In my last post I talked about writers conferences being valuable for what you can learn, so I thought I’d pass along a small (and pretty random) sampling of some of the tips I picked up at the recent annual conference of the Canadian Authors Association.

More than one presenter pointed out that writers need to read and write. This seems like the most obvious and unnecessary advice, but so many writers still don’t get it. If you aren’t reading everything you can get your hands on in your chosen genre, you can’t know what’s already been done (so you don’t repeat it and come a poor second), nor what publishers are looking for. You need to read good writing and bad writing—often you can learn more from the bad, because it’s too hard to see the method behind good writing. It looks like magic. And you can’t get away with only writing when the muse inspires you. Writing is a craft—you have to write every day to keep your skills sharp, in the same way that professional musicians and athletes need to practice every day. When they don’t, their performance suffers. Why would writing be any different?

Especially with a novel, the more thoroughly you outline the plot and characters, the easier the writing process will be. Barbara Kyle spends six months outlining her novels! The benefit is that the actual writing might only take her four months. And since she plans every major scene, she can not only see if a change in the order of the scenes would improve the story, but also make those changes much more easily than can be done with a written manuscript. There are lots of other benefits, too.

If inspiration is a problem, try doing completely new things that are out of your comfort zone, like studying an exotic language, or learning ballroom dancing. Our brains make connections in strange ways sometimes.

To clarify your writing (and other) goals, try writing your own obituary, and then work backward from there to make it come true. Only make sure that it’s true to your own life and circumstances—write your obituary, not Stephen King’s. (Both of the above tips thanks to Lynne M. Smelser.)

To keep this in digestible portion size, I’ll save some tasty morsels of advice for next time.


Lots of writers are members of writing groups or larger organizations. Based on my own experience, relatively few attend annual conferences, retreats, and extended workshops. After all, once you factor in the registration fees, accommodation, food, and travel costs, they can be expensive. And they may require you to take time off from your ‘day job’. All good excuses to beg off and stay at home. So why should you go to a writers conference?

This past weekend, I took in the Canadian Authors Association’s annual CanWrite conference in Grand Bend, Ontario. Although I wasn’t there for the full retreat (a new element this year), the participants benefitted from the wisdom of award-winning short-story writer Sandi Plewis and highly-successful novelist Barbara Kyle in half-day workshops, plus shorter seminars from the likes of New Media specialist Dawn Boshcoff, writer/trainer Lynne M. Smelser, and freelance editor Jodie Renner. They heard the perspective of small press publisher Anne Judd, and independent bookstore owner Mary Brown. They picked up tips from fellow CAA members like Ben Nuttall-Smith, Jean Kay, Robert W. Mackay, Bernice Lever, Anthony Dalton, and Matthew Bin. And that’s just the organized presentations. So obviously one reason to attend conferences is the number and variety of educational opportunities they offer. Every writer wants to improve their craft. I don’t plan to stop learning until the day I die (in fact, hopefully the next level of existence will be really interesting, too!)

But equally important and valuable is the companionship conferences offer. I think every writer needs to regularly spend time surrounded by other writers, if only to keep our sanity. No-one else has a clue about the writing experience: the heartaches and the joys, the madness and the inspiration. Not friends; not family. Only other writers can really give you the encouragement and support you need to continue in such a daunting path—and it’s just plain enjoyable to be around them.

A third reason is to support organizations (like the CAA) that support you and your career, with information and a broad range of services. They also give a strong voice to the writing community, something that certainly becomes important when big issues come up (like the Copyright Bill C-32).

Let’s not forget that most writers have other jobs and hectic lives, and a retreat or conference can kick-start your creative juices again—think of it as life-giving medicine for your career, ignored at your peril. But a getaway like that can also be a reward, and you deserve it. Writing is a lonely and difficult pursuit. In the case of this weekend’s conference, Grand Bend is a beautiful spot, and the people at the Pine Dale Motor Inn were terrific hosts, highly recommended.

Start out small, if you have to—find a conference or retreat or multi-day workshop close to home and try it out. Your career will thank you. You might even be able to say goodbye to your shrink.