My Top 10 Benefits of Attending James River Writers Conference

With James River Writers Conference just around the corner—October 18-19 in Richmond, Virginia—it’s high time for me to share my invaluable experience garnered from attending the past six years. So without further ado, here are my top 10 benefits every writer or writer-to-be can gain:

  • 10. Discover free swag in the bag—plenty of writerly goods often including issues of writer’s magazines, pens, sticky notes, bookmarks and info about a multitude of writers’ resources.
  • 9. Encounter hundreds of cohorts and learn that you are not alone in this lonely quest.
  • 8. Find solutions to your creative conundrums and publishing predicaments.
  • 7. Meet one-on-one with a top agent or publishing consultant.
  • 6. Network and build your own community of like-minded writers. Or take advantage of a ready-made, top-notch group by joining JRW. Or go all-out: do both!
  • 5. Learn super strategies, nuts-and-bolts, how-to’s and how-not-to’s from outstanding authors and agents.
  • 4. View (and maybe compete in!) Pitchapalooza—the electrifying “American Idol” of book pitching. The winner is awarded an introduction to an agent or publisher specifically selected for his or her book.
  • 3. Bask in the awesome aura that emanates from such a huge concentration of us creative-types.
  • 2. Learn more super strategies, nuts-and-bolts, how-to’s and how-not-to’s from award-winning authors and highly regarded agents.
  • 1. Recharge your muse’s batteries with enough high-energy juice to last until next year’s conference!

To immediately secure your place in this not-to-be-missed conference, click here:

If you’re not quite convinced, this video should do the trick:

At the conference, look for me behind the registration table or milling about with all the other smiling writers. I know this will be like a “Where’s Waldo” challenge, but I’d love to meet you.


Climbing 10 Steps to a Writer’s Platform


The Eiffel Tower's second platform is near the center of this photo.

The Eiffel Tower’s second platform is near the center of this photo.

To unpublished writers of nonfiction: Unless you’re a major celebrity or you’ve survived a cataclysmic disaster that was headline news, the first thing you’ll hear from a prospective agent or publisher is that you must have a platform. More than a soapbox—think the second platform of the Eiffel Tower (the highest one reachable by stairs). You are expected to have a ready-made audience for your book: a large number of folks who will line up outside all the Barnes & Noble stores the morning it is to be released and demand that the doors be opened early. How does someone who’s led a quiet, mundane life attain said platform? I don’t have a magic formula, but step by step, this is how I’m doing it:

  1. Denial. Platform? I’ll work so hard to make the book great—I won’t need no steenkin’ platform!
  2. Anger. Why does everyone keep pestering me to get into social media? How would I find time to write the freakin’ book if I waste so much of it on Facebook and Twitter?
  3. Ignoring the problem. I’m too busy writing – I’ll deal with my platform tomorrow. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day
  4. Grudging acceptance. The book’s nearly done. Might as well bite the bullet and start a blog. Damn, this is time consuming! To the last syllable of recorded time;
  5. Ignored. Nobody’s reading my blog. How can I use a blog to build a platform without a platform to draw attention to the blog? And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
  6. Dejected. What’s the use? I’ll just stop posting, since no one’s listening. Back to the writing and revising. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.
  7. Depressed. I’m an idiot. I pour my energy into writing, but it’s all for naught if no one reads it. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
  8. Acceptances! Revising those poems again and again finally worked! A few words are actually in print – and   The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it…
  9. Hope. At least someone thought my writing was worth sharing. Not much of a platform to attract an agent for my book, but it’s a step up. Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged
  10. Persistence. Sign up for Twitter, blog more, send out more queries, send out more poems, start a new book… If I create enough sparks, I may eventually light a bonfire. Missing me one place search another

Actually I did climb to the second platform of the Eiffel Tower, all 700 steps.  My writer’s platform?  10 steps down, only 690 to go…


Sometime, somewhere, when you least expect it…

In all my dreams of seeing my name in a byline for the first time, I never envisioned today’s scenario. As I was reading the Sunday newspaper, my son phoned to congratulate me on becoming, not only a published writer, but also a published photographer. After sensing my puzzlement, he directed me to the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s column called, “Your Best Shot.” There I discovered the photo and short write-up I’d submitted to the paper almost six months ago—a submission which had received no acknowledgment, no response. I had chalked it off as having entered that black hole of hopes whence none return. I couldn’t have been more surprised if I’d been caught on Candid Camera.

Drum roll, please:

My first byline - from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 19, 2014

My first byline – from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 19, 2014

And for the paper’s online version:

This may be a baby step toward becoming a published author, but it’s a step, nonetheless. And steps eventually add up…

“But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”


Why not self-publish?

I could self-publish my book in short order, yet I’ve set my sights on the hard way—finding an agent who will find a publisher who will take about a year to put it into print. If I were still able to get pregnant, I could probably have two kids in less time. Now that I think about it, birthing a book is akin to having a baby (except in my case, benchmarks are counted in years instead of months.):

  • I’m pregnant! =>> A great book is incubating deep within me!
  • Third month =>> I’ve got this queasy sense I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.
  • Sixth month =>> The pages are growing—my book is undeniably on the way.
  • Eighth month =>> Will I ever get to “The End?”
  • Braxton Hicks contractions =>> Only a little more tightening of the prose to go…
  • Labor contractions =>> I have to cut and edit HOW MUCH?
  • Transition =>> Rejections of my queries to agents hurt like an S.O.B.

Transition is the excruciating phase where my book is now stuck—entering the birth canal. Why not deliver it quickly via self-publishing and end the pain?

The average self-published book sells 100 – 250 copies (depending on which disheartening statistic you choose). Rather than raising a son who spends his entire life in his small hometown, I want my progeny to venture into a wider world. Adding a publisher’s distribution network to my own promotional efforts is the best way to make that happen. My book would also benefit from a publisher’s expertise in formatting, cover design, and more, resulting in a more polished product.

I need to make my book the best it can be,

Brothers Water in Scotland: "a most perfect sheet of water."

Brothers Water in Scotland: “a most perfect sheet of water.”

not only so I’ll be proud of it, but also to do justice to Mr. Baker’s poignant writings which the form its heart. His words deserve to be read by many more than 250 people. The wonders he showed me should be shared with multitudes.

Mr. Baker, you’ve waited 182 years for your words to be published. What’s a couple more?


Editing Tips: Cut, Polish, and Repeat

After writing 480 pages and fixing things my critique group pointed out along the way, I figured Twice upon a Trip was nearly done. Seven years of research and writing lay behind me and the finish line was in sight. I let the book marinate on the shelf for a few weeks, then took a quick look and cut ten pages I loved, but knew didn’t fit with the story line. Time to start querying agents!

Elizabeth Evans of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency was one of the first agents I contacted. Great news—she responded immediately and loved the concept. Not so great—she informed me, “The high word count suggests to me that there’s still a lot of editing that needs to happen before the project would be saleable. The target range is 65,000-100,000 words.” To meet the upper limit, I’d have to cut 53,000 words—over a third of my laborious work. My tome needed tough love.

Encouraged by Elizabeth’s half-positive reply and thankful for her advice, I started Edit #1—going after the plumpest, low-hanging paragraphs. Here are a few tips I gleaned:

  1. Create a separate computer file to hold the cuts. (I named mine “Axed Chunks” in a flash of optimism to embolden my efforts.)
  2. Look for digressions that don’t quite fit the focus of the book.
  3. Cut and paste them into “Axed Chunks.” (It gave me solace knowing that, although gone from my book, those masterfully phrased passages still lived somewhere.)
  4. Rinse and repeat.

After two edits (each cutting about 12,000 words), I still had a long way to go. Edit #3 proceeded word by word, like this:

  1. Look for thoughts expressed two ways; cut the weaker one.
  2. Trim out all but the most relevant, tightly worded details.
  3. Cut as many adjectives and adverbs as possible, substituting stronger nouns and verbs.
  4. Make a list of any words or phrases that appear often. Set it aside and move on.
  5. Go back to step 1 and do it again.

Edits #3 and #4 clipped another 10,700 words. Edit #5:

  1. Scan the whole document for the first entry on the “Used Often” list. Each time it’s found, decide if it’s really needed, or if a synonym might be better. Cut or reword at least half of the occurrences.
  2. Repeat for every entry on the list. (FYI, mine included: a little, a bit, right, really, small, immediately, encounter, straight, quite, about, a few, info, certainly, finally, most, all the, beautiful, still, actually…)

My five edits lowered the count to 117,000 words. Though not in the bull’s eye, at least my arrow glanced off the rim of the target instead of flying way over it. If other writers have more editing tips to improve my aim, please share them. 36,000 words down, only 17,000 to go…