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First Conference: Part 2

Thoughts after my first real writer's conference day!

Today was awesome. As I've mentioned, I've been to many conferences in my time as a software engineer, but I wasn't sure what to expect from a writer's conferences. It was similar in many ways. Lots of people walking around to different rooms. I met a ton of people. I wasn't afraid to introduce myself to whoever I ended up sitting next to, or any of the panlists before or after their panel. This made the experience especially enjoyable.

There were a lot of options for panels and classes to attend. Here are the ones that I chose to attend and some of my thoughts/notes/etc:

Kill Your Darlings: What Makes a Meaningful Death?

John M. Olsen (M), Holli Anderson, Howard Tayler, Jessica Day George

No one likes to read a long explanation of anything. This will cover the art of showing while still getting all of the important information out there.

Killing people is something that I don't do in real life (obviously), and I'm finding it surprisingly difficult to do things in my novel that I wouldn't personally do in real life. I think this may also be why I don't have any drinking in my novel. Oh sure I have an explination for why it's that way, but I'm not really looking forward to writing about doing the things that I don't personally do.

That said, the first scene of Shurlan is the death of an 11 year old boy who is an only child:

Another challenge with my novel is that the people in Shurlan are a docile people. Totally non-violent. The culture doesn't make any room for violence. But that presents a problem in an action genre story where our value is life and death. So if I want the threat from the rebellion to be real, I'll need to do some killing early on to raise the stakes and tension of the book.

So, look forward to some edits to the manuscript in which the rebellion kills and there's foreshadowing that our team could pay with their lives for trying to stop the rebellion. Or even worse, they may have to kill to stop the rebellion.

Writer Meetup: Epic Fantasy

Are you looking for a writing group? Beta readers? Come hang out with fellow readers and writers of your favorite genres at this low-key networking event.

Met a bunch of people here who were also writing epic fantasy. Hoping to form relationships with several of them in the form of writing groups or other things. The room was full of about 50 people and we each spent a little time introducing ourselves and what we're working on. I made a few new friends that I saw around the rest of the conference. I'm happy that I went.

Institutionalized: Writing an Ensemble Cast

Natasha Ence (M), Aaron Johnston, Brian McClellan, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler

How to handle a large cast while keeping everyone distinct with a compelling arc. Also, how to handle the main character, their point of view, and their relationships with the rest of the main cast.

My book definitely has an ensemble cast. A set of characters all working toward the same end-goal. But I think something that could make it more interesting is to call out the fact that they're motives differ and make their motives more clear.

A good ensamble cast is not necessarily one that has the same motives, same values, or even the same end goals. A good ensamble cast is dynamic, full of conflict, but has a reason for sticking with each other. That reason may be tenuious, but it's strong enough to keep them together and keep things interesting.

Another interesting insight I got out of this was that characters interact in your story not to push your plot forward but for their own reasons. You can make those reasons push your plot forward, but consider their motivations first and foremost. This will make them feel more real.

Can You Tell Me How to Show?

Holli Anderson (M), Emma Hoggan, Kathryn Purdie, Kelly Barnhill, Suzanne Vincent

No one likes to read a long explanation of anything. This will cover the art of showing while still getting all of the important information out there.

I loved this panel. It was full of insights from every panelist. I especially appreciated Emma's observation that showing gives the reader a feeling, and telling just gives the reader information. There are situations where either is desireable, but you should consider this when you're writing.

Generally showing is more desireable than telling, but in action scenes for instance, sometimes you just want the action to happen quickly. So telling works well there. Just don't forget to take breaks in the action to consider the characters' feelings and introspective thoughts which make the action scene worth reading.

Kelly suggested reading Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Sounded like it could really help in this subject.

Suzanne mentioned that often you can get visual queues from the way the words appear on the page that tell you whether the author is doing a lot of telling. Varying paragraphs sizes broken up by dialog are typically better at showing than large paragraphs (she said she'd even read one book which had a 1000 word paragraph 😱).

"Telling an emotion is telling." So don't say: "She felt sad." Show us what she looks like and the things she does when she feels sad: "She could hardly breath as the tears rolled down her face and curled up burying her face in her lap."

They also gave us several words to watch out as "telling words:"

  • was
  • dialog descriptive words like "snapped" (pretty much avoid anything but "said")
  • felt
  • saw
  • heard
  • smelled
  • "and there was silence"
  • realized
  • suddenly

There was a lengthy discussion about how silence can be a character. I'll have to give this one more thought and practice. They mentioned that new writers often over-write and are afraid of silence. Watch out for adverbs! Most of them are just telling when showing would be better.

Another thing that was called out during the Q&A by Kelly was that "Draft 1 is a worry-free zone." I really appreciated that. Since my first novel was written during NaNoWriMo 2018, I knew that I'd need to not care about the words flying off my fingers because I just needed to get stuff down on the page, then I can clean it up later. I've never published, so take my advice with a grain of salt, but I think that this is super important:

Another book recommendation was American Fantasy Tradition by Brian Thomsen.

Finally, one insight I got out of this (specifically from Suzanne of was that writing flash fiction (very short stories) can be a fantastic way to practice your writing skills and up your game as a writer quickly. I'm definitely planning on doing this.

The Sagging Middle of Novels

J. Scott Savage (M), Ginny Smith, Kelsy Thompson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Stacy Whitman

You know the beginning and the end, but how do you get from one to the other? Authors give their favorite strategies for working up to the midpoint and breaking into the third act.

The beginning and ending frame the middle. If you struggle with the middle it's probably not the fault of the middle, but because the frame isn't great. Often people have a great start and a great ending, but the start and ending don't match. They're two different stories! So writing a middle that bridges those two together is difficult and makes it feel like you're in a slump.

Another bit of advice was just to finish the book! Work through it. Again, it's much easier to edit words that exist than words that don't!

Finally, something else that can help is to answer the question (specifically): "Who is your audience."

Between this session and the next, I snagged an opportunity to ask Mary a few questions about the diversity of my characters. Specifically the fact that in Shurlan there is no diversity because it's brainwashed out of them by the Immortal Family and the Religion of the Immortali. She gave me some really great insights for how I can highlight this fact from the main characters who are directly acting against this kind of suppression (almost without recognizing that's what they're doing). I can use this to reveal the real problems with the society and why it needs to change which is an important theme to the whole book. Also, after giving her some context to the story, she seemed to approve of the concept so that was encouraging!

Narrator: The Invisible Character

Scott R. Parkin (M), Emma Hoggan, Kelly Barnhill, Mary Robinette Kowal, McKelle George

Your narrator might not have a name, but their voice and style can add another dimention to the story. Creating great narrative voice and weaving it seemlessly into the story.

There was general agreement that the narrator is the most important character of the novel. The first chapter is a date with this narrator and if that date doesn't go well, then people will put your book down and find a more compatible match.

Mary Robinette gave us this analysis of Narrative voice:

  • Mechanical: Omnicient, 3rd person, 1st person, etc.
  • Asthetic: What does the voice sound like (serious, playful, etc.)
  • Personal: This is what the author personally brings to the narrator's voice. You'll find your voice with enough practice.

I love "tight" 3rd person (a.k.a. 3rd person limited). In this mechanical form of narrative voice, it should sound like the point of view (POV) character. This means that throughout the novel as your POV changes, the narrator's voice should also change to match the voice of that charcter.

This is something that Brandon Sanderson does really well. I'm thinking specifically of the few scenes where the narrator follows Wayne in the Wax and Wayne Mistborn books. Fantastic example of the narrator's voice sounding like the POV character and it's fun to read (or listen to in my case). In fact, when I'm listening to it, the voice actor slightly changes the narrator's voice to match the POV's voice which draws this out even more.

One thing that I'm trying to do in Shurlan is the use of "free indirect speech" which was popularized by Jane Austen. This is when the narrative speaks almost directly from the mind of the POV character. I love the example from wikipedia that compares this to direct and indirect speech:

  • Quoted or direct speech: He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. "And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?" he asked.
  • Reported or normal indirect speech: He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.
  • Free indirect speech: He laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?

I just love that feeling of the narrator being the POV character.

One thing that Mary said that I absolutely loved was this:

When a reader says they are confused, they're right. When they tell you how to fix it, they're wrong.

And a final piece of advice that I thought was interesting was:

Don't read things you don't enjoy.

If you don't enjoy it, then it's probably not good and you don't want to be unconciously internalizing those things.


I loved this day. I met a ton of people, took just as many notes, and was left feeling motivated to improve my craft and my work in progress.

This is multi-part of a series of posts about LTUE 2019:

Aaron Koivunen

Aaron Koivunen is a German teacher and software engineer. He helps people from all around the world to learn German in an easier and more efficient way. He currently lives in the city of Helsinki in Finland.