Monday morning, and Jane, one of my favorite clerks at QFC, was scanning my baby spinach and ground beef and avocado.
“How was your weekend,” she asked.
“Good. I went to Write on the Sound.”
“Oh!” It was an upbeat “oh.” Most people in Edmonds have heard of the local writers’ conference. “What did you learn?”
Whoa! Such a difficult question so early in the morning? “Odds and ends,” I said, inserting my credit card. “The keynote speaker was Kristen Hannah,” I added. “Have you read The Nightingale?”
I wasn’t surprised. In earlier conversations, Jane had mentioned a family military connection, and she was the right age to be interested in World War Two.
While she scanned my broccoli and cold cuts and canned black beans, I told her about all the research Hannah did before starting the book. “She read everything she could about the war and the French resistance. Then she flew to France where she interviewed people and explored all the locations she would use in her book.”
We were still talking out Kristen Hannah and also about what I was writing when she finished scanning my groceries. “Okay,” she said, about to hand me the receipt. For a moment, neither of us noticed that I hadn’t paid and she hadn’t given me my “cash back.”
I started to stuff my wallet into my handbag and stopped. “Wait. Don’t I have to sign?”
She laughed and jabbed a button to bring up the screen. I signed and took my cash. Then I gave a quick goodbye wave and pushed my cart out to the parking lot.
The question, however, still remained: What did I learn?
Write on the Sound is a popular writers’ conference. With a capacity of about 275, registration fills up within a week or less. Dawdlers lose out. I figure all those 275 participants must think they’re going to learn something. But it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly that thing is.
I’ve been writing for a long time, so a lot of what I hear at a writers’ conference is in the category of tips and reminders.
For example: One of the presenters, Ray Rhamey, talked about “Crafting a Compelling First Page.” Obviously, I’ve written first pages before and I’ve read advice about how to do it well. Nevertheless, it’s really hard to write a good first page. And it’s really important—the most important page in the book. If a reader doesn’t like your first page, she may simply close your book and look for another one.
After talking about compelling first pages and looking at examples, both good and bad, Mr. Rhamey provided us with a ten-point checklist. Here are some of the points:
* The character desires something.
* The character takes action.
* (I like this one near the end.) Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
* (And this one.) Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
For the whole checklist, visit his website, Flogging the Quill.
Another presenter, Eric Witchey, held a session on The Irreconcilable Self. His theory is that the best stories are about a character that possesses two extreme and contrary characteristics. Clashing extremes within a single person create turmoil and conflict. Unless the story turns out to be a tragedy, the character will need to experience some sort of transformation in order to reconcile the two parts of his Irreconcilable Self.
Other presentations I attended discussed crafting a great novel synopsis, historical research, finding your writer’s voice, writing and selling personal essays, moment by moment character development, and story structure.
I skipped the last one, which probably was worth attending, but I was full of enough ideas by then. It was time to go home and veg out for a while.
Do you have (or have you had) a job that requires continuing education?