Saturday, June 27, 2015

SJWG at the Philadelphia Writers' Conference

Mark Doenges, Gail Priest, Amy Holiday, Mark A. Smith, Betsy Heinz, Dean Dobkin
Several members of the South Jersey Writers' Group attended the writing event of this area - the Philadelphia Writers' Conference. In attendance from our group were president Amy Holiday, Gail Priest, Patti O'Brien, Betsy Heinz, Vincent Sparks, Mark Doenges, Mark A. Smith, new members Frederick Doot from the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers and Dean Dobkin, PWC registrar Jim Knipp, and membership director Glenn Walker. Here's what some of them had to say about the PWC experience:

"The most valuable part of the conference for me was hearing about the successes and struggles other writers and realizing I was not alone. I enjoyed talking with people and hearing about their works and getting to know the folks from SJWG who attended. Thanks to all who made this conference such a success!" ~ Betsy Heinz

"This was my first experience attending the Philadelphia Writers' Conference. I'm grateful for the opportunity to get to better know the other members of the South Jersey Writers' Group better. They made me feel welcome, and we shared a lot of laughs. I met many new people, too. The schedule offered enough free time to chat, network, and support. The energy from everyone was very positive.

"Don Lafferty's Social Media/ Marketing three day workshop was a highlight for anyone fortunate enough to have signed up for it. The wealth of knowledge he shared was inspiring and a bit overwhelming, but his personality made it fun, too.

"Another highlight was the Open Mic during lunch on Saturday. Autumn Stephens Konopka facilitated, and she also set an encouraging and upbeat atmosphere which put people at ease. I enjoyed hearing writers share their work. I felt supported by the audience when I read. There were several authors on the wait list, and by some miracle everyone had a chance to share. I hope they offer two days for the Open Mic next year. I think more people will want to take advantage of the opportunity to read and listen to others.

"Both the Self-Publishing workshop taught by Merry Farmer and the Research workshop taught by Janice Gable Bashman were extremely enjoyable and informative. Both these instructors knew their stuff and how to communicate well. Their students were appreciative.

"Those are just a few of the many highlights. PWC2015 was a great experience for me."
~ Gail Priest

Mark A. Smith and Frederick Doot
"One of my favorite experiences of this past weekend was the opportunity to network and get to know not only others within the Greater Philadelphia Writers Community but the folks that are members of the SJWG. I knew most of the folks from the meetings but it was just recognizing who they are and a brief hello and goodbye. Having our 'own' table or meeting spot was great because I really had some good conversations and got to know the members of our group a little bit better.

"I thought the seminars, the speakers and the whole 'vibe' of the conference was a positive experience that has definitely given me an incentive to keep writing and working harder to improve my writing. The speakers were extremely helpful and informative. Since this was my first writing conference I have ever attended, the bar has been set and it is high. After all, what better place to start than Philadelphia and the longest running writers conference in the country?

"As we say in Boston, 'that is my story and I am sticking to it!'"
~ Mark A. Smith

" When I woke up Monday morning my brain hurt from knowledge absorption, but I was exhilarated. It felt appropriate, because I attended the 67th Annual Philadelphia Writers’ Conference this past weekend. There was much to learn, and I soaked it up.

"As a scholarship winner and first time attendee, I knew it would be a good place to network and meet other writers. What I discovered was so much more than I anticipated. From Friday through Sunday, there were opportunities to learn, share, discuss and explore a ton of information about the art of writing.

"Sitting in a conference room of peers at all different stages in their careers, with the common goal to learn, was inspiring. At last, I felt established and validated as a professional. Although writing is a very solitary process, it is great to know that from published author to novice, we all struggle with similar issues.
"The conference schedule allowed me to choose what workshops best served my particular interests. I attended outstanding sessions on developing social media skills, plotting and outlining your novel and self-publishing essentials. 
  •  I’ve learned that I don’t know enough about metadata and marketing myself, but now I have resources.  
  • Book Architecture is an excellent way to plot my work and that I’m a “Pantser” – I write by the seat of my pants without a written outline. 
  • Self-publishing is on the rise, and Smashwords is my friend. 
Mark Doenges, John Fahl, Amy Holiday, Vince Sparks, Gregg Feistman, Patti O'Brien
"I emerged from the conference with valuable information and solid resources. Also, having a chance to connect with fellow members of South Jersey Writers’ Group was a bonus. Being together gave everyone a chance to get to know each other better. We discussed our work, shared stories, had lunch and chilled with a few drinks.

"I certainly look forward to attending the conference again, and would urge everyone looking to perfect their craft to add it to their calendars. There’s nothing like the support of other writers to remind you to just keep writing. 'Get out of your head and put it on the page - WRITE.'"
~ Vince Sparks

The Philadelphia Writers' Conference was a whirlwind of excitement, information, and networking. If you're a writer in this area and haven't attended, you have no idea how much you're missing. This is the best writing opportunity around. Make your plans for next year as soon as possible!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Research, Research, Research

Guest post by Tony Rothman

The old adage, “Write what you know,” remains one of the soundest pieces of advice you can give a writer, be the recipient of that wisdom a novice, a veteran—or yourself. Nothing eases the agonies of creation more than the ability to draw on first-hand experience. But two provisos should be added to the age-old counsel: One, personal experience too often proves a disguise for self-indulgence; witness the sea of personal memoirs currently drowning us, as if no worlds exist beyond a dysfunctional childhood or a sick parent. Two, if you don’t know something, you can learn it.

Luckily, there is a fairly straightforward cure for both self-indulgence and ignorance: research.

This year, by a strange alignment of the heavens, I’ve had two novels published on two very different themes. The first, called Firebird, is a scientific suspense novel involving a race for nuclear fusion between two giant laboratories, a fictional one in Texas, the other the real-life ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project currently under construction in southern France. The second novel, titled The Course of Fortune, is a three-volume historical epic set in the sixteenth century Mediterranean and climaxes at the 1565 Great Siege of Malta.

By training I am a physicist and, as it turns out, essentially grew up at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, where my father worked during the 1960s. In embarking on Firebird, I was very much on home territory. Nevertheless, while I might have been able to write a novel about fusion based solely on my knowledge of physics and my memories from boyhood, it would have been neither a good nor authentic one. Science, more than any other activity, teaches you to doubt your own convictions and bend over backward to prove yourself wrong. Keeping an open mind that there may be a lot more out there than you think you know is the first step in undertaking research for any project, scientific or literary. Nowadays, the second step may be to realize that you can’t learn everything online.

For Firebird, I wanted to convey the atmosphere of a big scientific laboratory, but I had never worked at one and you can’t feel virtual labs, or smell them. To remedy that deficiency (and to do some genuine scientific research), I got myself invited to PPPL for a year, where I went through the training courses, ate lunch with colleagues, listened to their stories, sat with the crews as they ran experiments, smelled the acorn oil used to lubricate the generators. Nothing could substitute for the on-site research, which added immeasurably to Firebird’s authenticity.

Although The Course of Fortune is a historical novel, I applied much the same attitude toward researching it. The Great Siege of Malta was one of the most momentous and fiercely contested sieges in history. In the summer of 1565, between 30,000 and 40,000 Turks and Barbary corsairs invaded the island of Malta, which was defended by some 600 Knights of St. John, and another 6,000-8,000 mercenaries and untrained Maltese militia. After four months of the most vicious and ingenious fighting imaginable, the Turks gave up, having lost perhaps 15,000 men. When you first encounter the Siege of Malta, as I did accidentally while researching another possible novel, your first reaction is to disbelieve it.

That is, to a large extent, the point. The other thing science teaches you is to bring a sharp skepticism toward any subject you encounter. Had I relied solely on the Internet in writing The Course of Fortune, the book in the first place would never have come into existence. The sources available online were few and far between and not nearly detailed enough to recreate the 16th century world. What’s more, to rely on popular accounts quickly proved dangerous in terms of authenticity. If the numbers above seem slightly vague, that is intentional. Popular writers tend merely to repeat the previous writer’s account, with the result that many statements accepted as fact are little more than legends and errors passed down through the centuries. For example, the Wikipedia article at the time was obviously written by a youngster intent on recounting a heroic adventure tale. Very likely the author had read Ernle Bradford’s Malta: The Great Siege, the most popular account of the battle, which turns out to be a novel in its own right, full of inaccuracies, major errors and inventions. Nevertheless, subsequent authors have casually accepted many of Bradford’s statements, whereas serious investigation reveals that no one is certain about many details, especially of the numbers involved. (Some time ago, I should say, I rewrote the Wikipedia article.)

Thus, step three in conscientious research is to enlist a healthy skepticism of the sources that lie at your fingertips and to venture into the territory beyond. For The Course of Fortune, I needed to dig up rare four-hundred-year-old texts (including contemporary curses), which to this day have not appeared online, and I needed to teach myself to read them. I visited Malta on several occasions, climbed around the fortifications and, most importantly, found myself a Maltese advisor, who to my great fortune turned out to be not only Malta’s leading historian but exceedingly generous in sharing his time and original research. People like to help. Use them.

My approach might seem extreme to authors who have been raised online, but once a sufficient amount of research has been carried out, it will guide a novel, especially a historical one. In that sense, The Course of Fortune turned out to be one of the easiest things I ever wrote, despite its one-thousand-page length. Certainly, the research alone does not itself determine a work’s artistic success; nevertheless, it is only after you know the sights and sounds of your imagined or recreated world, its smells, its customs, the books its citizens read, the music they listen to, the food they eat, the oaths they swear, can you make it as real as the world we inhabit every day.

About our guest blogger: Tony Rothman is a physicist who has specialized in general relativity and cosmology, although he is interested more broadly in fundamental questions. Most recently he has been teaching at Princeton University. He has also written ten books for the general public and hundreds of articles. He can be found on Twitter, Facebook and his own website.  Tony Rothman will be speaking at the Lawrence Branch of the Mercer County Library in Lawrence NJ on Tuesday, June 30th at 7:00 PM.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Are You A Writer in South Jersey?

Welcome Writers!

Are you a writer in the South Jersey area and looking for a group of like-minded individuals for support, discussion, critique, organization, and community? The South Jersey Writers' Group may be for you. Some of what we're about can be found here.

Now, as opposed to having seasonal openings in membership as we have in the past, the South Jersey Writers' Group will now be permanently open for membership. Memberships in the group are $25.00 per year, discount available for students. This fee helps to pay for our meeting spaces, some events, author speaking engagements, social events, and much more.

Most months we feature the regular monthly meeting that sometimes has speakers, discussions, workshops, and demonstrations, and we also have Write-In work sessions, Critique Sessions, Blogfests, contests, book signings, field trips, retreats, and open mikes. That's not even mentioning the social aspect of networking with other writers.

So come on by, share our links, and invite others to join. New members are welcome to join for a 60-day trial period. This will grant you access to the website and our event schedule. In the two-month trial membership you'll have time to check us out and give the group a spin to see if it's a good fit for your needs. Dues will need to be paid within 60 days, or they will automatically be removed. Your online dues payments will be handled by WePay and New members may also join at any time, so spread the word!

All the group details can be found here. We also have our blog right here, the Facebook page, Pinterest, Google+, and Twitter. Join the community!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

There's Gold in Them There Liars

By Dawn Byrne

The Writers Coffeehouse May meeting at the Willow Grove PA Barnes & Noble struck it rich with Liars. Keith Strunk, Kathryn Craft, Jon McGoran, and Janice Gable Bashman of the Philly Liars Club led conversations on creating believable characters, breaking rules, and more. They answered questions along with author/editor Bernie Mojzes.

Chunks of golden advice surfaced in the form of a ball field and cowboy. Janice and Kathryn explained that a character may do something that seems out of left field. If the reader is clued into something prior in the story that makes the character's action or dialogue believable, even if it's subtle, the reader enjoys tying in the connecting information. Kathryn's example: If a reader doesn't know the character has a daughter, and needs to, then the writer can stage a pink bow in the character's car. She reminded us that left field is still inside the park so it's fair to allow information to come from there.

A character's value system defines how he'll act, and characters are always in character. So force him to act. Jon McGoran said, "If your character's a cowboy, you gotta shoot at his feet to make him dance."

Tertiary characters can reveal much about the protagonist by interacting with him. This can also create visuals for the reader, since a character shouldn't describe himself. Minor characters have their own background, so their actions and dialogue bouncing off the main character can make for thought provoking situations, which draws the reader into the story organically. The protagonist's true grit may surface from this perspective.

Bernie explained that the protagonist is the hero of his own story. Bernie's example demonstrates the difference between a protagonist and antagonist: If Superman is the protagonist, then Lex Luthor is the antagonist. But if it's Lex Luthor's story, he's the protagonist and Superman is the antagonist. Protagonist and antagonist each have good and bad in them.

Using the main character from the television series, "Breaking Bad", Bernie noted Walter White changing from very good to very bad, yet White's end reflects his original goodness.

New writers may do best to follow established rules of writing. Kathryn believes breaking them can make for better writing, so she's doing this with her third book. Bernie agreed that following the rules is best, but sometimes breaking them can blow readers away.

Liars and audience members with marketing background touched on how to go about shopping a project. Top five publishers, where they make all the rules? Or smaller presses who can be more cooperative with authors' ideas on how to get their books into readers' hands?

Other pieces of gold panned from this claim:

"Plot twists have to be inevitable and believable." - Kathryn Craft

"Just because something has to move the story forward, doesn't mean it's a straight line. Satisfying reader's expectations and thwarting them are like the ebb and flow of waves." - Bernie Mojzes

"It's important to see things filtered through the POV character's viewpoint." - Janice Gable Bashman

"A plot need can produce a great character. Example: the character Mike in "Breaking Bad" was a minor character that blossomed because of a plot need." - Jon McGoran

Everyone agreed cutting words from a manuscript always strengthens it. Seriously consider your critique partner or editor's suggestions.

Remember, if you're pulling something out of left field that connects with what you planted earlier in the story, or shooting at your character's feet to see how he'll handle a situation, consider your character's background and beliefs to know how he'll react. It might give your readers that 'Wow, I should've seen that coming' experience. Eureka.

The Writers Coffeehouse is held on the last Sunday of every month and free to all.  

About today's guest blogger:

Dawn Byrne, a grandmother, writes inspirational and fictional stories about families from her New Jersey home. She's a member of the South Jersey Writers' Group, facilitates the Juliette Writers' Group, and teaches Sunday School. Dawn strives to leave a small carbon footprint, reads classical literature, blogs here, and has stories featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Devotional Stories for Wives: 101 Daily Devotions to Comfort, Encourage, and Inspire You and Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!: 101 Joyful Stories about the Love, Fun, and Wonder of the Holidays
. Her website is