Oshkosh, Wisconsin is quickly becoming a literary center in America’s heartland.
One week after Wisconsin’s Event City hosted the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, it welcomed the 2023 Lakefly Writers Conference on May 5th and 6th at the Oshkosh Convention Center alongside the Fox River.
This year’s Lakefly was in every way a worthy follow-up to its impressive 2022 incarnation.
Here’s a brief overview of what attendees experienced:
- 21 Breakout Sessions, divided between the craft and business sides of writing
- Open mike session under the Oshkosh Public Library’s rotunda
- Multiple literary agencies hearing and critiquing novel pitches
- Professional writing and website coaching
- Professional headshots for book jackets and publications
- A keynote speaker published by HarperCollins
- Catered Saturday lunch
- Writing Contests with cash rewards
- 11 Door Prizes
Here is the complete schedule if interested.
Akin to last year, I will summarize my experience as both volunteer and attendee.
Multi-genre author Malinda Andrews kicked off Friday with her session “Time Management For Writers.” Most attendees, including myself, need to financially support ourselves with something other than the written word. Therefore, we must manage our time very carefully. Malinda gave some expert tips on how to squeeze a story out of the precious moments we have left, such as waiting for appointments, waking up a bit earlier before work or while traveling on public transportation. There’s no such thing as “dead time” with today’s technology.
Speculative fiction extraordinaire David Michael Williams continued the fun with his “Pitfalls of Self-Publishing.” David knows quite a bit about self-publishing, having created his own LLC One Million Words through which he has published his novels, tabletop game and webcomic. He humorously titled a few slides “Learn from my mistakes!” revealing how difficult and rewarding self-publishing can be. One of the most important takeaways for me was that it’s far easier than ever to self-publish, but you have to be doubly accountable to do everything traditional publishers would or used to while continuing your own writing. Self-publishing has democratized publishing, but it is up to us to maintain high standards of quality.
La Crosse native John DeDakis, who is a former White House correspondent and retired editor on “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” finished Friday’s sessions with his “The Spooky Power of the Subconscious: Planning vs. Seat-of-the-Pantsing.” Much like in 2022, John involved his audience with a multi-step exercise:
1. Think of a protagonist
2. Think of scenes and scenarios for them
3. Think of an antagonist
4. Put it all together
John demonstrated that it’s possible to create an entire scene, or at least its foundations in under an hour. I had done similar exercises before to mixed results. With John’s skillful guidance, I was quite pleased with what I produced.
Per the last two Lakeflys, I went to Becket’s for dinner, surrounded by talented literary artists. Kate Penndorf, founder of developmental editing company “Much Ado About Writing” (I am sure Bill Shakespeare appreciates the shoutout!) and author of Freya and the Dragon Egg, talked about her process for writing coaching and the eventual plans to conclude her middle grade fantasy series. B.R. Hansen, co-author of Freak Camp and member of the Oshkosh Area Writers Club, discussed the importance of getting the details right about your setting: “I lived in Toledo, Spain for a couple of years. It rests on top of a hill. If you set a story in Toledo and do not mention the hill, I will assume you’ve never been there and stop reading.”
The Conference’s Friday schedule ended underneath the rotunda in the historic section of the Oshkosh Public Library. The After Hours Open Mic did not fail to disappoint with its eclectic mix of submissions. Nature and animals frequently imparted valuable lessons. A retired professor read a poem in a Native American language, which was an intriguing and beautiful experience. I was able to re-read some poems I had brought to other open mics, prompting me to reflect how performance and literary art can and should differ.
Saturday began with author Beth Amos’s keynote address “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back.” Juggling a career, motherhood, breakups and other challenges of day to day life, Beth has managed to publish 25 books through a variety of publishers over the course of three decades. Time and time again, she returned to the same word: perseverance. No matter what happens in life or in writing, you have to persevere. Her talk reminded me of a phrase I heard while working in sales: “Get to the no as fast as possible.” Odds are, you will hear many, many noes before a yes, so don’t drag out the rejection.
My first Breakout Session on Saturday was “Well Begun is Half Done: Successful Story Openings,” hosted by Professor Bill Gillard of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Bill adroitly pointed out that you don’t have long to draw in readers. Why not study some of the most successful and intriguing opening lines or paragraphs of stories and novels? Naturally, Bill included excerpts literary legends such as Ernest Hemingway and Franz Kafka, but also unknown individuals who managed to get published in a national publication. Bill inspired me to take another look at the very first page of my novels, stories and blog posts, because well begun is indeed half done.
I enjoyed soup and salad for lunch. As the sitcom Seinfeld pointed out, soup’s a meal! I had some time to tour the marketplace set up in the main conference hall and purchased a few books. Dana Woods, dressed in full Steampunk attire, inspired me to read her Steampunk fantasy novel The Dragonchild. I do agree that this combo of genres is something we need more of.
Since I got Fast Track, the first novel in John DeDakis’s Lark Chadwick mystery series, last Lakefly, I bought Bluff, the second novel. John has the ability to weave an intriguing mystery, a fast moving plot and lessons about politics and journalism into a cohesive whole. If you like politics, journalism, mystery and/or strong female protagonists, give Lard Chadwick a short!
Newspaper journalist Greg Peck impressed me with his humorous tale of a squirrel inside his home during the After Hours Open Mic, so I decided to buy his Death Beyond The Willows: How A Wedding Day Turned Tragic in America’s Heartland. In an era of sensationalism, Greg brings hard facts and a focus on Wisconsin to the literary landscape.
Then, the post-lunch sessions.
Pat Kilday, who writes The Escape Diaries under the name Juliet Rosetti, hosted “Write Wisconsinably: The Power of Place.” It’s so important to create a sense of place in your writing. Take inspiration from your city or state! I was amazed by the amount of phrases and lingo that are unique to Wisconsin. Through vocabulary such as ‘bubbler’ or ‘ope’, places such as Lambeau Field or the Fonz statue in Milwaukee and scenes of rolling farmland with plenty of cows, you show a lot about your characters through an authentic sense of place.
Writer and editor Christopher Chambers continued with “Ask the Editor: Everything You Wanted to Know About Literary Magazines and Writing Contests.” Christopher has ample experience in both sending and critiquing submissions. He made some excellent points regarding rejection. Art is subjective and a matter of taste. The same submission may not be accepted one year, and it might the next. Editorial staffs change, and therefore the judges change. As he put it, the secret is to “be professional, be patient, be persistent.” He provided an excellent quote on a handout: “writing solely for publication is like doing the Japanese tea ceremony for the caffeine.” Something to ponder if you’re struggling with submitting your work to publications or agents.
My final Breakout Session was “Crafting Your Own Poetic Voice: Tips and Strategies from the Poet Laureates.” Unfortunately, North Fond du Lac Poet Laureate Jeffrey McAndrew could not attend, so Oshkosh Poet Laureate Tom Cannon went alone. As always, Tom did a great job. We discussed what exactly constitutes poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous quote of “prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order” is helpful and unhelpful at the same time. Keep exploring, keep tinkering and keep reading. As many styles, techniques and genres. The poetic voice will come.
There were plenty of sessions that I wish I could’ve attended. For instance, best-selling Wisconsin author Michael Perry hosted “Writing From the Middle of Nowhere” which explored how Wisconsin and the Midwest can provide as much inspiration as more celebrated locations. A Lakefly planning committee member gave me a ticket to a Saturday evening show of Michael Perry and the Long Beds at The Grand Oshkosh. It was a great combination of folksy music, open mic readings and standup. If you have the chance to either read Mike’s works or go to a show of the Long Beds, do it!
Lakefly 2023 was everything I hoped it would be. Once again, I’ll end with its unofficial slogan:
“Everyone has a story. Let us help you tell yours.”
I hope you let us help you in 2024!