James River Writers’ Conference

I spent Friday and Saturday at the ever-excellent annual James River Writers conference in Richmond. Located in the Library of Virginia, it ran from 9:00 to 4:30 each of those days. A quick run-down of the fun stuff I did there:

1. Saw David L. Robbins, who I can now ALMOST call by his name instead of “Professor Robbins.” He’s now teaching at VCU, and hopes to return to William & Mary when its poor public-school budget has the monies.

Apparently he has named a character after me in his new book, Broken Jewel, which comes out November 10. He used my real last name – “Anica Lewis” is my writing name, “Anica” and “Lewis” being my two middle names. So that’s MAJOR Willcox to you! And if you forget the extra L, you can drop and give me ten!

2. Bought Professor David R.’s book War of the Rats. Also Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. Edgy YA werewolf love story? Yes please. Got both books signed. Conferences are awesome. I felt even better about this because the book table was provided by a local independent, Fountain Bookstore.

3. Attended many panels. This means – that’s right – a list within a list!

3.1. Friday started off with a critique of submitted first pages by agents and editors. It was the only session in its time period, so everyone was there, and it was great. I hadn’t submitted this year, but it was still fun to hear professional actors read the pages aloud, then have the editors and agents – well, tear into them. Definitely no sugarcoating there. They were constructive, though, and gave some excellent specific examples of how personal their decisions can be. One editor, for instance, said she would pass on a particular submission because it happened that she had just published a poor-folks-win-the-lottery-and-aftermath story.

3.2. Next, I went to a panel called To Be Continued . . . Sequels, Serials, and Returning Characters. This yielded an interesting discussion of tidbits placed for possible expansion and use in later books – Donna Andrews, a mystery author, called them “extra doors built into the house,” while Maggie Stiefvater called them “breadcrumbs.” Ms. Andrews, like many mystery writers, pens an open-ended series revolving around one detective, and she gave an example of these “doors”: she mentions in her first book that the protagonist’s husband is a drama professor, even though it doesn’t really matter in that book, to give herself the option of later “writing a college-campus mystery or a backstage mystery.” The other panelist, graphic novelist Dash Shaw, was prodded to speak about series, and responded, “I like when they put the numbers of the books on the spines, so I know which one comes next.”

3.3. I went to a panel on writing humor, which always seems a tough thing to teach. The panelists had some good points, although I’d say that more of them talked about why humor is useful/necessary in writing than about how to do it.

3.4. The next panel, called I Wrote . . . You Read . . . He Narrated: Establishing Proper Point of View, was one of my favorites. It made a lot of points I’d heard, but they were good ones, and made eloquently. David L. Robbins gave his advice on shifting points of view: because each switch jerks readers back from a character they’d been close to and makes them sink into another character’s head, there had better be a good payoff. He also pointed out that you can – and must – design your characters to have the scope they need for the story. They need to be present and involved, physically or emotionally or both, in the scenes for which they are the reader’s window. If a scene is necessary to the best telling of the story, and your character simply cannot be there, that is the time to switch points of view.

I took advantage of the POV panel to ask a question of David R., who writes historical fiction, and Scott Nelson, a historian who writes nonfiction about history. It seems to me, I said, that the difference between these two genres is the level of immersion in point of view. I wondered if there was a cutoff or a distinct difference. According to Scott Nelson, there is, and its name is “footnotes.” (To elaborate, he basically said that the difference is that nonfiction must acknowledge its sources, which automatically removes it from being super-close as far as POV.)

3.5. An interview with author Michael Knight, who writes mostly short stories, followed by a presentation by Dash Shaw, and the Friday session ended.

3.6. Saturday began with more single-event time blocks: an interview of bestseller Katherine Neville, credited with inventing the ancient-secrets-world-hopping-conspiracy-thriller twenty years ago, then an open Q&A session with three editors.

3.7. The first separate panel I attended was called Wrapping It Up: Denouements and the Art of the Ending. This included several pieces of advice that I’m going to give you in ANOTHER LIST!

– The moderator quoted author Richard Peck as saying, “The first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.” Some disagreement over this sentiment ensued in the panel. Make of it what you will.

The beginning makes a promise. Usually, this is in the form of a problem to be solved, or at least a situation to be changed. You know, like if your main character is living in a cupboard under the stairs.

Resolve the main problem at the very end, the smaller sub-plot problems before that. This, from YA-and-children’s book author Meg Medina, was certainly nice and concrete. Like most concrete writing advice, it probably doesn’t always apply, but it’s worth thinking about.

Hope is of great importance in endings. I tend to agree with this one, though I recognize it may not be for everyone.

3.8. Next, I went to a panel called The Role of the Globe and Clock: Settling on the Right Setting. This included interesting discussions of levels of research. Maggie Stiefvater, while a big proponent of setting research, was less enthusiastic about some planning elements.

MS: Yeah . . . that other stuff? Map drawing, stuff like that? There’s a name for that: procrastination. Unless you’re Tolkien – and I’m sorry, but none of us in here is going to be Tolkien, and that kind of fiction is very rarely published now anyway – that’s just stuff you’re doing that’s not writing. It’s fun, and you can certainly do some of it, but make sure you don’t think you’re writing while you’re doing it, because you’re not. And if you’re not careful, worldbuilding can eat you alive.
Dash Shaw: I like drawing maps.
Moderator Bill Blume: *Holds up Dash Shaw’s book, Bottomless Belly Button, open to the map at the beginning.
MS: Do I really have to say this? YOU’RE A GRAPHIC NOVELIST. YOU CAN DRAW MAPS.

(Hopefully that doesn’t make Ms. Stiefvater sound mean. She was a really fun panelist.)

Ms. Stiefvater also noted something she’d heard from a friend in the film industry: there, they have a rule that no scene can look the same twice. Thus, if it’s in the same place, it must be a significantly different time of day, different weather, different characters, different props . . . A good thought, if you ask me.

3.9. The last panel I attended was called Rise, Fall, Rinse, and Repeat: The Emotional Arc of Storytelling. The moderator, Susann Cokal, stressed that she did not make up the panel name and that there was to be no discussion of rinsing. Someone would later make a sexual joke re: the panel name, causing panelist Michael Knight to say, “Now I’m uncomfortable.”

The best thing I heard at this panel was, “The emotional arc is what happens on the inside that makes what happens on the outside matter.”

I was scheduled for a five-minute pitch session with editor Karen Lotz of Candlewick Press, but sadly, she was sick and missed the whole conference. What a bummer for her! I know I’d hate to miss it. It was a bummer for me, too, of course, as I’d practiced my pitch of Rabbit and Cougar for days, but that did make me smoother when talking to other writers about it during breaks. Also, Ms. Lotz, who is apparently super-awesome, has offered to read the ENTIRE manuscript of every person who was scheduled to pitch her. Checking the list they gave me, this is at least eighteen people. Wow. We’re told we’ll receive details by e-mail.

So, a great weekend! And before I forget, I have found an independent seller of books – used, new, rare, and out of print – with a huge inventory and from which one can order online with very reasonable shipping as well as good prices. Check it out.

10 thoughts on “James River Writers’ Conference

  • Maan, I need to get to one of those.

  • Heh. Candlewick Press is on my list of places to apply for editorial jobs/internships. If that pans out, well… send your stuff my way. *sketchy wink*

    Shiver sounds interesting. I’m always on the lookout for satisfying werewolf literature, which there’s far too little of. What’s the premise?

    • Yeah, doesn’t Candlewick Press seem great? I really like their business model.

      The premise of the werewolves of Shiver, at least, is that they change form based on temperature, becoming wolves when it gets really cold. And live in Minnesota. I can’t say much more, as I’m still working on The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and thus haven’t started Shiver yet.

    • I forget – are you on Goodreads? If so, my review of Shiver is up there now. (If not, why not already?)

      To summarize: I liked it much better than Twilight, though in my eyes the inevitability of the comparison is unfortunate. Lots of things done well, but for some reason, the book didn’t quite grab me like I’d hoped. Still, good writing, very atmospheric, and an especially good job making lycanthropy not a superpower but something you really don’t want to have.

  • Ahhhh, that’s awesome! I’ll have to keep a lookout for his book – sounds like he’s really happy with it.

    I really wish they would put numbers on the spines of every series ever published, because I had to alphabetize them last summer….

    I really like the advice about wrapping up your subplots before you wrap up the main plot… I feel like my plots sometimes have the long trail of resolutions after everyone’s safe. If you have a really epic story you can get away with a long denouement, though (a la LotR.)

    The making the same setting look different thing is a good idea too – makes the storytelling a lot more dynamic.

    Know who you can order books from? The Book Trader’s Cafe in New Haven, CT! We’re on Amazon…. 🙂

  • Wait until I get you to Powell’s in Portland! You will believe in heaven after going in there. They have EVERYTHING in a wonderfully haphazard giant store.

  • I was/still am so excietd to win Shiver and Linger! I was excietd that the books were signed, but even more excietd about the awesome doodles.BrittLit – I hope you get a chance to read both of them. I plan on reading this copy of Linger soon 😀

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *