Category Archives: Writing Conferences

Destination: Macon & the Crossroads Writers Conference

A week from Friday I will join other writers in Macon, Georgia, for the 2012 Crossroads Writers Conference. I went last year and was wowed by the quality of the program. (Read my blog post highlighting my experience, including meeting conference headliner Jay Parini, New York Times‘ bestselling novelist and biographer).

This year, Crossroads has new and bigger digs — at the Marriott City Center Hotel. The fun kicks off Friday, Oct. 5 with a Freelancers Summit followed by the writers conference on Saturday and a book fair Sunday. This year’s keynote speaker is Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month, and author of “No Plot? No Problem!”

Back in 1999 Baty first christened November as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, and the world’s largest writing challenge and nonprofit literary crusade was born. Last year, 250,000 people worldwide pledged to write 50,000 words in a month, starting from scratch and reaching “The End” by November 30.

The foursome who founded Crossroads.

“We have charged Mr. Chris Baty with the task of inspiring and motivating our crowd, which is to say we’ve asked him to be himself,” says Chris Horne, conference director, who I caught up with yesterday to learn what attendees can expect this year.

In addition to Baty’s talk, attendees will see many more featured authors than in the past thanks to a new format.

“In the past, we’ve had several concurrent sessions and attendees had to choose which of the headliners to see and which they had to miss,” says Chris. “This year, we’re introducing the Talk Block, a block of short and focused plenary talks by our presenters on what moves them the most. So everyone gets to see most of our guests.”

The format also will feature morning and afternoon “Speak Easy Sessions” covering creative nonfiction, poetry, scripts, publishing and fiction, and two breakout sessions.

Among the featured presenters are:

  • Chuck Wendig, author of “Blackbirds,” “Mockingbird,” and “500 Ways to Be a Better Writer,” who speaks during Saturday morning’s Talk Block, and
  • Susannah Breslin, a freelance journalist and Forbes.com blogger, who will speak Friday during the Freelancers Summit.

“Chuck and Susannah have a sort of refreshing ruthlessness about them — neither will sugarcoat anything for the audience, in print or in person. Plus, they’re incredibly smart and really talented,” Chris says.

Who should attend Crossroads? Anyone who takes their writing seriously. Chris hopes that the conference will help new writers build up their confidence, and serve as an inspiration to everyone to more fully devote themselves to their craft so they can be “a better writer tomorrow than they are at the moment.”
“The thing about writing–about anything really–is that you have to do more than just wish for success,” says Chris, explaining that Crossroads is really about finding a community of writers, regardless of whether you are just starting out and or are a published professional.
To make this event even more successful, the organizers have established a fundraiser to offer scholarships to help writers-in-need attend.
“The world needs good storytellers –we want to enable as many writers as possible to join us,” says Chris.
Pre-order Crossroads Guide to the Writing Life, featuring insights from headliners such as Baty, and proceeds will help cover conference expenses for individuals facing financial hardship. View this nifty video to learn more.
 

Hunger Games from Book to Screen – Did it Deliver?

 

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES. Photo credit: Murray Close
 
Watching “The Hunger Games” on DVD this weekend made me think where I was one week ago — attending DragonCon, the world’s largest fantasy/SF convention held every Labor Day in Atlanta.
 
One of the more interesting panels I attended was a spirited debate among Young Adult (YA) authors, including C.J. Redwine, M.B. Wilson, Leah Wilson, Diana Peterfreund and Mel Pichetto, who explored how well Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy translated from book to screen. 
 
The movie was helped by Collins’ close collaboration with director Gary Ross on the screenplay. However, filmmakers always must make tough choices when condensing multi-layered stories rich with characters and back story into a two-hour movie. It’s a process that often brings angst to fans of well-loved books, and “The Hunger Games” was no exception.  
 
“Hunger Games” fans in costume at DragonCon YA panel.
The book and film open on the morning of the “Reaping” – when the story’s heroine, 16-year-old Katniss of District 12, prepares for the lottery that every teenager living in the 12 districts of Panem must enter.  The oppressive government, embodied as the “Capitol,” requires an adolescent boy and girl from each of the districts to serve as tributes for their districts in a televised gladiator battle where only one can emerge victor. The Capitol requires this sacrifice as a reminder of the districts’ rebellion 74 years earlier (the districts are actually remnants of the U.S.).
 
The story’s heroine comes from the poorest of the districts known for coal mining. After losing her father in a mine explosion, Katniss masters hunting with a bow and arrow to help keep her little sister Prim and her emotionally damaged mother from starving. Her hunting companion is her childhood friend Gale, who also lost his dad and must hunt to keep his family alive. Katniss becomes the first tribute to volunteer when she steps up to take her younger sister’s place at the games.
Most of the panelists agreed that the world building — from the impoverished districts to the glittery Capitol — was well done. The movie was filmed entirely in North Carolina, with settings that included both a dense forest and a town that stood in for District 12.
 
Collins said that she first imagined the book while channel-surfing one evening between a reality TV show and footage of the invasion of Iraq. The two “began to blur in this very unsettling way” and the idea for the book was formed, she recalled in a 2010 interview in Publisher’s Weekly.  
 
YA authors discuss “Hunger Games” during DragonCon.
“The Hunger Games” tackles a number of themes, from severe poverty and starvation, to oppression and the effects of war. The characters in the story face difficult moral questions in their quest for self-preservation.

“This was an oppressive society at the beginning of a revolution,” noted Redwine, who was particularly impressed with the 80s influence in the Capitol, from the clothing to the lavish furnishings inside the apartments that housed the tributes. “I thought it was a nice gesture to the excess of the 80s,” she said.

 
A few panelists indicated that they would have liked to seen more focus on food, given the undercurrent of hunger, especially in the poorer outlier districts.  During the Q and A, an audience member said her bakery (Amélie’s based in Charlotte) actually catered the food for the crew, and that they didn’t realize until the film was released that their pastries and other delicacies were used as “food shots” on both the train and in the Capitol.
I agreed with many of the points made by YA writers, including the cinematography and the behind-the-scenes shots of the technology-savvy gamekeepers. They at times showed an appalling lack of humanity toward the tributes as they introduced new obstacles for the teens to overcome in their fight for survival. Case in point: the gamekeepers’ introduction of a pack of vicious mutated dogs called muttations into the arena for the final battle. In the book, Collins describes how the eyes of the dead tributes are superimposed on the mutts’ eyes — a ghastly detail that adds to the psychological warfare of the story. This detail didn’t make it into the film, to the disappointment of the panelists.
 
“‘The Hunger Games’ offers a lot of lessons,” said Pichetto, assistant YA programming director for DragonCon. “The portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder is incredibly accurate.”
 
Cato, male tribute from District 2.
That damage was evident in the last battle scene, when both Katniss and her District 12 counterpart, Peeta, find themselves facing the “alpha tribute” Cato. Born on the more prosperous District 2 and trained as a career tribute, Cato had spent his entire life training for this moment. During the games, he delivered as expected, killing other tributes without remorse. But, the audience gets a glimpse into his damaged psyche and his disillusionment in his final moments, when Katniss is pointing an arrow at him and he’s got Peeta in a death grip. Cato states that he only wanted to bring pride to his district, and that all he knew how to do was kill. Interestingly, his speech was not in the book, but was added to the screenplay.
 
The movie also didn’t explain to viewers the real meaning of the Mockingjay, a critical symbol of rebellion that plays out throughout the trilogy. (If you want to read why this mimicking bird is so symbolic, check out this explanation on Wiki Answers.)
 
As a work of literature, The Hunger Games offers a refreshing alternative to stories about dystopian societies that could be great fodder for English schoolteachers. Given the popularity of the book by both adult and teenage readers (it’s stayed on the NY Times bestseller list for more than three years since debuting in 2008), I am hopeful that it will find a place in my children’s literature class one day.
 
“I hope it takes the place of George Orwell’s1984. I’d love to see it become a classic because it is more relevant,” said panelist M.B. Weston.

A Conversation with the First Ladies of Fantasy

 

 

Standing L-R, Nancy Knight, Laurell K. Hamilton, Sherrilyn Kenyon and Mercedes Lackey. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, sitting.
Four groundbreaking New York Times’ bestselling authors – Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Mercedes Lackey, Laurell K. Hamilton and Sherrilyn Kenyon — gathered this past weekend at DragonCon to talk about their craft and journey as novelists in a genre historically dominated by men. Insightful and funny, these talented women spoke candidly about their trials on the road to literary acceptance. 

Fighting for Acceptance

 

Yarbro, a multi-faceted writer best known for creating the heroic vampire, Count Saint-Germain, sold her first mystery in 1968. At the time, the “climate for women writers was chilly.”

Female fantasy writers began to get a better reception after Anne McCaffrey’s won her first Hugo, but even then many male writing counterparts called it a “fluke,” Yarbro added.

 
The first woman to be named a Living Legend by the International Horror Guild (2006), Yarbro spoke highly of her mentor,  Robert Bloch, who penned Psycho, which Alfred Hitchcock later made into a cult film classic.
 
“If you were a beginning writer, he was very helpful – he would talk with you. If you published something, he would read it and send you a note. I adored the man,” she recalled.
 

Riding the Romance Boon

In the 1980s the publishing field started to open up for women – and several panelists said they were pressured to write romance – and many did –under pseudonyms — to pay bills (one panelist said writing a romance helped pay for her divorce).

 
Kenyon, who published her first novel in 1978, still experienced rejections from book publishers even after six New York Timesbestselling books.  The mother of three sons added that there are two things with which she can terrify people  – “pregnancy and publishing — I will scare you off both.”
 
“Thank God I’m a southern Cherokee – we don’t give up, ever. My whole philosophy is there’s always a way around any obstacle – over, under and around,” said the 16-time New York Times’ #1 bestseller, who has more than 25 million copies of her books in print.
 
 
Hamilton said that her publisher waited four years before publishing her first novel, Guilty Pleasures, in 1991, because the bottom had fallen out of the fantasy market. Before then, it had been rejected more than 200 times. When she first envisioned the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series, paranormal fiction and paranormal romance as genres didn’t exist. 

“My editors told me that the vampire market is dead. What they didn’t realize is that the monster always comes back,” Hamilton quipped.  Hers was a steady climb up – with each book sold, she gained more readers. Now Hamilton has transcended genre, according to her publisher, meaning she’s sold enough that she can write whatever she wants.

 

Finding Your Voice

 

The panelists shared insights on how their distinctive voices evolved as well as those who influenced their writing voice.

“Writing a lot was essential. I came to writing out of the theater,” said Yarbro, explaining that you can do anything with dialogue and punctuation in dialogue if that tells your reader how a character sounds.

“The thing about narration is it has to support everything that’s going on without participating in it. You are not a character in your own book — you are a support for the characters who are.”

For Kenyon, inspiration came early from her mother, who was a huge horror fan. She  explained that her father was the kind of man “who dressed up as a zombie and tapped on my window and scream, ‘Ah!’”
 
“To me, any book is a two-way experience.” When advising her 17-year-old son, who is working on his first novel, Kenyon tells him to leverage the internal dialogue in his head – the comments that you never say out loud.  “It’s almost like method acting – it’s like, ‘What would Acheron do?’ ‘What would Simi do?’ You sit there and let that flow and that’s what should end up on paper.”
 
The other advice she gave him was that “you can fix a bad page but you can’t fix a blank one.”  
 
Hamilton loves the clean language of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, her favorite book growing up, and the dialogue of Robert Parker’s Spenser series.  The Anita Blake series author writes exclusively in first-person narration. To get into character, she often will pull out her penguin mugs or wear weaponry while writing.
 
“Do not pick a day when I’m writing Anita to break into the house,” she told her fans, laughing.
 
 
Lackey said after 80+ books in print, she has developed her own voice.” Writers she admires include Charles de Lint and Judy Tarr — “amazing craftspeople and writers.”

All the authors agree that there is no magic formula to finding your voice. “What I think you cannot learn – except by practice and almost by accident — is your voice and an idea that is fresh and speaks to you and is something that only you can write. That is the hardest to come by,” Hamilton said. 

 

Writing Anywhere

Once you find your voice, you can write anywhere. In Kenyon’s case, she wrote through chemo treatments with her mother, during her sons’ soccer games, and while pregnant and hooked to an IV.

 
Louis L’Amour.
Lackey loves to recount a story about Louis L’Amour, who once was challenged to write in the middle of a highway intersection to prove he could write anywhere.
 
“His agent and publisher set him up with a table and folding chair and stuck him on an island in an intersection in New York City. He’s typing away and LIFE comes and takes pictures. In 15 minutes, everyone has gone away and his editor came over and said, ‘Louis, everyone is gone.’ And he said, “Shut up and let me finish this page.’”
 
Looking to today’s current publishing environment, the panelists had differing views on the way forward and the merits of e-publishing.

Debating Merits of E-Publishing, Podcasting

 
E-publishing your work was the kiss of death two years ago, they say.  Not so anymore. “If I was starting out now, I would be e-publishing,” said Lackey.She believes creating podcasts of your book is an even smarter strategy because there are a lot fewer writers using that platform to get their stories out. “Putting (an excerpt) up as a podcast for free will winnow down 95 percent of the people you are competing with.”
While acknowledging that e-publishing has changed the landscape, Hamilton said first-time authors should still pursue traditional publishing first.  “Before you say, ‘I can’t take the rejection’ and go that route, suck it up and try it first. Study the markets – don’t send your manuscript to someone who doesn’t accept your genre. You have to be tough, otherwise, they (publishing industry) will crush your soul.”Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, authors are closer than ever to their audience and the first to receive feedback — good and bad.
 
“We get it first. Technology is a mixed blessing,” Hamilton said.The panelists’ universal advice to writers is to read – constantly. “Don’t just read fiction – read non-fiction; read widely; read words because they’re your tools,” added Hamilton, who even advocates studying dictionaries and encyclopedias to increase your vocabulary.
 
 

Writing Tips from the Masters: Part I of My DragonCon Wrap Up

I am still in recovery mode coming off the high of DragonCon 2012, which drew more than 60,000 SF and fantasy fans this weekend to downtown Atlanta.While the “people watching” at the world’s largest fantasy/SF convention never disappoints, the real highlight for me is hearing from leading storytellers today in these genres.
Panels that stood out for me this year were a Young Adult (YA) author panel that discussed The Hunger Games’ journey from paper to screen, a “Creating Memorable Characters” panel, and a Saturday morning chat with the “First Ladies of Fantasy.” The Writing Well will be featuring highlights from these sessions in my expanded DragonCon wrap-up coverage starting tomorrow.  

Writing wisdom from Richard Hatch

Richard Hatch.

I also met one of my childhood heroes — actor and writer Richard Hatch, who played the character, Apollo, in the original “Battlestar Galactica” TV series and who first brought the story forward 20 years into the future with his novels.  Richard was a fount of information and inspiration for the writers in the room.

“Great writing is like great drama – being in situations where you don’t know what the solutions are,” says Richard, who urged us to get out of our heads and “tap into the deeper well of creativity.”
“Do you know how many artists paint, write, and it’s wonderful but nobody gets it. I think the art of the writer is to take something complex – something profound – and find a way to translate into a language that is understandable by people on a number of levels.”
Case in point: the film, “The Matrix,” could be enjoyed as an action flick on its own merit, but it also offered something else to others who could delve into the deeper aspects of the movie.
“When you have the ability to communicate on multiple levels, you really have found that art form that is the art form of life – it’s really what leverages you into the marketplace,” Richard says. “The greatest joy you will ever have is sharing your work with someone who gets it. You have to have the courage to step up to the plate, de-cloak, become visible, and share your work.”
Aaron Allston and Mike Stackpole.
My biggest time investment was attending several one-hour writing workshops taught by talented SF novelists, Aaron Allston and Michael Stackpole.  

Strive for Unattributed Dialogue

In his “Talk to Me” dialogue workshop, Aaron advocates establishing a distinctive voice to your character so that readers will know the character without you having to use attribution. You can accomplish this by repetitive use of language patterns in how the character speaks, and even through unattributed dialogue. You can also do this through punctuation, by having your character end a sentence as a question.  “You want as much unattributed dialogue as possible – it shows your proficiency as a writer,” Aaron says.
A sudden change in how your character speaks lets the reader realize that something has changed or is about to change. “Always be aware of what your character’s normal vocal mode is and deviate from it to get impact,” he says.
If you think your dialogue is going on too long, set their manuscript aside and come back to it with fresh eyes later, advises Aaron. Generally speaking, action scenes should have shorter dialogue while “sitting” scenes can be longer.

Write — Don’t Rewrite

One pointer from Mike Stackpole’s Writing Rules session that stood out to me was “don’t rewrite before you finish writing.” How often do you find yourself self-editing mid-chapter or even mid-page? For me, plenty! Mike urges you to avoid that practice and just get your story down first. If you have a question in the area of research, highlight it in yellow –you can always go back and fill in those details later.  “Never take the easy way out – have characters change or grow due to their experience. Readers have to connect with them,” Mike says.   
I found his session, “Writing a novel in 21 days,” amazing. The session included 21 exercises that address all the major building blocks of your story – the first 11 days focus on characterization; the next four days deal with world building; and the subsequent days focus on plotting. At the end of the 21 days, you have an outline from which to write your book.  
“Every single word you put down is one word closer to the end,” Mike concludes. He advises you to keep chapters short – targeting 2,500 words and then “get out.” His reason? It keeps readers turning the page. Novels are approximately 100,000 words, while digital books are 50,000. You should also focus on three viewpoint characters not any more given the target book length.
“Speed is not important – every writer writes at a different speed. As you write more, you will get faster,” he says.

Identify these 13 Plot-clogging ‘Sins’

The final workshop I attended on Sunday was Aaron’s 13 sins that clog your plot.
Whether the culprits are issues of preparation, characterization, plotting or writing, the outcome is the same: “your characters stop interacting with you,” he says.  
Common culprits that stall a plot include not doing your research, not laying out the rules of your story, or leaving out an essential ingredient, such as writing characters that your readers can’t get behind or villains who aren’t identifiable to readers.
“Conflict is also important – a novel without a conflict is kind of like a novel without readers,” he says.
Two major plotting sins are setting up a situation that is too simplistic that leads characters to interact in very predictable ways, and plotting with what Aaron calls “Styrofoam peanuts,” or relying on overused plot twists that are cliches.
The most memorable of his sins was #13 – being unwilling to abuse your characters as your plot demands.  “You have to be willing to inflict pain on your characters.” Growth only comes with pain.

A Pre-Convention Interview with Dragon*Con Writers’ Track Director

I spent Saturday hearing from two storytelling experts:  Debra Dixon, best-selling author and publisher of Memphis-based BelleBooks, and Bell Bridge Books, a new imprint focused on paranormal and fantasy fiction for adults and young adults, and Nancy Knight, a literary agent and one of the founders of BelleBooks.
Nancy Knight

For the last 15 years, Nancy also has been director of the Writers’ Track of Dragon*Con, a popular culture convention that comes to Atlanta every Labor Day weekend. Last year it drew 48,000 revelers and took over five downtown hotels. I caught up with Nancy in between her and Debra’s fantastic workshop on “The Hero’s Journey,” which I will cover soon on The Writing Well.

With Dragon*Con just over a month away, I asked Nancy what she enjoys most about this annual Sci Fi and fantasy gathering and what writers can expect this year.
“We already are 21 percent ahead in the number of registrations and expect to have 15 to 18 percent higher attendance,” she says.
Unlike ComicCon, Dragon*Con offers something for everyone – science and space tracks, sessions on podcasting, a kick ass parade, guest star appearances from some of the hottest Sci-Fi shows out there. But, most importantly to me, Dragon*Con includes 31 hours of programming for writers.
This year, fans can look forward to diverse panels featuring both first-time authors and New York Times’ bestselling authors. Some perennial favorites include Sherrilyn Kenyon, Laurell K. Hamilton, Kevin J. Anderson, Jonathan Maberry and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.
“We are doing a Magnificent Men of Science Fiction panel and a First Ladies of Fantasy panel,” says Nancy, who also will host a workshop, “Why Writers Choose their Roles” that’s designed for people who want to write books that can get the attention of Hollywood filmmakers.
“I like to have panels where you get a lot of diverse opinions — where you get a real perspective of the journey,” says Nancy, who organizes panels comprised of six speakers.
Dragon*Con speaker, Carole Nelson Douglas, a literary “chameleon” and author of 60 novels, will also make an appearance. Nancy admires Douglas as someone who juggles multiple genres, including mystery/thriller, romance/women’s fiction, mainstream, high fantasy, urban fantasy, and science fiction, while still building a loyal fan following. Douglas sent out e-newsletters to her fan base long before social media was an option for writers, Nancy says.
This year’s programming also reflects the fast growth of YA, with sessions featuring Kathleen Duey, Tracy A. Akers, Gail Carringer and Beth Revis, among others.

“Harry Potter set off an explosion. There’s Hunger Games; there’s so much — it just keeps expanding and keeps hooking young people into reading,” Nancy says.

Two workshop tracks, offered for an additional fee, are available for writers:

From left, Aaron Alston and Michael Stackpole.
  • The Writer’s Hourly Workshop with Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston — these New York Times’ bestselling authors tackle key areas such as characterization, plotting, dialogue, description and “finding the story,” which features a series of exercises to help you build a story from the barest spark through twists and turns.
  • The Writer’s Two Day Intensive Workshop 2012 with Jody Lynn Nye —  covers story structure, character development, world-building, narrative hook, research, description, collaboration, nonfiction, format, the business of writing, marketing and promotion. Nye is a bestselling science fiction and science fiction writer with more than 40 books and over a hundred short stories to her credit.
Looking back over her years with Dragon*Con, Nancy says what keeps her involved is the idea of being able to give back. The author of 12 books explains, “I’ve always been a mentor. Ever since being published, I’ve tried to give back and tried to help somebody else. That’s what I really get out of it.”
On a broader level, this convention is about acceptance, says Nancy. “You can look as bizarre, as common or as ordinary and everybody’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a fan.’ None of that matters.”
Nancy also likes that Dragon*Con is an organization that gives back – donating 8,000 units of blood to the American Red Cross last year and $40,000 for the National Inclusion Project, Clay Aiken’s non-profit that serves special needs children and is leading the way for inclusive communities nationwide.

Poetry, Tolstoy and the Hard Work of Adapting a Novel to Film

Last weekend I attended the Crossroads Writers Conference in Macon, Georgia. The weather was perfect to gather with a group of like-minded writers. Macon’s downtown is charming, with a vital arts base. A long list of writers got their start in this gem of Middle Georgia.

 

Friday evening my friends and I attended a poetry reading and book launch for Writing on Napkins in the Sunshine Club. Edited by Kevin Cantwell, this poetry anthology was written in, around and about Macon, Georgia.

 

Several featured poets answered audience questions following the readings. Poet Anya Silver urged writers to find their voice and discover who they are.  “Don’t worry so much about publication; just write,” she said.
Georgia State University professor David Bottoms, the poet laureate of Georgia for 11 years, explained that what brought him to writing was a search for some significance – something of consequence. “I thought I could find it in the written world,” he said. Bottoms urged the aspiring writers in the room to “read fiction, read novels.” He especially recommended 19th century Russian writers such as Leo Tolstoy – “It gets no better than that.” Of all the translations of War and Peace, one of the most important works of world literature, the one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is the best, Bottoms said.

 

A highlight on Saturday was meeting another Tolstoy admirer – distinguished novelist and biographer Jay Parini. Parini has chronicled Herman Melville, William Faulkner and Robert Frost, and wrote The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Last Year. He shared his two-decade struggle to get his Tolstoy drama adapted into a movie. The first 10 years he collaborated with Anthony Quinn, who had planned to portray the famous writer. 

“We wrote 18 versions of the script,” recalled Parini, who commuted to New York from Connecticut on weekends to meet with Quinn.

The project lost funding support when Quinn died from throat cancer in June 2001. It took another four years to raise money for the film once Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep signed to play Tolstoy and his wife, Sofya Andreyevna. However, Streep pulled out because of timing with another project, Mamma Mia! In 2009, his tenacity was rewarded and the historical drama starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer came out, later garnering two Oscar nominations.

 

Parini said he originally intended The Last Station to be non-fiction. He was living in Naples, Italy, when he came across a copy of the diary of Tolstoy’s 25-year-old secretary. Parini learned that not only did Tolstoy and his secretary keep journals, but also did others in his inner circle, including his wife, his daughter, his personal physician and his publicist.  He wrote to the London Tolstoy Society and received copies of all the journals and they formed the basis of his book.

“I created the novel out of seven voices,” says Parini, who visited Tolstoy’s two homes and other key locales. With such rich first-person material, “the novel wrote itself,” he says, estimating it took six to seven months.
“It’s useful to travel,” says the author, who visited Tolstoy’s two residences and the famous train station where he died while researching the novel. Asked how much is he willing to stretch truth to tell his character’s stories in dramatic form, Parini said he doesn’t like to venture too far a field, preferring instead to do what he calls “hugging the shore.” “I don’t like to go out so far you can’t see the shore,” he explained.

Parini’s current projects include collaborating with Stanley Tucci on the film adaptation of his book, Benjamin’s Crossing, which novelizes the life and death of Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish intellectual who died fleeing Nazis into Spain.  He also is working with Paul Giamatti on the screenplay for his Melville novel, The Passages of H.M. Critics have called the work too contemporary.

“How do you know how people talked? You’ve got to make it available for contemporary readers,” noted Parini, who says that it’s a delicate balance and something that Giamatti and he are grappling with on the screenplay.  

Of the three biographies Parini penned, he was most attracted to the story of Robert Frost in part because he could identify with Frost as a fellow New Englander. Parini admitted that he strongly prefers writing novels to biographies.

 

At the conclusion of his presentation, I asked Parini what he was currently reading. Besides a book of poetry, he mentioned the FDR biography, Traitor to His Class, and Falling Upward, a book penned by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr that explores how one’s failings can be the foundation for spiritual growth.

My DragonCon Wrap-up: A Genre Writer’s Dream

I am finally taking a breath after the long Labor Day weekend and work week to share some thoughts from this year’s DragonCon.  For the second year, I braved the crowds of avatars, wookies, Klingons and Death Eaters at one of the country’s largest sci-fi conventions to hear from some of the best genre writers in young adult and fantasy. Here’s just a few of the folks who made an impression this year.
Carrie Fisher
“I was never that great of an actor.”
 

Carrie Fisher and the six Leias.

Carrie shared – with self-deprecating wit – what it was really like playing the iconic Princess Leia (“it was cool being the only girl”), being engaged to Dan Akroyd and her at-times strained working relationship with director George Lucas, who she later collaborated with as a co-writer on “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.”
In her bestselling memoir and one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, Fisher said, “George Lucas ruined my life.” Her disgust with her Star Wars costumes (including having to wrap her breasts) are well documented, with her least-favorite being the infamous metal bikini in Return of the Jedi. “When I laid down, the metal bikini stayed up, so BobaFett could see all the way to Florida.”
Fisher played off the energy of the standing-room only crowd of fans, who heard her talk candidly about her struggle with bipolar disorder. Many fans thanked her for her openness, sharing that they, too, struggled with the condition.
Sherrilyn Kenyon
“I can’t write when it’s quiet – absolute silence makes me insane.”
So says the Dark-Hunter series author, speaking on a New York Times bestselling author tell all panel, fresh from signing a movie and TV series deal earlier this summer (look out, True Blood fans). The prolific author has made the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list 16 times in the last three years. She told fans during the  panel that she writes about 100 pages a day.
Kenyon says things were always chaotic growing up as a middle child with eight brothers. That’s not changed now that she has three active sons. She told fans how her 16-year-old son has decided to start writing, telling her, “Mom, writing is hard.” Her one guilty pleasure? Helping her boys find ways to kill off their Dungeon and Dragon characters.
She says making the the New York Times Bestseller List doesn’t change your life overnight. She had to work all types of jobs on her way to literary fame and found herself homeless with an infant even after writing six bestsellers.
In chatting with the author as she signed my copy of her newest book, Retribution, I asked her about the cable TV deal for her Dark-Hunter Series. No news yet on the lucky network that will take on the book series; however, fans can rest easy knowing that Kenyon will have a say on the adaptation since she will be a producer.
 
Charlaine Harris
“The most important message is tolerance.”
That’s what the author hopes readers get when they read her SookieStackhouse novels, which are the inspiration for HBO’s True Blood series.  She deliberately writes about characters with different sexual orientations for this reason.
During the True Blood Q and A she said how glad she is that fellow southerner Alan Ball got the job directing True Blood.  “It’s like they took my book and gave it steroids,” she says of the HBO adaptation.
Later, during the New York Times Bestselling author panel, Harris opened up about her addiction to Facebook(“it’s a terrible use of a writer’s time”) and her daily routine as a writer, saying she writes every day and doesn’t clean her house anymore but still does her family’s laundry.  Her guilty pleasure? Watching Project Runway.
She takes her writing deadlines seriously (“getting paid is a huge inspiration to me”) and recalls being late once – after her mother died.
You can access the full video of DragonCon’s first True Blood panel here.
Michael Stackpole
“Think bigger than one story.”

Aaron Alston and Michael Stackpole.

That was Stackpole’s advice to writers during one of the more popular sessions in his hourly Writer Workshop delivered over 14 hours with fellow New York Times bestselling author Aaron Allston. (Stackpole has said in a recent blog post that he and Aaron are returning in 2012 – this is GREAT news to writers who want to further their craft).
The session I attended, “Writing Careers in the Post-paper Era,” gave attendees an update on the growing E-book market for novelists, noting that the battle between traditional and digital publishers is not about sales, but about “control and access to audiences.” Stackpole urged people to write in packages that are friendly to consumers – instead of a 120,000-word novel, think in terms of three smaller 50,000-word novels. Instead of focusing on a single story, think about developing “a property” where you can tell more than one story in that world. “Series sell.  They breed loyalty – we always come back to them,” he says.  I will write more about Stackpole’s presentation in a future blog post.
Aaron Allston
“Die adjective, die!”
Allston – not unlike Ernest Hemingway – sees little value in adjectives or adverbs for serious writers, calling them “insulating layers,” that do anything but give the reader a sense of the experience being described. The phrase used to describe this practice is “purple prose.” He urges writers on their first editing pass to “look at every adjective and adverb and strike most of them out.”
Allston shared other advice during his workshop session — from the role of pacing to balancing exposition with dialogue to tell a story memorably. He advises writers to match the length of description to what their character sees.
He also says that you can fill in descriptive passages later after the first draft is crafted.  “Backfill motivation, description and foreshadowing. Vastly limit adjectives and adverbs. Participles are not good. Use active verbs. Keep it simple. Keep it short. I am for transparency – don’t be too stylized.”

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Bloggers & Writers – Find Your Dream Retreat or Workshop this Summer

 
 
 

As summer approaches, many writers are looking for ways to get away, recharge their creative batteries, and connect with peers. Every year at this time I get an e-mail from the International Women’s Writing Guild about their Summer Writing Conference.

A quick Google search brought me to “the” guide for writers wanting to get away: The Guide to Writers Conferences & Workshops. This free, searchable directory from ShawGuides lists more than 1,000 conferences with short descriptions highlighting key information of what each conference offers.

I spoke with Dorlene Kaplan, editor of ShawGuides, to find out more about the directory and things to think about as you look to find the perfect writer’s getaway.

“Now is a great time to begin planning a writing retreat or other getaway – summer is the most popular time,” says Kaplan. The three-time published author of personal finance books recalls how she struggled to learn about writing workshops.

“You could find a list of writer’s conferences in publications like Writer’s Digest but you didn’t get much information,” recalls Kaplan. Seeing an unmet market need, Kaplan began researching writing conferences and compiling them in one place in 1988. In 1995, the directory – under the ShawGuides brand — was made available online.

Today, ShawGuides provides directories for a wide array of learning vacations – from culinary travel to photography and language vacations as well as tennis and golf schools.

Writing conferences remain the most popular directory, says Kaplan, who recommends that you should decide early on what type of experience you want from your getaway.

“A retreat doesn’t include instruction,” she says. “You should have a project in the works and be pretty secure in your writing. The whole idea of a retreat is to get away from any distractions and devote your full attention to working on a project.”

In contrast, at a workshop or conference, “you’re really going to learn.”

Kaplan has attended both and found the experiences phenomenal. “Not only do you learn, but also you make connections with agents, editors and other writers (in a non-competitive environment),” she says.

If cost is an issue, consider one-day or weekend programs offered in your community or close by.

“I read years ago and I think it’s so true – over three-quarters of the people who go to these don’t travel very far from their home. You can usually find programs in your community or not too far away,” Kaplan says.

Do you have a favorite writing workshop or conference? Share it here, and I will post the top 10 Blogathon Writer’s Getaways at the end of May.