Takeaways from the Bay to Ocean Writers’ Conference

Bay to Ocean imageOn a crisp winter’s day, writers from across the region gathered at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills for the 18th annual Bay to Ocean Writers Conference, organized by the Eastern Shore Writers Associaton. Days and weeks after the end of the conference, I am still looking back at my notes and processing what I learned and what thoughts came to mind. This is an attempt to sum up some of the key takeaways from the conference, based on the sessions I attended with notebook in hand.

• The conference was a great way to connect with other writers. Some might call this networking, but I would call it reassuring. Isn’t it nice to know that there are so many others who wrestle with words and stories? It helps to have affirmation that you are not the only crazy one! Connecting with other writers on social media is a good start, but you can’t split a giant chocolate chip cookie with someone on Facebook.

• Laura Oliver is a teacher of writers at St. Johns College in Annapolis, and she conducted a wonderful workshop based around her craft book, “The Story Within.” One of the fascinating points she made was that as human beings we are “wired for story” in that we crave stories not only for entertainment, but as a way to learn. It is also a way to experience and learn vicariously, or even to experience the intimacy we crave as humans. She quoted Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Of course, I picked up a copy of her book, which is now being read and marked up with notes in the margins.

• Author Kathryn Johnson is known for her historical novels and thrillers, some of which are set on the Delmarva Peninsula. Although she is a veteran author whose books have been in print for many years, it is clear she still has a sense of wonder about writing. Not that she is a soft touch. “Write down everything that will make your characters miserable,” she advised with a glint in her eye that made you feel concerned for her main characters.

For her, plot comes down to what happens next. “Make up something that’s really important to the character that can carry the story.”

These approaches helped her write one of her more recent novels, “The Gentleman Poet,” a story centered around the real-life shipwreck that inspired Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” There is now a copy on my trusty Kindle, waiting for some time to be read.

As a writer of historical novels, she said that good ideas are sometimes a tough sell to younger editors who don’t know their history. It was an observation about the realities of publishing rather than a complaint. Maybe this is why we need historical novels, to bring to life the people and events that have shaped our own times?

• Robert Bidinotto is an accomplished thriller writer, but it’s his own story of success with independent publishing that many writers find thrilling. Having lost his job as a magazine editor, and entering his sixties, things were looking bleak financially. That’s when, with the encouragement of his wife, he finally wrote a novel. The result was “Hunter,” a self-published Amazon bestseller. The author has been a tireless supporter of other writers with his “how to” advice on his popular website http://www.bidinotto.com/.

For self-published writers, Bidinotto stressed the importance of writing the best books possible by using advance readers, volunteer editors to stop every typo in its tracks, and great cover design.

At the conference, Bidinotto focused on tips for thriller writers, starting with classic examples of great thrillers, including Peter Benchley’s “Jaws” and “Where Eagles Dare” by Alistair MacLean and Wilbur Smith’s “Hungry as the Sea.”  He also noted the thriller elements of classic films like “High Noon.”

Thrillers come in all shapes and settings, but they have a common thread of often larger-than-life characters who overcome impossible odds, whether it is stopping a killer shark or the gang of killers due to arrive in town on the 12 o’clock train.

“Your job is to keep the reader riveted in that world,” Bidinotto said. He quoted Lee Child: “Write the slow stuff fast and the fast stuff slow.”

• What’s a conference without the swag? At BTO the literal takeaways included a green tote bag that my wife called “kind of girlie” (which meant she had her eye on it), copies of Writers Digest, Poets & Writers, and the Eastern Shore Writers Association’s own anthology, “The Delmarva Review.” Plus, there was a blank membership form to the ESWA.

And did I mention the extra chocolate chip cookie I smuggled home? It was just the right accompaniment to a mug of tea and my trusty Mac laptop as I got reinspired with my own writing.

See you next year at the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference!

The above post first appeared over at the Words Between Bays blog, published by the Eastern Shore Writers’ Association.

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