Select Page

Here in the Midwest winter has been long and cold. Still it hangs on. Outside my windows the temperature hovers in the 40s, and the wind tosses my chimes about, filling the April air with a wild cacophony. But each year I look forward to April, not only because the ice and snow melt away (eventually), but, most importantly, because The Writer’s Institute takes place in Madison, Wisconsin.

Attending the Writer’s Institute the first weekend of April, I am with my people, writers who know the trials and joys of crafting a story and honing the words to give our visions life. Being with other writers and talking about our process buoys me along in my process until summer when I can spend my days writing rather than teaching. My deepest desire, the yearning of my heart, is to write for a living, to put words to paper and explore the mysteries of being human in the only medium I know.

I read something on Oprah Winfrey’s website that Sue Monk Kidd said which speaks to my situation. “The soul often speaks through longing.” I think that’s how we know what we were meant to do or be in this world. It’s what we would do for free. It’s how we would spend our days, if only. Writing fills me up like nothing else in my life. That is also what the Writer’s Institute does: it fills me to the brim with information, new friends, networking opportunities, and writerly wisdom.

The writers and agents I talked to and learned from at this conference represent or write nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and screenplays. All talented and successful professionals, they give of themselves and their advice unselfishly and make all those who attend feel like we, too, can succeed as writers. I am forever grateful for their words and inspiration.

What follows are snippets of what I learned, nuggets of the wisdom from the 2014 Writer’s Institute. I couldn’t include everything or mention everyone here. There is just too much to share. This is only a sample of what I took down in my notebook.

Nathan Bransford: agent, author, and blogger (If you’re a writer and don’t know about Nathan’s blog yet, you must start reading!) Here’s the address.

1. Every novel should show the entire spectrum of human emotion.

2. Keep writing: The solution to every single problem of writing is to keep writing.

3. Writer’s block does not exist–stare at the cursor until you think of something.

4. Stay on the edge of confidence and self-doubt. 

5. Write something you love–There has to be something in your novel that you love so much that it keeps you writing.

Kathie Fong Yoneda: author of The Script Selling Game and wonderful speaker.

1. Ask Questions–Ask people about their work, their interests their areas of expertise. You never know when that will come in handy.

2. Keep an idea file. Brainstorm ideas for your next projects.

3. If you’re writing in a genre, follow blogs specific to that genre.

4. Network: join a writers group. 

5. Take acting classes to write better characters and dialogue.

Jane Freedman: former publisher of Writer’s Digest Magazine, editor at Virginia Quarterly Review, co-founder and co-editor at Scratch Magazine, and blogger at I couldn’t wait to meet Jane, and she didn’t disappoint. Her knowledge is encyclopedic.

1. The only purpose of the query is seduction.

2. Know what sizzles about your story and convey it in 100 words or so.

3. Pitching: Keep it short and let the agent do most of the talking.

4. Use the pitch as an opportunity for industry insider feedback.

Dale Kushnerpoet and author of the extraordinary novel The Conditions of Love. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. There are moments in the writing, on nearly every page, that were stunning in their truth and beauty. This book is destined to become a classic.

1. People, things, and ideas constantly nudge us to notice them. We filter things through our singular perspectives. Pay attention to what you notice and cultivate the stillness to contemplate them.

2. What attracts and repels us is part of who we are and what we want to write about.

3. Before we can inhabit a character, we must get to know ourselves.

4. We must learn how to relax and play–incubating. Play is a crucial aspect of making art, to be original, to “re–vision.”

5. Creation of art is a basic human instinct and its common in cultures across millennia. It’s how we speak to the divine.

For the past three weeks I’ve been ruminating over what I learned in Madison this year. The above list is only a fraction of the information I have tried to digest and use. That’s why I keep returning to this conference. Its value is immeasurable to my career as a writer. Thank you Laurie Scheer and Christine Desmet, wonderful writers and teachers, for your tireless (maybe tiring?) efforts on the part of writers everywhere whom you have helped through this conference and your classes. I’m forever indebted to you.

Since the institute I have sent a query with a synopsis and the first ten pages to Jen Karsbaek, an agent from Foreword Literary Agency whom I met and pitched to at the institute. I am awaiting her response, a wait not as fraught with dreams of literary success as when I first began the querying process, but I remain ever hopeful. If I get a positive response, I’ll let y’all know! In the meantime, listen when your soul speaks and write on!