program or have a phenomenal writing group, the feedback you receive in those critique session – while valuable – is often geared toward first (or near-first) drafts. The piece(s) you bring to a writing conference critique should be close to what you perceive as publishable. As such, the feedback you receive from publishing experts will help you fine tune your work so that it is marketable and ready to be sent out for queries or submission. It’s unlikely that the other ten or so MFA students (and even the instructor for that matter) can offer you the kind of insight that seasoned publishing professions can. And while your local writing group is invaluable for helping develop your work, the input from a professional can make all the difference.

There are some things to consider …

  1. Be prepared to receive feedback. Even brilliant stories and poems can benefit from another pair of eyes and seasoned input. Don’t let your ego get in the way. Listen, take notes, say thank you, and let the feedback simmer for a few days. Don’t try to argue your perspective or explain why you are right.
  2. Do your homework. Make sure that the person(s) who will be giving the critique is a up downgood fit for your work. In other words, if you want feedback on a romance piece and the only available time slot is with an editor who specializes in sci-fi… consider waiting until next time.
  3. Bring everything you might need. In addition to the requested number of pages, come ready with business cards, additional work, a bio, a synopsis and/or elevator pitch, and breath mints (hey, you’ll be in close quarters!). You never know where a critique session will lead and don’t want to scribble your email on a napkin or the corner of a piece of paper. Be ready for anything.
  4. Don’t forget – you’ll hear the good things about your piece, too! Critique sessions are designed to provide constructive criticism, and constructive criticism includes elements in the story, poem, or essay that work well for the reviewer. It helps to hear about what you’re doing right so you can keep it up in the draft you’re presenting and in future work.

If you can’t attend a conference that has a critique opportunity, I recommend joining a writing group (either virtual or in-person) or asking a trusted writing friend for feedback. While it can be difficult to listen to feedback and criticism, it can also make the revision process easier and more focused.

How about you? I’d love to hear different experiences with critiques and feedback! Plus, sharing stories and advice will help other writers as we look for new opportunities to grow. So share away!

What to Write When Nothing Comes

bored_by_publicdomainpictures.netMaybe you’ve been lucky and never drawn a blank when sitting down to write. But if you’re like me, you’ve sat. And sat. And looked up prompts. And doodled. And refreshed your coffee. Or tea. Or water. Or whiskey. You’ve told yourself, “Go!” then stared numbly at the screen. So you surfed the net, checked and deleted email. Answered the phone. Did the dishes. Dreamed up fanciful and creative menus for your family that you’ll never make. And decided to go to bed early (or late).

And promised yourself that tomorrow you’ll be able to get something down. trick_by_publicdomainreview.org

If this is sounding a little too familiar, I have a trick that helps when you find yourself thinking, “I have nothing to write about.” I’m going to describe it as it relates to poetry, but it could be used with any genre. I have found that when I’m stuck with nothing for my fiction, writing poetry can help shake things loose.

Okay, ready for the trick? Here it is:

Write the opposite.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “What? This gal has really lost it. Write the opposite of what?!

Let me explain…

Take a poem – any poem. It can be one you’ve written, it can be a classic, it can be one you love, or one you hate. Go through it line by line and write the opposite of whatever the sentiment is in that line.

Here’s an example using Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken:”

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Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both ….

To write the opposite, I could do something like this:

woods2_by_publicdomain
In the purpled woods, two roads collided 

and glad was I to find the path so clear ….

That is an off-the-cuff example that could use (a lot) of work. Regardless, it demonstrates what I mean. At least I hope it does!

To complete the exercise, I would go through every line. If all of sudden in the middle of this task something sparks and I’m inspired, I might drop the exercise and run with my new idea. If not, I’d keep at it, line by line. Then revise and make changes, look for better words and better imagery.

And at the end of the day, I’ll have a poem. At the very least, I’ll have made good use of the day and worked my creative muscles. Writing the opposite it harder than it sounds. It forces you to be creative, look for ways to describe emotions, places, and people. And it can result in some phenomenal poetry!

Don’t believe me? Give it a try! And let me know what you think.

I’m curious – what do you do when the muse is silent? I’d love to hear other tips and tricks! 

Time to Celebrate!

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Photo from DMGBrynes.com

After participating in the October Platform Challenge hosted by Writer’s Digest and Robert Lee Brewer, I was fortunate to find an amazing list of writers with phenomenal blogs and websites. DMG Byrnes is one of those writers and she was the winner of the Platform Challenge, an honor which included a stack of wonderful writing resources. In true pay-it-forward fashion, DMG offered a giveaway for one of those books – the 2016 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market guide from Writer’s Digest.

And I won!

Yippee! Now we are so happy, we do the dance of joy!  

Okay, I’m dating myself with a Perfect Strangers reference…  Time to move on.

Thank you, Ms. Byrnes, for the giveaway and for the wonderful information you share via your blog.

If you haven’t had the chance to visit DMG’s site, check it out! Tell her I say “hi!”

Top Seven Takeaways from Writing Conferences (Part 4): Logistics Tricks

**Don’t forget to enter my February Giveaway – ends tomorrow (2/12)!**

Ah, the thrill of walking into a room of strangers! Who doesn’t love looking for a place to sit and finding something to occupy yourself with before the action begins? Who doesn’t love negotiating the lunch line, eyeing all of the already-full tables of chatting writers, and trying to figure out who to approach to ask if the seat next to him or her is open?

Uh, the answer to all of the above would be me.

I would not be described by those who know me well as easily intimidated or particularly shy. But that’s because I have faked my way through and around and over my instincts to fear public domain imageavoid people at all costs. Instead, I’ve learned to smile and shake hands and speak with confidence. Still – while I don’t get anxious to the point of paralysis at the idea of mingling with strangers, I do get that uncomfortable flutter in my stomach at the thought of negotiating all of the logistics of events like conferences and open workshops.

That feeling brings me back to my school days. It’s a fear of being excluded, left out, unwanted. It’s a fear of being the last kid picked for a team. Of everyone laughing at a joke you’re not in on. It’s a fear of being the last one in the lunchroom, holding a tray of food and finding every seat is taken.

When I start to feel this way, I remind myself that at some point in school I probably was excluded, left out, and unwanted. I’m sure I was. But I got past it. I’m not twelve. Or even sixteen. I’m … much older. Plus, writing conferences are not like school. Not at all. Sure there are usually desks, and yes there is typically one person doing most of the talking. But trust me – they are different. For one thing, we’re all adults. For another, we’re writers. Writers are a friendly if eclectic and often quirky crowd. And many writers are very introverted. All of this spells good news for the shy peeps among us since there is almost certain to be another Nervous Nellie looking for a place to sit and someone to chat with before the show begins. Look for the person hunched over a smartphone. Chance are she is simply killing time, trying to look busy so she doesn’t look alone.

Of course, none of this meandering narrative provides you with direct help. That’s what the rest of this post is for.

Here are my top five tips (or logistics tricks, if you will) for navigating the less “writerly” part of writing conferences

1. Where do I sit during lectures/workshops?

lecture-hall public domainThe answer is – toward the front. And also on the end of an aisle or as close to one as you can get. Here’s why. You want to be able to hear (not all writers have great speaking voices … or microphones). You want to be able to see (most presenters hold up books, papers, examples, write on the board, or use the smartboard/overhead). You want the presenter to notice you when you raise your hand with a comment or question (if for no other reason than if you don’t, someone else will). And most importantly, you want to be able to get the heck out of Dodge (the presenter might be so awful you have to leave, you might need to use the facility, and after the session you want to be able to dart over to the lecturer with fabulous questions and insights).

2. Where to sit during lunch?

The answer is – sit with people.eating public domain

Okay, that’s an oversimplification. If you didn’t bring friends or acquaintances with you, I have found that one of two options works phenomenally. One, make a point to start a conversation with one or more folks in the session before lunch. If you find this person (or people) interesting, you have a lunch buddy. Two, sit anywhere. I’ve sat by myself a few times (when I was lucky to get to the lunch line in the first wave) and inevitably I was joined by other writers looking for company (or, more likely, a seat). I’ve held my breath and walked over to almost-full tables and been welcomed like a long-lost friend. Remember the first post in the series – networking is key. Make these lunch hours work for you!

3. Speaking of food… Should I bring my own? Risk eating what is provided? Or head out to a restaurant?

lunch public domainThe answer is – it depends.

I’ve done all three. I’m a fan of keeping things simple. And the easiest thing is to eat the food provided. It’s usually included or offered at a reasonable price. That being said, I have food allergies, I have Celiac, and I’m a vegan. You can imagine that standard conference food isn’t usually going to work for me. If you have any food “issues,” I strongly recommend contacting the organizers to make sure the meal you’re paying for will actually be something you can eat. Don’t email. Don’t rely on the box you checked when you registered. Call the organizers. Once I was handed a gluten-free tuna fish sandwich when I marked vegan and allergic to fish. It was gluten-free, but I couldn’t eat it. Lesson learned.

I have brought my own meal on occasion. It was fine, but tedious to carry about or retrieve from the (distant) car. And I went out to lunch exactly one time. I joined a group of women who invited me along. It was a nice experience, but far more costly than eating at the conference. Still, I made connections and had a good time. Of course, not all conferences provide food and in that case the decision is easier.

4. I have choices for different sessions. How do I know which ones to take?

The answer is – narrow down your options, then do some homework.

First, I am a strong believer in signing up for at least one session that will get you writing. There are often workshop-type sessions (easily identified by the words “bring a pencil!” or “we’ll then put xyz to use!” and so on). Even if this session is offered in a genre that you typically avoid I say, take it anyway. In fact, the less familiar you are with the genre the better. You only grow when you stretch yourself. The active sessions are good for something else, too. They break up the day. It can be difficult to sit and only listen for six or more hours. These workshops will engage a different part of the brain and provide a boost to get you through the rest of the day.

Second, it is easy to cross off public-domain-checklist-300x199the things that don’t apply or appeal to you – or that do. If you write in a specific genre, look for genre-specific sessions. I attended a conference that offered sessions on writing thrillers, writing romance, fantasy world building… If those apply to you, grab them with both hands because they will probably fill up fast. Likewise, if you only write nonfiction, a fantasy world building workshop won’t be for you.But invariably, there’s a slot of time in which none of the sessions are appealing – or worse, all are appealing or “must-have” sessions. That’s when it is homework time.

So…

Third, do your homework. Research the presenters before the conference. Look at their publications. Read their bios. Sometimes a session title sounds tedious, but after reading the bio of the presenter you find that the woman leading it is in two rock bands, writes for a television series you love, and does stand-up comedy on the side. You can bank on that session being lively and fun! Or you find out that the session title that sounded amazing is being led by a writer you didn’t know you detested because he writes under a pen name. You don’t want to spend the entire session muttering under your breath and stabbing your notebook out of frustration. Taking a little time to learn about who is going to be holding your attention (or losing it) for an hour or more can be invaluable in choosing how to spend your time.

public-domain_largeAnd finally, know you will probably regret at least one session. You’ll walk out of a session that left you feeling “blah” only to hear laughter and applause coming from the room of the session you almost decided to attend. At lunch, your table mates will gush about how much they enjoyed and are taking away from a session you thought sounded about as appealing as stabbing yourself in the eye. It happens. My advice is to challenge yourself and make a list of at least three things you know now that you didn’t know before the session. For example, I attended one session that was a total letdown. I was angry and frustrated because I felt like I had wasted precious time and money. But I stuck to the challenge and made my list. One of the things on my list was, “I now know that there are forty-six ceiling tiles in room 103.” Sounds pointless. But I filed that away, and actually used that experience when writing a scene in which the character is bored out of her mind during a class. Not ideal, but I no longer see the session as a total waste because the experience was fresh in my mind so my scene was vivid and detailed.

5. When should I arrive? The website says check-in starts at 8am, but the conference doesn’t begin until 9:30am?

time public domainThe answer – as early as possible.

I know, I know. The awkwardness of standing around with nothing to do! The horror of waiting! Or for some of us, the horror of getting up early and anywhere on time! I get it. But here’s why I answer this way… Unless you live across the street, you want to give yourself time to find the place, get parking, sign in, grab a cup of joe (or tea or juice), snag a muffin or doughnut before they’re gone (or if you’re me, a banana), find out where the restrooms are, have time to ask any last minute questions, and study the map of the place to figure out where on earth you’re going. You don’t want to be a sweaty mess that runs in late, hands shaking from the stress of finding the venue and parking, miss the coffee and goodies, and start the day feeling behind. I’ve been that person. It’s not fun. Tell yourself the start time is the earliest time listed for arrival, and unless there is a record-breaking traffic jam or you drive for fifty miles in the wrong direction on the highway, you won’t be late. And you’ll have a little extra time to meet people, familiarize yourself with the schedule, and relax before the day begins.alarm clock public domain

There’s another benefit to arriving early. Most conferences begin with a keynote speaker. If you arrive on the earlier side of the morning, you can actually find a seat that meets the criteria I listed above. You’ll be able to hear. You’ll be able to see (I showed up slightly later – not late, but not early – to a conference this fall and had a great view of a pole for the keynote address). You’ll be able to sneak out to use the restroom – or at least get there first at the break (this is no joke for the ladies room – I’ve seen lines wrapped around the building). And you won’t be the person coming in late to hundreds of eyes that will inevitably turn and stare at you as you try to find a place to sit (or more likely, stand). So set your alarm and be early – not just on time. 

I hope some of this is helpful as you step through the doors of your next conference!

If you’ve been to a writing conference – or anything like a writing conference that presented similar tricky logistics – please share your tips and tricks! What has worked (or not worked) for you?