The Quills Conference 2019

Eghty-four years ago, The League of Utah Writers was born. Eighty-four years ago, the league starting having an annual conference. Over the years, the name, location, and dates have changed. Today, it is called The Quills Conference. And it is an amazing event. (See this story from Fox 13.)

Writers from across Utah, and in fact, the country, converged to meet other writers, editors, and agents. The goal is to learn from others and network. This year was a huge success. Several agents and editors, who attend dozens of conferences a year. declared Quills as one of the best conferences they’ve ever attended. I credit an amazing volunteer staff and other attendees, in making this a great event.

In the following recaps, you may feel slighted as I’ve left out lots of details. That’s because the content is property of the presenters. If I add it here, you can just read this and not go to a conference where they are presenting.

Day One

So, what did I do? I learned. A lot. The conference started on Thursday half-day epth classes. I chose “Expand and Contract – The Dance of the Well Paced Story” taught by Angie Hodapp and her husband Warren Hammond. If you make your story too slow, readers lose interest, too fast and readers get confused. You want it to be just right. (I call this the Goldilocks Syndrome.) Angie and Warren gave us tools to figure out where our stories have these problems and then more tools to fix them. Things like narrative, turning points, scene and chapter, plot structure, Great presentation full of information I will definitely make use of.

The afternoon feature Chantelle Aimee Ozman. She presented “What to do after THE END: Editing, Pitching, and Querying.” I first met Chantelle this past March at Sleuthfest in Florida. She’s awesome. I wanted to see this presentation again, She didn’t disappoint. Clear, down-to-earth advice on editing, pitching, and querying. Great stuff. I look forward to more from Chantelle later this month at Central Coast Writers Conference in California.

Thursday wrapped up with a Reception/Mixer where I met lots of local authors and many of the special guests including Ann Hillerman. Being a mystery writer, I had been looking forward to this since last years conference. Ann is one of the great, giving, caring authors out there.

Day Two

Friday morning found me back with Angie Hodapp for “Theme: What it is and Why You Need It.” I had been to presentations before on theme, but I never quite got it. Somehow, I knew it was important. Turns out I was right. (Mark the day on your calendar, “Craig was right”.) Theme is the underlying story. For example, your story may be a police procedural set 1960s Chicago where one cop is black, the other white. Your theme may be civil rights. If you deal with a particular theme, you must also deal with its opposite.

After that, back to Warren Hammond. (Do you see a pattern here?) His presentation was “The Wheels Keep Spinning and I Don’t Know What to Do”. As a writer gains experience, at some time, she’ll hit a point where she can’t achieve her writing goals or the current WiP is stuck and she can’t seem to move it forward. There are no shortcuts to learning the craft. Identify your weak spots and lay out a plan to conquer them. Learn what habits made other writers successful and adapt them for you.

I continued with Warren’s class “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Stellar Characters”. Luckily no towel was needed. Characters, great characters, are what readers are looking for. That’s what pulls them in and gets them to really like your book. Your characters need to be multi-dimensional, have goals, motivations, conflicts, and stakes. Lots of advice on how to do all this.

Anne Hillerman was up next. Her presentation “Setting: Where Fiction Lives” was all about location. In her books, the Navajo Reservation comes alive and now I know why. Setting is more than just the location on the map. She talked about fundamentals of setting: locale, time of year, time of day, weather, natural landscape, man-made features, eras of historical importance, social/political environment, population, and ancestral influences are all part of setting.

The day finished up with the late night presentation “After Dark: Let’s Talk About Sex Scenes.” Quills offered two versions of this. A tame version and one they billed as “18+”. That’s the one I picked because I’m not afraid of the topic and the presenter, Alex Harrow is amazing. They went into various areas and how to write them and not write them. While there were naughty words, such as different things to call a penis or a vagina, there were no graphic pictures. Great presentation and one where I learned stuff.

Day Three

My brain was nearly full by the time Saturday arrived, but I pushed forward. Roslyn Eames got things started with “Writing Emotion: The Objective Correlative.” You do this with objects, metaphor, situation, chain of events, and movement and gestures. One thing to keep in mind, the bigger an issue, the less you write about it.

Next up, “Content an Audience Can’t Ignore” from Linne Elizabeth. This was more about marketing and blogging than writing a novel, but the ideas were very important. The goal is to give the audience what they need and want. You do this by knowing your audience, setting SMART goals to get there, writing a good narrative, and keeping it simple.

Then it was Hammer time. Back to Warren Hammond for “Rated R for Violence.” As a crime fiction writer, I was very interested in hearing where the line is between too much and not enough. The answer turns out to be: the line is where you want it. Keep in mind your audience. How does the violence affect your character. Keep in consistent in your story. Use it to add emotional impact. Learn the mechanics of writing violence.

Anne Hillerman came next with “Organic Writing – Finding Your Own Perfect Process.” I didn’t take many notes here, but the big take-away is to structure your plans with room to add serendipity.

The final class of the day was Dave Butler’s “You’re Going to Need a Bigger Pie.” This was all about how to build your reader and writer community following. One suggestion that stuck with me was to put reading recommendations at the bottom of your newsletter or blog about them.

Quills always ends with a big banquet where we feast and winners of the league’s annual writer contests were announced. You can look for the list soon on the league web site. Congratulations to everyone that won, placed, showed, or even just entered.

Then, it was time for the unofficial end to the weekend, BarCon. This is where attendees move to the hotel bar to imbibe on a beverage of choice. It can be of the adult variety or just water. This is where much of the networking takes place. I have met wonderful writers at BarCons and we are still friends.

Quills 2020 is set for August 13-15 at the same location with special guest Jonathan Mayberry. I hope to see you there.

RMMWA

A year ago I joined Mystery Writers of America, one of the largest organizations for mystery writers in the US. The problem was, I was placed in the Rocky Mountain chapter that meets primarily in Denver. So, I never participated.

That’s all changing now. I have agreed to be the Utah Representative on the chapter board. I won’t be going to Denver every month to attend meetings but I will be bringing RMMWA to Utah. Stay tuned for more details as we work them out.

The Citizen Academy

One of my guilty pleasure TV shows is Lucifer on Netflix. If you aren’t familiar with it, the devil gets tired of meting out punishment and comes to Earth in human form. He participates in human vices, sex, drugs, alcohol, and more. He becomes a special consultant to LAPD and, of course, is partnered with an attractive female detective. Pure fiction, right? Well, there is more than just the plot. Everything about police work is done incorrectly:

  • Another detective, who frequently works with the attractive female detective, is her ex-husband.
  • The forensics tech frequently declares cause and time of death.
  • In one episode, the detectives arrive at the crime scene and ask the forensics tech, “Any suspects?”
  • Random people off the street walk through the crime scene.

It’s the job of the crime writer to get the facts straight. That means doing your research. There are many ways to do this. One that I completed this spring was the Citizen Academy in West Valley City, UT. Many cities across the country do this training at no charge.

In West Valley, the course is once a week for ten weeks. Each week, a different department would talk about their jobs and we could ask questions. Here’s the schedule we had:

Week 1 – Welcome from Chief Jacobs, overview of the purpose and organization of WVCPD, city prosecutors.

Week 2- Pursuits and Traffic. We learned about accident reconstruction and investigation and saw pictures and video of pursuits and some nasty traffic accidents (no dead bodies were shown), including information about one accident that resulted in the decapitation of one driver.

They also setup a driving course in an empty parking lot and we got to drive patrol cars. I ran over lots of orange cones. It was so much fun.

Week 3 – Patrol Division and K9 unit. The department has both Belgian Malinois (similar to a German Shepherd) and Bloodhounds. I have to say, the Bloodhounds are so friendly.

Week 4 – SWAT and Firearms. We met at a Police Academy firing range and got to shoot Glocks and sub-machine guns. Great fun! WVCPD has one of the best SWAT sniper shooters in the country.

Week 5 – Detectives and Community Oriented Policing. As a writer of murder mysteries, this was really interesting to me. We had lots of questions about the Susan Powell case. It’s now closed, but they still want to find her body so the the family can have closure. Note that I met Josh Powell a couple of times before Susan’s disappearance and felt there was something “off” about him, but couldn’t place what it was.

Week 6 – Forensics and Evidence. We learned about how forensics works. Then we went to the forensics lab for hand-on learning how to lift finger prints off of items. WVC has the only shoe print expert in Utah.

Week 7 – Use of force and scenarios. We paired up with another class member and ran through scenarios on arrest with cops posing as the bad guy.

Week 8 – Fire Department and First Aid training, including CPR. We got to ride up 100 feet in the air in the bucket of one of the trucks.

Week 9 – Dispatch and Gang Unit. We met at the dispatch center to learn how calls are handled then met with a member of the gang unit to learn about gangs in the area and how they’re dealt with.

Week 10 – Graduation.

It was an amazing ten weeks.

If you write about crime of just have an interest in how your local police department works, check if they have a Citizen Academy. Mine was free and totally worth the time.

Also, as a writer, there is the Writer’s Police Academy, that is held every year, most years in Green Bay, WI. This year it’s called MurderCon and will be in Raleigh, NC. Maybe I’ll see you there

In the mean time, I’ll be watching more Lucifer.

A Message to Conference Organizers

This is an open message to conference organizers everywhere. I want you conference to succeed and people say, “That was an amazing event.” I’m sure you do too. But why do many conference organizers shoot themselves in the foot? In this post, I’ll give you some advice that will help you succeed.

In my day job, I’m a software engineer. For over thirty years, I have spoken at conferences large and small, organized by professional event planners or an all volunteer staff. These events have been across North America and Europe. I have also helped organize conferences large (1000+ attendees) to small (10+). I’ve seen things that work and things that don’t. This all gives me unique experience to help you make your event even better.

Call for Presenters

Many conferences start with a call for presenters. You may target specific presenters, directly invite some, or make a public announcement to accept proposals. What ever form this takes, there is some very specific information you need to include:

  • Event name
  • Location – City and State is generally enough at this point
  • Event dates
  • The last date that submissions are due. If you say, “Submissions will be accepted until midnight, January 31” make sure you include the timezone.
  • URL of the event website. Yes, your website should be live before making a call for speakers.
  • Description of the type of event. For example, are you targeting writers of a specific genre or is it just general topics.
  • Presentation length. This may vary anywhere from an hour to several hours for a workshop. Make it clear what you are looking for.
  • You may include a list of topics you are looking for.
  • What information you need about the presenter. This should include name, bio, website, and email address. Some conferences at this point also ask for presenters website address, Facebook and Twitter links, phone number, and photo, but the reality is, you’ll only need this information if a presenter is accepted.
  • If the conference is covering travel, hotel, and other costs and/or an honorarium you should include this with the call for presentation.
  • Your email address in case the presenter has questions before submitting the proposal.
  • Instructions on how to submit the proposal. Do you have your own portal, using a submission website, or via email?

Once you receive the submission, send a confirmation email to the presenter. Tell them the names of each presentation they submitted and give them a date when you expect to have made a decision on accepting their proposal. You will get more proposals than you anticipated so give yourself plenty of time to review everything and make decisions.

When a presenter is accepted, email them a confirmation. You will likely get multiple proposals from the same presenter. Tell them which presentations have been accepted. Ask them to reply as confirmation of acceptance. Do not accept too many from the same person. I have attended events where a single presenter seemed to be presenting at every time slot.

Also, make sure you contact presenters who were not accepted. Thank them for their submission.

One final thing. Many conferences use Google forms and such to collect speaking proposals. This is a bad idea as Google does not respect anyone’s privacy. This means all the information entered can be scanned by Google and assimilated into their advertising platform. This includes author names, phone numbers, email addresses, etc. Do the right thing and protect the privacy of your presenters. There are many free or low cost alternatives.

Conference website

Make your event website easy to navigate and have complete information. The home page needs the event name, dates, and city clearly listed near the top. Don’t bury this in small text or on another page. These are the first things attendees will look for.

If you have a big-name keynote speaker, put this on the home page, including their picture.

Initially, you won’t have presenters listed, but have a Presenters page with something like, “Presenters will be announced beginning March 1.” Make sure you hit that date. You can list all your presenters at the same time, or reveal them slowly over time. The latter works well if you have big name presenters coming. Otherwise, just list them all at the same time or once they’ve confirmed acceptance.

Every presentation needs to be listed with it’s description. This can be done on the Presenter page or on a Presentations page.

A schedule page is important, even very early in the process. Something as simple as “The event will be on Saturday, February 9, 2019, from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM” is all you need. Once you have a complete schedule, post it on the Schedule page. This way confirmed attendees or those still on the fence, can find it. Be prepared to change the schedule. Things will come up and some presenters will drop out. Others will only be able to speak in the morning or afternoon. Also, make the schedule printable.

The venue must be clearly listed. Name and address are important. Adding a map to it is nice, but not required. The venue should have its own page.

Registration should be really, really easy. List everything an attendee needs to know and make the registration link easily found on your website. I’ve registered for events that had Friday night and Saturday presentations as well as Friday dinner and Saturday lunch. Each of them was a separate ticket and each had to be purchased separately via a PayPal. That’s four purchases. Not cool. Eventbrite makes registration easy. You can list each item separately. The attendee selects what they want and are charged one time. Also, an attendee often brings a spouse or child. Eventbrite makes it easy to add others on a single purchase.

Send a confirmation email to the attendee once they have registered. Again, Eventbrite does this. The confirmation email should include the attendee name, name, dates, and location of event, and list what they have signed up for.

Have a way for people to contact you. Attendees sometimes have questions before and after registration or they may need to cancel. I advise against just using an email address link as bots can easily find this and start spamming you. Have an information form that a person can fill out and is emailed to you behind the scenes.

If you have a multi-day event you may have a hotel that you recommend to attendees. List this information on the web site and provide a link for registration.

Summarizing the required pages on your website: Home, Presenters, Schedule, Registration, Venue, About, Contact (About and Contact may be the same page). Optional pages are Hotel and Presentations.

There are hundreds of other details I’ve left out, but these are the basics to have a successful conference. Good luck with your event and may it be wildly successful.

My Favorite Authors

Every once in a while, people ask who my favorite authors are. Specifically, they ask about mystery writers. Every time, I stumble trying to remember names, so I put together a list of some of my favorites. Some of these authors, like Johnny Worthen or Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) have also written other genres. I’m sure there are names I’ve left off the list. No slight to you, fine writer. It’s another case of not remembering at the moment. Never fear, your name will be added as will new writers that I find. You can find the list here.

2018 Reading

Once again this year, I participated in the GoodReads Reading Challenge. My goal was 30 books. I’d like to read more, but with a full-time day job, and work on the novel, the goal seemed achievable but at the same time, a challenge. I’m happy to report that I’m a winner! Where’s the Publisher’s Clearing House novelty check when you want it? My final tally is 38 books. Here’s what I read:

  1. Dynamic Story Creation in Plain English, Maxwell Alexander Drake
  2. Writing Mysteries, (various)
  3. Pack Dynamics, Julie Frost
  4. Interviews & Interrogations, Darren Drake
  5. Clownfish Blues, Tim Dorsey
  6. Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz
  7. Ordinary Grace, William Kent Kruger
  8. Knots and Crosses, Ian Rankin
  9. Ten Dead Comedians, Fred Van Lente
  10. A Case of Espionage, Paula Longhurst
  11. This Fallen Prey, Kelley Armstrong
  12. Dark Matter, Blake Crouch
  13. Bound to Die, Laurie Rockenbeck
  14. Protocol, Kathleen Valenti
  15. The Bishop’s Wife, Mette Ivie Harrison
  16. Death of a Cozy Writer, G. M. Malliet
  17. Holding, Graham Norton
  18. Abra Cadabra, David Kranes
  19. Think of a Number, John Verdon
  20. Odds On, John Lange
  21. Bluebird Bluebird , Attica Locke
  22. Money Shot, Christa Faust
  23. Hollywood Homicide, Kellye Garrett
  24. The House of Silk, Anthony Horowitz
  25. An Exaggerated Murder, Josh Cook
  26. A is for Alibi, Sue Grafton
  27. Tiny Crimes, (various)
  28. Winterkill, C. J. Box
  29. Follow Me Down, Sherri Smith
  30. A Year of the Monkeys, (various)
  31. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith
  32. The Facts of Life and Death, Belinda Bauer
  33. Killshot, Elmore Leonard
  34. Dodgers, Bill Beverly
  35. A Different Kind of Evil, Andrew Wilson
  36. The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson
  37. Pistols and Petticoats, Erika Janik
  38. Elusive Elixir, Gigi Pandian

So what does 2019 look like? I’m going again with 30 books. I think I can do more, but 30 is still a stretch. It will again be a mix of anthology, mystery, and craft improvement titles. What is your reading goal for 2019? Hit me up on Goodreads. Let’s keep each other moving forward to meet our goals.