Old Editor Goes to Writer’s Conference

By Jack Limpert

After 50 years in journalism, I went  to a writer’s conference because I’d like to try to write fiction.

It was in downtown Washington, D.C. More than 200 people in attendance–$60 for a keynote speech and three one-hour sessions. Sessions choices were divided into fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and cross-genre. Attendees were even split between men and women, mostly under the age of 35. No one looked like they read Vogue or GQ.
The best line in the keynote speech by writer-poet-teacher Matthea Harvey:  “Ideas are like shy animals. You may have to look the other way for them to come out.”

A line that rings true. I often find it hard to get ideas sitting at the computer. If I take a break, walk the dog, do something that lets me daydream, then the ideas come.
Notes from a session on How to Write Historical Fiction

*To do it you have to love research. You’re probably going to spend at least six months on research before you start writing.

*Not easy to create a mindset of the past, imagining a world.

*You’re trying to find things we don’t know about the past. Beyond that it’s a story.

*Do you write in the period voice or in today’s voice? Usually works best in today’s voice.

I was interested in this session because I read a lot of novels set in the 1930s and 40s. World War Two was a time when freedom was challenged, when good and evil seemed clearer. Novels like those by Alan Furst, James Jones, Herman Wouk, Sebastian Faulks. Leon Uris, and Phiiip Kerr take the reader to another time and place and show heroism, intelligence, imagination, cruelty, and stupidity, show how people behaved honorably and dishonorably.

One of the panelists is writing a novel about Arctic exploration—which seemed the most interesting idea at the session. It would take the reader to places he’s never likely to go and show how the explorers did it and why they did it with characters, maybe some real, some not, that could make an interesting story.
Over the two-hour lunch break the attendees had the chance—called speed-dating—to talk individually with one of the speakers at the conference. The lines were very long. Most the writers wanted to show a sample of their work and get feedback. I didn’t have any fiction samples so I passed..
Notes from a session on Stories That Masquerade as Other Forms of Writing.

The speaker was Matthew Vollmer, head of the undergraduate creative writing program at Virginia Tech. He talked about how a writer can use lots of different ways to write short stories:

*Entries in a police blotter.


*Diary entries.

*Letters from a father to an estranged son.

*Field guides (his students like to do these).

*Personal ads.

*Facebook posts.

He calls these stories in costume.

Here’s an example of a story being told through entries in a police blotter.

Here’s a book Vollmer co-wrote that shows off some of these techniques.
Notes from a session about Opening a Short Story.

The speaker was Tom Bligh, a writer. Some of what he said:

*When you start reading a short story, it’s like you’re waking up in the hospital: Where am I? Who are these people? What happened?

*The cliche is your main character must want something. It’s a good cliche.

*Then comes a break from normal. Hints at trouble. Something is not what it should be.

*A story needs tension. Desire plus danger equals tension. Characters are driven by desire. Desire often leads to danger.

His best line: “A bad draft is better than a good idea.”
There was very little talk of money at the conference. The people there just seemed to want to write, to learn how to write better, to maybe get published. Many of the panelists were writers who also teach, making a cynic think of B.C. Forbes advice to his son Malcolm: “We make more money selling advice than following it.”

But the mood was earnest and upbeat. The writers there seemed to know that the odds of getting a big book published are about the same as winning the lottery, but they still want to write, to try to find out what’s inside their heads, to tell a story. The panelists kept repeating: Keep writing, keep sending it out, don’t let rejection stop you.

In the world of journalism all the talk seems to be about jobs, revenues, and paywalls. It was nice to spend a day just centered on the joy of writing and how to get better at it.


  1. A lot of writers I know who have spent their careers as journalists are enjoying the freedom writing poetry offers — for one thing, even if you do research, you don’t have to fact-check every turn of events. Hope you enjoy fiction as much as they all seem to.

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