Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lessons from Write by the Lake

My week at the Write by the Lake workshop is the best investment I've made in my writing career. Part workshop, part retreat, part quality time with a writer friend, it was a booster shot for my writing, as well as a validating experience.

This was different from conferences where you meet other writers, agents and editors. It was a "working workshop" and all of our time was spent on craft. We also made connections with published authors, but the focus was on improving our stories. I'm already planning to return to Write by the Lake next year.

Lessons Learned

What makes a Bestseller
Kathy Steffen's workshop was focused on analyzing bestsellers and applying what we learned to our own novels. One thing that struck me about the bestsellers was Theme. Ronald B. Tobias in Theme and Strategy divided theme into six universal categories:

  1. The moral statement
  2. The struggle for human dignity
  3. Social commentary
  4. Commentary on human nature
  5. Commentary on human relations
  6. The journey from innocence to experience
So, which of these do bestsellers have? ALL OF THEM. That answer was very enlightening for me, because I often struggle with quantifying my themes, as they are multifaceted. Now I see that it's okay, indeed desirable, to have many different themes intertwined. One may be more dominant, but bestselling books have them all.

Vocabulary of Actions
Some of the best tips came from fellow writers attending the conference, either during the morning workshops, or at lunch time when we grouped and re-grouped to get to meet everyone, or during late night writing sessions with my writer roomie.
  • Read Acting Books
    • They contain a wealth of vocabulary of actions that bring characters alive
  • Watch movies with the sound off
    • Look for ways that actors convey emotion without words
Random Cool Things
  • Throw a Plot Party - I really, really want to do this.
  • Plotting = Brainstorming + Organizing (I love word math)
  • Creepster POV - I had never heard this term before, but it is a 3rd person creep POV mixed in with the 1st person POV of the protagonist. Now that I know about it, I want to write one!
  • Don't break the Rules - SHATTER THEM. (You can imagine why I like this)
This workshop came recommended by a writer friend I really respect. If I had looked on my own, I probably would not have thought of traveling to Madison, WI (2 hour drive), but it was well worth it.

If at all possible, if you attend a writing workshop, try to bring a writing buddy! After getting loads of information in the workshop, you need someone to help process it all and give instant feedback.

Like I said, time and money very well spent!

What was your best writing conference/workshop experience?


  1. I am flying across the Atlantic for my first conference this summer, SCBWI in LA. I am totally excited to be going, but think I am going to be a little overwhelmed too... especially by the writers' intensives on the Monday.... I hope this will be a good place to start and then next year I would love to do something like Write by the Lake. I like the idea of working workshop, as a writer's retreat I feel like I could simply plan myself. Thanks for making me aware of other options out there.

  2. @Joanna I went to SCBWI-LA2010, and it was amazing! You'll love it! And yes, a bit overwhelming. When you go looking for a writer's workshop, I liked the half-day workshop/half-day retreat - I've done a 4 day retreat on my own, and I got burned out after about the 3rd day. But having the workshop kept a balance of learning/writing. I think an all day workshop would have been too intense as well (at least for me). Enjoy!

  3. Oh, Susan, there is such good stuff here! I printed your post out for "keepers"

  4. Thank you, Susan -- this was an excellent post, and as Darby said, it's a keeper. An online writer-friend of mine attends a similar writers' week every year, and I know it has become one of the highlights of her writing year.

    Like Joanna, I will be attending my first SCBWI this summer, and am looking forward to it (but also expecting to be overwhelmed somewhat). I am grateful that I'll have Joanna, and a couple of other writing buddies, there to help assimilate all that we'll be encountering.

    My only previous experience with a writing workshop was a half-day play-writing workshop here in my home city. It was excellent -- about 15 people sitting around a table, listening to the presentation of the leader, doing exercises, reading through some segments of plays and analyzing what makes them work... I've been hoping for another such workshop nearby ever since.

    You've shared some very helpful ideas here -- theme in particular, and watching movies with the sound off. Thank you!

    (Sorry for my long-windedness!)

  5. @Darby Yay! I hope it helps. :)

    @Elizabeth Enjoy your conference! It will be awesome with your buddies. It's tough to find good workshops/conferences/etc nearby, which is why I rely on recommendations.

  6. Sounds great! Ah, time to write, where have you gone? Did I say something mean? Not pay enough attention to you? I swear, if you come back to me I won't ever let you down again.

  7. I am just learning how wonderful writing workshops can be, having just attending my first. To be a in a community of like minded folks and sharing ideas is something that every writer needs. It's funny, before going, I was always very 'meh' about them. Not anymore!

  8. Your retreat sounds wonderful. I plan to attend the 'other' kind of writing conference later this year. They serve different purposes as you point out.

    I just posted about the decisions that need to be made before selecting a conference or retreat. For my purposes, I wanted a smorgasbord of writer offerings, but a week of immersing myself in the writing atmosphere by a lake would suit me fine, too.

    Thanks for sharing the experience.

  9. Great information from the writing retreat. Thanks for the dutiful reporting! : )

  10. I've never been to a writing workshop/conference, but now I'm itching to go. Especially after seeing all the great writing advice you received! I just hope it's not too cost prohibitive.

  11. Sounds like a fabulous experience. I'm going to something similar in September, the Working Writer's Retreat in Los Angeles, and I'm rooming with one of my critique partners. Can't wait!

  12. That sounds amazing! I want to know more about plot parties!!! I want one. And love the info on themes. Such great stuff.

  13. This sounds amazing. I'd love to attend a conference like this. Thanks for sharing what you learned!

  14. Wow. That sounds like a fabulous time! I love word math, too. And I love the thought of watching a movie with the sound off! What a great idea!

  15. @Bryan I'll lasso up some writing time and ship it off to you. Now that the postal strike is over, I can actually send it to you. :)

    @EastCoaster I forget sometimes the power of physical community, because I have such a great virtual one every day! :)

    @DG Ahhh, the lake. There is something to be said for atmosphere in writing.

    @Alex Thanks for stopping by!

  16. @Phil Cost is definitely an issue. I restrict myself to one conference a year (meaning one multi-day conference) because of the cost. But you can get a lot of conference experience out of local, less expensive, one day conferences (I do a couple of those each year too). And there's always WriteOnCon (free!).

    @Sherrie I've heard amazing things about that LA conference! I'm sure you'll have a fantastic time - please post when you get back!

    @Leisha Plot parties = (3-4 writers) + (3-4 WiP story outlines) + (3-4 bottles of wine). I SO want to do one. :)

    @Ghenet Thanks for stopping by!

    @Peggy Watching with the sound off works for YouTube as well!!