10 Takeaways from the 2017 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference

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As a lifelong allergy sufferer who needs regular allergy shots, I can’t help but say that attending the recently held Writer’s Digest Annual Conference was a shot in the arm for me—as important (and more fun!) as my immunotherapy.  Let me share the top 10 things I learned from the event.

The writing conference, held in New York City from Aug. 18-20, 2017, is one of the biggest events for writers. Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo and best-selling suspense author Lisa Scottoline were among the presenters.

The faculty, composed of literary agents, editors, and published authors, taught a wide array of breakout sessions for writers at all levels and from all genres. There were courses for writers pursuing traditional publication but also sessions on self-publishing. The Pitch Slam offered attendees a chance to present their works to editors and literary agents.

Top 10 Takeaways

As for me, I focused on the writing craft, with emphasis on the suspense/thriller, mystery, and women’s fiction genres. Here are some of the lessons I learned from the writing conference.

On Beginnings

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Paula Munier, literary agent, author, and teacher: A writer must grab a reader’s attention from the get-go, beginning with the book title. A compelling title is like a great newspaper headline. It gives the reader the essence of the story in just a few words. Think “Moneyball,” “Eat Pray Love,” “Jaws,” “The Help,” and “The Godfather,” to name just a few. Munier has written an excellent book called “The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings that Sell.”

Hank Phillippi Ryan, author:  In emphasizing the importance of the first page of a book, Ryan said, “It's a drop of iodine in the water. It colors everything.” If your book’s beginning fails to hold a reader’s attention, you’ve lost that reader for good. Things to avoid in your book’s opening: a dream, clichés, flashback, and too many characters at once.

On Plotting

Writers who outline and plot their stories can learn from the opposing techniques of two successful mystery writers.

Jane K. Cleland, author and teacherCleland shared her roadmap for plotting, which showed one main plot and two subplots, which she called “service roads.” She prepares a detailed synopsis with the help of her roadmap before she starts writing a novel. If you’re writing a mystery or suspense, she suggested introducing a twist or reversal or sense of danger every 70 to 90 pages.

Hallie Ephron, author and teacher: Ephron outlines her novel after she has started writing it. She uses the outline to assess and revise her manuscript. Ephron’s technique is great if you’re having a tough time plotting beforehand. Give yourself the permission to start writing, but be sure to “tidy up” by outlining later.

On Conflict

Laura DiSilverio, author: “Conflict is the engine that powers your story,” said DiSilverio. One way to build conflict into your story is by defining an overall story-level goal and breaking it down into scene-level goals. Anything that keeps the protagonist from accomplishing his or her goal is a potential source of conflict.

Steven James, author and speaker: James reminded attendees that conflict doesn’t equal tension. You must aim for both in your manuscript. “Promises of peril, which create tension, are more effective than relentless action,” he said.

On Editing Your Own Work

Catherine McKenzie, author: The best writers edit their own work before submission. The cleaner your work, the more chances you have of getting accepted by a traditional publisher. McKenzie said when your manuscript gets bogged down, double check these things for possible edits: main characters, narrative arc, and too much prose (descriptions without dialogue). “Editing is a toughening up. It’s a deeper level of writing,” said Mckenzie.

Sally Koslow, author: “Writing means rewriting and rewriting means editing,” said Koslow. In other words, you must make editing an intrinsic part of your writing process.

On Prologues

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Paula Munier, literary agent, author and teacher: Many editors and readers skip the prologue. If you must have a prologue, it better inform the novel. Better yet, don’t call it prologue! Munier suggested identifying the time and place instead (e.g., New York City, 1910).

Amy Sue Nathan, author: A prologue must not be an info dump. Instead use it as a “pre-reveal,” which refers to an important element of the story that will be revealed later on.

Read a related story:

I’ve had the great opportunity to write for the popular “Guide to Literary Agents” blog on the Writer’s Digest website. Check it out:

How to Choose Your Novel’s Title: Let Me Count 5 Ways

Learn more about the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference

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