Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the annual Write on the Red Cedar writing
conference in E. Lansing, MI. The keynote speaker was Bob Mayer, author of over sixty published novels. Many other talented writers and presenters were also in attendance. Friday consisted of a four-hour workshop with Mayer, while Saturday I hopped around to various break-out sessions on subjects that interested me. I left the conference feeling inspired and motivated to achieve my writing goals. Not everyone lives near areas where writing conferences are readily available, so I thought I’d share a few of my top takeaways:
1. Every story needs an antagonist.
This might sound obvious, but as I listened to Mayer speak about the conflict that must be present in a novel between a protagonist and an antagonist, I realized the novel I’m currently writing is lacking a clear antagonist. (I made major changes to my draft as soon as I arrived home!) When identifying your antagonist, ask yourself “What is the climactic scene the entire story is driving toward?” The goals of your protagonist and antagonist must directly conflict and prevent the other from achieving his or her goal. Removing the antagonist from your novel should cause the story to completely collapse. If it doesn’t (as mine didn’t) there is a problem.
2. The big idea of your book should be easily summarized in twenty-five words or less.
Trust me, this is harder than it sounds. Mayer recommended condensing your original idea into one sentence before you begin writing the book. Referring to your focused sentence while writing helps you stay on track and eliminate trajectories not meaningful to your overall story or theme. Later, this focused sentence will likely help you write a blurb and form a tag-line for your book.
3. Agents and best-selling authors are regular people.
I attended a question and answer session with international best-selling author Lori Nelson Spielman
. While I had tons of questions for her, I hesitated to ask them in front of a large group. I worried my question might be too specific or would somehow annoy her or others attending the presentation. When I finally got the nerve to approach her (after the session ended), I was surprised by how friendly, down-to-earth, and genuinely interested in me she was. She not only answered my questions, but encouraged me. I’m so glad I took the risk of approaching her, which is not easy for many of us introverted writers. Next time you have a similar opportunity, please take it!
4. A character’s most positive characteristic, if pushed too far, becomes their most negative characteristic.
On some level I already knew this, but I’d never heard it spelled out so clearly before. For example, a character who is tolerant might also have little conviction. A character who is idealistic might also be naïve. When assigning positive traits to your characters, think about the correlating negative traits and how to work them into your story.
5. Characters who look in the mirror are cliché.
Wait. What? Uh, oh. I’m pretty sure I’ve had a character look in the mirror in every story I’ve written so that I can describe her to the reader. My bad.
I hope something in my five takeaways was helpful. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned at a writing conference?