Five Things I Learned at Write on the Red Cedar

Its been a week and Im (almost) fully recovered from Write on the Red Cedar, an intensive twelve-hour day of lectures, round tables, networking, and writing workshops. As promised, Im reporting back my top five takeaways, and Ill also let you know whether or not I accomplished the goals I set for myself prior to attending the conference.

First, here are my Top Five Takeaways

1. Genres are Blending

Keynote speaker, Donald Maass, talked at length about the changing characteristics of the books appearing on the New York Times Bestsellers list. No longer are books categorized simply as literary fiction or commercial fiction. The genres, more often than not, are blending together. The most successful writers of commercial fiction all have one thing in commonthey utilize the techniques of literary fiction to write genre fiction. The result: great story-telling meets beautiful writing. He recommended that writers pick a genre as a framework for a story, rather than as list of genre-specific rules to follow. This blending of genres allows writers a new level of freedom that has not been seen in the past.

2. Dont Focus on the Eyes

While listening to Kristina Riggles lecture, entitled How to Make your Characters Walk off the Page, I was struck by her thoughts on physical descriptions. Mainly, that the eye color of your characters doesnt matter. What? Eye color doesnt matter? Oh, man. At that moment, I realized Ive been spending way too much time describing the colors of my characters eyes and not enough on their other mannerisms. She said to give your characters one or two memorable distinctive features, that arent necessarily physical. Kristina Riggle used Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby as an example of a character whose physical appearance is barely described throughout the novel. Yet, the reader picks up on the formality and correctness of Jay Gatsby from the description of his posture and the statement that Gatsby had the look of someone who had his hair trimmed every day. Nowhere in the book is there any mention of Gatsbys eye color, hair color, etc.
3. Things Can Always Get Worse

In the writing workshop segment of the conference, Donald Maass asked us to write down  our protagonists main conflict or goal. Then he asked us to think of one way to make the goal matter more. For example, who else would benefit if this goal were achieved? In what new way can character discover that the unfulfilled goal hurts?

Then, he asked us to think of a way to make it more difficult for our protagonist to achieve his or her goal. What is the worst consequence the protagonist can face by not achieving his or her goal?

Then, he asked us to write down a way things can get even worse for our protagonist. How does he or she screw up? What trivial problem can pop up at the most inopportune time? For example, maybe on the day the protagonist is supposed to attend an important meeting with someone who can help him achieve his goal, his car wont start and he misses the meeting.

Then, believe it or not, we were asked to make things even worse for our protagonist! What if the protagonist failed completely? How does the house go down in flames? The readers should be taken on an emotional journey where they fear that all is lost before the protagonist, at last, figures a way out of the mess.

In other words, always raise the stakes.

4. The Importance of Networking

Like many writers, Im an introvert who would rather stab toothpicks in my eyeballs than try to make small talk with a bunch of people who I dont know. That said, there is something encouraging and revitalizing about meeting and connecting with other writers face to face. There are few people who can relate to the emotional roller coaster of writing like other writers. Theyve experienced rejections and occasional successes, theyve thrown first drafts of novels in the garbage, theyre struggling to build author platforms and promote their books, and they take the craft of writing seriously otherwise they would not have spent the money and time to attend a conference.

So much of a conference depends on who is sitting next to you. I totally lucked out in that department, as I had two awesome women writers sitting next to me. One of them was in the process of writing a memoir and is the editor of Grand Traverse Woman magazine. The other just had her writing published in the childrens magazine, Spider. Even though we dont write the same genres, they are two more connections Ive made in the writing world. I traded cards with several other people as well. So, now I have more people to email with writing questions, more people who might help promote my book, and more people to cheer on as they continue on their unique writing journeys!

5. Never Give Up!

One of the speakers told a story of an agent who received 7,000 queries last year. Out of those 7,000 queries, she requested 138 partial manuscripts. Out of those 138 partial manuscripts, she requested 30 full manuscripts. Out of those 30 full manuscripts, she took on seven new clients. Thats one-percent. Lets face it, the numbers are dire. The speaker said, that if a writer believes in his or her work and is interested in signing with an agent, that person should query no less than 100 agents before seeking another alternative. And, more importantly, if writers put in the requisite work, they should believe that they can be a part of that one-percent.

What did I learn from this? I gave up WAY too early on finding an agent for my last novel. I think I only queried twelve agents. Dont get me wrong, I believe my novel ended up with the perfect publisher for that particular book. But, in the future, Ill query at least 100 agents before throwing in the towel.

As for my other goals, heres how I did:
Goal #1: Pitch my book to agent Katharine Sands without sounding like a mumbling idiot.
Result: I did it! I practiced my pitch tirelessly for the few days leading up to the conference. Thankfully, my agent appointment was in the morning, so I did not have to stress out about it all day. I sat across from her. She stared at me and said nothing, so I recited my pitch. I didnt stumble or forget how to speak. I didnt sweat profusely or turn bright red. The eight minutes went by in the snap of a finger. In the end, it didnt seem as though the agent really connected with my book, but thats okay. My goal wasnt to get a book deal. It was to make my pitch without sounding like a mumbling idiot. Mission accomplished!

Goal #2: Learn three ways to improve my current manuscript

Result: This is a big YES! (See Top Five Takeaways above).

Goal #3: Exchange business cards with at least six people

Result: Did it! Ive already received a couple emails from people I met at the conference. Business cards are crucial to networking. Get them!

Goal #4:  Find a potential online critique partner or critique group

Result: I didnt fully accomplish this one, but I did join a writers Facebook group, appropriately named Finish the Damn Book. Im guessing I can find a critique partner through this group when I need one.

Im going to keep setting goals for myself, whether they are writing (or riding) related. My new goal is to finish the first revision of my thriller novel based on all the information I learned at the conference. Be sure to check back in a couple weeks for my February blog post which will deal with a few of the things that I LOVE the most!

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