What I Learned at the UW Writers’ Institute

I just got home from the UW Writers’ Institute in Madison, and I should probably be sleeping. With my book party on Friday (check out the pictures on Facebook) and an unfortunate reaction to food Saturday night, I’m exhausted. But I’m also exhilarated from all the inspiration and support from this weekend.

I missed Thursday and Friday’s sessions, which is too bad. They had a lot of good material, so maybe next year I can make a long weekend out of it. I’m going to list my five takeaways from each session I attended. People like lists.

Saturday Keynote: “Setting the Stakes, Hooking the Reader” – Ann Garvin

  • Where is the love?? Need to make the reader care.
  • In the hook, you need to define what are the stakes, and why do we care?
  • To the reader, every sentence is an audition for the next sentence.
  • If have to get through writing a section just to get to a section you’re more excited about, then you need to think about changing it. You should be excited about every section.
  • Cliché hooks include waking up from a dream, internal thoughts, and basically anything you’ve read before.

“The Difference between YA and New Adult” – Gordon Warnock

  • The best way to market your book is to join an online community of NA writers and get involved in discussions.
  • The main character is “blindsided by this thing they’ve been expecting for awhile.”
  • TENSION. Make things rough for your character.
  • Subscribe to the Publishers Lunch emails for a list of what book deals were made that day.
  • The story should be a roller coaster ride.

“What’s It Like Being a Successful YA Author?” – Amy Zhang

  • Use Instagram to promote an upcoming work. Post a snippet and a related picture.
  • When you’re signed to a publisher, sometimes you feel like you can’t write for yourself.
  • VOICE is important in your manuscript. Agents will look for that.
  • Before you query, research an agent and personalize your query to them.
  • Standalone works are more common in contemporary fiction, over series.

“Self-Publishing for Beginners aka Learn from Our Mistakes” – Christine Cacciatore and Jen Starkman

  • Use the Smashwords style guide for formatting ebooks.
  • Keywords are important.
  • iTunes was their most successful channel on Smashwords.
  • Use BookBub to promote your book.
  • I only wrote down four because a lot of this was review for me since I had just done it. The presentation was excellent for beginners though. The audience was very engaged.

Between sessions, I also participated in an advanced manuscript critique, which means I sent the first 10 pages of my book beforehand and then met with an expert to give me feedback. This was my favorite part of the conference. Rebecca Williams Spindler did my critique and gave me a lot of great feedback and ideas for my middle-grade fantasy book. Here’s a little bit of what she wrote:

“You have a talent for colorful description, painting a very visually pleasing setting. The forest floor covered in various flowers in a rainbow of color and the swirling mermaid hair glistening in the sunlight. Very nice! … Since Mash has an adventurous spirit, I’d like to see more strife between him and his mother…It would be advantageous for you to add more conflict and emotion between Mash and his mom.”

“The Edge of Your Seat—a Cliffhanger How-To” – Kristin Oakley

  • Hunger Games contains good examples.
  • You need empathy, timing, and compelling circumstances.
  • Always know what your antagonist is up to.
  • Some good ways to end a scene to build suspense are asking or answering a question, ending in the middle of the action, or introducing a plot twist.
  • Making a character lie or making your main character naughty or foolish makes for good tension.

“The Benefits of Critique” – Kristin Oakley and her critique group

  • The members of your critique group should be about the same level as you in your writing journey.
  • But, it’s good to have a group composed of different genres. You should learn the rules of each genre to be a good critique partner.
  • Ask questions to receive a more focused critique.
  • Own your words. If you don’t want to change something, you don’t have to.
  • Be specific with praise. Don’t just say you liked something. Say why.

Sunday Keynote: “The Writer’s Advantage” – Laurie Scheer

  • Research your chosen genre and marketplace.
  • Find out what’s been done before and what you can add to it.
  • Go to genres that aren’t popular at the moment and figure out how to put a spin on it to make it contemporary.
  • Look at the traits of that genre and see what you can add and subtract.
  • Think about where you fit into the marketplace.

And then my brain turned to mush, but the last two sessions on Sunday were very good, too.