March 19, 2012

Writing for Charity

On Saturday, I had my first day out without kids for about five months. Let me tell you, it was well worth the trouble.

Writing for Charity is an excellent writing conference held at the Provo Library that features major published authors from the area. As the name suggests, all proceeds go to charities. I first became aware of it by reading Shannon Hale's blog. She's one of my favorite authors, so even if she had been the only one presenting, I still would have wanted to go. But, as luck would have it, a whole group of great writers donated their time and energy to the conference. We have more awesome authors per capita in Utah than anywhere in the world (*not a verified statistic). Brandon Sanderson is another writer/genius that I couldn't wait to hear. I've listened to his podcast, Writing Excuses, so I already knew he has a lot of helpful tips. I wasn't as familiar with the other authors attending, but after hearing some of them speak, my to-read list has grown exponentially.

One appealing part of the conference is that authors do critiques on the first couple of pages of manuscripts for us hopeful writers out there. Unfortunately for me, I wasn't prepared with anything good enough to allow a real live author to critique. BUT, I got super lucky and was able to sneak get into Shannon Hale's critique group to listen. It was completely eye-opening. I was surprised at how much I learned, even without bringing my own manuscript.

My goals for the day:
Be inspired. 
Learn something new. 
Make a friend. 
Make it through without a desperate phone call from Jared to come home and feed the baby. 
Decide if the particular story that's begging me to write it is worth the time. 
Have fun and laugh often. 
Become best buddies with all the writers. (Fail)
Don't make a fool of myself. (Fail)

Favorite quotes of the day:
(Some of these were during the authors' panel and I didn't always know who said it. Sorry. Some are paraphrased.)
"Writer's block is a myth." -Shannon Hale
"Art is never finished, only abandoned." -Unknown
"Traditional publishing is dying. Adapt or die." -Unknown (Possibly Tracy Hickman?)
"You can improve on any writing, no matter how bad, but you can't improve on no writing." -Funny man
"The more we treat our characters as real people, the better they become." -Jennifer Nielsen
"If you think there's any chance you can succeed at something, say 'I can do that.' And do it." -Smart dark haired woman
"Every bit of dialogue should count. Remove anything in a sentence you don't need." -Shannon Hale
"Writing is about will, not the muse." -Unknown
"All writers are liars and thieves." -Mette Ivie Harrison
"Chasing the market is a dangerous thing to do. Write what you like to write." -Brandon Sanderson
"I am a bag of rice." -Dean Hale

Shannon Hale, Critique Group
Here, Shannon read the first page or two of about ten people's stories and offered suggestions and tips. There was so much good advice, but it made me realize how much I have to learn about writing.
Here are a few of her guidelines she so generously shared:

Introduce characters in the first paragraph if possible.
Don't introduce backstory in the first chapter.
Make sure you're beginning the story in the right place.
Avoid flashbacks as much as possible.
Dialogue shouldn't do the job of the narrator.
Set a scene in the beginning and introduce action early.
Try not to use the same words too repetitively, especially in the beginning of the story.
Remove anything in a sentence you don't need.
Check the first pages of other books you like to see how they're constructed.
The main purpose of dialogue is to build a relationship between characters, rather than move the story along.
Try to reveal exactly what's happening in the moment without just describing. Show, don't tell!
Reveal only the immediate details and needs of the current scene in the beginning. If a detail isn't important yet, save it for later.

Books I've read of Shannon's: The Goose Girl, Enna Burning, River Secrets, Princess Academy, Book of a Thousand Days, Rapunzel's Revenge, Austenland
To read next: Forest Born, Midnight in Austenland

Jennifer Nielsen, The Psychology of Characterization
This session had some incredibly helpful tips and techniques. Jennifer used to work with a wilderness retreat group for troubled teens. They gave tests to the teens in order to figure out their needs. She came up with her own test specifically for characters in order to know them better.
Here are a few examples of open-ended sentences included in her test:

I was happiest when--
When I'm pushed too far--
Real love is--
It was a mistake to--
To me, freedom is--
Other people think of me as--
The worst thing that could happen to me--
Someday I will--

She had us go through it and answer the questions from a character's perspective. I will absolutely be using this in the future.
She's willing to share the complete test with other writers. Isn't she nice?
On my to-read list by Jennifer: The False Prince and others

Dean and Shannon Hale, Rewriting the Crap Out of It
In this session, Dean and Shannon (husband and wife, btw) came up with a story on the spot and then revised it a few times. They were hilarious. I couldn't always understand Dean when his deep voice boomed through the microphone, but he made me laugh anyway. I was quite amused by their banter, including the "Screw you" that Shannon threw at Dean.
Their tips:

First draft: vomit up a story (imagery is one of Shannon's strong points)
Second or third draft: rework the plot
Third or fourth draft: focus on character relationships, motives, settings, details
Ninth or tenth draft: read it through, mark it up
You can always write something. It just may need to be rewritten later.
Question and analyze every word in the story.
Not one sentence really remains the same from the first draft to the last.
Focus on making your weaknesses your strengths.

Brandon Sanderson, Advanced Plot Structure
Discover your own writing style. What works for one author doesn't work for every writer.
Some writers like to think of an interesting situation, drop characters in, and let stuff happen.
If you want a more intricate plot line, outlining is usually helpful. If you want lightness and spontaneity, you might not need an outline.
The point of a plot is making promises that there will be resolutions.
Ask yourself "Wouldn't that be awesome if?" and turn that idea into a story.
Combining genres can make something old seem new. (e.g. heist/fantasy, sport story/sci-fi)
When the separate ideas in your head stick together and work, they can create an interesting, original story.
"Surprising but inevitable" twists are the best kind. You don't see it coming, but you couldn't see it any other way.
Break stories down into smaller pieces and tell each sub-story at a time.

Books I've read by Brandon: Mistborn, The Well of Ascension, The Hero of Ages, The Alloy of Law
To read next: Warbreaker

Obviously, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, considering the fact that I tried to write down every bit of advice I heard. My only regret is that I couldn't go to every presentation since I lack the aid of a time-turner. I can't stress enough how much I recommend Writing for Charity to anyone else who loves to write. Assuming they do this again next year, I will definitely be attending. But next time, my goal will be to have a first draft of an entire story ready before the conference. I feel inspired, but more importantly, I've learned that it's all about putting in the work and not making excuses. If I can simply take the time to write, I know I can do it.


  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this up! As the organizer, I hardly got to HEAR any of it! Join us again next year!

  2. I'm really glad you went to this. Like you, I really like Shannon Hale and can't wait for Felicity to get old enough to read her books. Sounds like fun!

  3. Please write something Lisa! I have always admired your writing and storytelling abilities.

  4. Wow this is so interesting!!! Good for you for going and accomplishing so much!!! Sounds amazing :) And you know what??? I LOVVVVVVVVVE the Mistborn series. I became obsessed with obtaining all of Brandon Sanderson's books after that but just completely ran out of time as they sat on my desk for weeks untouched. But really, so cool. :) :) :)


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