Every May, writers, editors, and agents gather in Pennsylvania for three days to share their knowledge, wisdom, and passion about the art and business of writing. I know I’ll always come home from the conference inspired and brimming with ideas; it’s reason enough alone to belong to Pennwriters, and there are many others.

One of the great delights is connecting with people who share this passion. This year, I had the pleasure of meeting my Running Wild Anthology colleague Suzanne Mattaboni, a gifted writer who is also a local Pennwriter representative.

She put together a beautiful raffle basket full of goodies and books by Pennwriters – among them the RW Anthology which features a trio of us Pennwriters, including Susan Helene Gottfried, another talented writer and an editor (I’ve really enjoyed emailing with her and wish she could’ve come so I could meet her).

I contributed a few items to the basket, clues to some of the RW Anthology stories. You can just spot them in the photo: seed packets for “Bee Heaven” and “Holy Basil” (for my story, “Last Memory”); a bag of pirate gold (for Cindy Cavett’s fun “Rehoboth Beach Break”); and a tiny Excalibur (for Amelia Kibbie’s touching “The Idylls of the King”). And the “Seaglass” candle (furnished by Suzanne) fits well with Laura Selinsky’s poignant “Seawall.” Curious how these mysterious things fit in with the stories? Look into the Anthology and find out!

Three of my critique group friends were there this year, and hanging out and comparing notes with them was excellent fun. It was thrilling to see E. Williams win second place in the Pennwriters Annual Contest for short fiction with her story “Cici Accepts the Facts” (find out more on her website). And my friends Katrina and Rowan got requests for their manuscripts from more than one agent. Congratulations, my friends!

I was so pleased that Suzanne won third place for her  nonfiction short, “A Trailer Full of Cadillacs,” in the “In Other Words” contest (and that her daughter won first place in the poetry division! A lot of talent in that family).

Though “In Other Words” is a small and informal contest, it’s judged by attendees, and it’s an honor to be voted for by your peers. I was delighted that my short story, “The One that Got Away,” tied for third in the fiction division. (If you’d like to read the story, let me know in the comments.)

As always, the conference had so many great workshops, I had to make tough choices. Once I got home, it took me weeks to edit all my notes and distill the wisdom that I can use here, now, and soon. Here is a tiny sampling from just a handful of the excellent presenters.

Don Helin, award-winning writer of thrillers, presented a lively, good-humored workshop on “Writing a Marketing Plan.”

A few tidbits for my present use:

• Develop a press kit; if you were going to write an article on yourself, what would you need?
• Develop a non-fiction hook: some fact that ties into your stories, to catch the attention of people who might promote your work. It can even work with fantasy. (I’m still working on what to tie into my fantasy in progress; it might have to do with the legend of Deirdre of the Sorrows.)
• Keep your website up to date…good advice I’m working on right now!
• Keep writing! Publishers want the next book. And for me, none of this matters if I don’t get to keep putting my stories into words.

 

Kathryn Craft, award-winning author and freelance developmental editor, talked about how to “Play Jenga with your Prose.”

Intriguing title, isn’t it? First, she and an audience member defined just what jenga is for those of us ignorant: a game where you start with a short, solid tower of wooden blocks and take out one at a time to stack them on top, ending (before it falls) with a taller, airier tower.

Her key point: overwriting builds a wall between the author and the reader. So…make holes in the wall and beckon to the reader through them. She gave eloquent examples from excellent authors.
Things I found particularly useful have to do with setting:
• Save description until it counts and something interesting happens.
• Make details meaningful.
• Consider ways to make setting interactive.
• Give details that anchor the reader in your world.
• Use the setting to support the plot.

 

Hallie Ephron, NYT bestselling author, talked about “Parallel Tracks: From Back Story to Front Story.”

One of her many helpful ideas is to chart your characters in relationship to your protagonist:
• Draw arrows toward the protagonist if they’re helping and away from if they’re hindering.
• You need a mix of push and pull.
• Some characters may do both.
• If there aren’t many arrows pointing away from protagonist, there’s probably not enough conflict in your story.
• You may need more characters, or hidden goals in existing characters.
• The protagonist can be hindering themselves.

And she highlighted the concept of Parallax: where you’re standing determines what you see.
• Different people will believe different things.
• What lies do characters believe, what truths do they doubt?
• What really happened, vs. what people think happened?

 

In “World Building 101,” multi-talented fantasy writer Jack Hillman presented a treasure trove of things to consider.

Some essential points:
• Make sure you know the backstory for your world.
• Your world will determine, at least in part, your people.
• Build your society around your world, and your conflict around all these factors.
• BUT don’t tell the reader everything about the world backstory. Let them figure some out themselves.

 

With a great deal of humor and hard-won wisdom, Western writer R.G. Yoho shared “What NOT to do as an Author.”

Some key things that stuck with me:
• Remember: the manuscript you don’t finish can’t be improved.
• Don’t let others define success for you.
• Enjoy the successes along the way, and enjoy the ride.
• It’s amazing how many ‘yeses’ you’ll hear if you’re not afraid to hear ‘no.”

 

Finally, with great verve and energy, Donna Galanti shared much helpful, practical information about “School Visits 101.”

Having been to some of her workshops and read her excellently fun Joshua and the Lightning Road I only wish I were a kid lucky enough to have her visit MY school!

These are just hints and samplings of what these presenters, and many more, had to offer. I’m still digesting this feast of information. Now it’s time to put it into use, and get back to writing!