Out of My Head: Three Days at the Whidbey Island Writers’ Conference

whidbey-island-conferenceAs writers, sometimes we stay inside our heads for days at a time. We squint at the computer screen, pondering the best way to write a scene. We stare at the walls, as if they have the answer we need to fix that hole in our plot. We pretend to look out the window, but we don’t really see anything—besides our characters and their wanderings.

While that kind of laser focus helps us meet our deadlines and finish our books, it causes us to miss so much: the camaraderie of other writers, the chance to pose a problem in our story and get feedback from others, and opportunities to learn, grow and collaborate with other authors.

Bob and I arrived for the Whidbey Island Writers’ Conference last Thursday, the only attendees who had to take two ferries to get there.

We got there just in time for the speakers’ dinner, where we laughed, ate lasagna, sipped Chardonnay, and were entertained by an author at our table who told us stories of how growing up in the Midwest—rural South Dakota, to be exact—impacted his writing.

As I progressed through three days of workshops, keynotes and the fireside chats at elegant Whidbey Island homes that overlooked the water, I was hit with some sharable insights.

7 Things I Learned at the Whidbey Writers’ Conference

1. Many of us fight the Perfection Beasts.

I am not the only one who obsesses over sentences, paragraphs and word choices. At dinner, I told Doyce Testerman, fiction author and conference presenter, about my plan to push past my compulsion to over-edit my work by joining NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year, which will force me to write 50,000 words in thirty days. And with those kinds of deadlines, who has the luxury of rewriting each scene five times, right?

Doyce had a great analogy. He compared writers stuck in perfection mode to a sculptor who has worked very hard on a statue but has managed to carve only a hand. It is an exquisite hand, beautiful beyond imagination. But it won’t be a statue without the rest of the body.

2. Amazing things can happen when we jump outside of our comfort zones.

colleenI met Colleen Patrick, an accomplished screenwriter, director and producer, and decided at the last minute to attend her Chat House Session, which she presented with Hilary Weisman Graham, an award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker and author. Colleen is a talented filmmaker who is the only person from the Pacific Northwest to ever be inducted into New York City’s Friars Club, joining the likes of entertainment greats like Lucille Ball, Don Rickles, Jack Black, Tom Cruise, Jack Benny and Billy Crystal, to name just a few.

In Colleen and Hilary’s session, where I had feared I would be a fish out of water, I found exactly the opposite. I picked up incredible tips and insights from the visual medium of film that I could directly apply to my own story.

Bonus: Bob and I made a new friend (Colleen) who we ended up having dinner with. At the end of the conference, she generously offered to give our daughter advice on her acting career.

3. Sometimes your problems get solved.

I wanted to join a critique group and knew, living where I do, it would have to be an online one. At the conference, I stumbled upon just the right mix of authors who, by an amazing stroke of luck, were at my approximate level of experience and writing skills and wanted to form an online critique group with me.

That alone was worth the price of my conference ticket.

4. It is possible for an introverted, deep thinker to create spontaneously.

Although I’ve been a teacher myself, when I am on the student side, the question, “Would you like to share that with the class?” has always frightened me. Especially when we are given only ten minutes to work on a piece before we show it to someone else.

I got good (and needed) practice in cranking out short pieces and getting constructive feedback from my instructors and fellow students.

5. If an agent asks “Is this exclusive to me?”, always say, “Yes.”

This little gem of advice came from two author presenters at a Chat House on getting an agent and marketing our books. Though we may send out query letters and submissions to several agents at once, it is easy to withdraw query letters to other agents if one particular agent expresses an interest in representing us.

Because if we send them out one at a time, it could take years and years to get through the process.

6. It is wise to “suck up” to your agent.

In a lighthearted vein, I learned that agents are people, too. They like to be appreciated. The enjoy getting cards in the mail, chocolate even. In long distance author-agent relationships, small notes and tokens of appreciation can keep us connected and on their radar screen.

7. Sometimes you just aren’t meant to sign with John Grisham’s agent.

One author/presenter found his agent, only to hear from another agency that wanted to sign him. He kept saying, “No, I already found an agent.” They kept calling, not taking no for an answer. One day, this author opened his mailbox to find a contract from them. He tore it up and called to tell them he had already signed with another agent.

Some time later, he was in the checkout line of a grocery store and picked up a copy of John Grisham’s book, A Time to Kill. Flipping through it, he read Grisham’s note on the Author Acknowledgements page thanking his agent.

It was the same agent this author had rejected.

This presenter said that he is still glad that he went with a less known agent because the agencies that represent the big authors rarely give their not so famous writers the kind of attention they need to grow their careers.

There you have it. Seven ways the Whidbey conference expanded my mind, filled my creative well,  and gave me new things to think about.

Do you get caught in the trap of staying inside your own mind too much?

What’s the greatest benefit of attending a professional conference for you?

Make sure you don’t miss a post.


  1. Joan Z. Rough October 30, 2013 at 8:27 am #

    Hi Judy, Sounds like you had a wonderful time. I need to go to one of those one of these days. It’s always good to get out of your head now and then to let you mind stretch and see things anew.

    By the way, you sight is telling me that I don’t have a registered Gravatar again. Weird. I thought we fixed that.


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 31, 2013 at 10:10 am #

      Hey, Joan, that’s for sure. One of the things I loved was the chance to propose a snag with a character or the plot in a session and get all kinds of feedback with creative ideas on how to solve it. One in particular, called “Secondary Characters,” helped me sort through my characters and figure out who was really essential to the plot (and the main character) and who was not needed as much to move the story forward.

      That is so weird that your gravatar would just stop showing up like that. Have you gone to gravatar.com to figure out where the problem lies? Perhaps they have an inline support desk/chat where someone could help you? Sounds like maybe a disconnect between the email address you leave with your comments and the generation of the photo to go with it. (Maybe.)


  2. Yvonne Root October 30, 2013 at 4:16 pm #


    It is now a few hours since I read this post. And, I thought you would be interested to know that you caused me to take action. I’ve been saying I have a particular need and would like to attend a class or go to a workshop or attend a conference or “something” which would give me a jump start on figuring out how to deal with the need.

    After reading your post I opened another tab and began searching. I found something I was interested in participating in but wasn’t sure about finding the money to attend. Then I remembered your words, “That alone was worth the price of my conference ticket.”

    Booked. Paid. Excited.

    Thanks for giving me the insight to jump in.


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 31, 2013 at 10:14 am #


      Good to see you here! I don’t go to a lot of conferences at this stage in my writing, but Whidbey is one I never miss. This year I think it was one of the best of theirs that I have ever attended.

      That is exciting that you have registered for one that may help you solve a problem or challenge. I love the networking and camaraderie that exists in conference settings. And I always come back with some new friends. Hope that happens for you, too.


  3. Deb Lund October 30, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    Hey, sweet Judy, so sorry I missed you! And sorry I missed the conference this year, too. But I’m writing again, finishing up a novel, getting my card deck for writers on its way, and your post was just the encouragement I needed to keep going. Big hugs to you both, and please call next time you’re on Whidbey! xox


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 31, 2013 at 10:17 am #


      Good to see you here. I have missed you. I understand, though, when a huge project with big deadlines gets in the way. Sounds like you have been very busy? A card game for writers? Maybe that needs to be one of the games at Game Night next year at the Whidbey conference! Bob and I would have loved to have dinner with you and your husband. Maybe next year. 🙂


      • Deb Lund November 1, 2013 at 9:37 am #

        Dinner would be lovely! Love the card night idea. Yes, I’ve been too busy—much of that family related—but things are going well. Let’s not wait until the next conference… ; )


Leave a Reply