Sunday, January 29, 2012

5th Annual Roanoke Regional Writer's Conference

Yesterday I attended the 5th Annual Roanoke Regional Writers Conference at Hollins University.

While the event is held at the college, it was founded and apparently continues to be run by Dan Smith, who operates Valley Business Front. Dan has a blog, fromtheeditor, which will have other pictures about this event on it if you are interested.

Hollins University has in recent years taken a more active role in this event, but I am not clear as to what exactly its role in this writers conference is. President Nancy Gray gave a little welcoming speech Friday night, and Cathyrn Hankla, Director of Hollins Creative Writing MFA program, gave a talk and she attended the events on Saturday. I also saw Hollins professor Jeanne Larsen there. They may have been other from Hollins in attendance whom I do not know.

I did not attend the reception and opening events on Friday night, so I cannot comment on that.

The event is good for networking and for seeing old friends. Becky Mushko, a fellow blogger, was there, along with a number of other folks I know, including Beth Rossi, Brenda Isaacs, Elizabeth Jones, Bonnie Cranmer, Peggy Shifflett, the aforementioned Hollins professors, and others.

The Roanoke Regional Writers Conference is essentially a lineup of 45 minute mini-classes, ranging in topic from "Advice from Literary Agents" to "The Memoir." There were 23 different classes to choose from throughout the day, and each is only offered one time. So you have to pick what you want for every particular hour and hope you get a good one.

Here are the classes I attended:

The Last Redoubt: Writing Short Stories for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Markets

Mike Allen, a reporter for The Roanoke Times and a science fiction writer, offered up great information about writing for this genre, including lots of links to various websites that all sound interesting. He discussed story length, submission times, and how to figure out if you're writing fantasy, horror, science fiction, or something else. He did a good job with the time he had, handling it well and continually moving the conversation forward. He introduced me to a new term, "Steampunk," which was not something I had heard of before.

Anytime I learn something, I am happy. I thought this was a good seminar.

Structuring Your (Nonfiction) Storytelling

Unfortunately, the person offering this seminar (I won't name names when it was bad) did not handle his time well. He was unable to make it through his handout (which he in fact did not hand out but I managed to snag a copy on my way out the door). He also stumbled through much of what he did talk about. I was quite disappointed.

His points (greatly parred down from his outline)
1. Outline
2. Learn the five-step writing process (idea, collect information, refocus, draft, polish).
3. How would you tell a friend this story in a hurry?
4. Use unorthodox sources (journals, emails, etc)
5. Use scenes (show don't tell - that's my note, not his)
6. Beginnings and endings
7. Rewrite, make it shorter
8. Think of it as a one-act play
9. Use sidebars and graphics
10. Consider multimedia

To me, even those points seem rather scattered, really. Perhaps he should have focused on the items in his #2 and left the rest alone.

Notice What You Notice: How to Find, Recognize and Hunt Down Story Ideas

Beth Macy, who is, hands down, the best writer The Roanoke Times has, wowed everyone with her talk about how to find stories and ideas.

When I was an undergraduate at Hollins, Beth and I were in several classes together. She was in the MA program, working on her creative writing degree, so we were students there at the same time though I was a lowly bachelor degree candidate. I have admired her work for some time; she has grown as a writer and a journalist to a great degree. We're about the same age, so I try to keep the envy down to a minimum. But it would be easy to be envious of her work. (You can read one of her stories in today's paper here.)

My notes from her talk go like this:

Be honest about the good and the bad
Reserve judgment
Figure out your own life theme

That's it. There is nothing magic about that, but it was a great talk and very inspiring.

Playing with Words: What Poetry Can Teach the Prose Writer About Metaphors and Word Play

Some of these folks need to work on their seminar titles, don't they? Anyway, Jim Minnick, a Radford University professor and author of The Blueberry Years, (full disclosure: I reviewed his book) led the seminar-attendees in an exercise about metaphor. He admonished us to "see beyond what's there" to find something new and exciting.

He also cautioned against using cliche, and said that all good writing is actually writing against cliche.

This was a fun and interactive 45 minutes.

Sources for Research

Hollins librarian Maryke Barber once again offered up very useful and terrific information for researchers and knowledge-seekers of all kinds. I have attended her seminars before, and worked with her a little while working on this masters degree, and she is fantastic.

Some of the websites she gave that I hope to look at soon:

And many others that I think will be fun to look at.

Very informative!

The Memoir

Since I am, for all intents and purposes, writing a memoir as my thesis, I thought this seminar would be worthwhile. I was right! Peggy Shifflett, a retired Radford University professor and author of The Living Room Bed and two other memoirs, gave a great presentation on writing memoir.

Full disclosure: I edited The Living Room Bed for her.

I took lots of notes in this seminar:

She suggested two books on memoir writing: How to Write a Memoir, by William Zinssar, and Your Life as a Story, by Tristin Ranior.

What's the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? A memoir is a memory from your life. An autobiography is the story of your life.

A formal memoir has a message. But a memoir can also be an informal family history, an oral history, or a combination of history and memory mixed. This blog you are reading is a memoir.

Do not dodge the traumatic or neglect the enjoyable.

Go ahead and have your own catharsis while you're writing your memoir. Your readers might have their own catharsis, too.

Start out with something important.

Use all of your senses when you're writing.

Build your writing muscle and write as often as you can.

Peggy, who is a friend, did a great job with this seminar. I hope she asked to return.

Final Thoughts

This wasn't a seminar, this is me summing up the day! I left after The Memoir; there was a panel discussion at the end but when I last attended in 2010 I found that to be a downer so I didn't go. I left on a high note and thus have warm and fuzzies from the event, even with the one clunker seminar in the early hours.

Writing is something that I will always do, and I can't imagine not doing it. But sometimes it is a challenge, and trying to make a living at it in recent years has gone beyond challenge into gut-wrenching and blood-letting. It is no wonder I have felt burned out.

This writer's conference, though, was very uplifting and I feel bouyed by the sense of community and by the conversations I had with others at the event.

Nice job!


  1. Sounds like you had a great time. It's been years since I attended a writer's conference.

    1. I did have a good time. It was good to get out and spend time with my peers.

  2. Makes me hope I can go next year! I'll have to look and see if they have a website so that I could get a reminder. I don't get the Roanoke paper so am out of the loop!

    1. The event will be listed on the Hollins University website at It is also touted on Facebook extensively.

  3. It's nice how you can pick and choose all your favorite topics at the conference. It sounds like a wonderfully full day.

    1. A very full day! I imagine there were a bunch of tired writers Saturday night!

  4. I went last year, and enjoyed it. I didn't make it this year though. Sounds like some great sessions!

    1. Very nice sessions! Thanks for visiting my blog, Lisa! Nice to see a new face.

  5. Great review - nice to hear more particularly about the sessions I missed. Thanks!

    1. Thank you, Bill! I appreciate your visit.

  6. I would have loved to meet Beth Macy! She's famous. She was in Oprah!


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