Philadelphia Writers’ Conference: Part I

Conference attendees

This was my fifth year attending the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, June 3-5, held in the Holiday Inn Historic District at 4th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia. The friendly people I met and informative workshops made this conference the best one yet and an experience I’ll look forward to repeating next year.

Since I commuted from NJ, I appreciated the free parking vouchers this year. The Philadelphia skyline looked impressive in the morning light as I came over the Betsy Ross Bridge, and venturing to local eateries for lunch in the beautiful weather was a pleasure.

I took pages of notes in the workshops — so much inspiring and helpful information — and I’ll share a little of that here.

Dennis Tafoya

The first three-day workshop I attended was Contemporary Short Story with crime-fiction writer Dennis Tafoya. Dennis suggested that a song is a good model for a short story.  Like a song, a short story is a way of giving shape to the feelings inside. “The best stories are evocative, not explanatory.”

The key to writing a short story is limiting. A short story focuses on one main character, who is the “beating heart of the story,” and on one situation. The situation, however, is not the same as a plot. A story needs to have some conflict that needs to be resolved. And everything in the story should justify what happens in the end.

Dennis also gave us homework — short stories to read. I’ve always had trouble writing something short, but from the example stories and Dennis’ words, a story idea came to me and I wrote it Monday and Tuesday. Thank you, Dennis!

Gregory Frost

My second three-day workshop was Novel: Character with fantasy and historical thriller writer Gregory Frost. Greg said that the characters in a novel should be like icebergs; the author should know 100% of the character but should only reveal 10% in the novel. He suggested using “telling details” in descriptions, specific details that hint at character as well as giving a visual image of the character or setting.

Subplots can make a novel more interesting. So can complications and conflict. Characters should not only have emotions but longings and desires. Impediments to the achievement of a character’s longings and desires add drama and suspense. “Impediment is important.”

To help us learn to create unique, well-rounded characters, the attendees suggested character traits in response to questions posed by Greg. The exercise was fun as well as informative, and we all wished we had time for more.

Catherine Stine

Since I’m currently working on a YA novel, the last three-day workshop I chose was YA: Kids and Teens with children’s book writer Catherine Stine. Catherine has written books for middle grade and teens and gave us information about each category of children’s writing, from picture books to young adult. She gave us preactical information and handouts about pitching, plotting, characters, querying, and publicity as well as a list of teen and middle grade books to look at as examples.

Characters in children’s fiction need to be the same age up to a few years older than the target audience. Each level has different requirements, so it’s important to learn what is expected by the target audience. Word-count goes up with each level.

In middle grade books, friendship and school are important issues — and parents should stay in the background. Readers of both middle grade and YA like action and tension that will keep them going from chapter to chapter. Flaws to avoid: a plot that is too predictable, slow pacing, sentimentality, writing from a parent’s point of view, preaching, frequent coincidences, and fantasy that has no integral logic.

Both Gregory Frost and Catherine Stine gave us valuable exercises to write at home. Both said we could do them at any time, for which I was grateful, for I was too exhausted each night to do any writing!

I wish I could have attended some of the others three-day workshops as well. I heard good things about all of them.

My next post will report on the single-session workshops. To see all my photos from the conference check out My Photo Album on Facebook.


About J. Thomas Ross

Since retiring from a career as a high school English and history teacher, I've been pursuing a career as a writer. My main interest is in writing novels, but I've also written short stories and poetry and done a little editing on the side. I am currently working on a Young Adult novel. One of my poems - "Winter" - won an award at the 2010 Philadelphia Writers Conference, and you can find my fantasy short story "A Rock Is a Rock Is a Rock ... Or Is It?" in the anthology Tales of Fortannis: A Bard's Eye View, which is available in print and Kindle format from Amazon and as an e-book from Double Dragon Press.
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