Sunday, July 3, 2011

Suzanne Morgan Williams, Ellen Hopkins, Writing Workshops, Artown, OH MY!

One of the cool things about living in Nevada (out of the admittedly MANY things that are cool about living in Nevada) is this little thing called Artown.

Here's the little blurb from the website ( for you non-Nevada-y folk:

"Artown’s primary goal is to encourage local artist participation and highlight the best performers in northern Nevada. Additionally, we exist to market and promote these arts events locally, regionally, and nationally as a premier arts festival. Artown, a month-long summer arts festival, features about 400 events produced by more than 100 organizations and businesses in nearly 100 locations citywide."

This translates into TONS of FREE events, including Shakespeare plays for children, movies in the park, and other various dance/music/art shows all around town.

This year also includes some fantastic writing workshops, one of which I attended recently at the supremely awesome used bookstore Grassroots, featuring Suzanne Morgan Williams and Ellen Hopkins.

The ladies very kindly agreed to let me blog about the experience and share some of the key points for your reading amusement! (or derision, whatever)

The first session was with Suzanne, and the topic was Research: Writing What You Want Know.

Suzanne (AKA Suzy) is super awesome, and I know this because last year I wanted to attend the SCBWI conference in Virginia City, and they were getting close to the cut off for the second day of workshops and I sent Suzy an e-mail asking for her to hold a spot for me, and she did (yay!). And it was a great experience, so again...AWESOME!

Not only that, Suzy is the author of Bull Rider (which has nothing but good reviews on Amazon. Just sayin').

Suzy talked a lot about how to get research and interviews for novels. This is (of course) necessary for all you non-fiction writers out there, but can definitely apply to fiction writers as well. Sometimes you'll need to check your facts with the pros. For example, if one of your characters is injured, the injuries better make medical sense otherwise some of your more knowledgeable readers will be rolling their eyes and tossing your book into the incinerator (nooooooo!). Or, if you have a character of a certain race or culture, you better know a lot about the people in general to make sure the character is believable and authentic (note to self: offending potential readers is a BAD decision!).

Some other good tips for research/interviewing:

Look at bibliographies of books regarding your topic. If there seems to be one particular book mentioned in a lot of bibliographies BUY IT. If experts are quoting it in their work, no doubt it will be sincerely useful to you.

If you want to call an organization or agency about a sensitive topic, don't go straight to the head honcho, go to the secretary. If the head honcho says, "No," you've got nowhere to go from there. If you have an in with someone further down, they can connect you to the right (and hopefully helpful) people.

I have to say my favorite part of Suzy's "information dump" as she called it, was when she talked about writing what you want to know, as opposed to the old adage "Write what you know." (I talked about my own take on "Write what you know," being a bunch of phooey in my post about writers block,) but Suzy really took it to the next level.

You may not know a lot about certain topics or facts about a diseases, culture, history, whatever (all information you can get from people or books or online resources), but as humans we can all relate to almost anything on an emotional level because at some point in time, we all have experienced certain emotions. You can, and should tap into things you've experienced to make your readers connect emotionally to your characters.

She said, "You don't write what you know in terms of facts, you write what you know in terms of your heart."

Print it, learn it, write it, put it on your wall, eat it, regurgitate it so you can eat it again, or rub it all over your body, but that my friends, is a great tip and a great truth.

Next up, Ellen Hopkins! If you don't know who Ellen is (what are you, living under a rock!?) she is the NYT Bestselling author of "Crank", "Impulse", "Burned", (plus others) and the soon to be released "Perfect" and her first adult novel, "Triangles."

With Ellen, we talked about various aspects of the children's publishing industry in general. She did speak about picture books and early readers, MG, etc. But since I am a YA writer (and I believe most of my readers are as well) we will focus on that.

Key Points:

No more dystopians, please (the trend is over! Of course, I must add the caveat that if it is something truly brilliant or different from what's already out there, you might have a shot. But it will be harder to bust in right now with that genre clogging up the slush piles, for sure).  Vampires and zombies are a dying race (pun intended), and everyone's looking for the next big thing/genre/idea/what have you.

However, the most important thing, no matter the odds or the trends, is to write honestly.Write the story you need to tell the way you need to tell it.

After all, who would have thought when Ellen wrote "Crank" that a "dark" YA book - written in verse no less - would do as well as it has? But Ellen had a story and a message, and she had to tell it, and boy did she!
Ellen simplified the plotting process by describing it as character growth through obstacles. For people that are stuck, the best thing to do is to go back to your characters, their traits, habits, personality, etc. to discover where they need to go. (Which, as a logical/plotting type person, I needed to hear that because I tend to forget about my characters in favor of over thinking plot details. Blah! Someone smack me please!)

For beginnings, even though many recommend starting with action, the reader needs to care about the character before you put them in a tension filled situation, so make us care before you toss in the brain eating zombie, please.

There are three simple (haha) ingredients to getting published: talent, perseverance, and luck.

Obviously, we don't have control over that last one, so really get to work on the first two, and then work on putting yourself in situations where the third may be a possibility. Go to writers conferences, join a critique group, connect with other writers, editors, people in the publishing industry whenever you can. You never know where it might lead you!

I'm planning on attending another workshop later this month with Terri Farley, Finding the 25th Hour to Write (which I already attended at the SCBWI conference last year but shhhh), so I will hopefully be blogging more usefulness at a later date.

Until next time...Happy Fourth everyone!


  1. What a great post. Thanks for the tidbits! And Artown sounds like it has much more than lions and tigers and bears!

  2. I love this super informative post. How fun that you get to attend workshops close to where you live!

    Suzanne said it best with "Write what you WANT to know". Isn't that the truth. And Ekken's advice to make the readers care about the MC first before throwing them in the middle of an action scene is spot on. Too often, some writers have been given the advice to start with the action to hook in the reader, but they miss the mark: If the readers don't have a connection with your MC, they're not going to care however thrilling the scene may be.

    Great post, my lovely friend! Thanks for sharing this with us. Now I really want to join a workshop somewhere close by. Hm. Will have to go look for one. It sounds fun!

  3. Hey, sorry for the typos. My IPhone has a mind of it's own. Srsly.

    Ekken is Ellen. So so sorry. :( *headdesk*

  4. So jealous that you have Artown and that you got to go to a fab conference with ELLEN!!!

    Love the advice and thanks for sharing.

    PS Still looking for the man behind the curtain.

  5. You're not turning into one of those art snobs on me, are you?! yeeesh. :)

    Seriously, not only is that a cool venue, but awesome that amazing writers like Ellen and Suzy give their time to do it. Very cool. Pay it forward and all that crap.

    Dystopian is dead???? WAHOO...There's hope for my book yet!

  6. Hey Bryce! Hope you had a great Fourth :) Artown is the most wonderful time of the year, for sure!

    Hi Cherie! My phone also does random/crazy things. Sigh. I understand. I hope you get to attend a workshop/conference. Sometimes they have cheap one day conferences, and it's definitely worth a look into!

    Mary my darling! I almost forgot about the man behind the curtain. Ack! I'm way too easily distracted (oh, shiny!)

    Bethany, I am sure your book will sell fantastically quick (non-dystopianess notwithstanding) and I'll be able to go into a bookstore and buy and tell the cashier (very snobbily, of course) I KNOW HER!!! :-)

  7. If that ever happens, please record it--and speak in an English accent while you do it!

  8. Awesome! Thanks so much for this wonderful info. As a fantasy author, I've always been a firm believer in writing what you want to know. Woot!

    Personally, I get a little weary of of "the next big thing" syndrome. Why not just look for a good book, regardless of the theme? Good writing and perserverance, like you said. Luck wouldn't play as big of a role if the publishers would quit seeking out fads and just look for quality stories instead. Equal rights for all writers!

    Annnnnd, scene. That's my vent for the day. LOL! Great post, Mare!

  9. I'm with that Anita lady! Thanks for an awesome and informative-as-always post.

    My capcha word is SHIAT! That's what I said when I woke up drunk after the 4th of July celebrating.

  10. Anita! I completely agree, that's why it's so important to write honestly. Write the story you have to write, no matter what!

    Jenny, I hear you sistah. Too many margaritas for this girl over the weekend. I just love that Casadores.:-)