Wednesday, June 17, 2015

10 Things I Learned at the WV Writers Conference

Jessica Nelson

I wanted to title this blog “10 Super-Cool-Awesome-Amazing Things I Learned at the WV Writers Conference,” but, alas, all that would not fit into the title bar on Blogger. But I digress.

So this past weekend was the annual West Virginia Writers Conference in Ripley, WV. This was my fifth year in attendance and my second year working it as an intern. As always it was a great time, but the thing I love most about it is that every year I learn something new. There is always an abundance of knowledgeable presenters to lead workshops and panels. Since many of you are non-West Virginia natives and may not ever make it to a WV Writers Conference, I’ve decided to share the top ten things I learned this year.

10. You have to be brutally honest with yourself. In particular, you need to be honest about your style and your work ethic. This came from Sheila Redling’s workshop. One example she gave was if you are the type of writer who only writes five words a day, you will not feasibly be able to put out two books a year. If you know you are easily distracted, take care of anything you know will be a distraction before you sit down to work. Hold yourself accountable for your work.

9. Sometimes when you’re stuck, it’s because you’re out of sync with your characters. Also from Sheila Redling, this advice resonated with me. On a fundamental level, it makes sense. How can you tell your character’s story when you and your character are not on the same page? So sometimes you need to take a step back from the story and focus on the character. When you and your character have reached a new understanding, go back to the story and try again.

8. Monsters are metaphors. Now, I know that not everyone writes fantasy, sci-fi, or horror, but this advice applies to almost any antagonist. Monsters in particular are metaphors, or embodiments, of our worst fears. A couple of classic examples instructor Frank Larnerd gave were Frankenstein’s Monster (fear of science) and Freddie Kruger (fear of being punished for our sins). And your monster metaphor should match your hero’s fear/weakness/past. That is how you “build a better monster.”

7. When making a “monster” (or villain, or antagonist), do a “monster sketch” that addresses the following: what makes him/her/it a monster? Why is he/she/it like this? What is one noble/good thing this monster does? This came from Marie Manilla’s workshop “Monster Theory…” and forces us as authors to create a fully formed, three dimensional, realistic antagonist. Seriously, try to answer these questions with your antagonist in mind. You will have no choice but to explore all the facets of your character.

6. For anyone writing in verse: the first word and last word of a line hold the most power, so choose your line breaks carefully. This can also apply to prose. The first and last phrases are the “power words” in a paragraph. I participated in a workshop by Kate Fox where we took a handful of lines, written out like prose, from famous poems and each re-wrote them into verse the way we thought they should go. Even though we were all using the same words, our choices in line breaks gave each version a different meaning and different effect on the reader. Even the length of the lines impacted the tone and message of the poem. So make sure your line breaks contribute to the intended effect of your verse. 

5. Start with a believable context. This applies mostly to fiction writers, especially those writing fiction with outrageous or paranormal or fantastical elements. This advice came from storyteller and champion liar Bil Lepp, who made us all believe he’d been smashed into the ceiling by a dentist’s chair. You want to know how he did it? He eased us into it. He started out telling us about a toothache he got, the subsequent trip to the dentist’s office, and getting bored sitting in the dentist’s chair while waiting for the dentist himself to come into the room. So he started playing with the pedals that made the chair change position. The story started so normal and familiar that when odd things started happening, we all subconsciously suspended our disbelief. We trusted what was happening in the story, because he made it fit and work within the context. This is great advice to fiction writers, because if you get too crazy, too quick, you lose your reader’s trust. And even if the point is to be fantastical and out-there, the use of real, normal, and familiar details helps to ground the reader and allow them to connect the story to their own lives.

4. Writing without “emotional language” (“I love this” or “she hates that”) allows the details to “show” your feelings without being sappy or overly sentimental. This nugget of wisdom comes from Jon Van Kirk. He discovered the truth of this statement when he did an assignment with his students at a university. He told his classes to describe a lost-to-them but still familiar location. In the first class, he told them not to use “emotional language” and the students produced vivid descriptions that evoked a range a heartfelt emotions—without ever once naming those emotions. The second class did not produce the same results. Because he forgot to tell them not to use emotional language.

3. In the first few pages of a novel, set up the character, conflict, setting, and voice. This advice came from Edie Hemingway’s “Strong Beginnings” workshop. It applies to any genre of writing and can even be adapted for short stories and other styles of writing. Basically, you want to set up everything the reader needs to know in the first couple of pages. Who is the story about? What are his/her age, race, education, and (to a lesser extent) appearance? What is the conflict of the story? You don’t have to spell it out, but you can start to hint at it or get the ball rolling. Where is the story taking place? And—this is very important—you need to establish the voice, which, ideally, is a combination of your voice as a writer and your character’s voice. Most importantly, establishing all that in the first couple of pages not only grabs the reader’s attention, but it will also hopefully grab a publisher’s attention and keep your manuscript off the slush pile.

2. Don’t get stuck on the first page. Chances are your original first page will change or the story will ultimately start somewhere else. This also came from Jon Van Kirk and his workshop “The First Fifty Pages.” Basically, you don’t have to write your draft in chronological order. You can write any scene from any point in the novel at any time you want. Then, when everything is written, you can figure out the order. For someone like me who gets stuck on the first few pages (every single time), this came as quite a relief. It was like I had been granted a stay of execution. Now if only I can get myself to walk away from the chopping block.

1. Writers are amazing people. Technically, I am re-learning this, as I do every year at the conference. And it’s something you learn from the conference as a whole. Writers are big-hearted, friendly, encouraging, and just all-around-awesome people. Not to mention talented. I’m always thankful that there are writers willing to share their talent and knowledge—not just in the form of presenters, but the attendees as well. And writers are just nice. I had nearly half a dozen people or more come up to me at some point over the weekend to tell me I was doing a good job, or thank me for my hard work, or tell me that they liked my writing. I’m not sure there is anything that makes a writer glow more than another writer complimenting her work. I also had one woman call me over in the parking lot on the very last day. She handed me a copy of her poetry book with the handwritten inscription “Thanks for all you do,” which left me a sentimental puddle all over the asphalt. And, of course, every year I make new friends and reacquaint myself with old friends. Let’s be honest, a conference is only as good as the people who are there. And if you are at a conference that’s filled to bursting with writers, it’s guaranteed to be amazing.


  1. Hi, Jessica. It was so nice seeing you this weekend. I also loved Edie Hemingway's class. It was very informative and helpful. I stayed for both parts of it.

    1. It was nice to see you, too! Unfortunately, I didn't realize her workshops were two parts, so I only caught one half of each.

      By the way, congratulations on all your awards!

  2. All of us that attend the conference each year really appreciate all hard work everyone does to put it together. Yes, we do notice that the interns often miss parts of a workshop to go make copies or take care of details for us. Thank You.

    1. You're welcome. :D It is our greatest pleasure (especially as interns) to make the conference an excellent experience for all the attendees. And thank you for your kind words.