Monday, January 31, 2011

What I Learned About Writing From

Pikes Peak Writers Conference

If you’re not familiar with the Pikes Peak Writers Conference (PPWC), let me give you the broad strokes. Pikes Peak Writers Conference has been held at the end of April in Colorado Springs, Colorado, since 1993. It was named one of the top ten writers conferences in the United States by Writers Digest Magazine. The conference is run by Pikes Peak Writers, a group of dedicated volunteers.

When I first attend, at the tenth anniversary conference, it consisted of two days of workshops and pitch appointments with either an agent or an editor. Friday afternoon, one could walk into a “read and critique” session and listen to a writer read a few pages and receive immediate feedback from an agent, editor or published author.

The conference has expanded to include workshops on Friday as well. And attendees may sign up for Thursday intensive workshops.

Following is a list of things I learned by attending several PPWCs over the years.

1) There are lots of other people out there like you.

I wrote a lot when I was in junior high and high school. Then “real life” interrupted that. I had gotten back into writing a couple years before my first PPWC. I joined a local writing group just a few months before the conference. So, I knew there were at least a dozen people in Colorado Springs who wrote.

Then I walked into the Marriott Hotel on the April Friday afternoon. There were writers everywhere—checking in, wandering the halls (some looking as dazed as I felt), sitting at the bar, and bravely reading their writing in front of an agent and a room full of people. Suddenly I became part of a much larger subculture. If I was crazy to be doing this, at least there were others as crazy as, if not more so, than I.

2) Writers can be incredibly generous with each other

Many of the faculty are authors—well-known and not so much—who shared their experiences and insights. They took the time to put together hour-long presentations and handouts to help other writers avoid some of the pitfalls the presenter had encountered.

The faculty were not the only generous authors. There were the strangers who invited me to sit with them at meals. The people who let me join in their conversations in the lobby between sessions and after the days events ended.

I left each night—I didn’t stay at the hotel that first year—feeling energized and knowing that I just might be able to do this thing.

3) No matter how much you know, there’s more to learn.

I love doing research. When I decided it was time to start writing again—seriously, I subscribed to Writers Digest and invested in a bunch of writing books. I read about plot, characterization, conflict, motivation, themes, dialogue. You name it, I had a book about it.

Even then, I felt there was probably a lot to learn from the workshops at my first PPWC. Sure enough, I absorbed a lot that weekend. There was a workshop on writing good query letters. Another on writing screenplays based on a two-hour movie broken into ten minute blocks.

By my third and fourth conferences, I was feeling pretty dang knowledgeable about the writing life. After all, I had a couple different first drafts under my belt. Even more books and magazines read. What else could there be to learn?

Well, how about developing a “bible” to manage a series. This is a notebook that contains information the author needs to keep track of. A map of the location, descriptions of characters, major events. Or how about the way real S.W.A.T. teams or canine units operate?

Every PPWC has taught me something new. They’ve also reminded me of things I might have once known, but forgot.

4) Be prepared.

I first learned that when I joined the Brownies in first grade. Who knew that it would help me at a writers conference mumble, mumble years later?

It took a year or two before I signed up for a Read and Critique session. A room full of strangers would be listening. A room full of strangers plus an agent. A big name agent. A big name agent from a prestigious agency.

Started a month or so before the conference, I polished and re-polished what I would be reading. I read aloud and timed myself. Then friends from my critique group helped by listening and offering advice. I was told accentuate certain phrases. Raise my voice here, lower it there. And remember to breathe.

When I started to read at PPWC, my hands shook the pages and my face went hot. But I was ready. My copy of the pages were in large print and marked up. “Hit this.” “Softer here.”

At the end of the reading I braced for the horrible feedback. But it didn’t come. She liked me. She really, really like me. I mean, she liked my writing.  And that felt great.  Even though she did not ask me to send her pages.  I wouldn't have been ready for that anyway.

5) When they say finished work, listen.

Agent/Editor pitch sessions are limited. Writers are cautioned to only sign up for a pitch session when they have a finished work. “Finished” does not mean a first draft. It certainly doesn’t mean a kinda cool idea for a book. It doesn’t even mean a good second draft.

A finished work is a manuscript that has been written and rewritten, probably several times. Eyes other than the writer’s have read it and offered feedback. Eyes that belong to people who are writers themselves. Or at least people who truly know about writing.

I decided that I’d pitch a book that was still mostly in the idea stage at my second PPWC. I figured it would be good practice for when it was finished because, of course, I didn’t think anyone would say they wanted to see it.

But he did ask for the first 100 pages. I didn’t have 30 pages. Did I rush home and knock out the rest of the book, polish it up and send the requested pages? No. Instead I froze up. I didn’t write much of anything for months.

Not everyone will have that reaction. But even if you run home and finish the manuscript, it will not be your best work. And if you don’t submit your best work, you won’t get very far. That means you’ll have wasted the agent’s time and, possibly, prevented a writer who was ready from getting one of the precious time slots.

Take a look at the PPWC brochure for 2011.  You can find it here at  It could just be the boost your writing needs.