5 Tips I Picked up at the JRW Conference

My dear, late friend Emyl Jenkins was known for sprinkling her fairy dust over many writers.

Once again, she did it when I attended the James River Writers Conference. Her delightful husband Bob attended to award the Emyl Jenkins Sexton award, which recognizes individuals who continue her legacy of inspiring a love of writing and writing education in Virginia. He talked about how she spent so much time helping other writers, she sometimes needed to be reminded to follow her own advice: “Put the seat of your pants on the seat of the chair and write.”

That’s what I’ve done for the past two years, and have a first draft of a manuscript of travel essays. I decided to attend the JRW conference to learn more about fine-tuning the book, the publishing process and finding an agent.

I learned how much more I need to do, and what I was doing right. Here are some of the tips:

Attend a conference. This is the obvious one, but I found myself hesitating to register for the JRW conference. It was worth every penny and giving up a weekend of writing.


Great advice on a tote bag. (Photo by Cynthia Price)

I worried. Do I belong here? Is my writing good enough? Turns out almost every writer has those thoughts. Mystery writer Maggie King shared a great tip, “At a conference, I pick one person and I talk with them.” She says she usually makes a new friend or discovers a fan. Either way, she said, “You’ve done your good deed for the day.”

Identify beta readers. These are individuals who, early on, read your manuscript and point out plot holes, poor dialogue and inconsistencies among other things. I did that with the travel essays, and I’m now reworking the material.

Write a strong query letter. This is your chance to sell an agent on you and your manuscript. You want the letter to be authentic and polished.

Most writers aren’t going to have the success that David Baldacci did with his first query letter. He shared the story during a luncheon Q&A.

He said he wrote in his letter, “I guarantee if you read the first page, you will read through until the last page.” He figured they’d read the manuscript just to prove him wrong. Fortunately, he was spot on, and he now has 34 novels to his credit.

Agent Cherise Fisher said a query letter reveals the author’s knowledge of herself and that’s important to her. “I am looking for a partner in bringing this book into the world.”

Power of Cmty

Maggie King, Joanna S. Lee, Maya Smart and Angele McQuade talked about the power of community during the James River Writers 2017 conference. Shawna Christos moderated.  (Photo by Cynthia Price)

Join a community of writers. These can be face-to-face or online. Maya Payne Smart says she gets more out of in-person writing communities. “You see (the writers) are real people. There is something to putting a face to the stories you hear,” she said. “It’s important to have people cheering for you.”

Joanna S. Lee said it’s okay to join online and then simply “lurk” until you are ready to contribute.

One benefit of an online community is the flexibility. “Not all of us can be in person within the community whether because of work or obligations,” said Angele McQuade.

Just write. The one piece of advice I heard repeatedly is what Emyl always told me — you need to write. McQuade said, “You need to recognize when you are having too much fun within the writing community and aren’t writing.”




Writing Process Blog Tour

I’m posting an extra blog this week. It’s not because I’m ambitious. It’s because I forgot to utter the word, “NO!”

I’ve been working on saying “no” more often so I would have more time. More time for what? Anything or nothing. But sometimes, I forget and I over commit.

I say yes to a writing process blog tour.

A writer I know reached out to me as asked if I would be part of this writing process blog tour. Shawna Christos is a writer with several books in various stages of dress and is currently working on a mainstream commercial fiction book. A long-time volunteer and supporter of James River Writers, you will find her at a lot of the JRW and local book events. She’s also great at encouraging writers – like me – who need reminders to keep working on their book.

And she gets some of us into trouble by getting us to say yes.

20140413_152050I had to answer four questions. I think I was also supposed to identify other writers and have them do the same, but I don’t think that part is going to happen. Not because I don’t want to hear from others, but because I’m going to run out of time. At the least, I will answer the questions, which were picked by someone unknown to me.

What am I working on?

I started a mystery several years ago, and at some point, I will pick it up and finish it. Right now I like to say it’s marinating.

In the meantime, I post regularly to this blog and do lots of writing in my professional job. I’m thinking about collecting posts from the blog and publishing a book for those early in their career. I’ve had several students and young adults tell me how hopeful the posts are and another friend has encouraged me to do this. Now, I just need to commit to doing so.

I also am involved in my local library so I get to meet lots of great writers and am part of a book club so I’m reading great writing. All of this, I hope, will enable me to be a better writer, and, at some point, a published author of a mystery.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?  

My mystery does have a unique protagonist. I can say this because I met with an agent several years ago at a James River Writers conference, and she told me this. She was quite encouraging. I think that scared me!

I once worked in law enforcement and some of what I learned will make it into the book. That, I think, will help make the story more real. I guess time will tell.

Why do I write what I do?

I love mysteries. From the earliest age I was reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Then there was Agatha Christie. I consume mysteries. If I get a new book by Janet Evanovich, I’m finished in a day or two. A new Michael Connelly novel puts my life on hold until I finish it. When my book is finished, I hope it has the same effect. Reading is a great way to disappear into another world for a short time.

I started my blog as a means to communicate with members of NFPW when I was president, 2009-2011. I continued the blog because I had gained a following and heard from many that the posts were helpful. I also found the discipline of researching, writing and posting twice weekly beneficial to me as I continue to grow as a writer and leader.

How does my writing process work?

Since I haven’t worked on the book in some time, I clearly need to develop a process. I do clip news stories that could become fodder for story lines, and I keep a journal of sorts that outlines chapters and keeps the details of each character.

A friend pointed out to me that because I now have leave between Christmas and New Year that would be an ideal time to make significant progress on the book. She’s right. So ask me again in January 2015 how the book is coming. A former colleague gave me a card that asked me how I was coming along with the novel. I keep it on display as a reminder.

I’m much better with the blog. I create a schedule each year for the days I will post and then I identify relevant topics, such as conferences and national days (Sunshine Week, for example). I am always reading and researching and as a former reporter, I know how to find and develop stories. I always say that if I have attended a workshop and can’t get a blog from it, then it was a bad workshop.

Of course, like any good writer there are those days where I just can’t get it together and I’m scrambling to get the post written by my self-imposed deadline, or, in this case, by a deadline that I should have said no to.

Having said that, I had fun answering the questions. I’m sorry I didn’t work to get other writers to participate, but I know there are several of you out there who read this blog. If you’re game, please participate by answering the above questions and posting on April 21. If you send me a short bio and a link to your blog, I’ll post on Friday with links to those who will participate in the tour.

Emyl Jenkins Stole Our Hearts With Style

[Note: Emyl Jenkins Sexton passed away earlier today. She was a friend, mentor and longtime VPW member.]

Dear Emyl,

I’m writing…. I know you would be proud. I’m thinking happy thoughts, too, although it’s not easy. We missed you at the VPW conference Friday. I’ll miss you at this week’s library event. But I’m taking your words to heart, and so I wanted to share my happy thoughts with you.

The first time I met you was  at a VPW meeting so many years ago. You were speaking to us even though you had a temperature. We chatted and from then on you were giving me advice and encouraging me about my writing and finishing my book.

There’s a photo on my writing desk of Adriana Trigiani, you and me taken at one of her book signings. Such happy times.

I remember the 2007 NFPW conference held in Richmond, Va. You dear lady hosted the board at your lovely home and made everyone fall in love with the Southern delicacy of ham biscuits. I may not eat ham, but those biscuits… oh my.

I have happy thoughts of other evenings at your home, joking with you and your husband Bob about which car I drove. And that’s all I’ll say on that subject!

I remember attending the Library of Virginia Literary Awards this past October as you presented the award for fiction. It’s always a fun evening and it was more special with you presenting.

I am thinking happy thoughts remembering my first James River Writers conference. You were introducing a panel on mystery writers and spent a few minutes talking about the panelists. And then you said that in the audience was another mystery writer — me! Oh, how my heart sang to think that one day I would be a published mystery writer. I will make you proud, I promise.

And just last month Jann Malone, you and I enjoyed a Thai lunch catching up, sharing stories, solving the problems of the South. I’m glad I didn’t know then that it would be the last time I saw you.

So Emyl, we all have our memories and we all miss you. I will think happy thoughts but you will forgive me if there are a few tears, too. And to you I raise a glass of writer’s courage.