Getting The Most From A Long Writers Conference

Ocean, Lincoln City, Oregon

Today I'm headed home from an 8-day writers conference.

At a conference, unlike a retreat, it's not about taking time away from your day-to-day life to write as much as you can or to hone in on a particular creative project.

Instead, it's about taking in information and meeting other writers. Participants usually attend lectures and panel discussions led by experts.

At the one I just finished, we attended talks or presentations from 11-1, 3-6, and 8-9:30. Five out of 8 days included 2-hour lunches at tables of 8 or 9 people led by one of the panelists. Each night there were free form late night discussions.

Three things to remember to get the most out of a busy conference (and leave without getting sick or losing your mind):

(1) Know yourself

(2) Set your goals

(3) Get outside

Know Yourself

Faced with a conference full of experts as well as tons of other people with whom you share a love of writing, it's tempting to spend every waking hour learning or interacting with others.

This is why you need to know yourself.

Nightime view of beach – not that's not a snake.

If you're a high energy person who likes to be in motion from the instant you wake up until the second your head hits the pillow, you will likely be fine attending each event and chatting with people on every break. You may want to arrange more times to interact during unscheduled hours or to visit local stores or attractions.

On the other hand, if you're someone who prefers to spend some time alone each day or needs quiet to recharge and take in what you've learned, pick a few sessions or events you wouldn't be too disappointed to miss if you find you need to step away.

No matter where you fall on that spectrum, leave some downtime. Otherwise, you'll have trouble focusing during the day or sleeping at night.

It's also good to pick up snacks (or groceries if where you're staying has a kitchenette). That way if you need some quiet but don't want to miss any formal sessions, you can eat a meal or two in your room.

At this conference, I attended every talk or panel and each lunch.

But I am not a night person, which was exaggerated by being in a different time zone. So I skipped the late night discussions, though I did meet once for breakfast with other attendees.

Set Goals

Learning every fact and figure, trying every recommended strategy, and shaking every hand is rarely effective. Too much information can be overwhelming. Also, after you've met the tenth or twelfth person, it's hard to remember who was whom.

With Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn

Instead, before the conference, pick 2-5 people you'd really like to meet and have a conversation with. That's often more valuable than coming home with a long list of names.

(The photo above is not my favorite of me, but Joanna Penn is one of the people I really wanted to chat with. I love her podcast The Creative Penn, and I also love her fiction under J.F. Penn, especially her London Crime Thrillers, which include a hint of the supernatural.)

Similarly, while I take notes on each session, I figure out in advance what I'm most hoping to learn. It's not that I don't pay attention to the rest, but the 2 or 3 main areas help me organize my thoughts and my notes.

This time I wanted to figure out my 2-3 major goals for next year. I got started on that. I also realized I need a solid 5-year plan.

Get Outside

Sitting in a conference room, lecture hall, or classroom all day makes you tired no matter how much sleep you get or what your natural energy level is.

Daytime beach walk
On a walk near the conference

Getting outside, ideally for a walk, gets your heart pumping and makes you more alert and happier.

Checking out new surroundings is also good for your brain. So no matter how engaging the materials or how many people you want to meet, spend a little time outdoors.

What are your tips for getting the most out of a conference or other educational opportunity?

Let me know in the comments.

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

Marketing Your Novel: Wide vs. Exclusive

This week I'm at a conference for writers on business and marketing. More on that in coming weeks. (We've been asked not to blog about it until the end.)

Because I've been so focused on marketing, this Friday I'm recommending A Tale of Two Marketing Systems, one of the best articles I've read on the difference between selling your books wide–meaning on multiple platforms such as Kobo, iBooks, Nook, etc.–and selling them exclusively through Amazon.

Being exclusive to Amazon offers benefits, including putting your ebooks into Kindle Unlimited. People then read the books as part of their subscription. The author gets paid per page.

The rate varies, but it can adds an income stream. My non-fiction book Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide to Plotting and Writing Your Novel is in KU. Every month anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of its earnings are from page reads.

Probably more important, in my view, is that the subscription model makes readers more likely to take a chance on a new book or author because it doesn't cost them any more.

Going wide, though, also has advantages.

Here are just a few:

  • You reach readers who don't read on Kindle;
  • As I wrote about in Boosting International Sales Of Your Books, you reach more readers in other countries;
  • You have multiple income streams from multiple platforms, so a change to how one of them pays, sells, or markets doesn't affect you as much.

Also, while a percentage of my income now comes from KU, I don't know if I'd earn more or less if I instead made those books widely available.

Some authors-in fact, most authors I've talked with–are adamant about the pluses or minuses of wide or exclusive. That's why I like Gaughran's post so much.

Rather than advocating for one or the other, Gaughran analyzes the different marketing strategies that work best for each. He compares the KU approach to the hare and the wide approach to the tortoise.

My two biggest takeaways were:

  • The way to succeed is completely different depending on whether you are wide or exclusive;
  • Choose one or the other, but don't try to mix both.

That second point raises some questions for me, as right now I'm mixing both. My Awakening series is wide, and my standalone novel, short story collection, and all my non-fiction books are in KU.

Based on the article, I'm thinking I might make all my fiction wide. If I do, I'll let you know how it goes.

Until Sunday–

L.M. Lilly

Scarlett O’Hara, Lizzy Bennet, And Character Values

What we value drives all our decisions, from the friends we choose to the jobs we take to where we live or what types of families we have.

This is also true of your characters.

You don't need to know everything your character values, but the more you know, the better you'll understand who your character is and what drives her (or him or it).

Also, the more easily you'll be able to create conflict. That matters because without conflict, there's no story.

Values-Driven Conflict

You can create conflict by starting with a character you’re drawn to, figuring out that person's values, then choosing conflicting values for another character who opposes the first.

For example, if you want to write about a protagonist who highly values peace and getting along with others, you might give him an antagonist who believes that disputing every point is the best way to get to the truth or to foster the most honest relationship.

This difference can create great conflict—and so spark a story—whether you’re writing romance, horror, literary fiction, or any other genre.

On the other hand, if you have a plot but no characters yet, you can start with what values your significant characters would need to serve that plot.

Lizzy Bennet

In Pride and Prejudice, protagonist Elizabeth Bennet highly values happiness and love in marriage, as well as compatibility, having seen her parents’ unhappiness.

Those values place her at great conflict with the practical realities of her life.

We learn on page one of the book that she is one of five Bennet sisters who, along with their mother, face homelessness and poverty when their father dies, as his estate passes to a distant cousin.

Nonetheless, Elizabeth, defying her mother’s wishes, refuses to marry the cousin.

The marriage would ensure she, her mother, and her sisters will be protected upon the father’s death. If Elizabeth didn’t value happiness—or perhaps avoiding definite unhappiness—in marriage so highly, she’d accept the proposal to protect herself and her family. But there would be no conflict, so no story.

And Scarlett O'Hara

As another example, in Gone With The Wind Scarlett marries her sister's fiancé to get money to support the family's home.

Why?

Her highest values are saving her family’s plantation and keeping her family from starving. She's sure that if her sister marries the man, his money will not go toward the family or their home but toward the sister alone.

Someone whose highest value was loyalty to her sister would make a different choice, as would someone who valued romantic love above all.

Love Scarlett or hate her, admire her or criticize her, does anyone doubt that she would marry her sister's beau in those circumstances? Not for a second. That's a character with strong, clear values. Gone With The Wind is full of conflict as a result.

Think about the protagonist and antagonist in a story you're writing or plotting.

What do they value most? Do those values conflict? If not, is there a way you can alter their values so that they do?

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on developing characters, check out my Free Character Creation Tip Sheet.

Negotiating Rights And Learning From Old School Publishing

This Friday I'm recommending two blog posts by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, editor, and publisher. I came across both because I'm heading to a conference focused on the business aspects of being an author, and she's one of the presenters.

Her blog contains a wealth of information for authors.

For example, in Business Musings: Pulphouse, Alternate History, & the Modern Era, Rusch talks about launching a quarterly hardback magazine with her husband in the pre-Internet, pre-ebook days when publishers had to pay for print runs and sell mainly through book sellers.

She covers what worked well–such as creating an Issue Zero with a striking cover and blank pages to send to authors when asking them to submit stories–and the many, many mistakes made.

One mistake involved not having a plan to deal with the 90-120 day lag time between paying for the costs to publish and collecting revenue. Another was underpricing the publication.

While much has changed in the publishing world since then, Rusch shows how the lessons learned apply to authors today.

In Business Musings: My Day in Negotiation, Rusch discusses negotiating rights, including for television deals, and why she prefers to do so herself rather than relying on an agent.

If, like me, you think it'll be quite a long time, if ever, before you'll need to deal with offers for movie or television rights, this is the right time to read the advice.

In fact, it's probably the best time because you can consider it and learn more before you're in the middle of a discussion. Plus, when there's an offer on the table, it can be hard to get past your excitement and be objective about the terms of the deal.

Business Musings: My Day in Negotiation

Until Sunday–

L.M. Lilly

Playing More Could Help Your Writing

I finally watched Stranger Things, the Netflix series about frightening forces at work in a small town.

The first episode starts with four boys playing a role-playing game that includes monsters.

A few of my games.

When one boy disappears, the others draw from the rules and the magic of their game to help search for him. As is also true in many Stephen King novels, magic and imagination are key to confronting evil.

Play is key to real life, too, especially for writers.

There’s a reason we often get our best story ideas or solve a plot issue as we drift off to sleep or when we dream. To be creative, our minds need to relax and rest and play.

But it's not easy to play.

Most of life, especially when you’re juggling multiple responsibilities, is scheduled and goal-oriented. Writing can add to that, as fitting it in often means putting every free half hour (or every fifteen minutes) toward our latest project.

That’s a good way to make progress on a novel, and I’m a big fan of schedules and goals, lists and plans. But doing things that are solely for fun, that have no end goal, is what sparks creativity. It helps avoid writer’s block.

Also, it’s fun.

So what counts as play?

Peter Gray, Ph.D., in a blog on Psychology Today, noted that Play is:

  1. self-directed and self-chosen;
  2. an activity where the means matter more than the ends;
  3. has rules, but they’re created by the player’s minds, not required by physical necessity;
  4. is imaginative, not literal, and is in some way removed from “real life”;
  5. involves an alert and active, but not stressed, state of mind.

Over the last few years as I’ve cut back on my law practice, I’ve added more play. I’ve played air hockey and laser tag. Yesterday night I visited the Jurassic Park exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum.

I also like board games, and next month I’m meeting with some writer friends at the Galloping Ghost Arcade. You can play arcade games all day for $20, and I've heard it has the classics from my childhood. (My favorites were Q-bert, Galaxian, and Ms. Pacman.)

Looking back, much as I’m happy that I wrote a lot even when I was working 55-65 hours a week at law, I’m pretty sure I would have been happier, and possibly also finished my novels more quickly, had I occasionally written a little less and played a little more.

How about you?

If you were going to write less and play more, what would you play?

Until Friday—

L.M. Lilly

Should You Use Beta Readers?

Five or six years ago I'd never heard the term beta reader. Now almost all authors I know use them as part of their revision process, as do I.

Recently, however, I read a post by Dean Wesley Smith that cautions against relying on beta readers.

A beta reader looks at a complete manuscript and gives the writer comments. This person is not a professional editor or an author, but is someone who reads a lot, ideally in the genre in which the author is writing.

Some authors send beta readers a first draft.

I usually send my novel out only when it's close to finished. My early drafts are very rough, and I do a lot of my writing in the rewriting phase. I don't want other people's views to skew my take on my own story.

The main benefit I've found from beta readers is that they let me know when they can't follow or don't understand a scene or plot twist. Also, if they don't understand why a character does something or strongly dislike a character I'd thought readers would resonate with, it cues me to double check to see if enough of what I know about that character has actually gotten out of my head and onto the page.

Some authors use dozens of beta readers and try to incorporate all of their comments. For me, that would be overwhelming, so I've never tried it.

In Killing The Sacred Cows Of Publishing: Beta Readers Help You Dean Wesley Smith strongly discourages using multiple readers, as it can easily turn into writing by committee.

Also, and contrary to much of the common advice to indie authors, Smith argues against using beta readers at all, stating: “Grow a backbone and believe in your own writing.” He makes good points about the downsides of the process and also about the fears and lack of confidence that may motivate writers to seek out many opinions.

If you're using or considering using beta readers, I highly recommend checking out his post.

Until Sunday-

L. M. Lilly

What To Read When You’re Writing

The next book you read can make revising your own novel easier or harder.

Most writers are strongly influenced by what they read and when. Sometimes you're aware of it.

For instance, Margaret Atwood said that when she came up with the concept for A Handmaid’s Tale, she realized it required her to to write dystopian science fiction. She read dozens of sci-fi novels to become more familiar with the genre.

Other times it's unconscious, such as when another author’s style creeps into your prose.

You don’t notice as you write, but when you return to a first draft after having set it aside for a while, you see a shift in style, level of detail, or dialogue rhythm that reflects what you were reading as you worked on different parts of the manuscript.

Because of that, it's worth choosing books that influence your writing in a positive way.

Know Your Strengths And Weaknesses

To make a good choice, you need to understand the strengths and weakness of your draft. That usually requires some distance.

For me, setting a first draft aside for 2-3 weeks is ideal, though I’ll let it rest longer if I need to work on something else anyway, and I'll take a shorter time away if I’m on a deadline.

Regardless, when you read the draft with fresh eyes, think about plot, pace, character development, dialogue, and scene level detail.

Ask yourself which aspect is strongest and what needs the most work.

Below are some thoughts on what to read to help the revision process.

Plot

For strong plots, genre books like suspense, mystery, horror, thrillers, and romance are good choices. These books usually have strong, clear plot outlines you can see if you pay attention when you reread.

When I was trying to get a better handle on plotting, I reread Stephen King’s The Dead Zone and wrote an outline of it. (I later read an interview where King said that was one of the few novels he outlined before writing.)

Watching movies and noting what happens in the beginning and at each quarter point in the film also can be very helpful. A major plot turn typically happens at the 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 point.

You can easily see this in The Dead Zone, in the film The Terminator, or in the book or film Gone With The Wind.

Characterization

For character development, I like Pat Conroy's novels, as he delves deeply into his characters' lives. The Prince Of Tides and The Lords Of Discipline are two excellent choices. Read either book to see how backstory plays into the plots.

Gone Girl also is an excellent book for character development (and plot for that matter).

Regardless whether you like horror, Stephen King develops his characters in great depth. That's what I love most about his work. The Stand and It show how really knowing the characters makes the stories pay off.

Prose

If you feel your prose is too wordy, read any John Sandford book to help achieve a clear, clean style. In a single line, Sandford can do more to set a scene or portray a character than most writers get across in an entire page.

My very old copy of Gone With The Wind

On the other hand, if your writing tends to be too sparing, again go back to Pat Conroy. He writes beautiful description and, in his best work, does it without distracting from the story.

Gone With The Wind is also a great choice for describing scenes and characters in a textured way that draws on all the senses.

Dialogue

For engaging, fast-paced dialogue that reveals character, one of the best choices is Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice.

Any play by David Mamet is a good choice. For TV, Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, also has an excellent ear for dialogue.

Pace

The pace of your novel or story is best addressed toward the end of the revision process. For that, you’ll usually want to read books that fall within your genre.

If you’re writing a thriller, read books praised by reviewers as page turners. If you’re writing literary, immerse yourself in your favorite literary novels, which generally allow for a far more leisurely pace.

One caveat on pacing—when you choose your examples, consider how established the writer’s fan base is.

Going back to Stephen King, while It is a wonderful example of characterization, on first read, I found the first half of the book far too slow. I had the same reaction to The Stand (and that was the less lengthy edition that was initially published, not the later extended version).

Because I already loved King’s books, I stuck with both and found I was glad I knew the characters so well. Had I not already been a huge King fan, though, I might not have finished either book.

In other words, if you’re aiming to draw in new readers, you may need to pick up the pace a bit more than does an author who already has readers eagerly buying the next book.

What do you like to read when you’re writing? Feel free to share in the comments or via email.

Until Friday—

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on the plot points referred to above, including an analysis of the stories mentioned, check out Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel.

Boosting International Sales Of Your Books

It's easy to focus on marketing and selling your books mainly in the country where you live, especially for those of us who grew up when print ruled the world and it was hard to buy books from another country.

These days, though, many authors make a significant portion of their sales from readers who live in countries other than their own.

As this article from BookBub explains, there's a lot you can do to increase international exposure of your work. First, be sure to make your work available on the platforms popular in the countries you hope to reach. For instance, Kobo is the most popular e-reader in Canada, so if you publish only on Kindle, you're missing a lot of readers.

Another is to target your advertising to particular countries.

Just yesterday, I placed my first Facebook ad for the 4-book Box Set for my Awakening supernatural thriller series. I decided to try targeting readers in Canada who like Dean Koontz and similar authors and who listed interests that included e-readers, Kobo, or reading. It's too early to say how it's going, but my readership in Canada has been growing, so I figured it was a good way to start my ads.

For more on growing your international sales, check out the BookBub article:

How to Market Your Book to Get Worldwide Exposure

Until Sunday–

L.M. Lilly

Truth, Strangeness, And Fiction

Have you ever written a story based on something that happened to you in real life and had a reviewer, beta reader, or editor say, “That would never happen?”

In that situation, most of us automatically think (and sometimes say), “But, it did.”

Unfortunately, we can’t walk around with our novels explaining to readers that certain things really did happen or certain words really were said. Even if you write a piece labeled based on a true story or that’s marketed as a memoir, readers aren’t obligated to believe any of it is true. And they won’t, unless you lay the proper groundwork.

So what to do? Try these 3 steps:

  • Remember the cliché about truth being stranger than fiction
  • Recognize what you know that your reader doesn’t
  • Be true to your story
Truth And Fiction

The old cliché that truth is stranger than fiction is a good reminder that just because something really happened doesn’t mean your readers will believe it.

In real life, if your friend does something that’s out of character, you believe it because you see her do it whether you understand her motives or not. In fiction, though, rather than believe it when a character does something that doesn’t ring true based on what you’ve seen so far, you’ll likely instead feel the author has done a poor job with characterization.

Similarly, if a reader’s understanding of a particular situation, workplace, or topic clashes with what’s depicted in a novel, the reader most likely will believe her own experience and figure the author failed to do enough research.

That assumption might be completely unfair on the reader’s part, but as story expert Lani Diane Rich often says, truth is no defense to fiction. The fiction must stand on its own.

I ran into this with a story about a lawyer who, in the first scene, was meeting an important client for dinner and hoping to make a good impression that could help him get a promotion. Nervous, he adjusted his tie, which he had borrowed, as he hadn’t worn one to work that day.

The critique group with whom I shared a first draft couldn’t believe that a lawyer at a large firm with business clients had gone to work without a tie. One writer said flatly, “There’s no way this guy who’s bucking for a promotion doesn’t wear a suit and tie every day.”

The firm in the story was modeled after the large law firm where I worked as an attorney at the time. My first instinct was to point out that no one in firm’s Chicago office, which included over 200 lawyers, one of whom was the Chairman, wore a suit every day.

But I realized that didn’t matter.

The people in my critique group knew I was a lawyer, and still they thought I had written an unrealistic lawyer character. Clearly, readers who didn’t know me would be even more likely to assume I had no clue what “real” lawyers’ lives are like. Regardless what was true, I hadn’t done my job as a writer.

What Do You Know

If you have a point that seems clear to you because it really happened, but it doesn't strike the reader as true, you've probably left out facts or details that you think are obvious. Think about what you know about the backstory, the larger world where your story takes place, or the characters that you haven’t shared with the reader.

As I talked further with my critique group, I learned that their views of lawyers came mostly from two types of experiences. First, what they’d seen in TV and movies. Second, from personal experiences with an attorney they’d hired for a personal matter such as a divorce, a will, or a personal injury lawsuit.

Those types of lawyers are more likely to wear suits when meeting with clients, and they’re more likely to appear in court where suits are required.

What I knew and the readers didn’t is that at a large firm that handles litigation for large corporations, the client contact person is a lawyer who works for (or “inside”) that corporation. Those inside lawyers don’t go to court, and they generally wear business casual attire to work. If the lawyers at the law firms wear suits, that makes the inside lawyers feel underdressed. The firm lawyers dress to match their clients.

Also, in that type of commercial litigation, trials are rare, and there aren’t a whole lot of court appearances. Especially for more junior lawyers, nineteen days out of twenty the work is all about writing on a computer, talking on a conference call, and corresponding with clients via email. (Which is why you don’t see a lot of TV shows about commercial litigators.)

These sorts of details, perhaps told from of the perspective of a new lawyer nervous about fitting in and wearing what everyone else was wearing, probably would convince the reader that my protagonist wasn’t used to wearing a tie.

But should a writer always includes those types of details?

Being True To Your Story

Whether it makes sense to include details or backstory to make your real life experience believable depends on the type of story you’re telling.

Sometimes that detail is the story. Giving readers the inside scoop on a milieu with which they’re not familiar can make for a fascinating read.

In the 1960s Arthur Hailey did this with hotels and airlines in the aptly named novels Hotel and Airport. While probably everyone who read the books had stayed in a hotel or flown in a plane, they didn’t know what happened behind the scenes. The novels gave readers an inside view through compelling, likable characters facing challenges in getting their jobs done, dealing with coworkers and superiors, and handling difficult customers.

By bringing us deep into the viewpoint of someone striving to make guests happy, Hailey showed the stressful nature of tasks that seemed from the outside to be simple, such as ensuring each guest got an on-time wake up call (back when actual people made those calls).

In contrast, in my example above, my story wasn’t about life inside a large law firm that handled complex commercial lawsuits. I was writing a horror story about a lawyer meeting a client in a fancy restaurant where everyone morphs into monsters.

In that type of story, sharing backstory about the law firm and how people dressed, or adding scenes with conflicts on that point, would only slow the plot and bore the reader.

So I dropped the part about the tie being borrowed. I had the lawyer fiddle with it out of nerves, but I didn’t otherwise comment on what he normally wore. That got us to the monsters much more quickly.

Next time you write something that comes from real life, keeping these three steps in mind should make sure it also works as fiction.

Good luck!

Until Friday—

L.M. Lilly