Once More Unto the Breach

Two years ago, a Writers’ Digest conference in New York City gave me a view into what the life of a professional writer’s life is like. I have thought of myself as a writer for most of my adult life; that conference got me thinking of myself as an author, and it sparked my decision to retire from teaching.

This year I had a conflict for the New York conference, so I went to the WD Novel Writing Conference in Pasadena, California instead. It was a very different experience. Two years ago, it seemed like everyone there had this wide-eyed sense of wonder at having found a sense of community among new and aspiring writers. We all traded our hot off the presses business cards, and I was as excited about the ones I collected as I remember being about Batman trading cards when I was a kid.

This year felt less about networking and community and more focused on craft. I don’t know how much of that was the conference itself—it was billed as a novel writing conference, after all—and how much was me. Given a choice of three or four presentations in each time slot, I found myself always zooming it on the nuts-and-bolts, craft-oriented ones including a seven hour preconference workshop all about story structure.

It was VERY useful. I took copious notes all weekend long, and by mid-afternoon on that first day I had already completely reworked the outline for the novel I’m writing. I’m at exactly the right stage to be taking advantage of what I’m learning. I have 30,000 words of my second novel, with a stable of interesting characters and a general outline of events, but I’m not so close to completion that it will be unduly painful to reach in up to my elbows to muck around with it.

Much of what I heard were ideas I’d already read in Save the Cat or heard from my critique group, but hearing it and applying it and hearing it again, it’s sinking in more and growing into instinct. I took copious notes and bought books by some of the presenters. One of them compared writing a scene to holding a party; you want it to be spontaneous and fun, but you also need to make sure ahead of time that you have food and drinks and party decorations laid in. Like a party, a novel needs a meaningful theme and relatable characters, but it also needs structure.

Another metaphor that came to me is that writing is like having sex; we do it out of passion and because it’s fun but at the same time we really hope the other person is enjoying it too, so it’s worth learning something about technique.

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