This Writer’s First Writers Conference

Faction, a neologism in literature, describes text about real historical figures and actual events woven together as essential elements in an otherwise fictional story.

I learned a new writing term and a lot more at the Southern California Writers’ Conference in Newport Beach in September. I was disabused of the idea I had picked up from some online search that stated that historical novels had to be written around events at least 50 years in the past. Judy Reeves, author of four books on writing, said historical could be the 1970s and even ‘80s—thus ending my genre confusion about my own novel, Summer of Love/Summer of Pain.

But genre confusion is a common problem as we tend to be too close to our work. Over lunch I spoke with a woman who had written a true-crime story about some evil people she and her daughter had become involved with which resulted in her daughter’s death, and which the police initially insisted on calling a suicide. She said she wasn’t sure of the genre because of a spiritual angle, women’s issues, etc. “Definitely true crime,” I said. “It’s the overriding theme,” easy for an outsider to see.

 My first workshop was a Read & Critique by Maralys Wills, author of 12 books, three of which won national awards. She has taught novel-writing for a quarter century. Having taken 14 long years to sell her memoir, Higher than Eagles, her latest book is titled Damn the Rejections, Full Speed Ahead, bless her heart.

 A reader would read the first three pages of a manuscript while Wills made notes on a second copy and then the room was opened to discussion with Wills offering her own comments and agreeing or disagreeing with participants. The author was to remain quiet. Everyone was accorded respect. 

I was the last to be critiqued. The reader only read a page and a half before Wills said, “Stop there—attitude—you can’t go wrong starting a book with attitude.” She went on to expound how the main character’s words and actions showed attitude and why it worked. 

I was amazed. I could feel myself flushing. It was the first time anyone had read or heard a word of my 85,000-word historical (or faction) manuscript and, I confess, I was almost ready to cry. They LIKED me, they REALLY LIKED me—my writing that is. “I can go home now,” is what I said. I was thrilled. I hadn’t even thought about the passage as attitude. It was just the way the main character would have acted at that time in her journey.

I would attend another Read & Critique, called Rogue Workshops because they started at 9 p.m. and continued until everyone had their 20 minutes in which to read a portion of their manuscript and then be critiqued. I was able to read the first eight pages and they still liked me—this time with some suggestions for possible improvement which was helpful. I was thrilled to hear them laugh at a place I considered more sardonic than funny-ha-ha. It’s a great feeling to make people laugh.

I also attended workshops on the business end of writing and on networking electronically. As there were half-a-dozen workshops for every time slot, I could only hope my selections were the most suitable and informative for my particular needs.

The apex of the conference was a semi-formal dinner in the magnificent Hyatt Regency Newport Beach where the conference was held. In the lobby, I bumped into Stacey O’Brien, author of Wesley the Owl: the Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl, the New York Times best seller that I had reviewed here on Backcountry Writer. We were joined by a former high fashion model who was writing the book on an inside look into that world, and the three of us went to the dinner together. 

I asked Stacey if she had found her ‘happily ever after’ since Wesley. She replied, “I took care of him for 19 years and he is taking care of me for the rest of my life.” Her book has gone global, a prime example of the amazing power and sometimes profitability of the well-written word, the well-told story. O’Brien landed her agent at one of these same conferences.

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