Aside from the friendly atmosphere, the best thing about this year’s Write Stuff conference was James N. Frey. I was lucky enough to attend his pre-con workshop. He’s a most entertaining fellow and an excellent teacher.
It’s impossible to sum up everything I learned from him over the three days, but here are the things which stick in my mind:
1. Sooner or later, you realize your writing stinks, but that’s okay because that’s the point in your career when you decide whether to quit or do what it takes to improve.
2. Indirectly, I learned an excellent way to make an in-person pitch to an agent. Throughout the workshop, Jim would pause to give us a quick, one-minute, storyline of one of his student’s novels. He did it in a relaxed, anecdotal form: ‘It’s about this guy who invents a machine that… etc.’ It dawned on me that this was the perfect way to explain a novel to someone who asks ‘What’s it about?’ after hearing the initial, one sentence, tagline.
3. If you want to improve your prose, practice imitating other people’s.
4. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The dramatic/mythic storytelling paradigms have worked for centuries. Learn them, understand them, use them.
5. Writing 20-30 pages of background information about your main characters (less for the lesser important ones) not only helps you understand those characters better, it sparks plot ideas which would otherwise never happen.
6. Avoid clichés like the plague.
7. Interesting characters are always on the end of the bell curve (ie: a little unusual).
8. You need to figure out your main characters’ ‘Ruling passions’ ie: what they want most.
9. When making plot notes/step sheets, make sure you write them in a way that you can understand when you come back to them later.
10. Don’t give the MC information, let him/her uncover it.
11. Every scene should lead to a new situation ie: an emotional, character or story change.
12. If you think your making the writing too melodramatic, you’re probably not.
13. For me, the most valuable lesson of all was a throwaway remark Jim made at the end of the workshop. He said, “If you take the time to fully plot your novels before launching into your first draft, you’ll probably write twice as many books during the rest of your life as you would otherwise manage."
On a personal note: At the main conference, I tried out the first page of my new WIP, Dead Doris, at the page cuts panel - it went down quite well. An agent wants to see Fur-Face (I know I have an e-book contract already, but I really want to a print one too). I didn’t even come close to winning the flash fiction contest, but that’s okay, the winning entry was far better than my effort.