8 Tips from the Madison Writers Institute

Am writingLast weekend I attended UW-Madison’s writers conference, the Writers Institute. The conference is in its 25th year and has definitely grown. It’s two and a half days long and they have so many classes, the first two days go from 8am – 8pm!

My brain is now leaking.

Honestly, I love attending writers conferences because they are so energizing. It’s the best feeling in the world to connect with your peers, learn about your craft, mingle with people who “get it,” and return home ready and raring to write!

Plus, this year I won 3rd place in the First Page Contest for nonfiction. *does Peanuts character happy dance* It’s been a long writing journey the past 4 years, and now I feel like I’m writing what I’m supposed to when I’m supposed to be writing it. So overjoyed.

I’d have been even more productive had I not forgotten where the parking ramp I parked in was and spent 45 minutes walking around downtown Madison in heels for a wind-about, nighttime stroll. Oh well, I was sitting most of the day, so the exercise was probably good.Β  *grins sheepishly*

Here are my favorite takeaways from the conference.

1. From Opening Keynote, Nathan Bransford:

Rule #10: Keep writing.

Cultivate your failure. Be afraid of “If I don’t publish my book…” Use that to set deadlines, talk with other writers, be heard, find success stories, and write what you love.

2. From UW-Madison Creative Writing Program Coordinator, Ron Kuka:

Go through your pages like a camera. What does the reader see?

This may easily have been the best class on deep edits I’ve ever attended. Sharing examples of one page of work during four rounds of edits was so fascinating and he really nailed the points about giving our readers both a wide and close-up view of the story through all the senses.

3. From Author and Journalist, Roy Hoffman:

There is powerful emotion in home.

Roy’s class on Writing About Place was one of the most talked about sessions at the conference. He focused on adding details when writing about place to inspire memories and feelings in our work. I had a chance to chit chat with the Kentucky gentleman one morning, and he is so kind and supportive of writers. A great teacher.

4. From Debut Author, Dale Kushner:

Things around us beg to be experiences. Learn to relax and play to overcome block.

Second keynote speaker of the conference, Dale is a fabulously intuitive and spiritual writer. She recognizes that to be creative, we mustn’t lose our sense of wonder in the world. A poet and now novelist, Dale believes in learning from your writing and embracing the emotions that go along with that. Each revision we do teaches us more about our writing.

Ken Krimstein, Michael Perry, and Dale Kushner

Ken Krimstein, Michael Perry, and Dale Kushner

5. From New Yorker Cartoonist, Ken Krimstein:

Accept that you have no idea how good your work is. You never know what will sell, just do it, and do it, and do it.


Step into your artist’s pants.

One of Ken’s rules is to “knock dignity off its pedestal.” When it comes to writing comedy, you have to be willing to rework the rejections. Never try to explain a joke. If you have to explain it, it isn’t working. Write the draft and then color it in.

6. From Wisconsin Author and Keynote, Michael Perry:

Don’t overlook the exotic in your own backyard.

In both his keynote address and author panel at the conference, Michael Perry talked about the strength in writing what you know. He left his hometown in Wisconsin to work as a cowboy on the ranches of Wyoming, and he intended to write a book about that. As providence would have it, that book would never see print, but what would become his first book was the story about the people in his hometown, New Aubern, WI.

I had the pleasure of meeting Michael at a book reading last year, and I interviewed him on my blog as well. You can check that out here if you like. He is a delight to hear speak and a very humble man. πŸ™‚

Michael Perry

7. From Former Writer’s Digest Publisher and Author Resource Extraordinaire, Jane Friedman:

Β Seduce the agent into requesting your work. Make them feel special and say why you think your book is a good fit for them.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jane in one the conference’s new “Fireside Chats,” a small group Q & A session and got her view on trends in the publishing industry.

Me and Jane

Me and Jane

*Note to self: Check out wattpad. Have you all heard about this? It’s popular among young writers (teens-early 20’s) and allows you to post portions of your work at a time and readers can comment on the work and wait to read the next installments. Jane says it’s a more positive environment than Goodreads right now. And I LOOOOOVE Goodreads, but there are some mean folks out there leaving reviews without ever having read the books they’re reviewing. What do you guys know about this?

I also attended Jane’s class on writing queries and it was PACKED! She kept the class simple and said to lead with your strengths in your query letter in order to wow the agent.

8. From Creative Writing Educator and Public Speaker, Sue Roupp:

One word will unstick you.

First off, Sue has theΒ greatest laugh ever. It’s big and bold and it fills the room with her excitement for storytelling. Sue taught a class on memoir writing and emphasized that you are the hero of your own story. Through you, the reader learns that it’s ok to fail, to learn, and to gain knowledge.

That’s what inspired me this past weekend.
Who or what inspired you this week?



38 responses

  1. Sounds wonderful! I love writing conferences too. (Although I’m sad that we’re not roomies at one this year!)

    Thanks for sharing the wisdom. And major congrats on the contest! Fabulous news, Jess.

    1. I’m sad we didn’t get to bung our bags together too.

      But conferences are a great investment and I really enjoyed all the speakers this year. Are you getting pumped for RWA?

  2. I’d love to run my own Writer’s Conference. Rule #1 would be: DON’T DISPARAGE THE OXFORD COMMA.

    No other rules matter.

    1. You know that would be awesome. Writers teaching writers. It would chaos, but awesome. LOL

  3. Congratulations on that contest result! I used to hear good things about Goodreads and always saw myself going there eventually, but over the last 18 months I’ve heard endless stories from countless sources about the hateful reviews. H’m, would I go to the best restaurant in town if the customers were allowed to sling insults at other customers without fear of punishment? I think not. If Goodreads has no control over its own house then they’re no longer reputable.

    1. I remain in love with Goodreads. There are more good reviews and thoughtful reviews than negative ones. I primarily use it keep track of books I’ve read and want to read.

      Wattpad sounds intriguing though. I just joined Pinterest though…one new social media thing at a time.

      1. It’s good to hear something positive about Goodreads and I agree with taking social media slow. I’m starting to feel overwhelmed and need to slow down.

        1. I believe it! You just started a new website! Don’t forget to relax now and then, Ms. Christine!

  4. Thanks for sharing your observations, Jess. Looks like a great conference so hope you learned a lot! Looking forward to our local Romance Writers of New Zealand conference in August.

    1. Thanks Cate! The conference was wonderful. I do always come back very motivated. It’s almost hard to know where to start you get so many good ideas.

      Enjoy the romance writers conference! If you share tips from it, let me know!

  5. Thanks for sharing these tips. I’m in the middle of a big edit (ugh!) and you shared some great idioms. My personal favorite was “Never try to explain a joke.” Amen! I write a lot of satire, as you know, and it’s so disheartening when one person comments in a manner that suggests that they don’t understand satire…and, unless they’re really nasty, I just smile and move on. Can’t explain it. Nobody wins.

    Like yourself, I love writing conferences because they are so inspiring. They’re even better when you win a contest – congratulations! Well done. πŸ™‚ Thanks for taking the time to share this with us. πŸ™‚

    1. I loved that the last 2 conferences I attended included classes on humor writing. Awesome to be encouraged to play, know not every joke is good, but when it works it WORKS.

      Keep up the satire! I love it!

      1. Thanks, Jess! I’m learning. I didn’t even know I was considered funny until I started writing my blog. I don’t think there have been any humor classes at the last couple conferences I’ve attended. Grrrr. It would be eye-opening, I’m sure.

        1. I just try to listen to lots of humorous audio books too. Helps me with sense of voice and story set ups or when to add in dialogue. Listening to David Sedaris this week!

          1. David Sedaris. I pray at his throne. I have a couple posts about him that you’d probably enjoy. And a very interesting drawing and autograph. Great suggestion, though. Thanks!

            1. Yah. He’s phenomenal. You know who else I adore right now? Celia Rivenbark. I believe it’s in Belle Weather in which she has a chapter about an imaginary conversation between her daughter’s Bratz Dolls and American Girl Dolls. I was in tears. One of the Bratz tries to give Kirsten advice about her bonnet. LOL

            2. Ha! Love it. I will have to download Ms. Rivenbark. I’ve never read her before. Thank you. I can’t wait to hear what a Bratz doll would actually say. I imagine it would be angsty, apathetic and a tad slutty? Am I close?

            3. LOL. Sounds spot on to me. And don’t forget the constant neck pain from supporting that gigantic…brain?

            4. Oh, I always assumed that’s where the Bratz dolls stored all the Oxys they stole from their parents’ medicine cabinets.

  6. Hi Jess,
    Between us, we had UWWI covered! I wrote a similar blog last week about the speakers and seminars I attended. Some of ours overlapped, but most were unique. I came away feeling the same as you–energized.

    Happy writing,

    1. Hi Chris! Did we meet? We must have been in some of the same sessions. Glad you enjoyed the conference. Did you attend the Deep Edits class? I loved that one. And Sue Roupp’s class on memoir.

      I’ll have to go check your blog out now!

      1. Hi Jess,

        I don’t think we met. I didn’t recognize you from your picture, but I bet we at least passed in the halls a lot. I didn’t take the Deep Edits class because I’d taken an online class from Margie Lawson on deep editing last year.

        Didn’t go to any of Sue Roupp’s classes either. I know at least once I was providing moral support to a colleague, Kimberlie Bindschatel, for her workshops. By the way, she went from being a “lowly aspiring writer” last year to an expert on self-publishing–at least “expert enough” to be an instructor this year.

        I thought this was the best group of workshops and speakers that I’ve seen in my four years of coming to UWWI. Glad you got great value as well from the sessions you attended.

        Keep in touch and maybe we can connect at next years conference.


  7. Thanks for sharing all this, Jess. I wish I could get to more writers’ conferences. Not only does one learn so much but as you say, the energy of being around fellow writers is awesome!

    1. Got any planned for this year? I always love to hear where everyone is headed. Helps me make my dream list. Like Thrillerfest would be fun!

      1. My budget limits me to one a year. I’m going to one in St. Pete, Florida this fall. Can’t remember the name of it off the top of my head.

        Thrillerfest would be awesome. Maybe next year. *sigh*

        1. Have fun in Florida! Should be great weather! Keep me posted how you like it.

  8. Wow, Jess! Congrats on getting 3rd prize! Doing the salsa right now as I type. πŸ™‚ I’m still trying to get over the fact that your brain is leaking…ew.

    1. Ooh you salsa extravagantly. πŸ˜‰

      Yah…sorry for that image. LOL

  9. Jess — You are so on top of things! I still need to pour over my notes πŸ™‚ Also, super congrats on being recognized for the Page Contest! I didn’t know that — how exciting and validating! I also went to the Deep Edit and loved it. I was like “Wow, I really need to rethink some of my writing!” And Jane Friedman was a treasure trove of goodies! So, cool you got a photo with her πŸ™‚

    Keep shining, Blossom!

    1. Thank you Kelly!

      Yes I loved Ron’s class. I’m such a visual learner and those examples he had were invaluable! It’s helped my editing process this week for sure.

      The one thing I find so amazing about this conference is that they put all the handout materials in a binder for everyone. Then if I can’t go to a session, I have some tools from it. Love that!

      How’s your writing going?

      1. Yes, I totally agree about the value of the notes! I have definitely referenced notes from sessions I didn’t attend.

        I wish I could dedicate more time to my writing. Many days it really just ends up being a short journal entry. My job can be pretty demanding and I often find myself exhausted after work and can barely find enough energy to do homework and such with my two kiddos. But I’m planning a shift come September when I move to half-time status at work. Yay! πŸ™‚

        How about you? How’s your writing going? I’m so impressed with you! Your posting, tweeting, and connecting with everyone… doing all the things they encourage us to do! πŸ™‚ How do you manage it so well?!

        Keep shining!

        1. Oh gosh, Kelly, thank you, but please know I struggle managing it all too and there are times I slip. I hope that your hours change at work helps you. I worked in sales management last year and was doing 50-60 hours/week. I totally get having zero energy and no time to write. I quit that job in order to devote more time to writing. I’m ever grateful for my new job which allows me set hours and flexibility so I can write more.

          If you ever need a supportive ear to vent to, listen, bounce ideas with, ask questions, ANYTHING – hit me up! I’d be more than happy to help. Today, tomorrow, next year… I know some great writing groups on twitter if you ever want to join up too and boost that word count some days! Keep writing!

          1. Jess,

            Your message just made my night πŸ™‚ It is so nice meeting other writers out here in the blogosphere who are so kind and generous. It simply warms my heart to find like-minded souls.

            I am so grateful for your offer and may very well take you up on it! I do have joining a writing group on the to-do list for this year.

            Thank you again “No Less than the Best Jess” — you see, I really am dorky through and through πŸ™‚


            1. All dorks welcome in my house! Have a wonderfully nerdy evening.

  10. karenmcfarland | Reply

    I bet your head was about to explode with all the awesome info you absorbed. Sounds like it was a fantastic conference. Like the selfie of you and Jane! That was so cool! How’s your feet by the way? πŸ™‚

    1. Ohmygosh my feet hurt so bad at the end of the day! LOL

      But despite that, I had a great time and did learn TONS! Thanks for the sweet tweet, Karen! πŸ˜‰

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