Monte Sano Writers’ Conference: Tell Your Story


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This post should’ve been written months ago; the event was in April. But for one reason or another I didn’t get to it. There’s great stuff to tell though, so I’m writing it now. This post is part conference review and part a sharing of the writing advice I gleaned.

The Monte Sano Writers Conference was organized by Huntsville author Homer Hickam and held at Monte Sano United Methodist Church atop Monte Sano mountain in Huntsville, Alabama. You may recognize Hickam’s name as author of Rocket Boys/October Sky and other books.

I’ve heard Hickam speak several times in NASA circles, about writing Rocket Boys and about his career as a NASA engineer, but this was the first time that I heard him talk about writing.

He is a very engaging speaker; down-to-earth, humorous, full of wit and never-ending tales. He said many things, about writing and story-telling and how it came about that he started writing books (he first wrote for magazines, doing research on old submarines that captured his interest because of his diving hobby). The thing that stuck with me most, though, was something he learned many years ago in the third grade, while writing a newspaper with his friend about news in the small mining town where he grew up.

They initially wrote about the “what” — when the church choir practice was going to be held or the menu at the upcoming church picnic — but the paper really took off when Hickam and his friend wrote about the happenings of the people of the town. Hickam said he’d follow people around and write down everything they did and then print it in in their own little paper, which they called The Coalwood News. What he learned from that venture that has impacted his writing all these years is this:

“People aren’t interested in what …. People are interested in other people.”

Getting Published

The conference was more than just Hickam. It included a panel of 6-7 writers from the Huntsville, AL, area, of different genres, including memoirs (like Hickam’s), devotionals, poetry and fiction.

The morning keynote speaker Ami McConnell, who is an editor with Thomas Nelson and HarperCollins Christian Publishing, spoke to the sanctuary of writers and writer-wanna-be’s about the publishing industry and current trends.

In the Christian and/or inspirational genre, McConnell said there’s been a shift from inspirational books that used to talk only to others within the faith to talking to people outside the faith. The shift is not just in books but in the Christian culture, and writers and publishing houses are responding. People are getting inspiration from books rather than (or in addition to) the pulpit, McConnell said.

She recommended inspirational writers ask themselves two questions: 1) Do you have a story in you that invites communion, with the reader and with the reader and their community? and 2) Do you love your reader? Those apparently are the ingredients for a potentially great inspirational book right now.

Memoirs

The conference broke into workshops in the afternoon, and I attended Hickam’s memoir/novel writing workshop. I hadn’t actually thought of Rocket Boys as a memoir before. Hickam described memoirs as being autobiographies written with the writing techniques of novels, like composite (i.e. made-up) characters and made-up stories that help the story flow or make a point. Hickam: “Memoirs are like novels in that you tell the story in such a way that makes you turn the page.”

First: figure out who the narrator is — you in the current time looking back or you captured in a specific moment in time. Get inside the head of the narrator which — I loved this part — is not necessarily you now. That’s what Hickam did with Rocket Boys. He went back in his memory to what he knew and felt as a teenager and didn’t process his feelings through the lens of an adult but captured them just as he experienced them back then.

Two more gems from the memoir workshop:

“If the first paragraph of your story doesn’t hook the reader, 300 more pages won’t do it.”

and

ask and answer: What do you want people to extrapolate, i.e. self-discover, from your story/memoir?

One More Thing

An attendee asked what should you do if in telling your story you write hurtful things about others. Hickam knows this well because in Rocket Boys he wrote about the strained and distant relationship with his dad. Hickam’s advice: ” Just let it happen.” Earlier in the day, on the same subject, Ami McConnell quoted this tweet by author Anne Lamott:

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”

Beck McDowell

As I mentioned, there were several other Huntsville authors there as part of an author panel. The one I most looking forward to reading, though, is Beck McDowell, so much so that I bought both of her books: This Is Not A Drill, in which two teens try to save a class of first-graders from a gun-wielding soldier suffering from PTSD, and Last Bus Out, the true story of Courtney Miles, who stole a school bus and drove over 300 New Orleans people to safety after Hurricane Katrina. (Book descriptions are from McDowell’s web site.)

The Monte Sano Writers Conference is rumored to be an annual thing so I’ll look forward to next year and maybe even to being one of the featured authors one day. :)

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