Conference Report — Writer’s Digest Novel Writing

The Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference returned to the West Coast last weekend with a great selection of speakers and four tracks of conference sessions for fiction writers at all stages of the novel writing spectrum. Sponsored by Writer’s Digest, the event was held at the Westin Pasadena, a nice hotel close to the civic center of Pasadena. Both Writer’s Digest and the hotel provided a cordial, positive atmosphere and attentive service to the attendees.

The list of speakers can be found HERE. There was a keynote speaker each day, beginning with Lisa See on day one, and then Heather Graham day two, followed by Neal Shusterman day three. Each is an accomplished writer and each shared insights, thoughts, and advice about the writer’s journey, creativity, discipline, and aspects of the publishing industry.

The conference ran as it should. I was able to meet writers and professionals from different walks. The focus in two of the tracks (CRAFT and CHARACTER) was on improving and honing skills as well as sharing approaches and exploring how to make each novel, setting, story, or character deeper, better, richer, and more enjoyable. For each of these tracks, one big takeaway for every writer, regardless of the level of development, is that readers should not struggle. That is the writer’s burden. Diligent mastery of the craft transports a reader into the story/character/world without effort. The struggles the reader experiences are the protagonist’s struggles, not the writer’s. Of course, there are many aspects to reaching this goal. These tracks delivered, and the discussions and presentations were professional and concise.

The GENRE track also delved into these aspects as well as publishing and marketing in each specific niche. The speakers included agents, editors, publishers, and writers. This track helped the genre-writing attendees synthesize the other tracks in the context of their specific genre or genres.

The fourth track (BEYOND) took a look at the market and everything that writing entails beyond the refinement and creation of a story–pitching for publication, the trends in the markets, the reliability and unreliability of such trends, self-publishing versus traditional publishing, the technological and physical tools of the trade, and other things.

As with any conference featuring multiple tracks, one could not pick up everything, but the program was well defined, permitting each writer to select intelligently, and the sessions were recorded so the audio of sessions missed will be available.

One thing missing was pitch sessions. Many writing conferences organize time-limited time opportunities for writers to pitch their current work to professional agents and editors. If the agent or editor finds the pitch intriguing, then the writer is asked to send a partial or full manuscript for the agent or editor to consider. These submissions fall into the category of “requested” manuscripts and usually receive a prompt review. “Acceptance” is certainly not guaranteed, but most would agree that the submission has a fairer chance than an unsolicited submission into the slush pile. I did not ask why there were no scheduled pitch sessions. It was clear going into it that this conference would not include them, so I accepted the focus as it was and the conference met my expectations. Also, there were plenty of agents and editors at the conference, so the opportunity for an “elevator pitch” was ever present and many writers availed themselves of that opportunity.

If you are a writer and have not attended a writer’s conference, you should consider it. Even if your skills are well-honed, you understand marketing, and you are published. It is encouraging to confirm your understanding of craft and market, it is refreshing to meet other writers at different stages of development, and there is always something to learn or new perspectives to consider.



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Why Read?

“The movie is not as good as the book.” Readers say this often. Booksellers probably say it more. It might not always be true. Generally, I think it is, although this is not a condemnation of film. They are different art forms. I love good movies (and some bad ones); so why are novels better?

It’s subjective. But novels provide a whole lot more information while simultaneously relying on the reader’s imagination to fill in everything that is not stated. Some novels delve deeply into a protagonist’s mind. A well-written train of thought can be exceptionally engaging and sets the stage for conflict that can only be hinted at through visual and auditory stimulus. The same is true of backstory. In contrast, description in a novel, which can be detailed or sparse, necessarily requires each reader to draw an image that works, breathing life into the story. No two readers will see the exact same thing in their mind’s eye. This, in my view, creates an intimate relationship between reader, author, and story that is unique and fulfilling.

In other words, reading is active. It stimulates the imagination. Also, many writers have a subtle sense of humor that manifests only in the carefully crafted phrasing of text, subtext, and frame.

There are lots of other reasons to read. Brain scans show activity in parts of the cortex that are beneficial. Psychologists suggest empathy rises with deep reading of literature, as well as intelligence and understanding. Readers are generally thought to write better. The scorecard goes on, but the reward, to me, is emotional. I remember the stories I’ve read. I take a journey and I feel it.

So take time to read (or read more). Generations of readers attest to the wonder and joy of the experience. Take your own journey. Feel the pain, sorrow, and triumph. Face the questions and uncertainties. Breathe life into tales that await and find your unique reward.

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SETI, the “Wow!” Signal, and the Ongoing Search of the Sky

It appears that an explanation for the “Wow!” signal might have been found. According to a recent experiment by a team of researchers with the Center for Planetary Science, which is pending peer review, it may have been a passing comet. You can see last year’s proposal for the recent experiment HERE, and the 16-page report of the results HERE. The comet suspected of causing the signal was unknown in 1977 when the “Wow!” signal was received.

As a reminder, the “Wow!” signal was an exciting discovery for fans of SETI. At the time (1977), SETI had the Ohio state University Big Ear radio telescope searching for a signal within the frequency of hydrogen, 1420 megahertz, on the theory that it would be used by a civilization intending to be heard. Nothing out of the ordinary was detected until August 15, 1977. The signal received was a massive burst of exactly the haystack-needle signal being sought.

Of course, the problem with the “Wow!” signal, in SETI circles, has always been that it never repeated, so it was probably not an alien signal. However, all known other sources for the signal were ruled out at the time. It was not of Earth origin, and there is nothing in that part of the sky to account for the signal. So the new experiment offers a plausible explanation for the event.

But SETI enthusiasts should not be discouraged. The “Wow!” signal was detected with limited technology by today’s standards, it neither proved nor disproved anything, and it has always been viewed with appropriate skepticism by SETI scientists. For instance, this 2015 interview, published on, about SETI, the signal was discussed as dubious evidence of extraterrestrial civilization. The interview participants were key figures in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI’s Seth Shostak, Paul Shuch, Douglas Vakoch and Gerry Harp). Although the “Wow!” signal is relatively famous, the interviewees make clear that the signal never met a critical indicator of intelligent origin—it did not repeat. Without that, according to Vakoch, “we have no basis for thinking it was really from an extraterrestrial civilization.” Moreover, the signal is not particularly extraordinary by today’s standards. SETI now uses the Allen Telescope Array. Compared to current surveys, the “Wow!” signal “isn’t at all special or different from signals that we observe every day at the ATA,” Harp said.

It is also worth noting that with present technology immediate follow-up is possible with any interesting signal. With improved detection capabilities and every-increasing computer power, the search grows stronger every year, and the likelihood increases that something extraordinary will be found.

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One Scene at a Time

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“How do you find the time to write a book?” As a working stiff who also publishes novels, this is a natural and frequently-asked question. The immediate answer is usually the very true necessity that “I make time.” Countless weekends … Continue reading

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Audie Awards 2017 Winners

The AUDIE AWARDS have been announced for 2017. These awards are sponsored by the Audio Publishers Association (“APA”). The APA was formed in 1986 as a not-for-profit trade association that advocates the common, collective business interests of audio publishers. It consists … Continue reading

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Towers of Earth Eligible for Nomination for 2017 Dragon Award; Nominations Open Until June 24, 2017

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If you have enjoyed Towers of Earth, and believe it should be nominated for a science fiction award, The Dragon Awards is presently open for nominations by fans free of charge. The Dragon Awards is a fan-based award for the best … Continue reading

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A Look at the Recent Nebula Winners

The Nebula Award Winners were announced last week by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (“SFWA”) at the SFWA Nebula Conference. Naturally, the two awards that generally receive the greatest attention are the Best Novel and the Ray Bradbury … Continue reading

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Like a Book? Write a Review!

You’ve read a novel you like. You tell your friends about it. Word spreads. This is process is probably how most books are selected by readers. It certainly was back in the day.

But more and more, people go to their favorite online site, browse titles, read book descriptions, and check out reviews. I do it. You’ve probably done it. We wonder what the five- and four-star reviewers think, we wonder what the one- and two-star reviewers think, and why. Then we decide.

There are a lot of good reasons to post a book review. Among other things, you want to put your voice out there. Especially with good books, it helps to spread the word. With so many choices out there, why not weigh in? You might also want to let the author know what you think. Many authors read reviews. Most authors don’t get hundreds of reviews. If you’ve read a book by an author that you really like, posting a positive review tells them that in a way that helps others consider the book, too. A positive review helps the author and helps other readers. It is a good thing to do. It’s also easy, once you know how.

So here are a few tips for posting book reviews, starting with the mechanics (the “how to” of it), followed by some thoughts about content.


Most sites are similar for book reviews. Following is a step-by-step about where to click and how the options look for Amazon, Goodreads and Barnes & Noble. Most other sites are similar.

Amazon. On the Amazon page for the book:

  • Scroll down to the “Customer Reviews.”
  • Click the “Write a customer review” button to the right of the star-rankings graphic.

On the page that appears:

  • Select a button for the first four questions (“How is the author’s writing,” “Is there violence,” “Is there sexual content,” and “How is the story narrated”)
  • Select the Star Ranking by clicking one of the stars. They fill in automatically from left to right. So for a five-star ranking (the best), click the right-most star.  (See Star Ranking, below.)
  • Enter your comments about the book by clicking in the text box below the stars. (See The Review Text, below.)
  • Click the one-line box below the larger text box to give your review a short title.
  • Click the “Submit” button.

Amazon will probably give you a message that the review is being processed, and it will send you an email when processing is complete.

Goodreads. On the Goodreads page for the book:

  • Click the drop down button below the book cover and select “Read.” (This option means “I’ve read the book.)

In the popup window that should immediately appear:

  • Select the Star Ranking by one of the stars. This is also a five-star system from one to five, with five being the best. (See Star Ranking, below.)
  • The “Bookshelves/tags” option below the stars should already say “read,” so no need to change that.
  • Enter your comments about the book by clicking the large dialogue box labeled below “What did you think?” Before you enter anything there, you will see in gray lettering “Enter your review (optional).” (See The Review Text, below.)
  • Only click the “Hide entire review because of spoilers” box if your comments give things away about the book that some readers might not want to see.
  • Enter the dates you read the book if you wish.
  • Check the boxes at the bottom right if you want to post to your blog, add to your update feed, or share on Facebook. (Some of these options might be pre-checked for you.)
  • Click the “Save” button at the bottom left, or optionally, click the “Preview” link to see what your review will look like first.

Barnes & Noble. On the B&N page for the book:

  • Scroll down to the “Customer Reviews.”
  • Click the “Write a Review” button to the right of the “Average Review” graphic.

In the popup window that should immediately appear:

  • Select the Star Ranking by clicking one of the stars. This is another a five-star system from one to five, with five (the right-most) being the best. (See Star Ranking, below.)
  • Enter your comments about the book by clicking in the text box below the stars. (See The Review Text, below.)
  • Click the “Submit” button.

That’s it. You’ve shared your thoughts. Other readers will appreciate it, and odds are the author will see it, too.


The two key content components are the Star Ranking and the Review Text.

Star Ranking

The number of stars you give tells others at a glance whether you loved or hated the book. Use your best judgment. If you loved it and think others should read it, a 5-star rank says “the best.” If you think the story could have been better, less than five is appropriate. Be honest, according to your own personal standards. I think of it as analogous to a letter grade in school, where five stars is an “A,” four stars is a “B,” etc.

Review Text

This isn’t a writing assignment. Short and sweet is fine. If all you want to say is “What a great story!”, then you’re done. That is a fine review. If you want to say more, here are some thoughts:

  • Say something about the story: an interesting character, stunning settings, some idea or feature that stands out to you.
  • Avoid “spoilers,” meaning don’t spill the plot or the ending (but you can certainly call it “a surprise,” or “satisfying,” or whatever applies.
  • Share a personal thought or two. Was it a page-turner? A fun read? Enlightening or thought-provoking? Would you read it again? To whom would you recommend it?
  • Be honest. If you didn’t get into it, but think others might, it’s okay to say so.

There are as many ways to write a review as there are readers. It can be fun to let an author and readers know your reaction to the story.

Posted in Promotion, Publication, Reading, Reviews, Writing | 3 Comments

Thank You, Alta Vista Park and Its Wonderful Community

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A Towers of Earth Book Launch Party was held at the Alta Vista Park Community Center this month. It was a terrific location and could not have been more welcoming. A wonderful group of readers of all ages and walks … Continue reading

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A Look at the Hugo Award Novel Finalists

The Hugo Awards® nominees for best science fiction or fantasy in 2016 have been announced. The prestigious awards are voted on, and presented by, members of the World Science Fiction Society. Here is a marketing blurb for each of the … Continue reading

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