What’s inside the box?

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgI hereby declare—since hereby declaring is a popular thing now—that I am all conferenced out.

This temporary condition will certainly  pass, but for the moment, I am unpacked, the suitcase is in the closet, and I have no immediate travel plans.  Give me a week and I’ll be screaming about cabin fever, but for the moment, it feels good to tuck in and enjoy some home time.

But staying home has hazards of its own. Like the rest of the world, every time I walk through the rooms of my house, I think about decluttering. There are still boxes in the basement we have never opened since our move from Pennsylvania 20+ years ago. Part of my fear in opening those boxes is that I will be delighted with whatever forgotten items have been waiting there, and I’ll be adding more instead of embracing less.

Life is full of chancy moments like this, when you don’t know what’s ahead: something you’ll never use, or something you’ll never forget.

A workshop is like an unopened box, I realized this weekend at the Pennwriters Conference.  You have no idea how deeply you’ll connect to the writer presenting or if their shared wisdom will hit you in the right place at the right time. One such moment, when a line is just what  you need to hear today, is a gem.

I came away with three gems from last weekend. The following quotes flew across the room and stuck to me like spaghetti on a wall:

“When the book opens, the villain already has a game plan.” – Gayle Lynds

“The inciting incident is the only scene in your story that can be totally random.” – Hilary Hauck

Wise words, yes? Susan’s advice means to stay on track in planning the action that drives the story. Gayle’s words are a reminder that the villain is always present. Hilary’s quote is an a-ha that the writer is allowed only one freebie from the universe.

Three gems in a single weekend means Pennwriters was a wonderful box to open.

Now, please excuse me. There’s a Mother’s Day hammock in the back yard I need to break in, and I have three takeaways to ponder while I do that. Those boxes in the basement have waited 20  years. Another day won’t hurt them.

Buy my book, cher

“After three weeks in jail, Mama asked me to talk to Judge Rousseau about getting her some decent food to eat.”

This is the opening line to “Light of the Moon,” my short story contribution to Into the Woods, an anthology of short fiction, essays, original music, and one walking meditation. The collection comes from writers who attend the Mindful Writers Retreats in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. After years of bonding and enjoying guided meditations, walking in the woods, and silent writing in the lodge’s great room, the twenty-six writers decided to share our work in an anthology for charity. All proceeds from Into the Woods benefit the work and research of the Children’s Heart Foundation.

Into the woods front cover

The print version of the book will make its debut at the Pennwriters Conference later this week. The eBook will release on May 21. We love orders and pre-orders!

I contributed a prose poem as well as “Light of the Moon,” which is set in the fictional Louisiana town of Bayou Rosa. The story includes love and death, war and myth, and the woods, of course.

My grandmother, Grom.

The print version of Into the Woods was released on Mother’s Day, so of course I thought of my grandmother. Grom taught me storytelling and oral history, and made me appreciate the travails of my Acadian ancestors. She believed in hard work and le Bon Dieu; she appreciated good food and good-looking men; and she spoke a mixture of Cajun French and English that peppers this story, and many of my others. Every story I write, in a small way or a big one, is a tribute to her.

Grom called people she loved cher, which is the French word for “my dear.” Grom had a big heart. So, my dears and chers, I hope you’ll open your own hearts and buy this book to support children who need your help–and to enjoy the work of writers who found inspiration in the woods.

4 Post-Conference Tasks

2013logosmall This weekend I had the pleasure of attending and teaching at the Pennwriters annual conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s always a joy to head back to Pennsylvania, where I lived for a number of years. Pennwriters is an excellent resource for beginning and experienced writers. The community is generous, savvy, smart and fun.

Now it is post-conference Monday, and my follow up list is calling my  name. What do you do the day (days, week) after a conference?

It’s all about NOTES.


1. Thank you notes: Send a few words to express your gratitude to the organizers and volunteers who made the conference happen. For a big annual conference, you can bet the coordinators donated a year of their lives to ensure the 2-3-4 day event went smoothly. A brief email or written note will show your appreciation for their efforts–and they’ll remember your graciousness.

2. Congratulatory notes: Was there a lifetime achievement award? A writing contest? A volunteer award? Did the luncheon speaker’s message move you? Being feted in front of a big group is great, but it is often a blur. A day or so later, when this person is still in the glow, a “Hey, I think you’re wonderful!” message extends the glow. Do that for someone.

3. Decipher your notes: I taught two workshops and attended 6 or 7 more. My brain is all a-jumble, but I took copious notes. I’ll let them sit a day or two before converting my handwritten scribbles to a file of useful tips and questions. I organizes notes by topic, so for each workshop I attended, I’ll add what I want to remember in files: Short Story Notes; Character Notes; Goal-Setting Notes: Why Donald Maass Thinks We Should Write Good Books Notes. If you have a question about something you jotted down during a workshop, or can’t read your own chicken scratch, try sending a brief email to the instructor to ask for clarification. You might send a note of thanks if the workshop was useful.

4. People notes: I collected a stack of business cards and book marks from the freebie table. I made connections with some lovely people, but am I going to remember what we talked about if I run into this author, agent, editor next year? Will I recall what they’re writing? Probably, but maybe not. On the back of business cards, jot down a reminder: Writes literary short stories…. Is writing a cancer memoir…. Loves Dr. Who!  It’s lovely to be remembered, and no one will ever know if you used an aid to help your memory.

Good manners go a long way in this world, but it’s also good business to be gracious and show your appreciation after a successful event. And the Pennwriters conference was definitely a successful event!




How To Follow Up a Writers Conference

Writers conferences come in many shapes and sizes, but after a good one, a writer walks away with a slew of notes, a bundle of new contacts, and a host of opportunities. Here are five things to do ASAP after a writers conference.

1 ~ Express appreciation: Conferences don’t present themselves and few (if any?) conference chairs are salaried positions. This year’s conference chair donated a hefty portion of his/her life planning, booking, organizing, and troubleshooting an event that involves the care, feeding, and teaching of hundreds of people. A written note, an email, a Facebook post, a tweet, a box of chocolates—the medium doesn’t matter, just send a thumbs up to the folks who brought the whole shebang together. Everyone from the conference chair to the hotel guy who set out the chairs, put on a team effort.

Equally, if you had a legitimate issue, or a helpful suggestion for next year, wait a few days and then send a polite note to the person you believe can take care of it. No need to alert the world, or bother someone over something they can’t control, but if an issue is real, the organizer will want to know.

2 ~ Keep in touch: There are a couple of ways to do this. First, all those business cards you picked up from the freebie table, a workshop, or at lunch? Spread them out on your desk.

If you’d like to continue or develop a meaningful exchange with someone, this is the time to send out a Facebook friend request, to follow on Twitter or any other social media you use. If you want to stay in touch through email, send out a note saying so. A handwritten note by post is also lovely. However you reach out, do it now.

If you shared a fabulous dinner, if someone helped out in a workshop, if you have mutual friends or writing contacts, if you spoke about their writing—jot it down on the back of the card. When you’re done, rubber band them and write the name of the conference and year. If you plan to attend next year, dig out this bundle before the conference and refresh your memory. Reviewing last year’s business cards helps you recall your good time, and people like to know they’ve been remembered. There’s nothing wrong with using a memory aid.

3 ~ Tame the paper collection. You probably have pages of scribbles and handouts. Now that your desk is cleared of business cards, cover it again with notes and handouts.

For handouts, those you took to be polite but won’t ever use? Toss ’em. No one will know. Those you want to keep, put in a file folder, binder or whatever means you use to store craft materials. Please DO NOT make copies and/or post on your blog, hand out to your critique partners, or distribute handouts unless you have permission from the workshop leader. Free distribution of the handouts, without permission, is not okay. If you want to to share with a particular group for a particular reason, send a note to the person who put together the handout. I would always say yes to sharing with a small critique group. For redistribution on a larger scale, I might say yes provided I am given credit and my name remains on the handout.

For your notepad covered with advice, tips, what to do and what not to do, quotes, names, books you should read….The longer you wait, the harder it will be to read your sloppy handwriting. Decipher it now.

4 ~ Respond to the professionals: Did you attend a kickass workshop on query writing? Listen to someone teach you how to organize your writing day? Take part in a read & critique? Get inspired by a keynote speech? Send an email expressing what helped or what you enjoyed. Be specific. As a workshop leader, I can tell you it is meaningful and helpful when someone writes and says, I really was intrigued by your tips on how to end a chapter. That tells me, hey, that worked! I need to know that for the future, and I appreciate anyone who takes the trouble to help me.

5 ~ Send requested partials, full manuscripts and so on, if requested  by an agent or editor. If you had a successful pitch session or chatted with an agent who asked to see something from you….well, I probably don’t need to put out a reminder on this one, do I?


Tomorrow’s Topic – How To Use an Ellipsis Versus a Dash