Keep on Learning.

Write on the Sound

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.

What new things have you been learning?

Do you have (or have you had) a job that requires continuing education?






About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. This writer’s conferences sounds familiar. I had a blogger comment on my blog, and then I went over to her blog and read about her post on a recent writer’s conference she attending in Washington recently. I’m guessing it’s the same conference, but I could be wrong:

    Ray Rahmey does present an interesting point there – that the first page of a book is so important. That I agree – it sets out the tone of the book, and it can make or break when it comes to capturing the reader’s attention. Same goes with the title of a book.

    These days I am learning how to be less self-absorbed – that is, paying more attention to how others react around me. I’m hoping to be more compassionate to others if you know what I mean, or at least trying not to step on other’s too much. Always easier said than done. Also, observing others is a great way to get ideas for character development when writing a story.

    • Thanks for the link, Mabel. Yes, it’s the same writers’ conference. I’m glad she enjoyed it and that the weather was nice. It usually is on that day. One of the rooms we met in had a view of the water and the mountains. Lots of sailboats were out. It looked like they were racing.

      Lifelong learning means many things. It’s interesting that you’re focusing on learning more about the reactions of other people. I’ve always thought that the primary duty of any artist is to be especially observant of the world. For a painter, that means to notice light, shadows, shapes, and the colors of everything he or she sees. For a writer, that means paying attention to everything: to words, to everything taken in by our senses, and especially to people, the way they act and speak and feel. I like your interest in paying more attention to how others react.

      • That is lovely to hear you two attended the same conference. Beautiful views, what a treat.

        It is interesting what you picked up on observation. I’ve always had an interest in behavioural insights, so observing people is fascinating to me. But you are right – there is also a lot to be observed about the whole world, and necessarily when we’re creating art and perception of a certain context.

  2. Sounds like a great conference, Nicki. Thanks for sharing Mr. Rhamey’s checklist. I agree about the importance of the first page. I’ve put many books back on the shelf if I wasn’t drawn in from the start. One thing I’ve learned recently is that the publishing world is always changing.

    • First pages are so hard to craft. I’ve written a first page for the novel I’m working on, but I’m planning to change the whole first chapter when I’m done with the novel. I’ll probably change it over and over until I get it as close to right as I can.

      You’re right. The publishing world is always changing. I didn’t sign up for any classes in publishing or marketing this time. I’ll wait until I’m ready. Things will undoubtedly be different by then.

  3. I really needed this post, Nicki. Wish I could have gone to that conference. But at least I have the information you provided.

    I agree with what your title proclaims: keep on learning. I’d like to take more art classes to learn about painting. I’d also like to take the postgraduate semester at VCFA. I miss working with an advisor. I learned a ton from my advisors.

    • I know how you feel about taking more art classes. I don’t want to go back to Chinese brush painting or batik, but now and then I get the urge to do watercolor sketching. Also it would be fun to take some classes on digital art and design. I don’t think I’ll get around to that though. I definitely would like to do a postgraduate semester at VCFA. I might do it when I get farther along on this novel. It’s wonderful to work with an advisor you trust. I had some great advisors. In the meantime, my writers’ group is a big help. We try to meet twice a month.

  4. WOTS is always worth the time. You are a good example of someone who keeps learning and doing. Sometimes that new learning surprises us with its importance; sometimes it seems trivial. We all need to be life-long learners and ready for the lessons out there in the world.

    • It’s easy to forget how much we all have had to learn just to keep up. Cars and phones and banking systems have all changed. Even shopping has changed. You have a blog, so you know that there’s a learning curve to blogging. And then there are all the things that writers have to learn about marketing their work.

      I asked my daughters about the continuing education requirements in their fields. For lawyers, there are CLEs (continuing legal education), 45 hours every three years in Washington State. For professional engineers in Maryland, it’s 24 hours every two years. For actuaries, it’s 30 hours per year. But that’s only the requirements. Like you said, we all need to be life-long learners.

  5. That is a good checklist. I like writers who chuck you off the deep end, right into the story — then you find yourself devouring the backstory when it appears, rather than wading through it.

    • Do you read TC Boyle? He usually chucks you off the deep end in the first page or two. I’ve been reading Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad stories recently. Being murder stories, they give you the murder early on. But you’re right, later, when she gives you the back story, you’re ready to devour it. I’m pretty omnivorous, though. I just like a good story well written.

  6. How wonderful that you were able to attend, Nicki! I am currently researching a company town and the two businesses the family started to support the town. It’s really interesting stuff and I learn more and more each day.

    • That sounds interesting, Michelle. It sounds like the family stepped forward and created something for their town.

      My sister is kind of a history buff. A few months ago, she took part in a survey of houses in Ballard, (her part of Seattle). They were looking for any houses that could be considered historic. They looked through historical records; they took photos; and they interviewed residents. She was really excited about all the things she learned and all the information she helped to compile.

  7. My husband is the avid reader in our family. Far more than I am. He says that in order for a book to interest him someone has to die of unnatural causes in the first 50 pages. That tells you the kind of books he likes. I will give a book more than the first page but I need to be grabbed early. Those books with 50 pages of background lose me. ZZZZZ

    • I can appreciate your husband’s taste. While I often read women’s fiction and literary fiction, I also read mystery, suspense, and crime fiction. Some of them are really hard to put down. That’s why I read Tana French’s five Dublin Murder Squad books one after another. Now I’m going to have to find another similar series. Girl on the Train and Gone Girl also hooked me.

      I just looked back at one of my favorite books of the year, A Gentleman in Moscow. The first page looks like it come from the court reporter’s notes of a trial. I doubt that it conforms to any of the rules for a good first page. The book sure had good word of mouth, though.

  8. Even if we don’t learn something new . . . reminders can come in handy PLUS the energy from presenters and other participants can propel us forward with renewed enthusiasm.

    I did take CLE courses while practicing law and I still enjoy learning ~ whether from books, from people, or from every day experiences.

    • Often reminders have just a touch of something new or a slightly different angle to make us sit up and take notice and put once-learned valuable concepts at the front of our minds. One thing I like about your blog is that you often write about important life lessons, and even though we know or should know those lessons, you frame them in novel ways and ways your readers can readily understand.

      I think you’re right, the energy of presenters and other participants spreads enthusiasm. They also present a good example for us to follow.

  9. Very interesting post, Nicki. I love it when people report back on conferences like this. I haven’t been writing as long as you have, but long enough to feel I’ve heard a lot of the mainstay advice many times over. All the same, I’ve enroled for an online writing course run by a literary agency in London. It starts today (!) and runs until January, and I welcome the opportunity to think more actively about writing and get some valuable input into my work-in-progress. It’s also good to join a new community, even if it is only online. There are 15 of us on the course who will all critique each other’s work. I expect to learn a lot.

    • The course you’re starting sounds like a good opportunity. I didn’t know literary agencies sponsor writing courses. Working with 15 other writers should be fun. Even though it’s online, you may end up becoming good friends with some of them.

  10. I haven’t been to a “face to face” class or conference in a very long time, but I often take online courses. My favourite ones were one about archaeology and one about the history of China. Not work related, but I like learning about different topics! The last one I did was about personal finances, and I am about to start one about videogames localization (my current work field).

    • There are so many excellent online courses these days. It looks like you’ve chosen some good ones on a variety of subjects. My older grandson, who is a junior in college, started when he was in high school taking online courses in his spare time–even though he already takes a heavier course schedule than necessary. I was surprised to learn that ivy league colleges offer many free online courses. I guess they can do that since they still have thousands of students who want to attend their schools despite how expensive they are. Many cost $60,000 per year if you include room and board! Wow!

      I read a lot of fiction these days, but I also read non-fiction. One excellent book I read this past year was: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

  11. Such conferences are wonderful and with such a keynote speaker you must have been in for a treat. I read the novel The Nightingale and I’m not suprised that Hannah did an extensive research. It’s a great book.
    I stil learn too. Mostly the craft of writing. But also in other areas of my life. Yoga for exemple is a rather new interest of mine and I love to learn more about its origins and the different kinds to find what’s best for me. I also try to read very different kinds of books and I’m fortunate to know authors of nonfiction. Not at all my favorite genre, but with them I am learning how to write nonfiction too.
    I think that as long as we learn we are alive 🙂

    • Learning new movements, like the yoga you’re doing, is good for us, I think. Physically, we tend to follow old habits. It’s good to try something new–a new machine or class at the gym, a new dance step or exercise or sport.

      Blogging is a form or non-fiction writing. I find it very different from writing fiction.


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