This morning I’m in a fog, caused by a mixture of exhaustion, joy, and inspiration. I’m still processing my week at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference (SBWC), five and a half days of workshops, panels, speakers, and networking.
Going to the SBWC has been on my to-do list for a long time. I had been a storyteller since I could talk, but I stopped when traumatized by the critique group for a creative writing class in college. In November of 2007, a friend dared me to join her for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and complete a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in thirty days. Flash forward to November 2010, I went to an event with my husband and took my notepad with me, after all, I had to get my 1667 words done that day. I planted myself in the corner of a couch and scratched away. With my nose buried in my words, I was unaware of a man’s approach until he spoke. “Young woman what are you doing and why aren’t you enjoying the party?” I look up, and it was Ray Bradbury. I had met Ray at other events and had found him easy to talk with. I told him about NaNoWriMo, my word goal, and my story. He smiled broadly, complemented my plot, and then said, “When you’re serious about your writing, you need to go to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.” He made me promise I would go one day. Ray, I kept my promise, and I’m glad I did.
I know that most think of writing as a solitary endeavor. While the actual writing is often done holed up somewhere and shunning the world, writers are very social creatures. Writes go out into the world to gather information, observe, and get ideas.
At a conference, it’s finding like-minded people. When you discuss writing with non-writers, after the initial expression of admiration or surprise if you continue to talk about writing their eyes glaze over or they begin looking around the room for an escape. When you talk writing with writers, they nod in understanding, sympathize, and celebrate. You understand them and they you.
As I sit sipping Sweet Tea with Lemon (What else would I be drinking? It’s ten in the morning, and it’s already 101o F), I reflect on the past week and realize have found my tribe, as it was described by Grace Rachow, Director of the SBWC. Among a group where I’m not thought of as weird or a few degrees of center because this is family and they understand.
When I looked at the schedule for the week, I became overwhelmed. Even conferences for my pay-the-bills job were this full of choices. The day ran from 9 AM to 9 PM, and beyond. After I started to breathe again and Grace’s reassurance that I didn’t have to nor should I try to do it all that I came up with a plan.
There were two sets of workshops – morning and afternoon – with ten to fifteen choices each. Some ran the whole week, other just one or two days. I chose to spend most of my mornings in the Mystery Writing with Leonard Tourney. Leonard’s novels can be described as Elizabethan Mysteries. I’ve read The Bartholomew Fair Murders, I enjoyed it and can recommend his books. My afternoons were spent in Crafting Short Stories with Yvonne Nelson Perry. She is the author of many short stories about life on the Pacific Rim. I also attended two one-day workshops, Submitting Short Stories with Mac Talley and The Art of the Query with Trey Dowell.
Lecture was limited, the workshops were mostly discussion and critique. For me, there were several key take-home points.
- The reader participates in the creation of the story in how they interpret the images, actions, and voices in your story.
- Even in a plot-driving story (such as mystery or fantasy), it’s still about character. If your reader doesn’t care about your protagonist, they’ll stop reading no matter how wonderful your plot is.
- Dialogue has two purposes, to give information to the reader but mostly to help define the character.
- Every scene must have a purpose, if it doesn’t move the plot forward, cut it.
- Follow the directions of the agent/publisher when submitting.
- Query letters should be mostly about the story and less about the author.
I’ll admit I was a little nervous about the reading my work in front of (what was then) strangers. My college critique group was more, “let’s see how many we can make cry today.” My critique group back home in the high desert cut me no slack and were hard on my stories. I would sometimes go home licking my wounds, only to review it a few days later and saying, “Damn, they’re right.” The critiques during the workshops were spot on but very gently delivered. I have some changes to make, but I will have a better story in the end.
In the afternoon and before the dinner break, there were panels with agents, new authors, navigating Amazon’s publishing platform, and Catherine Ryan Hyde, an SBWC alumna and author of Pay it Forward. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear her speak, I was taken out for the afternoon by friends who lived in the area.
One of the highlights of the day was the evening speakers. Each had an inspirational message about writing and our role in the universe.
- Fannie Flagg (The Whole Town’s Talking) “If you can’t not do it, you’re a writer.”
- David Brin (David Brin Presents Chasing Shadows) “I’m paid to be interesting, not right.”
- Lesley M.M. Blume (Everybody Behaves Badly) “There was a time when Hemingway was a struggling writer among other struggling writers.”
Of course, it wasn’t all work and not play. There was time to socialize and network. I enjoyed the Opening Banquet where Monte Schulz (Crossing Eden) told us, “I want you to be persistent. I want you to be passionate.” Midweek, as we were “hitting the wall” there was a poolside cocktail party. The event closed with an Awards Banquet, where the best work presented in workshops were honored.
Even though each day’s events were officially over at nine, it didn’t stop there. At 9:30, the Pirates came out to play. The Pirate sessions were time to workshop stories into the wee hours of the morning. I joined the Pirates let by John Reed most nights, getting an average of five hours sleep each night, which explains why I’m so tired today. It was interesting to hear works from writers that were not in my daytime workshops. Even when I wasn’t reading my stories, I was learning from the techniques and comments of the other writers in the room.
There were a few times I wander away from the conference. Most morning, I took a leisurely walk down the beach and ate breakfast at the East Beach Grill. It was pleasant sitting on a patio just feet from the shore, watching the waves roll in, and the birds fly by. One morning, my walk to me past the bird sanctuary. The sound of large cat announcing its presence startled me until I realized I was by the back fence of the Santa Barbara Zoo.
One dinner break, I walked toward Sterns Wharf. It was much further than I thought so I was late getting back but it was worth it. I found a Louisiana-style seafood place, The Drunken Crab. I had a lovely bowl of King Crab Bisque. The staff was welcoming and attentive. Nothing fancy, but it would be a good place to go with friends.
Before driving home, I made one last stop. I went to Sambo’s by the Beach. The original and only remaining Sambo’s Restaurant. There was one thing I had to order – pancakes of course. Looking at the decorations brought back a memory from 1979, the last time I ate at a Sambo’s. Following my senior prom, a group of us were hungry and stopped to get a bite to eat. Situated across the street from the beach, it has a beautiful view of Stern’s Wharf and the marina. That morning there were also runners as the annual 5K /10K Solstice Festival was that morning.
At the Awards Banquet, I was asked if I would come back next year. Ray Bradbury once said, “First you jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” I jumped off the cliff, and I not only found some stronger wings, but my tribe was there to catch me. I’ll be back.