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Aspiring novelists buoyed by conference

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RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–For most people, reading a novel is easy. Writing one can be much harder.

Just ask the 40-plus aspiring novelists who attended the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writer’s Conference this fall at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina.

The conference, geared to individuals with at least a first draft of a novel, provided technical training, constructive critique and inspiration to continue down the difficult path of fiction writing.

“A writer is someone who cares so much about writing that it is difficult to write,” author Alton Gansky told the participants. “Some of the best writers slave over their words. Books do not spring forth complete any more so than babies spring out as adults.”

Conference attendee Sue Cameron from El Paso, Texas, attempted her first novel last year after 20 years of writing feature articles. Once her first draft was complete, Cameron put the novel on a shelf because the intimidation of suffering through the rewrite was too much to bear.

Encouraged by what she learned at the conference, Cameron was ready to take on the second draft. “I have been to other conferences that were helpful,” she said, “but I needed something that would help take me to the next level with my novel.”

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Mark Bittles from Louisville, Ky., who has attended numerous writing conferences, has been working on his first novel for the past year but needed practical advice on technical writing skills.

“I have learned so many great tips here,” Bittles said. “They don’t just tell you that you need to develop the characters; they actually tell you how.”

Character development was just one topic of interest during intense hands-on morning workshops at the conference. Other topics included plot development; how to write an effective first sentence or page; and the need for time management when incorporating a passion for writing into everyday life.

Each speaker was a published author -– typically with 20-40 published novels -– and while they offered practical guidelines, each acknowledged they had their own personal ways of writing.

“A good rule of thumb is ‘know thyself,'” Gansky said. “Our brains are uniquely wired. At conferences like this, you hear a lot about how to write, but you have to go home and customize it to fit your style.”

He added, “Remember, the goal in the end is to have a great story that is told well.”

Around tables during meals or in hallways during breaks during the Oct. 7-11 sessions, the aspiring writers excitedly spoke of plot lines in their stories, shared frustrations over writing difficulties and often lamented the lack of time and places to write.

Preferred places to write varied from local coffee shops to private home offices where authors could steal a few minutes of time at the end of the day. But every place has its challenges, Bittles said.

“I have to go to coffee shops where people don’t know me,” he said. “And if someone comes in that I know, I will explain to them that I am in the middle of writing in the hopes that they will understand I don’t want to be disturbed. But they just keep talking to me.

“No one understands what we do,” he said.

T. Davis Bunn, author of more than 40 published novels, said time management issues were something he faced early in his writing career. Bunn became a Christian at the age of 26 while working as an international business consultant. For years he wrote in airports or hotel lobbies, wherever he could find a spare moment.

Familiar with the distractions and roadblocks authors face, Bunn challenged conference participants to do whatever it takes to be able to write.

“You are going to face the issues of time management, lack of energy and outside pressures. You have to get over it and find a way to write every day,” he said. “I know that other things pull for your time, but there has to be this understanding that your passion requires certain commitments, and time is one of them. Writing has to be a daily discipline.”

Bunn said many publishers expect authors to complete novels within a matter of months, requiring a writer to start working on the next book while editing the second draft of the current project.

“You have to learn how to produce and produce on time,” Bunn said. “You have to learn that discipline now. Publishers will not give you time to grow as a commercial writer after the contract is signed. You have to learn it now.”

While many conference attendees were working on their first novels, Bunn challenged them to think beyond their current novels and instead hone skills to allow them to have many published titles on bookstore shelves.

“Your goal is not to write this book; your goal is to become a professional author,” he said.

The first draft of a novel is for the benefit of the author alone, Bunn noted, saying, “This is your chance to write the story that you want to tell.”

The second draft, he said, is the opportunity to edit the story so that it will catch the attention of publishers and readers. To do this, a writer must stand apart as the writer of the book and instead look at the story as a professional author.

“You have to divorce yourself from being the author of the book so you can polish the book for the reader. You aren’t polishing the book for yourself, but for the reader,” Bunn said.

“Writers don’t sound like writers. Writers sound like storytellers,” Gansky said. “You grow in the process. You don’t start off a genius storyteller; you become a genius storyteller.”

Throughout the conference, Gansky and Bunn offered practical tips to address common issues faced by new authors:

SETTING

New writers sometimes fail to set the stage when dealing with setting, Gansky said. “If there is no stage, there is no action. Set the stage -– give descriptions about the locale, the weather. You don’t have to have five pages of description, just a place for the action to happen.”

WORD EC0NOMY

Gansky challenged writers to use as few words as possible in a sentence. “Don’t have only short sentences, but use as few words as possible to get the idea across properly. Simple sentences are stronger, but don’t write like a third-grader. Just don’t use two words when one will do,” he said.

Gansky introduced the term “RUE,” resist the urge to explain. “New writers make the mistake in that they think the reader won’t understand what they mean, so they explain too much. Tell the story and the reader will pick it up,” he said.

POINT OF VIEW

Bunn said one of the “biggest bugaboos” new writers face is point of view. “You may never write a description from the author’s point of view. Every descriptive passage must describe what is being seen on the outside and what is going on in the heart and mind of the person through whose eyes you are seeing,” he said. “Good writing reveals what characters feel through how they see things.”

DIALOGUE

“New writers fail in two areas -– creating dialogue that is not believable or being over-descriptive,” Bunn said. He shared two techniques he has used to improve his writing of dialogue. First, he carries around a small tape recorder and discreetly tapes conversations throughout the day. He then types the conversations and analyzes the dialogue for patterns.

Second, Bunn suggested writing a short story using dialogue, but with no attribution. “Good dialogue is written so that the characters can be identified without their names,” he said.
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Jenny Rice is a corporate communications specialist with LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. For more information on the 2008 Blue Ridge Mountain Writers Conferences, visit www.lifeway.com/christianwriters.