Women Writing The West Conference Takeaways

I joined another writing organization this year: Women Writing The West. Every year they have a short story contest called the Laura as well as a published fiction contest named The Willa (with categories from children’s, YA, poetry, nonfiction, contemporary and historical fiction). The focus is on stories told in the west with female protagonists – like the ones Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather told. The group also creates a beautiful catalogue of member’s books that is distributed to more than a thousand bookstores each year.

The organization also hosts an annual conference in a different western city each year – the 2019 event was held in San Antonio, Texas. I love a good field trip – and this conference had three! We visited The Alamo, the Briscoe Western Art Museum and the World Heritage Missions outside the city. What a treat to see such sites with a group of well-informed and curious women!

I tend to write contemporary stories – with the exception of the story-within-a-story in Jungle Crossing about an ancient Mayan girl. No matter what I write I like to do a fair amount of research, probably because I have a nerdy love of learning about almost anything! I decided to attend a lot of sessions about research at the conference.

Jane Kirkpatrick and Pam Nowak talked about finding something strange in your research and fully exploring it – being careful to look for the shared knowings when coming across disparate accounts of a historical event. Also – work to think beyond your own interests to find something that will interest a variety of readers.

Elizabeth Boyle talked about the importance of hands-on research. As someone who loves to go places to learn about my characters and settings, I loved this advice. I also liked her idea about making a list of things that you need to learn in order to write the story.

General interest books are great if you know very little about a topic, but the more you know, the more you need to narrow your focus and find specific expertise. She highlighted the importance of books over online sources because footnotes can lead to all kinds of story potential. My next WIP came from a vague reference that I couldn’t stop thinking about. So I agree: books rule in research!

When you’re out and about researching, find the right person. Don’t let one person tell you no. Go to the next one. Join local organizations that may give you special access for a small membership fee. Visit during the less busy seasons, so the staff has time to spend answering your questions.

Another session with Jane Kirkpatrick, Kim Nowak, and Gail Jenner talked about how we need to find the common struggles that we share with women from the past – as modern women. I think this advice works for all characters – finding some connection with which we can identify will make it more likely that our readers will feel the same way.

The panel also emphasized that you have to start writing before you think you should. Otherwise you’ll never start. I love this advice, as someone who went and took a major’s worth of history classes before starting to write a novel that I never got around to writing. Yikes, right?

Think of it like a horse race, they said, just get the story down on paper!

Barbara Brannon talked about several ways to find information from various records to newspapers. She talked about how it can be helpful to transcribe things like letters before trying to understand the significance of the content. I admired the way she used her research to inform all types of writing from fiction to poetry to song. She got our her guitar and sang for us!

All the women I met were so welcoming and incredibly inspiring. So many women in this organization have had long writing careers and show no signs of slowing down. Very inspiring!

Next year’s conference is going to be in Colorado Springs, Colorado from October 15-18, 2020 – and the field trips look fantastic!

Overdoing Dialogue Quirks

“Hey, girl,” the new receptionist at the salon greeted me as I pulled my wallet out to pay for my haircut. “You look great, girl,” she said as I handed her my credit card. “Can I help you with any product, girl?”

I almost wanted her to call me “ma’am.” I am old enough to be her mother–without having made poor choices in high school, or even college. And the term “girl” reminds me too much of all the terrible jobs I worked after being a college “woman” for four years.

One of the stylists walked behind the front desk and the receptionist immediately said, “What can I do for you, girl?” As I walked down the stairs, she called out, “See ya later, girl!”

That receptionist reminded me of a first draft character: too much of a good thing.

I often give my characters dialogue quirks to differentiate them from others in the story, to make them unique, to show personality, to create voice. Inevitably when I read through my rough draft, I realize that I’ve overdone those quirks. I find the snowboarder saying “dude” every time he speaks. “OMG!” exclaims the BFF on every single page. And then there’s the word “like” — Oh, I, like, use that word, like, all the time in my first draft dialogue.

Dialogue quirks are best used sparingly–a sprinkle here, a sprinkle there, as in ten pages later. I have to admit the first time the receptionist used the word “girl,” I thought, Ooh. Interesting dialogue quirk, I’m going to write that down when I get to my car. But after the third mention, I only wanted to revise her speech like overdone first draft dialogue!

Developing A New Idea

My WIP is off with its first readers, so I’ve allowed myself a few lazy days of lounging. But now it’s time to think about developing my next idea.

My new idea came to me through random chance encounters…

Teen in bookstore cafe + a joke made during a dinner party = my cool new idea.

(I chose this idea because the challenge of pulling it off kind of scares me.)

But it’s just an idea–an unformed blob. How do I give it shape? The idea sparked on June 13th last summer, so since then I’ve been collecting more information.

An essay in Men’s Journal gave me a hint of voice, attitude… so I asked my hairdresser if I could keep the magazine. I’ve found a few more clippings–photos of the kinds of characters I plan to create, stuff that might interest my characters…

I’ve been gathering a stack of research books too. Some deal with my main topic, but others only relate to the themes a little bit. I plan to read a wide variety of stuff that will allow my mind to make unusual connections that will–hopefully–deepen my original spark of an idea. And add lots and lots of layers.

I won’t be ready to write for several weeks, but I’ll start playing with my characters’ voices during my writing exercises. Let them talk without the pressure of creating WIP word count.

I’m also asking myself lots of “What If” questions about plot–jotting them down in the notebook I’ve set aside just for this story. Once I finish the bulk of my research I’ll sit down with a thick yellow pad and list possible scenes, plot points, figure out each character’s motivation, etc. For me, plot works like a puzzle.

Now I just have to find all the pieces…

Revision Is A Bear! Or Is It?

As I new writer, I approached revision like this:

The mere thought of all the potential mistakes in my novel made me feel as if I were, well, being eaten alive by a bear. Where do you start when there are SO many problems with a story? I chose to ignore the big, structural problems, choosing instead to focus on small, safe things like word choice, punctuation…

And it wasn’t too effective. My manuscripts gathered a stacks of rejection form letters from publishers. Eventually, I learned the importance of revision, but I still didn’t have many effective tools for approaching it. I simply read through my manuscripts over and over again, looking for things to fix. And sometimes I couldn’t see the problems through the, um, car windshield.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend Darcy Pattison’s novel revision retreat. Aha! Using Darcy’s workbook, Novel Metamorphosis, we learned how to tackle revision issues one at a time. First we created a novel inventory, noting the plot action and emotion in each chapter. So helpful! At a glance, I noticed a potentially weak chapter and places where I could strengthen emotional resonance.

Another incredibly useful revision technique is the shrunken manuscript. Darcy showed us how examining our novel in 6 point font, single spaced, can show us the overall patterns in our stories. One attendee realized that her story lacked conflict for several chapters in a row. That’s exactly the kind of comment I used to ignore (my critique partners just didn’t get it, I’d tell myself). But it’s hard to argue with bright, bold highlighting. To learn more about the shrunken manuscript process, check out Darcy’s blog.

All weekend we worked on small sections of our stories, which made the process seem quite do-able–and not quite so scary or overwhelming. Because revision really isn’t a bear, it’s simply a series of small tasks. Think of them as cuddly little bear cubs!

Happy revising! (We couldn’t resist stopping at Bear World on our way home from the retreat.)