2016 Hampton Roads Writers’ Conference

I quit writing this summer.


Each time I opened a document, new or old, my inner critic won. Sometimes I closed documents without saving them.


I avoided my notebooks, partial manuscripts, and poems.


Something inside me whispered that my unpublished words were worthless. That no matter how much time I spent arranging them on the page, they would always be worthless.


But then I went to the 2016 Hampton Roads Writers’ Conference.


Where I remembered why I started writing in the first place.


I remembered how stories haunt my dreams and daydreams. How the convection of my imagination brings characters and scenes to the surface over and over again, how writing these characters and scenes frees my imagination to create more characters and scenes.


I remembered the shiver of recognition when lines and phrases turn to music in a poem. It doesn’t happen in every poem I write, or even in every tenth poem, but when it does happen it’s magic.


I remembered how satisfying a difficult revision can be, both during and after the process. Like solving a puzzle or riddle. Pieces falling into place, sometimes falling into unexpected places. Creating order out of the chaos of previous drafts.


This insight was alchemy, the combined effect of a series of excellent presentations and workshops.


I can’t praise these presenters highly enough:

I’m grateful to Hampton Roads Writers for putting together such a wonderful conference.


If you write, no matter what you write or why you write, check out one of the writing conferences near you.


Especially if you’ve quit writing.

A Writing Conference and an Air Show

Last Thursday afternoon, a rumble of jet noise lured me away from preparations for the opening night of the 2015 Hampton Roads Writers Conference.

Air Show Sept 17

When I realized the jets over our yard were Blue Angels, I dropped my pens, notebooks, and folders and ran for my camera.

Air Show Sept 17

My fascination with jets, helicopters, and rockets traces back to childhood. My father worked for Sperry Rand, and later for United Space Boosters, Inc., so the space program loomed large in my life. We lived close enough to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (in Huntsville, Alabama) to make field trips with school and 4-H, and when my father relocated and remarried, his new position took him to Titusville, Florida. There, during a summer visit between 9th and 10th grade, I got tantalizing glimpses of Kennedy Space Center and the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Books, television, and movies fed my aerospace fascination as I finished high school and moved on to college. Somewhere along the way, I discovered the Blue Angels.

Thursday’s flights over our house were practice runs for the Blue Angels’ appearance at the 2015 NAS Oceana Air Show, which overlapped the writing conference on Saturday but not Sunday, so I didn’t have to choose between them.

Air Show Sept 17

As usual, I arrived at the conference full of energy, eager to spend a few days in the company of writers. By Saturday afternoon my energy was dwindling toward exhaustion, but it was a happy and inspired kind of exhaustion. Here’s a list of the sessions I attended:

  • Mastering Dialogue – Princess Perry
  • Friday Keynote Address – Ellen Meister
  • Bringing Your Book to Market: Overview of Self-Publishing – Dr. Chris Kennedy
  • Copyright and Wrong: The Basics of Intellectual Property – Melissa Edwards
  • How to Give a Great Reading – Ellen Meister
  • Psychic Distance: How Close Are Your Characters – Ellen Bryson
  • Saturday Keynote Address – DeWitt Henry
  • Hit the Ground Running: Storytelling through Action, not Exposition – Heather Flaherty
  • The Business of Poetry – Renee Olander
  • Marketing Your Work – Michelle Garren Flye
  • Breaking Down Backstory – Ellen Bryson
  • What Is Paranormal Romance and Why Is It Selling So Well? – Vanessa Barger

I can’t pick a favorite from these sessions. They were all brilliant. I came home with ideas for each of my various works-in-progress, and my contest entries were returned with very helpful comments from the judges. (My fiction entry won Honorable Mention!)

Award 2015

I slept late Sunday, of course, but woke to the sound of jet noise as the Air Show moved into its final day. I hurried through feeding the cats, who were outraged that I had slept past their breakfast time, while my husband gathered our gear. Then we were out the door and on our way.

Air Show 2015

Air Show 2015

It was a beautiful way to end a perfect weekend.

A Writing Conference, a Publication Note, and Summer

Iris May 7

I recently registered for the 2015 Hampton Roads Writers’ Conference. (September 17-19 in Virginia Beach) This conference is one of my favorite events each year, and I’m already counting the days.

In other writing news, my poem “The Tracking” was published on May 12 at vox poetica. A version of this poem won first place in the Barbara Dunn Hartin Memorial Poetry Prize contest at the 2014 Hampton Roads Writers Conference, and I’m delighted that editor Annmarie Lockhart accepted it for publication.

Dragonfly June 11

And in news only vaguely related to writing, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my camera. Despite summer’s growing heat and humidity, the yard is hard to resist this time of year. Everything is blooming, the baby rabbits are thriving, and birds are everywhere.

Hover Fly May 12

Rabbit June 12

Robin May 15

Thrush June 10

In mid-May a dove decided to nest in the front petunia basket. Now her two nestlings are ready to fledge.

Dove May 18

May 18

Dove June 11

June 11

The yard’s most curious visitor, lately, is a very bold squirrel that follows me around as I take photos. If I sit still for a while, he sidles closer and closer until he is within a few feet, pretending he is burying something nearby. His jaw quivers nervously as he mumbles and grinds his teeth, but he comes back time and time again. It makes me wonder if he was raised by a rehabilitator, if he somehow equates humans with food and safety, yet also with peril.

I’m trying not to encourage the squirrel’s behavior, but I can’t resist photographing him. He’s very handsome.

Squirrel June 11

If he hangs around much longer, I might write him into a poem.

Yard Surprises and Writing Surprises

When the wild rabbits ate multiple sets of coneflowers this summer, I allowed myself one final purchase before freezing the garden budget. I bought milkweed for the monarchs. More specifically, I bought swamp milkweed. Which the rabbits promptly ate.

Rabbit Aug 12

Milkweed is toxic, so I don’t know how the rabbits were able to eat it without getting sick. Far from getting sick, they ate until every last leaf was devoured. Fortunately, by the time the bare stalks recovered enough to put on new leaves, the rabbits had tired of milkweed.

I assumed (such a dangerous verb) that my milkweed’s season had passed, that it would see no monarch activity until next summer. I was wrong, as I discovered on Monday.

Monarch Caterpillar Sept 22

There were nine caterpillars when I found them. One disappeared by nightfall on the first day and another died during the night, but seven continued to gorge on the milkweed’s leaves.

Monarch Caterpillar Sept 22

Monarch Caterpillar Sept 22

On Tuesday, one caterpillar decided it was time for wings. It hung from its back legs all afternoon and evening, twitching every so often, swaying in a storm-front breeze. I waited and waited, hoping to see it molt into a chrysalis, but when night came it was still a caterpillar.

Monarch Caterpillar Sept 23

Prior to finding the monarchs, I spent Thursday evening, all day Friday, and most of Saturday at the 6th Annual Hampton Roads Writers Conference. This year I went to sessions about the mechanics of fiction and nonfiction, the world of independent publishing, and twitter. (Yes, twitter!) I made new friends and took reams of notes, and on Saturday my poem “The Tracking” won first place in the 2014 Barbara Dunn Hartin Memorial Poetry Prize!

Poetry 1st Place

Then my fantasy short story “The Silvershaper” won third place in the 2014 Frank Lawlor Memorial Fiction Prize!

Fiction 3rd Place

Best of all, the conference brought an epiphany regarding my unpublished fantasy manuscript. A trio of sessions about story openings, plot, and voice uncovered the root of a pacing problem in the first five chapters. It’s a problem I can fix, now that I can see it.

As exciting as awards and epiphanies are, they represent a small part of my writing experience. They’re like finding monarchs in the yard, flashy glimpses of wonder. Most of writing’s surprises are quieter discoveries. Accidental phrases open new perspectives; plots turn slippery and skid off in unexpected directions; sub-plots bloom into stories of their own.

Those are the happy surprises. Unpleasant surprises happen, too. Failed poems, unresolvable stories, harsh critiques (which I’ve found are more common online than in person), lost submissions, and sudden doubts so ferocious that success seems impossible. These are like rodents moving into my wren house.

Rats Sept 21

(When I spotted movement in the wren house on Sunday, I hoped for a late-season nest. I should have been more specific and hoped for a bird nest. Luckily, the rodents didn’t stay.)

Rats Sept 21

Rats Sept 21

Rats Sept 21

Were I allowed to choose my yard and writing surprises, I would always opt for monarchs and awards. There would be no lost submissions, no anxious waves of doubt, and no unwelcome rodents*. So perhaps it’s best that I’m not allowed to choose. Because if yards were made only of monarchs and writing meant only awards, think of all the stories that would never be told.

Monarch Caterpillar Sept 24


* I had a pet rat, when I was a teen, and a pair of pet mice during college. I find it hard to despise rodents, but in my alternate reality the rats and mice would all be free of diseases. And they would clean up after themselves. No more breaking into pantries for food, no more trails of droppings and urine, no more Hantavirus or listeria or plague, nor any of the other devastating illnesses mice and rats carry in the real world.

Hampton Roads Writers 5th Annual Conference, 2013

Pink Spotted Hawkmoth Sept 22

As evening approached on Thursday, September 19, the writers gathered. Drawn by the promise of shared wisdom and new perspectives on writing, we made our way to the second floor of the Westin Virginia Beach Town Center.

Pink Spotted Hawkmoth Sept 22

This year I challenged myself with sessions about short story writing and first person point of view. (I rarely attempt short fiction, and I never write in first person.) Between challenges, I attended sessions about copyright, novel writing, and poetry.

  • Creating the World in a Short Story — Clifford Garstang
  • Copyrights and Wrongs: Fair use of quotes & other things to avoid a lawsuit — Jeff Ourvan
  • Where Does My Story Start: How to Write a Winning First Chapter — Lisa McMann
  • First Person Problems: The specific challenges and opportunities of writing first person — Lydia Netzer
  • Different Voices, Different Times — Lydia Netzer
  • Do Put Words in my Mouth: Creating realistic and effective dialogue — Ethan Vaughan
  • Exquisite Sounds — Jeanne Larsen

Pink Spotted Hawkmoth Sept 22

Each morning of the conference started with a keynote address followed by First Ten Lines Critique sessions. The critique panel consisted of authors Lisa McMann (Friday morning only) and Kevin Maurer, along with literary agents Ethan Vaughan, Jeff Ourvan, and Dawn Dowdle.

Recurrent themes emerged as the panelists discussed samples of writing submitted by conference attendees. Overwriting hampered many openings. Weak dialogue and too much description slowed the pace. Shifts in tense and point of view distracted from the stories.

Pink Spotted Hawkmoth Sept 22

Each of these problems exist in my writing, but they are easier to see in someone else’s lines. I came away from these sessions with renewed gratitude for my writing partners, who see my mistakes more readily than I do.

Pink Spotted Hawkmoth Sept 22

I could spend weeks cataloguing what I learned and fail to cover it all. I could read for months and not read all the books I discovered.* Instead of attempting either, I’m writing.

Pink Spotted Hawkmoth Sept 22

I’m following paths of scent and light, spreading grains of pollen gathered at the conference. Perhaps a few of my poems and stories will germinate, will take root and grow.

Pink Spotted Hawkmoth Sept 22

The conference ended with a delightful surprise. My short story (my only “finished” short story) won Honorable Mention in The Frank Lawlor Memorial Fiction Prize!

HRW 2013

* I came home with a new title from Unbound Content, and I’m waiting impatiently for delivery of books by Jeanne Larsen and Lisa McMann. Next year, I’ll order Lydia Netzer’s new book as soon as it is released. In the meantime, I’ll read Shine Shine Shine again.