Notes on writing: San Diego Writers’ Festival

I recently enjoyed Day 2 of the San Diego Writers’ Festival. I have never attended a writing conference of any kind before, and it was interesting to do so when it’s on Facebook rather than in person. I live and work quite a ways north of the city, so I’ve never really connected with anyone there although I’m in the same county.

Although I’ve recently completed writing my second novel, and have spent years writing articles and lectures, I still have some reluctance considering myself a writer. This is despite the fact that I do it all the time, and am now just doing it for fiction. So I was there strictly to learn. I’m recording here the best parts, just as I do when I go to a history conference.

Writing the Page Turning Novel

This was a panel moderated by Rich Farrell, and including Tammy Greenwood, Neal Griffin, Joe Ide, and R.D. Kardon. They’re all novelists and at least two teach writing. Good writing, they said, has to come from something that haunts you, something that just won’t leave you alone, the “hot embers”. The story is sustained by the characters and the world that you build for them.

In each session there would be one writer who definitely spoke to my methods of working. For this one, it was Tammy Greenwood. The start of each chapter should be like the start of a book, for one thing. But it isn’t necessary for the writer to know everything, or to even have an outline. In fact, if you know too much, then the writing is just reverse engineering. This viewpoint made me feel a lot better, since on both books I have been a “pantser”, writing by the seat of my pants (although the conference speakers also used the term “Blank Page writer”). It’s authentic to just write, and to be surprised by what we write — it gives us a reason to keep writing.

Another useful point was that writing a book was about writing, not publishing. The only important thing, said Joe Ide, is to write a good book. And the advice from several was to just keep writing — don’t stop.

Interactive Workshop: John Vorhaus

This speaker was a revelation, with a presentation on what I can only call Writer Psychology. It was the sort of session where everyone taps their feet and comes out dancing.

Vorhaus gave four aspects of writing, but really they could be for anything:

  • Passion: what you love
  • Purpose: the reason you do what you do
  • Path: the process of development and self awareness as you combine Passion and Purpose
  • Practice: what you do, using your capability and skills

If you’re doing what you love, and you’re doing it for a purpose, then the path you’re on is right and being in your practice is all you have to do.

He had each of the attendees list several passions, so we didn’t get hung up on the idea there had to be just one. Then we listed several purposes, then determined where our passions and purposes intersect.

He also talked about fear, the fear of failure, and said it comes from having expectations that are too high. High expectations leads to stress and thus poorer performance. Lower expectations leads to less angst and therefore better performance. One is not afraid to fail, because being in your practice is what you’re supposed to be doing; indeed, it is all you need to do. Forget about the outcomes. Growth comes from continual practice and reflection.

People asked, but how do I know if my work is good? When you decide it’s good, set it aside and move on, and begin to trust that you know when it’s good. Someone asked if rewards were a good idea (like I write 10 pages and I get a cup of coffee), and Vorhaus pointed out that if you’re combining your passion and purpose, rewards are unnecessary. You only need a reward for doing something you don’t like doing. You want a reward if the creative act is painful, and it’s only painful if you’re afraid of failing.

Feeling like you’re not worthy is for those dependent on external validation. None of us are really worthy, but we’ve been given gifts and purpose, and we’re using them. Needing others to tell you that you’re doing it well is a trap.

The last thing he said that I really liked was that you should find a level of success you’re comfortable with. That took the pressure off me to get on the best-seller list or try to become famous. Those goals fit neither my passion nor my purpose.

Unwinding the Mystery of Writing Mysteries

Since I’m starting my second mystery, this was the session I really wanted to learn from, and I wasn’t disappointed. Moderated by Matt Coyle, the panel included Lisa Brackman, Kathy Krevat, David Putnam, and Carl Vonderau. Several write crime novels, and Krevat writes cozies. Each had a completely different approach to writing.

The necessary ingredients for a good mystery included interesting characters, something to hold attention, a story that makes sense. Each character has to want something, and the protagonist must be motivated by something in order the justify the book itself (one example here was Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, who is always motivated by a member of her family being in trouble).

Each author had patterns they liked. Putnam uses conflict-complication-crisis-conclusion, and said his writing improved when he made the conflict more brief. Krevat said the hero, villian, and victim always create a triangle. Vondereau focuses on the premise, then characters and their family. Each also shared their stories of how long it took them to get published, and for most it was many books and many years. But there was also serendipity. Vondereau shared how he had just learned at a conference how to create an “elevator pitch” for his book, and at the same conference was asked by an agent, delivered his pitch, and got the agent. I’ll work on my pitch!

I asked about reintroducing characters in a sequel, since that’s what I’m working on, and was advised to do it briefly, in a sentence or two rather than an information dump. Considering each book as stand-alone meant treating the reintroduction like the introduction of any other character.

Another question was about clues, how to seed them without ruining the big reveal. The suggestions were wonderfully specific. Have something exciting or funny happen right after you reveal a clue, as a distraction. Put the clue in a list of things that aren’t clues. Make the clue seem to apply to just one character, when it will really apply to more. But again, there was also serendipity — several authors had the experience of not realizing they had clues in what they’d already written, and later discovered them. More support for my pantsing!

So I learned a lot, and gained confidence that my work methods are not completely bizarre. I’m starting a mystery writing class, because I need to learn more. But I don’t want to get too organized!

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