Writer’s Idol

Ellen Smith, Cassiel Knight, and Peter Senftleben. Photo by Mark Stevens for RMFW. Used with permission.
J. Ellen Smith, Cassiel Knight, and Peter Senftleben.
Photo by Mark Stevens for RMFW. Used with permission.

My husband loves horror movies. I’m not sure why, but if I had to guess, I’d say it has something to do with the anticipation and the adrenaline, that delicious feeling of knowing something is about to happen, but having no idea exactly when it will come or how.

I don’t like horror movies, but I do understand the allure of that state of heightened awareness and tingly uncertainty. Maybe that’s why I submitted my pages to Writer’s Idol at the Colorado Gold conference.

Here’s how it works. You sit down in a conference room, nervously clutching two sweaty, printed pages from your manuscript. As three editors take their seats at the head table, the moderator (Angie Hodapp, in this case) works the room, accepting pages from the brave and foolhardy. She takes her stack back to the podium, where she shuffles them as she introduces the panel. She says she’ll read each excerpt aloud, and the editors will raise their hands when they reach a point where they would stop reading. She won’t stop until she hits the end of the two pages or all three hands are raised.

Your heart races. You think you might be sick.

The moderator clears her throat and begins reading:

The basement of Quigg Street brewery was haunted by a two-bit con artist named Nat Riley—at least, so claimed the Denver Ghost Walk pamphlet I’d stuffed in my bag at the start of the tour.


Gulp. That would be the first line of my manuscript, folks. I was first. First! At least it was over quickly. Although…not that quickly.

Our panel consisted of:

  • J. Ellen Smith, publisher at Champagne Book Group
  • Cassiel Knight, senior editor at Champagne Book Group
  • Peter Senftleben, associate editor at Kensington Books

I watched them like a hawk while my excerpt was being read. Who needs horror movies when you can sit in a room and watch an editor’s face as they listen to your manuscript being read aloud? I’m not gonna lie. It was terrifying. Also? Editors have really great poker faces.

In the end, they all made it through my two pages, and the feedback wasn’t as painful as I thought it would be. Okay, so they did use the word “overwritten,” but I took comfort that it was preceded by “maybe a little.” And yes, they did say that my protagonist wasn’t apparent enough in the excerpt, but they tempered by adding that they liked the voice. But even when the comments stung, they were incredibly useful. I left the panel knowing exactly how to improve my opening scene and, better, excited about doing so.

Here’s the thing about Writer’s Idol: it wasn’t just about hearing the comments on my pages. I stayed all the way through to the bitter end, listening to every excerpt and internalizing all the feedback. Maybe I didn’t make a certain mistake in this novel, or on those particular pages, but that’s no guarantee I wouldn’t make it in the next one or I didn’t already make it in chapter three or chapter eighteen.

In the end, the advice came down to one basic thing: write the story. The story is the good bits. It’s not the sitting-around part, or the describing-the-characters part, or the gawking-at-the-scenery part. If you want to keep a reader’s attention, skip the boring throat-clearing small talk. Write the story.


True Confessions of an Introvert at a Writing Conference

True Confessions of an Introvert at a Writing ConferenceIf you happened to see a crazy woman driving an orange Subaru north on I-25 and bawling her eyes out yesterday, that was probably me.

The 2014 RMFW conference is over. I’ll be updating the blog every day this week to tell you about it, but it won’t be enough.

On my first day there, I sat down with a few writers in the hotel lobby and one of them looked at my “First Time Attendee” badge.

“Your head is going to explode,” she said. “You’re going to learn so much that your head will explode.”

After three days, my head, thankfully, remains intact, but I’m still trying to process the conference experience as a whole. If I had to describe it in one word, I’d say: overwhelming.

Tweet: If I had to describe the conference  in one word, I’d say: overwhelming. http://ctt.ec/vuhtd+If I had to describe the conference in one word, I’d say: overwhelming.

When I set foot in the Westin hotel on Friday, I’d met exactly one person there previously, and I’d spoken to her for a grand total of about ten minutes. I knew a few other attendees from Twitter but, for the most part, I was completely on my own. I’m a gamer who regularly attends gaming conventions, so I’m not unfamiliar with crowded conference center hallways filled with people I don’t know. I’m also not shy, so I’m perfectly okay with holding out my hand and introducing myself to whatever stranger is standing next to me.

But (and this is a big but), I’m also an introvert.

I can offer a smile and a handshake, but that gesture costs me something each time I do it. It’s an emotional drain, a pull of power from my battery, a draw from whatever internal well sustains me over the course of a day of human interaction.

Usually, when I go to a gaming convention—or any social event with a lot of strangers, really—I have a safety net. Not all interactions cost the same amount. There are some people I know so well that being with them doesn’t cost me anything at all. Spending time with them is like stopping at base in a game of tag. It’s a chance to feel safe while I catch my breath. It’s not that the running around part of tag isn’t fun. It’s just nice to know that going back to base is an option.

RMFW was organized in a way that made meeting people easy. Everyone I spoke to was friendly and kind. I’m glad I went. But I had no “base” at RMFW, and it was so much harder than I expected.

I’ve heard that some yoga practitioners find themselves crying spontaneously in the middle of a practice. No rhyme or reason to it, some internal wall just comes down and emotions flood out. Maybe that’s why I felt tears threatening as I walked out of the hotel yesterday afternoon. I wasn’t sad the conference was over or upset about the way it had gone. I simply had no walls left to hold anything in. The crying weren’t a good thing or a bad thing, it just was, and once it passed, I was completely emptied out.

I think it will be a few days before I’m filled up again, before I can “go forth and write.” That’s okay. Every internal resource I spent, I gained back in another form. In knowledge. In inspiration. In community. In Starwood Preferred Guest points.

Tweet: Every internal resource I spent, I gained back in another form. In knowledge. In inspiration. In community.Every internal resource I spent, I gained back in another form. In knowledge. In inspiration. In community.

Maybe more of the first three than that last one.

It was all worth it.

What To Pack For a Writers’ Conference

What To Pack For a Writing Conference

The real answer, of course, is I have no idea, but Colorado Gold starts tomorrow, so I’m figuring it out.

Here’s what’s in my bag:

  • Clothes, shoes, and toiletries. Dress code is business casual, so I have slacks and skirts, along with something to work out in, because I always have the best of intentions. I’m bringing heels and flats and running shoes. I have a whole suitcase to myself, so ALL THE SHOES.
  • Business cards. I love my new cards, which have both my personal info and my shop URL. If I’m going to be following Susan Spann’s Twitter challenge of meeting and remembering at least three new people a day, I’m going to need them.Writer Business Cards
  • A notebook and pens. I always have a notebook and pens, but these, specifically, are for note-taking during conference sessions.
  • The first chapter of my novel, printed out. I didn’t bring the whole novel, except on my laptop, but I thought it might be handy to have Chapter 1 in hard copy.
  • Books. Sure, it’s going to be a full weekend, but books.
  • My annotated schedule and session handouts. No wifi in the conference center and many of the sessions have digital-only handouts.
  • Healthy snacks. I started getting shipments from graze.com last week and they come in handy, single-serving packets, perfect for afternoon pick-me-ups.
  • Laptop. I’m kind of using it right now, but I’ll bring it.
  • Water bottle. Here in Colorado, we carry water bottles everywhere. It’s a thing.
  • Phone and earbuds. Always.

So…what have I forgotten? (Or just stay tuned next week for the inevitable “What I Wished I’d Packed For a Writers’ Conference.”)