April 8, 2014

5 Insights from Bestselling Authors

Close up of a dandelion at seed with text: 5 Insights from a Writing Conference

After nearly two years of sticking with only online writing conferences, I broke down and attended my fourth in-person conference this past weekend, where I presented my “Twitter for Introverts” workshop. I’m happy to say my class went well and I survived my pre-conference panic attack.

In fact, I had a great time at the Desert Dreams Writing Conference, which always exceeds my expectations. Desert Dreams is considered a “regional” conference, with bigger names and more workshops and events. Lucky for me, it’s local.

However, not all of us are so lucky to have easy access to quality writing conferences, so I wanted to share my top takeaways from the conference. I hope you find these ideas as insightful or inspiring as I do. *smile*

#1: Rejections Are Not a “Sign”

Christie Craig, New York Times bestselling author, was the Keynote Speaker for the Desert Dreams conference. Her speech was so inspiring I don’t want to spoil the punch line, but let’s just say that it had to do with the avalanche of rejections she’s received over her writing life.

Sometimes we might look at X number of rejections and take it as a sign. Maybe we’re not meant to be a writer. Maybe we can’t cut it. Maybe we should give up.

She persevered through countless (and I do mean countless—she brought a big box-load of proof) rejections. Not giving up is how she reached where she is today.

If rejections come with a message, it’s simply “not now.” With determination, we can later turn that “not now” into a “yes.”

#2: Be a Storyteller First

Christie also shared why she didn’t give up. Partly it was stubbornness, but a bigger part was knowing that she could tell stories. If we can tell stories, we’ll succeed if we keep at it, because writing can be learned.

Even in the worst-case scenario, where we’re receiving rejections because we’re not yet “good enough,” we can study writing craft and change our fate.

As Mary Buckham pointed out in a workshop, that “changing fate through our choices” perspective powers most commercial and genre fiction. We can absorb that mindset for our own future too.

Christie is a dyslexic high-school dropout. She didn’t have writing skills when she started. But she could tell stories, and that’s what really matters. Everything else can be learned.

By studying, we can change our fate. How cool is that?

#3: Make Settings Earn Their Word Count

USA Today bestselling author Mary Buckham was the featured presenter. She gave an intensive workshop on “Active Settings for All Fiction Genres.”

We often try to minimize our setting descriptions because they’re dry and boring. (She entered the living room and passed the couch to sit on the chair. *yawn*) Mary’s workshop shared techniques for making our setting descriptions work harder.

When we use deep point of view, our descriptions can show characterization, emotion, foreshadowing, backstory, etc. (Her mother’s living room beckoned, as it always did. The comfortably worn-in tweed couch whispered its memories of cushion forts and awkward teenage groping. She headed to the chair instead, just in case her mom hadn’t cleaned the sofa’s fabric since that drinking-night debacle with her brother Billy.)

If our setting descriptions are doing double or triple duty (establishing setting and backstory and characterization, or whatever combination works for the scene), we can use as many words as we need. Mary’s going to join us for a guest post soon (Yay!), but until then, we can learn from her Writing Active Setting book, where she shares tons of examples on how to empower our settings.

#4: Every Character Trait Can Be Good and Bad

Mary presented a second workshop as well: Down and Dirty Ways to Create Stronger Characters. She started by having everyone complete an Enneagram type quiz.

Surprisingly, I turned out to have nearly equal strengths in several traits: perfectionist and achiever (which I think means that I accomplish things despite my perfectionism *whew*), analyzer, nurturer, leader, and peacemaker. Apparently I’m an overachiever in Enneagram quizzes too. *smile*

Her point was for us to learn more about ourselves so we can ensure that we’re not just creating clones of ourselves for our characters. She then shared several techniques for developing unique characters.

One technique was to think of how our characters’ positive traits could be negative, like we discussed last year (where I covered Enneagram Types too). Specifically, she recommended thinking of ways every positive trait has a cost.

For example, if a character is a nurturer, what potential “costs” might that character pay for their trait? Maybe they forget to take care of themselves. Or maybe they’re a busybody who tries to force people to take their advice.

Mary suggested that we ask friends and family to help us brainstorm these “at what cost?” opposite traits. Especially if we just give them a list of traits (without knowing the character at all), we might gain new insights into our character by seeing their list of potential opposite traits.

#5: The “Duh” Insight: Writers Are Awesome

Finally, every author I met was fantastic. Several multi-published, bestselling authors let me pick their brains and shared great advice (including Christie, Mary, Calista Fox, Erin Quinn, Morgan Kearns, and Jennifer Ashley).

The lesson I took away was that no matter our situation, we can connect with other writers and grow our knowledge and our circle of friends. These bestsellers didn’t hoard their expertise. Instead they shared their insights with someone who has a blue streak in her hair. *grin*

I experienced embarrassment (Ack! Spotlight on the introvert!) and thankfulness when many authors stopped me to say how much my blog, beat sheets, and workshops have helped them. (Aww, warm fuzzies.) And I met a great group of women among the attendees (Lisa, Mary, Andrea, Carol, Christine, and a bonus dinner with Ann) and reconnected with a friend from the last Desert Dreams (Rose!).

In short, although the workshops and keynote were wonderful, what really makes conferences special are the people. The interactions with those willing to connect with us often stay in our memory far longer than any one workshop tip or speech insight, especially when we see authors take the time to help each other.

It’s those same connections that make online interactions with writers so special too. Thank you to all of you who read my blog, share your insights and advice, or reach out to me on social media. You. Are. Awesome. *smile*

Which of these was your favorite insight (or the one you want to hear more about)? Have you ever wondered if you should see rejections as a “sign”? Do you agree that storytelling comes first because writing craft can be learned? Do you struggle to make setting descriptions interesting or to create unique characters? If you’ve been to a writing conference, what’s been your favorite part?

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Aeon Igni
Aeon Igni

I agree that the people were what made the conference special. The insights you listed above were five of the most important. I will share one more, which was from the Storyboarding workshop. It is the idea that the stakes should get higher with every pinch point in the story – something that most writers probably do intuitively, but deserves some focus now and then if you’re stuck. I remember as a teenager I struggled through many parts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (yes, the books – I was a teenager waaaay before the movies!) But especially the first hundred pages or so of the Two Towers. It seemed like nothing was *happening*. Sure, they were on a journey, but it was so boring that I felt tortured just by reading it. I never realized that it was because the stakes weren’t rising. From the beginning, the hobbits have to get the ring to Mordor or everyone is going to die. There is no way to raise the stakes on that. And whether its orcs or spiders, every time they almost die feels pretty much the same. They found a good way to deal with that in the movie, which I had never considered until now. What they did was to flash back and forth between the hobbits and the humans, and raise the stakes for everyone else, so that you feel like the stakes are getting higher. All their friends are going to be slaughtered at the…  — Read More »


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Pauline Baird Jones

First, have to mention that your guest post on my blog still picks up visits. Thanks again for stopping by!

And second, good insights! I love the energy I get from mixing with my own kind, though I always come home exhausted, too. That traits are both good and bad is totally gold. I can remember my aha moment with that and how it really pumped up my characters to pull the rug out on their good qualities. LOL

A great list. Thanks for sharing. (That is a conference I’d like to make some day. I’ve only heard good things about it.)

Harley Christensen

Jami – Really appreciate you sharing your insights from Desert Dreams – your experience sounds as though it was absolutely wonderful. In fact, you might have just inspired me to venture out of the online-only realm into the land of the in-person conference! ;o

Also, many congrats on overcoming your pre-conference jitters (though I’ll bet you were fantastic…and no one was the wiser about your panic attack)! Having said that, I’m already starting to get panicky about my previous comment (you know, now I’ve put it out there), so I might need your tips/advice on how to “prepare” for live, in-person conferences! 😀

Again, thank you for the informative and inspiring post! ~Harley


I’m new to your website but thank you so much for this post. I’d just received a very cutting review of an extract of my work and was feeling very down in the dumps and unconfident about my writing. Then I read #1: Rejections are not a ‘Sign’, and I suddenly felt so much better 🙂


Something I tell people, even though I’m an editor, is that story trumps grammar. A strong story with poor grammar can still find an audience. A tepid story with excellent grammar? Not so much. Of course, if your grammar’s weak, the story you tell might not be the story you think you’re telling—it can be fascinating, how often authors can say the exact opposite of what they mean—but you might still have a strong story. If I may be permitted an anime/manga example, take Blood+. I think I saw the English-dubbed anime before I read the official manga translation, which are two different stories (which is normal for anime & manga—they tend to reinterpret the same premise), and I prefer the former, but for the most part, the dialogue is…atrocious. I mean, it’s “an editor who doesn’t even speak Japanese can fix some of this” weird, sometimes, and other times downright cheesy. I think the manga’s the weaker story, overall, but it’s funnier (…and bloodier, and has more gratuitous body shots, and…some other things that show up in the first volume. I personally think the humor and breaking the 4th wall stuff is worth the creepy parts of it, but not everyone will agree.) Now, I’ve been really sick these past two weeks, where I can only focus on anything for a few minutes at a time, if that. I started rewatching Blood+ on Netflix, found a fan translation of the manga (which changed a single word on the funniest…  — Read More »

Anne R. Allen

I’m so glad to read Christie Craig’s advice. I hate reading “learn from your rejections/bad reviews”. They mean nothing, so they teach nothing. A lot of bad reviews mean the reader was having a bad day or hates your genre or is a cranky pants, and rejections mean “this isn’t the needle in a haystack our contacts are looking for this week.” That’s it! Thanks for all the insight.

Mary Buckham

Wonderful blog Jami and I’m delighted to be included. I’d have never known you were an introvert as your warm and bubbly personality shone through every time we crossed paths. Gold stars you!

Alina K. Field

Ooh, Jami, I never would have guessed an introvert could pull off that awesome blue in your hair! Besides the great craft and business information, what sticks in my mind is Mary Buckham’s comment in her character presentation about people from St. Louis and the “where did you go to high school” question. That was spot on, and something my family of displaced St. Louisan’s jokes about. Great conference and great post!

Taurean Watkins

Okay Caradee, forgive my rambling, but since you brought up Digimon (Grew up with, too, and ) you’re treading into my childhood, so forgive the slight rant below- As far the episode you’re referring to (Regarding lying) Joe (Or Jou if we’re going to get picky about dub vs. original japanese) didn’t say it was Okay to lie in all instances. He said (paraphrasing the dub) “There are lies are that hurt and ones that serve a purpose.” An analogy I use is the “Birthday vs. Betrayal” defence. You’re planning a surprsie birthday party for your best friend, she notices you hiding (her present) or asks about the party preparations. You may say something like “I’m working on a project” or something, which isn’t outright lying, but you’re keeping the party secret until it’s time to reveal the surprise. That’s different than lying with the hurt someone’s feelings. Such as lying to a friend that a girl you have a crush on likes you, but in truth is in love with that friend who said otherwise, because he took pleasure in messing with his friend, and betraying trust. That said, the episode in question particularly chose a more obviously straight-up lying approach, but given the nature of the mission, and the plausibility of the truth, I should also note I grew up in a complicated family situation where one person’s moral standing was WAY different than another, so that may color my opinion, too! People say “Truth is stranger than…  — Read More »


Hi Taureen,

Thanks for bringing up the shades of gray in that lie example. I knew there were some involved, but I can’t remember it—and my point in bringing it up was my reaction to it at the time, which says more about how I was raised than it does about the show itself.

I can handle blood and gore really well in speculative fiction. In more “realistic” stuff? No.

Taurean Watkins

Thanks for replying, Caradee, and I hope I didn’t sound tyrannical, I was a die-hard “Digi-Fan” so I know that stuff. The older series more so than the new ones, after series 4 it started to get a little too silly in places even for me, but I’m getting back into it (for various reasons beyond nostaligia on my part) and I’m amazed how things I loved as a kid still hold up now, in my case, more holds up than lets me down, and I’ve become more discerning in what I watch now, being a writer will do that to you… (That’s not always a bad thing, either)

I personally have little tolerance for extreme blood and gore, no matter how surreal and “speculative” but again, that’s me, as I said before. Some shows I love have some, but NOT like Blood+ (I saw the promos for it when it first aired on TV and knew it was too gory for me) and at least the shows I watch that do it makes logical sense, it’s not for the sadistic need of whoever makes the show, like say the “Saw” movies stuff…

Sometimes it’s about the context not just the concept itself. At least for me.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

“I experienced embarrassment (Ack! Spotlight on the introvert!) and thankfulness when many authors stopped me to say how much my blog, beat sheets, and workshops have helped them. (Aww, warm fuzzies.)” ^^ Your blog was very helpful to me too! I learned lots and lots of tips that I never thought of before. 😀 “She persevered through countless (and I do mean countless—she brought a big box-load of proof) rejections. Not giving up is how she reached where she is today.” Oh yes. In fact, I would expect at least one million rejections before getting one acceptance, haha. Not because “you’re bad/ not cut out to be a writer”, but just because the odds are extremely low for EVERYONE. Of course one million might be an exaggeration, lol, but it would stop someone from feeling that they’re a failure just because they got rejected a few times (or even just once.) So I keep Thomas Edison’s example in mind. He failed about 99 times (or even more) before succeeding, right? In fact, I recently have a theory that the most successful achievers (successful as in e.g. international or national top in skills) are those who have experienced the most number of / most significant failures. Because it’s AMAZING how much you can learn from a failure. ” But she could tell stories, and that’s what really matters. Everything else can be learned.” Hmm. It is my belief that even story telling can be learned! XD But then I’m just a…  — Read More »


My, we writers do like to write! 😀 Just wanted to thank you for this wonderful post and conversation, Jami.

I thoroughly enjoyed sharing a pub dinner with you and our fellow writers, and I’m eager to get to know my “new” friends better over the coming months.

Productive writing to you!

Diana Beebe

It sounds like you had a wonderful time! Congratulations on surviving. 😉

All your insights are helpful. The fourth one about character traits is really interesting. A friend of mine made me take that same test, and now I’m seeing how that can be a valuable resource in character development and digging deeper.


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