Hey guys! It's time for my annual post about this year's WriteOnCon! (You can see last year's summary here.) I was eager to get into the conference, now that I'm really getting back into the game with my writing career. It feels like it came and went so quickly! And it left me with a ton of information to catch up on--turns out, when they post multiple videos every hour, there's no way to be on top of it all. 😆 But I always love how the conference renews my enthusiasm for my own writing.
The forums have generally been the main attraction for me, and this year, it was a bit odd, because it seems that I'm now one of the more knowledgeable people on the boards. In past years, I was uncertain and inexperienced and almost overwhelmed by the feedback, although I greatly appreciated it. This year, I have much more of a handle on querying, so there weren't a whole lot of changes I ended up making to my work. I did enjoy the chance to read other peoples' queries and see where they are in the process and help them along. There are some great manuscripts out there!
One thing I do wish they had kept is the Ninja Agent or Supers roving through the main boards. This year they made a separate board for those experts, and I didn't end up getting any feedback there, which I think is true of many people. It was more fun and exciting having them on the main boards and having them be more active.
Listening to the pitch sessions, I was newly struck by how subjective acceptances and rejections can be. It really does depend on the personal preferences of the agent. After all, agents and editors are book fans and readers too! Trend-wise, it seems YA fantasy has become a bit saturated. Since that's my main jam, I hope trends shift and open up that market again soon--but publishing is all about patience, and eventually, the time will come.. New Adult also may or may not be coming back as a category--it's uncertain--and there's some interest in more characters in the 13-14 age range, which has caused categorization issues in the past.
World-building continues to be a struggle for me, although, as with everything else, I think I'm improving. During WriteOnCon's world-building panel, there was a lot of emphasis on detail, which is the bane of my existence. No wonder I find world-building hard! (Though I love to read books with great world-building,) My brain just doesn't do detail, except when it's obsessing about how my face looks or something. LOL. I also learned that character name changes are pretty common even once you're working with an editor.
There was some good advice on writing a teacher's guide for your children's/YA book. Author TIna M. Cho offered the following steps:
Author Jess Keating has been in a couple WriteOnCons now, and let me tell you, she is a delight. She has such a friendly, quirky personality that you feel totally safe engaging with. She was talking about personal brands this year, which is a good choice, haha! I know I don't have nearly the energy and openness that she does, so I can only hope I come across well on the Internet.
Gail Carson Levine, as lovely as last year, talked about how important it is to have a good work ethic when you're a writer. Which makes me feel a bit exhausted, but she's right! The fact that I do love exploring the world through writing makes it more of an exciting challenge than an exhausting challenge, most of the time, so that helps. Recently, a lot of my new ideas have been retellings, so I asked her about making sure your book is long enough when you're adapting a short fairytale. She said to put yourself in the moment-to-moment experience of the main character and add extra challenges where they contribute to the story. Her final piece of advice to everyone: stop worrying about everything and just write. 😆
Author Ryan Dalton turned out to be really good at giving advice, though most of what he talked about was stuff I already knew. I think he's a good one to turn to for help!
Here's a good quote from Beth Revis this year: "Author Kelley Armstrong once said during a writing workshop that the character at the beginning of the book doesn’t deserve the ending at the end of the book ... Your character must become the hero the story needs, and the story is, at heart, about that transformation."
The WriteOnCon social media manager had to step in for one author who was MIA, and she had some really cool tips. She suggested that for Twitter especially, since it moves very fast, look at the analytics to see what times your audience is more likely to see and respond. Which looks like around 5pm and around 10pm for me. Interesting! She also told us about how you can use Advanced Search on Google to narrow image results by usage rights, so that you can get open access images. That's a tip I really appreciate.
Author Henry Lien talked about how we need to promote diversity, not just in character representation and industry membership, but also in the way we tell stories. There are so many different story forms, so many ways to experiment, and as he said, "the idea of what a satisfying story is varies from culture to culture." I know I'm not the most creative writer, but I've always liked the idea of experimental fiction, so I really liked this talk.
Tamora Pierce, another children's fantasy queen, had a Q+A in which I discovered, to my relief, that you can be a slow and chaotic sort of worker and still be a good author. She's really all over the place! It's great. Originality is something that I've been worried about lately, and Tamora talked about how simply passing the story through your own unique personal lens can give it originality. I'm not sure that's enough to make a book marketable, but I appreciate the encouragement.
A lot of authors pointed out how a writing career is a long game, and authors often have a few quieter, lower-selling books before they really start to get known in the industry. Patience and flexibility are important. A couple of people also talked about how plot, setting, and character are the central elements of a story and they need to play off of and balance each other.
One thing that did alarm me was the discussion about how authors who are already agented have to pitch their ideas for new books to their agent before writing them, and the agent at times will tell them not to write it because it's not right for the market or their brand. I chafe at the idea of having my freedom and creativity restricted like that. I like being able to write as please and experiment with my abilities! But I have to admit, especially when I was younger, I had a lot of ideas that either were too convoluted to sell or were just not right for me. I have gotten better at telling the difference as the years have passed. It only makes sense that the agent, as an expert in the field, would be skilled at making that distinction as well.
Author Cindy Baldwin (whom I like a lot; she has chronic illnesses too!) had a workshop where she talked about tools, besides adjectives, for writing description. As mentioned previously, i am not good with detail, and description might be my weakest point. I tend to skim over paragraphs of description when I'm reading, because I don't find it interesting. I'm far more invested in getting to the dialogue and other bits of action. But I do like clear rules and categories, and Cindy broke down the tools of good description as such: metaphor (creative ones, not overused ones), sensory detail, objective correlative (focusing on a symbol for an emotion--a cool concept, but I don't think I'm very good at it), and relationship-based description (the way your character views the world). She also talked about how description should serve two purposes wherever it exists, such as portraying the world and expressing emotion.
Finally, towards the end of the day, there was a vlog by author Matthew Landis where he posed that you should "break up" with social media. I didn't really listen to most of it, because social media is a big part of my life, especially as a disabled person, and it's something I adore, but he had some links about "mob mentality" that I checked. A lot of them I didn't agree with either, but there were a couple of articles that I thought made good points.
This is a difficult subject, and I'm coming from a place of privilege, so I'll try to address it delicately. I'm a big fan of the social justice community on Twitter, from which I've learned so much, and I agree that it's important to call out hurtful representation and the like in books (as well as everywhere else). This is especially true when you're dealing with children and teens. You don't want to be causing them hurt and entrenching prejudices. It's just not okay! But I also have seen the YA community on Twitter come down really hard on people who have written poor representation or said hurtful things. It makes me worry a lot about what I'll do when they come for me--because it could happen eventually. I try very hard and I care a lot, but I'm not perfect. I do want to be called out when I do something wrong. I want to get better and I want to fix it. But to have it turn into a huge thing where so many people I respect are ragging on me so fervently for so long--just being called out is going to trigger my OCD by nature, which is fine when it's important, but having to deal with something that universally vehement might not be something I can bounce back from so well.
Most of the time in the past, I've been able to understand and agree with those who were upset, though I have often had to do further research first, because my privilege has allowed me to grow up pretty ignorant of racial issues especially. Like I said, it's important to call this out! But I've been bothered by how there are always some people who continue to be really vitriolic, even after an apology is given. I'm not talking about a non-apology either--I'm talking about a real apology that seems to hit all the points that people say it should. Sometimes, with all that, it seems like there's no room for growth.
Then there came the incident where a really amazing YA author mistakenly called out a famous adult author for plagiarism. She apologized, and I thought it would be fine, but a lot of people were really upset about it. There were many people on Goodreads, days after, saying they wouldn't read her book because of what she'd done. And even though that group was likely different and much less justified than the social justice group, it made me realize that some people just aren't going to forgive, and that the Internet sometimes does bring out the worst with this so-called "mob mentality." I know some people, including teens, have been scared away by it. I just hope we can all keep working on making our points and promoting social justice without it becoming excessive or unforgiving. Because we do need to do it! And social media is a great tool for education.
Moving on. On day three, there was a panel on voice where the difference between authorial voice and character voice was discussed. I thought that was interesting, hearing it categorized like that. I've always thought about voice in that way, but I never properly labelled it. Authorial voice tends to be subtler, it carries across different books, and it often comes though with sentence structure and story themes. On the other hand, character voice (especially in first person POV) tends to be more obvious. It comes through with world-building and word choice and the judgments indicated in the internal narrative. They talked about how character voice isn't something you go in trying to do consciously; it's something that comes naturally as you gain a deeper understanding of that character. You have to let the character guide you.
In many of the events, it felt like there was a ton of tension about writing marginalized groups when you're not a member of those groups. It kind of saddened me, because I feel like as authors and as people we need to have the ability to empathize with and include diverse people in our stories. Obviously, as we thread experience and imagination together, we don't only create characters who are like us! Now, the prejudices we learn even unconsciously in our society do make it difficult to write marginalized groups well, but it can, and I think, must be done. After all, we have a duty to unlearn those prejudices, and creating a one-dimensional world with no diversity is unrealistic, unchallenging, and uninteresting. It doesn't reflect the way stories should be.
Interestingly enough, it felt like the white people speaking at the conference were the ones who were being really tense and limited about it, while people of color were more accepting, though appropriately cautious.
That isn't to say you should just write whatever story you want. In past years of WriteOnCon, the advice has been to avoid writing stories that are about being marginalized when you aren't: i.e. immigration stories if you aren't Latinx, slavery stories if you aren't black, stories about prejudices that you've never experienced. I think that's really solid, and I think it applies to fantasy too: don't write a sci-fi or fantasy that's based too strongly in a culture or a mythology of a marginalized group that you're not in. But you do need to include a variety of supporting characters, and I think you can even write main characters who are from different marginalized groups than you (I hope?). In order to do it right, you need to be socially conscious, you need to keep up on what people of those groups are saying, and you need to have a clear enough vision of what it's like living in their heads. I try not to stray too far from the experiences of people I know IRL for this reason, because I don't feel like I have a good enough grasp. A couple of people this year said that you should read 50-100 #ownvoices books before attempting to write a certain perspective, because it really gives you a better sense of things. Research in general is vital for writing diverse perspectives. It's also vital that you use sensitivity readers from that group to tell you where you've made mistakes. And don't forget to always uplift marginalized writers and their work, because they still need more support in the industry!
Speaking of research: in the past, I've often been very reluctant and unhappy about having to do research, which isn't great when you're a writer. The more I've progressed as a writer, the more I've seen how important research is, for good world-building especially. But as I've listened to this conference, while also preparing for some future projects, I've realized that, if I think of research in terms of "I'm going to learn some new things, and it could strengthen my writing!," I'm a lot more enthusiastic and willing to do it. If I think about it as, "I HAVE TO DO THIS OR EVERYTHING WILL BE RUINED," I'm a lot less happy about it. Yay for positivity, I guess. 😋
Author Rosalyn Eves gave a nice presentation about revision with a lot of good tips. She recommended checking your plot outline to make sure it hits the right points and checking to see if the first ten things your character does are a good introduction to them as a person. She also said you should look at each scene to see whether it ends and begins on a positive or negative note, so that you can get a better sense of the balance and flow of your book.
Via a few events about publishing, I learned that the advances authors get for their books in traditional publishing actually aren't nearly as high as I thought. They're in the thousands, usually, and even with that, authors don't always earn out the advance. It's a little sad, because I don't have a lot of chances to get money, thanks to my illnesses, but c'est la vie.
There was a panel about mental health, taking care of yourself in your writing career, which was fantastic. They talked some about writer's block, and their thoughts were similar to mine, which I'll be sharing in a future post. In another panel, I was introduced to Pacemaker, which is a NaNoWriMo-style word counter and goal maker. Perfect for me if I need to write a book during a non-NaNo time!
Agent Carlisle Webber had a pitch session where she gave some advice that was contrary to what other agents had said, interestingly enough. One thing she said that I do think has merit is that you need to focus on the active plot in your query, rather than the emotional development, though that should be an undercurrent. She is a high concept commercial agent, so that affects things, but she talked about not using verbs like "decides" or "realizes," which I do think would strengthen the pitch.
And that was WriteOnCon 2019! What I got out of it, more than anything, is how hard it is to break into this industry. You really have to write something special--and have a solid dose of luck--if you want to be able to sell your book and have a decent career. For me, it's a good reminder that I need to hold on to what matters most. Although publishing a book and having a career as a writer are big, important dreams for me, at the core of it all is the fact that I love writing. And that will never change, regardless of what happens in the industry. I will always have that writer soul inside me. I will always enjoy challenging myself and improving my craft. Whether the books I write books end up being sellable in today's market is incidental. Not unimportant, but incidental.
Tell me what writing lessons you've learned from conferences and author blogs, and I will be back next week to talk a little more about my struggle with writing something special enough to be sold.
Images via writeoncon.com.
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