Archive for the ‘Writers Conferences and Retreats’ Category

I’ve been on a three-month sabbatical, of sorts, except I’m not a teacher, I didn’t get paid for it, and I didn’t travel anywhere. Perhaps I should re-phrase: I quit blogging for the last three months because I simply didn’t have time while trying to create a new website for LDStorymakers, an author’s guild to which I belong. (I’m the Director of Communications for the group and, hence, am over their online presence among other things.)

In any case, I haven’t forgotten that I promised to post the 14 tips Karen Joy Fowler (author of The Jane Austen Book Club and other novels) shared during a writer’s retreat I attended in Maui some six or seven years ago. Keeping in mind that she writes literary fiction, here they are:

  1. Don’t let the setting disappear during your dialogue. Remember, the dialogue is happening during a particular time and in particular place and the reader needs to be there with the characters as they talk. So you, as the writer, cannot afford to disengage from those surroundings.
  2. To keep the reader on track with who’s talking, (a) never use a verb other than “said” with dialogue, (b) never use an adverb to modify “said” (as she put it, “The adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb.”) (c) express movement by a person before or after talking, and (d) start a new paragraph every time another person begins to talk. She did say you can use an occasional “asked,” but it’s almost impossible to overuse “said.” Also, consider not using a tag at all. If you have a character do something and then a line of dialogue, the reader will connect the dots.
  3. If a line of dialogue is funny, let it stand on its own. Don’t try and prop it up with a smile or laughter written in.
  4. Don’t fatten the dialogue by adding pauses (like umm, er…, etc.). In place of a pause, break up the sentence naturally by putting “she said” or a character’s movement in the middle of it (and the movement should be something bigger than shrugging or smiling…she said there are far too many shrugs and smiles).
  5. Generally, avoid ellipses (…) in dialogue.
  6. In a conversation, frequently the first and last phrases can be cut. You don’t need all the niceties. Start and end where it’s really interesting.
  7. Remember that dialogue is usually much more about how people imagine they are than how they really are. It’s kind of a performance, so you, as the writer, can juxtapose how they really are with how they present themselves to others. Don’t be afraid to bring out the hypocritical side of your characters in your dialogue.
  8. In creating dialogue, always ask “What does this person want?” rather than “How does this person feel?” She said that, at heart, we are all pretty selfish creatures and we’re always angling for something when we speak.
  9. Remember there is almost always a power dynamic between any two people talking, with one having more power and the other having less. This means one character will talk more and the other less in any scene…and that dynamic will change from conversation to conversation depending on the scene. The one in power will not always be the same as the story progresses.
  10. In her opinion, dialogue is not good at all in advancing plot. It’s good for tone and building on the character. In fiction, you often show and sometimes tell, but good dialogue is almost always showing, and not telling. (My other instructor at the retreat, Gail Tsukiyama, disagreed with her on this point about dialogue not being good for advancing plot, but did concede that good dialogue should always show more than it tells.)
  11. Good dialogue keeps you, as the writer, invisible by not being patently helpful. It should feel natural…something they’d actually say, not what you need them to say.
  12. Use dialogue to help pull in things outside the arc of the story that are interesting or help set your story’s time or place. This can particularly be done by using conversations overheard by the main character.
  13. Good dialogue makes the work more real and less planned. You can do this through eavesdropping (For example, imagine having one of your characters overhear this piece of dialogue: “I don’t know what else I can tell you. She rolled down the window, he jumped out, and the gator got him!”  If the reader had been drifting along in the story by this point, that piece of dialogue, or something similar, would certainly wake him up as long as it came across as something credible the character would overhear) or by undermining a lying character’s credibility (remember that liars tend to say the same thing two or more times in an effort to get their story across). Misunderstandings make for great dialogue (when people hear a word incorrectly, for example, funny conversations result).
  14. Finally, remember that dialogue is the fun part and it doesn’t need to match what’s going on in the story. (This last approach applies more to literary fiction than genre fiction and is particularly reflective of Ms. Fowler’s style of writing.)

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As I said in an earlier post, literary fiction is a different beast altogether when it comes to dialogue. This is one of my favorite quotes regarding the use of dialogue in literary fiction:

“The use of dialogue in fiction seems to be one of the few things about which a fairly definite rule may be laid down. It should be reserved for the culminating moments, and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore. This lifting and scattering of the wave, the coruscation of the spray, even the mere material sight of the page broken into short, uneven paragraphs, all help to reinforce the contrast between such climaxes and the smooth effaced gliding of the narrative intervals; and the contrast enhances that sense of the passage of time for the producing of which the writer has to depend on his intervening narration. Thus the sparing use of dialogue not only serves to emphasize the crises of a tale, but to give it as a whole a greater effect of continuous development.”

—Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction

The reason I bring it up again here is that I want to share a list of dialogue techniques taught by Karen Joy Fowler at that same Writer’s Retreat in Maui. You may know her as the author of “The Jane Austen Book Club,” but while that book had a more populist appeal, much of her fiction is quite literary.

While her aim with dialogue is more literary, most (if not all) of her techniques are as effective in genre fiction and some may reflect what we’ve already discussed here. I’ll begin that list tomorrow, so stay tuned…


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For any of you who may be interested:

Segullah: Writings by Latter-day Saint Women is pleased to announce its annual writing competitions in the genres of personal essay, poetry, and fiction. Segullah welcomes unpublished entries which address any subject in harmony with its mission: to publish insightful writings which explore life’s richness and complexity while reflecting faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Entrants must be female members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Entries will be judged by Segullah editors. Winners in each category will be awarded $100. Deadline is December 31, 2010. For more information, visit http://journal.segullah.org/contests/.

Segullah also puts on a terrific one-day conference every spring, for your information. I attended last year and found it well worth my while. The presentation on essays was unforgettable.

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I got back from a wonderful writers retreat about a week ago, one at which I had to make a couple of presentations. Since one of them was about writing believable dialogue, I thought I’d repeat much of what I shared here on my blog…only in parts.

To begin with, most of what I’m about to write here was gleaned from two excellent writers–Gail Tsukiyama (Women of the Silk) and Karen Joy Fowler (Sister Noon, The Jane Austen Book Club)–at a writers retreat I attended in Maui some six years ago. At least the main principles are theirs. I scrambled around among the books I’ve read to provide several examples of those principles.

According to Gail, there are six functions of dialogue in fiction: characterization, exposition, setting the scene, advancing the action, foreshadowing/reminding, and suggesting personality (which kind of goes hand in hand with characterization).

In talking about characterization, I quoted author Rita Mae Brown (“Rubyfruit Jungle”) from her book on writing (“Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual”):

“People are funny. No doubt you’ve noticed that others are not nearly as reasonable as yourself. Shocking, isn’t it? This difference between you and other people comes out in speech. Obviously, difference displays itself in the subject matter people speak about, but on a deeper, more subtle level, it displays itself in the way in which they frame those very ideas.”

She went on to then give an example of quick, efficient dialogue that characterizes. She set up the scene by asking the reader to imagine two teenage boys running around, creating havoc and the response of an 80-year-old widowed great-aunt: “Please desist from your tawdry ravings.”

What do those six words tell you about the woman? You learn, or can infer, that she commands the English language, understands precision and authority, and she’s well educated, possibly even upper class. If she’d just said, “Shut up” or “Be quiet” you wouldn’t have learned nearly enough.

I’d love to hear any examples of great characterization in dialogue that you’ve come across.

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Now that I’ve polished up my synopsis for Laps I want to share some of what I learned at the Storymakers Conference last week. Besides participating in Boot Camp and hearing a couple of panel discussions (one on the writing process and the other featuring two national agents and an editor), I had signed up for four different workshops–all of which were two-parters. In other words, I received a deluge of information and will try to share what I can here.

Let me begin with the last workshop, featuring well-known author, David Wolverton (or Dave Farland, as he’s better known to his fantasy readers). I will try and encapsulate his two-hour presentation in several salient points:

1) If we want to be successful (i.e., bestselling) writers, we need to understand what makes people want to read…and then design our stories to fulfill their desires. We need to understand what our audiences are looking for. A NYT bestselling author knows how to write to a wide audience, while a midlist author doesn’t know how or doesn’t care.

2) Why do people read? There are lots of reasons (following fads, addicted to stories, escaping real life, etc.), but the one he emphasized was rather scientifically based: In large part, we read to de-stress. Reading can sedate you, releasing endorphins which block pain…or it can excite you, releasing cortisol and adrenaline…and if you’re going through a lot of stress in your personal life and you pick up a page-turner that transports you into a world full of much greater danger and stress, your life seems easy in comparison, and when you’re done with the book, you are below your initial stress-line level. The better the book, the lower you end up below that initial level. He called it the “stress reduction and induction method of storytelling.”

3) As writers, we must recognize that each reader has his own unique comfort zone. Some are afraid of heights, others of relationships, others can’t stand conflict or violence, etc. That is why there is no novel that everyone will like.

4) However, every good story (whether it’s a book or a film) that proves to attract a wide audience has all of the following:

  • It takes you to another time and/or another place. It transports you.
  • It has a huge potential audience, with characters appealing to young and old, male and female, in different parts of the globe.
  • It scores high on what he called “the emotional Richter scale” (laughter, fright, tears, passion, etc.)
  • It has conflicts that appeal to a wide, global audience.

5) To back up these points, he used James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic as examples (along with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series). Both of Cameron’s stories transport the viewer to another time and place. Both feature young and old, male and female. Both score high emotionally. And both present conflicts that are common around the world. (He noted that China, Brazil, and the Pacific Northwest all get the message in Avatar…taking care of the earth, rather than destroying it for technology’s sake; and any country who has had a downtrodden minority would also appreciate that conflict in the story.) He did allow that, of the 50 top grossing films of all time, only “The Godfather” seemed to limit its scope to men, excluding women…but they marketed it to women, as well as men, by featuring the dancing at the wedding scene in all the trailers.

6) As a writer, then, you need to know your readers and have appropriate main characters and appropriate emotions for that audience.

  • For YA Fiction, you need a sense of wonder (which carries over from children’s fiction to YA  and even to adult fiction). Kids like horror, too, as long as the wonder is a bit stronger than the horror. (Think Lemony Snickett…Goosebumps…Harry Potter.) Humor is huge with YA, as is adventure. So, for readers aged 2-12: wonder, humor, horror (depending on age), and adventure.
  • Once hormones hit at age 12, romance becomes important to girls…sex (not romance) and adventure to boys.
  • By age 35, the biggest draws for women become drama and mystery (generally, by then, they are settled with their families).
  • Men stay with sex and adventure until their mid to late 40’s…then they turn to drama, too.

7) If you’re writing for adults, realize that 32% of men are incapable of getting into the head of a female protagonist. YA novels all feature main characters who are 16. Middle grade novels all feature 11-12-year-olds. Romance novels feature a main character in her mid-20’s. You have to write to your audience.

8) If you want a wide audience, follow the example of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. Have characters that will appeal to young and old, male and female.

9) Consider how your story and characters will play in different parts of the world. James Cameron intentionally focused on characters from different countries in Titanic to widen his audience globally. Think about giving your protagonist a foreign name. To appeal to Asians, focus on their sense of honor and respect for elders, etc. You never know in what part of the U.S. or in which foreign country your book might start selling big…so be careful with selling your foreign rights.

10) Finally, he really emphasized how important it was for authors to hang on to their foreign rights. The biggest major markets around the world in publishing are: U.S., U.K./Australia, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. If you can break into the German market, then you’ll begin to hit other eastern European markets. If you can make it big in the Japanese market, you’ll hit other Asian markets.

As you can tell, he gave me a lot to think about, particularly for my next project.

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I’ve almost recovered from the ten hour drive home yesterday from Provo, Utah, where I got to see my daughter–now a junior at BYU–and attend the LDS Storymakers Conference. I came back with a wealth of information, particularly on the marketing side of writing (everything from online presence to designing a story with wide mass market appeal)–but more about that tomorrow.

For now, I want to applaud those who put this conference together. I attended last year for the first time because I was a Whitney Finalist and had been asked to participate in a panel discussion on Self-Publishing. At that time, honestly, I felt like a fish out of water.


First, I wasn’t from Utah and all the Utah writers seemed to know each other well.

Second, I was self-published and those who are self-published can’t help feeling a little embarrassed about it (though this may be changing)…as if they’re playing in the Minors, not the Majors.

Third, I’d gone to two Maui Writers Conferences (as well as a Maui Writer’s Retreat) and the San Francisco Writers Conference, and understood what it felt like to socialize with fellow writers, but I simply was not used to being around SO MANY Mormon writers.

But this year felt very different for many reasons:

To begin with, participation almost doubled. (In fact, at this rate, conference organizers may have to look into changing their location for next year.) True, they were almost all still members of the LDS Church, but this time around I met many from other states. I’m certain Utah still dominated, but word of the conference had obviously spread to all corners of the country.

This year, I also knew many more fellow Mormon writers through my participation in ANWA (American Night Writers Association…a support group for women writers in the Church) and the Northwest Writers Retreat last October (highly recommended to any of you, whether you’re from the Pacific Northwest or not…it’s a great retreat). In other words, I had friends! And one of my best friends, Liz Adair, won the Whitney Award for Romance (well deserved).

Liz with her Whitney Award for Romance

Liz shows off her Whitney Award

Also, I participated in the whole conference this time, even serving as an instructor at Boot Camp. I’m so glad my online critique groups–“Moonwriting,” which meets monthly, and my smaller group of “Writeminded” friends who get together weekly–helped to hone my critique skills before this experience.

Finally, with the growing numbers of LDS writers on the national scene, this year brought some nationally known publishing professionals, like Laura Rennert with Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and opportunities to pitch stories to the national market (more my thing), moving clearly beyond the LDS market. I believe, and hope, the conference will continue to expand in this direction. As it does, writers of all backgrounds–Mormon, or not–will feel compelled to attend.

So consider this a big thumbs up to all those who worked hard to pull this conference off.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference!

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While I can’t afford to attend this next one, the American Night Writers Association is putting on a pretty impressive writers conference in February, and I encourage all of you writers (LDS or not) to check out the list of presenters. If you’re as impressed as I was, and either live nearby or can afford to travel, please consider registering. Here are all the particulars:

The 2010 ANWA Writers Conference, Saturday, February 27, 2010.

Open to all writers

Register at http://anwa-lds.com/conference.html

The Best Western Dobson Ranch Inn

1666 South Dobson Road

Mesa AZ 85202-5699

480-831-7000 or 1-800-528-1356


If you are serious about your writing, and ready for the next step,

this is the place to be!

J. Scott Savage, author of the “Farworld” Series is the Keynote speaker.

Other presenters are:

Aprilynne Pike, New York Times best-selling Author of “Wings”

Doug Johnston, Publicist Extraordinaire

Nancy E. Turner, Author of “These is My Words”

Dr. Pamela Goodfellow, Writing Coach, Editor and Owner of Goodfellow Publishing Services

Sara Fujimura, Author and Magazine Writer

Helen Bair, Counselor and Author of “Finding the Healer in Me”

Arizona’s very own illustrious Marsha Ward, author of the “Owen Family” Series and experienced in e-book publications

Book signings at end of conference

For writers travelling a far distance, follow these instructions for hotel reservations at a special ANWA Writer’s Conference discount at “Dobson Ranch Inn”


Call our Front Desk toll-free – 1-800-528-1356.

Refer to either Group Name: “ANWA” or Group Number: 804341

This will allow our staff to make your reservations for you to receive the ANWA Conference group rate.

Internet (available to book online starting Wednesday, Dec 9)

Go to the hotel website at www.dobsonranchinn.com

At the bottom of the  “Reserve Your Stay” box, click on “Groups”

Enter the password – ANWA-Dec

Complete your reservation

For questions contact, the ANWA 2010 Conference Chair Person, Cindy R. Williams at cindywilliams@q.com or

Conference Registrar, Krista Darrach at kristadarrach@yahoo.com

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