Notes From a Small Conference (part 1)

One of the best conferences in the area is also one of the newest — the Rose State Writers’ Conference. It started in 2012, and continued last year, and I have no doubt, given the participation, that it will continue for a LONG time. If you are anywhere in the Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Arkansas, or Missouri region, I really encourage you to check out their site:

One of the reasons it’s so great is because of the atmosphere — everyone is so excited to be there. Take business cards. If you don’t have them, make them. People want them, because they want to stay in touch with other writers who are “close by.”

Another reason it’s so great is because of the quality of speakers. Last year, I met YA agent Regina Brooks, who is also the author of Writing Great Books for Young Adults — which also happened to be the “textbook” we were using for the Writing Young Adult Fiction class I was taking at Oxford! She was so generous and gracious. All the presenters are.

In 2012, best-selling novelist Phillip Margolin gave a presentation “How to Write a Novel in Your Spare Time.” I wanted to share it with everyone in the hopes that it might help someone else (as well as remind me of what I need to do!). Margolin writes mysteries, so a lot of his advice is geared towards that genre — but I think almost all of it can be useful to everyone who writes.

1.) Make your characters sympathetic. If the reader feels empathy for the main character(s), they’ll keep reading.

2.) Write non-linear plots to keep up the suspense. Surprise the reader as soon as you can in the novel, and keep them guessing with twists and turns.

3.) Pull the rug out from under the reader as soon as possible. Hook them in. Get them to invest their intelligence in your book — then, they’ll keep reading. Let them think they have it figured out — and then twist it up again.

4.) Outlines:  He does outline, but he made it very clear that outlines are not set in stone!

As he put it: the outline is one-dimensional; the book is three-dimensional.

The characters may still surprise you. The book may go in directions you didn’t expect. When that happens, go with it. See what happens. Most often, it ends up being better than what you had outlined, because it’s more true to the characters.

5.) Margolin said he likes to let things percolate. For example, for one his books, he spent three years just thinking about it, until he finally felt ready to put it on paper. He likes to think about the characters, who they are, what they want, what plot twists he’d like to put in, etc.

6.) Rewrites:  look at both the book as a whole, and individual scenes, from different angles. For one book, he said he wrote more than 20 drafts of his opening pages, because he had trouble figuring out where to really start the story. And when that happens, he says, you have to focus on what’s important to the story. Backstory, secondary plots — they don’t matter in those first few pages. Give the readers the story they want.

7.) And when you’re rewriting, your ego has to take a hike. Especially when your beta readers are giving you feedback, your one and only job as a writer is to listen with an open mind so you can figure out what they like, what they don’t like, and why. Only then can you make the decision to either follow their advice, or leave your book alone.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to share more tips and information I’ve gleaned from writing conferences over the last couple of years, both Rose State and the Oklahoma Writers Federation (

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