Living an American dream at the Writer’s Digest Novel Writer’s Conference

Signed words of wisdom.

Signed words of wisdom.


To one unaccustomed to regular intercontinental business travel, embarking on a 5-day round trip to the other side of the globe, namely LA via London, should have felt a tad on the wild side. Not a bit of it. I knew I needed to plug numerous holes in my novel writing know-how – I shot my first draft in a dead straight line from the hip – and gain greater understanding of the publishing industry in general.


The 2014 Writer’s Digest’s Novel Writer’s Conference (#WDNWC14) agenda promised all of this and more on a 3-day silver platter with American fries on the side. It was one of life’s few no brainers. I signed up and headed west for the adventure of a professional lifetime.

Twenty-four hours later, I landed in sunny California. Day 1 kicked off with a 3-hour workshop on Writing Romantic Fiction under the excellent guidance of bestseller novelist, Barbara O’Neil. Several 1-minute writing exercises and umpteen pearls of wisdom such as ‘Any conflict that can be resolved with a conversation is not a conflict’ rapidly highlighted a fistful of my novelist shortcomings, but also armed me with a box of valuable tools and a much greater insight into the process of writing and publishing a novel. This was exactly what I had come for, and this was only the start.

Two intensive and immensely enjoyable afternoon sessions dealt with Idea Development and Story Architecture before the day was rounded off with an excellent keynote by author Jonathan Maberry, who emphasised practising generosity among writers and gave a bucketful of good advice, including ‘Let your mind wander, just note where it goes’ and timely reminders such as ‘Publishing is the business, writing is the art’.

My plan was to blog a daily #WDNWC14 diary, but all waking moments went on learning the art. Instead of writing in my room, I was curled up in a lobby bar chair discussing the day’s workshops and speaker sessions, or exchanging thoughts and ideas with new writer pals. Many of us were staying at the conference hotel, so we grabbed a few hours’ sleep before gathering for an info-packed Day 2.

If anyone had underestimated the importance of The First Fifty Pages, both in terms of hooking your reader and any prospective literary agent, Jeff Gerke left nobody in any doubt. His session tied in neatly with Choosing The Right Scenes, which was followed by another extremely useful Ask The Agent session during which three literary agents (Annie Bromke, Carlie Webber and Jill Marr) explained agents’ professions, peeves and pitch preferences in response to questions posed by the delegates. This was an excellent opportunity to clarify publishing jargon and etiquette, grasp the dos and don’ts in cultivating contacts with agents and, perhaps most importantly, to hear from the horses’ mouths that ‘It takes 50 pages to know if it’s (the novel) good, and 1 to know if it’s not.‘ Hmmm. Every delegate in the room was writing furiously.

Lunch over, and it was back to business. Your Story on Steroids with Larry Brooks focused on ways and means of lifting a story from good to great – because good is not good enough. Clearly illustrating every point, Larry had the room in stitches as we grappled with concepts vs premises and learned to ‘Dr House’ our work.

Good humour continued into the next interesting session on incorporating some Tricks of the Journalist Trade into novel writing. By looking at a scene from a witness’ point of view and examining new ways of describing key facts, for instance. Speaker Christopher Farnsworth also offered the best advice for a first draft: ‘It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be done’. Gotcha.

By now my brain was beginning to fry, but that didn’t prevent me from thoroughly enjoying Jeff Gerke’s next session on Show vs. Tell. Having admonished us for even considering sneaky methods for imparting information to the reader, Jeff then challenged us to write a scene for a silent movie with no subtitles. Say what!? Oh, now I get it!

A late gal pal dinner in Beverly Hills offered a breath of fresh air and a welcome respite from hotel fare. Our animated talks continued as we tucked into desserts that were guaranteed to add to my weight disallowance on the flight home and the air was still warm when we wandered slowly down Rodeo Drive discussing the first plot point of Pretty Woman. Four tired lucky ducks.

Day 3 comprised a swift, actioned-packed morning that focused on the Cornerstones of Excellence, during which Barbara O’Neal added spit and polish to scenes and stories, before sessions by Writer’s Digest’s Phil Sexton (Dirty Little Secrets), literary agent Carlie Webber (Crafting the Bulletproof Query Letter), and journalist/author professor Susan Shapiro and Executive Editor Daniel Smetanka (10 ways to get your novel published faster) closed WDNWC14 with three excellent hours dedicated to social media and the publishing business. Badass Susan Shapiro gave the last word of encouragement. ‘Cream rises to the top’, she said. ‘Go for it’.

And go for it I shall. Because fortune favours the brave, and I’m now armed with the right know-how to shoot at my goal of having a novel series published by a traditional publishing house. Stay tuned. It’s on.

In addition to all the people mentioned above who, in their professional capacities, made #WDNWC14 such an enjoyable and hugely inspiring event, I’d also like to thank the other delegates for their openness and welcoming attitude.

And I’d particularly like to thank Missy, Linda and Sylissa for being such good ‘chick lit’ pals and giving so much feedback and support as we continue along our road to publication together.

Showing 4 comments
  • Inez

    How bloody interesting mate!! Cannot wait for your novell to be published (can I have a sigend copy then ;o)-

  • RuthKj

    Thanks Inez! It was all very exciting. And awwwwwww, that warmed my heart :))

  • Clara

    I went to the Novel Writing Conference too and had a blast! The third day was definitely action-packed, and a little more on the practical side than the other two days (but extremely useful too). Great summary!

  • RuthKj

    Thanks Clara! I wonder whether we met? So many interesting peeps there and learned so much about how much I didn’t know!

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