Reflections on UtopYA 2015




by Lisa Brown Roberts


A few weeks ago, I attended my first UtopYA conference. I traveled to the event with some local author friends, and also connected with some other authors who I’d previously only “met” online. I’ve attended a lot of conferences over the years, from small and regional to huge and national, and I have to say that UtopYA is one-of-a-kind.

The vibe is positive, inspirational, and at times positively giddy. Most of the attendees are self-published, and many of the books are paranormal, so I wasn’t sure how I’d fit in as a traditionally published, contemporary romance author. I needn’t have worried.

UtopYAns are some of the friendliest people I’ve met. From the first night’s “newbie bingo” to the final night’s award ceremony, featuring the most awesome lip-synch contest ever, I never lacked for companionship. I met other writers, bloggers, cover artists, and librarians who’d come from all over the country (and even South Africa) to bond, inspire, and be inspired.

UtopYA photosForming and maintain community is so essential to a writer’s sanity, and it’s something that UtopYAns excel at. The community continues year-round on their Facebook page, which is also one of the most supportive online groups I’ve encountered.

Yes, it can be expensive to attend conferences, especially if you’re traveling out of state, but the intangible benefits of connection, inspiration, networking, and learning have always justified the cost, for me. There are several conferences I consider “musts” and attend every year, or every other year, depending on my budget and other commitments.

I encourage everyone who is serious about pursuing their writing dreams to explore different conferences. You just might find your dream con!

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Lessons After Two Years with My Agent

Denise VegaIn December 2013, I wrote about moving into a new decade, which included signing with a new agent in June 2013–What a Difference a Year Makes. In October we placed a picture book manuscript with Knopf and then I was busy continuing work on my YA, Fade Away, and other picture book manuscripts.

To be honest, I thought I’d be excitedly sharing that the novel had been accepted for publication and telling you the pub date, along with one or two other picture book manuscripts. But that’s not the case. Here’s what’s going on:

The Novel That Needed Time

If any of you follow my personal blog, Blab-o-Denise, you know that my YA novel, Fade Away, has been 4+ years in the making. It’s closer now than it’s ever been, but I’m currently in the second round of revisions with my agent. My goal is to get it in shape to submit in the fall. BTW, the novel has changed substantially and has a new title.

The Picture Books That Couldn’t–Yet

We had one board book series and one picture book on submission with high hopes for each. In fact, I loved the picture book so much that I was convinced we’d have interest from at least two publishers. We got positive responses, but no offers. So much for my writerly intuition  :-). But it was fun being so excited about a story.

What I Learned and Where I’m Going

Novels take the time they take. I have to continue to stop myself from focusing on how many years have passed since I started the novel. It is what it is. It finally became what it was supposed to be last fall—in large part because I had gone through some personal experiences that enabled me to write it. It’s changed dramatically and requires a level of skill that is forcing me to write better than I ever have. That’s scary and exciting at the same time.

Board books are a tough sell. We knew that going in, especially for authors who are not also illustrators. So do I want to try to turn it into a picture book and possibly a series or leave it until the market turns? During a class I was teaching on rhyming picture books, one of my author pals gave me a very intriguing idea about a completely different approach to it so now I’m going to throw that in the mix and discuss it with my agent.

Picture Books Need to Be Incredibly Unique. Even though I felt my story and characters were unique, two editors had similar comments about wanting to be more surprised. They felt my characters and/or story felt familiar and not fleshed out enough. Because I was so married to the existing text, I decided to start completely over, approaching the characters in what I hope is a fresh way. I’m only just beginning and I’m not enamored with it yet, so we’ll see. The comments have pushed me to really look at the characters and story in a new way and that’s always a good thing.

All of these could be perceived as failures. But I don’t see them that way at all. I’m having the time of my life writing, feeling freer than I ever have to try new things and I’m so happy I have an agent willing to go on the ride with me. And each experience teaches me something I can bring into my next project and/or to further my career.

What have you learned that you can carry forward to a project or your career? Please share!

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20 comments to Lessons After Two Years with My Agent

  • You’re so brave and fearless to share your journey with us. I think taking pressure off yourself is the right approach, and one we should all think about adopting!

    Cheers to you!

  • Lisa Brown Roberts

    Great post, Denise! Thank you for your honesty and enthusiasm for the journey :). I know that bubbles and toasting are in your future!

  • Ceil

    What a great blog, Denise. Your persistence and willingness to do whatever it takes to make your books the best they can be is very inspiring. Thanks!!

  • Great post! Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Sheri

    I thought how wonderful for you when I started your article. Then I was disheartened that when you had landed the agent and had something submitted there were more hurdles to jump. Nothing is smooth in this business and I am getting older as I sit here and revise and rewrite everything. I’m wondering if I will ever find an agent or editor and publish something I think is fresh and unique. But I will KEEP WRITING and be persistent anyway.

    • Yes, the hurdles are there–this is my second agent–I had my first for 10 years–and I’ve noticed that there is a lot more revision these days before it goes out. But I’m very grateful because she’s helping me become a better writer. And I’m glad you will keep writing! That’s where the fun is. I’ve become detached from the publishing outcome with each project and have found so much more joy in the process.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience. It puts our writing into perspective. One day I decided to stop sending stories to a certain popular children’s magazine. I’d been sending them for years. The next day there was a request to publish one of my stories from that same magazine. Patience and Persistence.

  • Jilanne Hoffmann

    Yes, everything takes time. And in this industry, it takes even more time. Good luck! And hang in there!

  • Kathy Halsey

    This is the kind of news i need to hear, Denise. I am impressed with your attitude, and since I just signed w/an agent over a year ago, (been writing for 2) I know it can be a slow go. Still, it’s so great to have a partner/agent who believes in you. May that novel work out! Thank you for letting the rest of us in on what happens once they have an agent!

    • I’m glad this was good news for you! And your attitude sounds excellent too. It’s truly a process, but nice to have someone on the journey with you. I wish you luck too! I hope to be reporting on the novel at some point. And this is agent #2 for me after 10 years with my first one. We parted very amicably – I needed someone who did the full range from PB to YA and she didn’t. Go, team!

  • Stacy S. Jensen

    Thanks for sharing this. This business requires a lot of patience.

  • This sounds EXACTLY like my past two years, Denise, only without the novel. I have three picture books on submission right now, but as of yet, no takers. But you have to keep the hope alive, keep working, keep an open mind and, KEEP WRITING!

    Love this post!

    • Sounds like we are submission buddies, Julie. I’m crossing my fingers for your books. Come on, publishers! And yes, hope springs eternal – that’s a big part of the fun. And yes, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!!!

  • It is so true that every story “takes the time it takes.” But that’s a hard lesson to really learn. I’m still working on it.

    • It IS a hard lesson. Comparing myself to other writers or their timing has been paralyzing and demoralizing – a ridiculous pursuit because I can’t know all the ins and outs, but even if I did, I want to measure my success on my own terms. A book truly takes as long as it takes and I’m so grateful for what I’ve learned along the way, both about the story and myself as a writer and a person.

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Whiney Writer’s Exercise Routine

Whiney Writer



By Whiney Writer


Whiney renewed her efforts to get in better condition. After so much time in front of the keyboard, she’d decided to speed-walk everyday. She’d heard her friend say “sitting was the new smoking” and that concerned her. After a few days, however, she became bored. And she kept imagining her computer, which she’d named Princess Buttercup, in homage to one of her all-time favorite characters, kept calling her name. Perhaps, if she walked backwards, it would be more interesting. When she stumbled over her own feet and went flying heels over head, she concluded it might be better to look where she was going.

A week later, she began her new exercise routine. After watching a television add, she became excited about her new piece of equipment. Ripping open the box, she pulled out her mini tramp and placed it by her French doors. If she could at least look outside during her workout, she was less likely to get bored. Right?

Two days later, after bouncing onto her patio and nearly falling over the rail, she started her newest exercise routine. Her friends had been trying to get her to play golf for quite some time. Five hundred dollars later, she strode onto her local course, clubs in tow. The wind blew against her face and she tucked her frizzy hair tighter under her new hat. Along with her recently purchased golf outfit, she felt quite stylish. Her friends were waiting for her on the first tee, hands on hips. Whiney had assumed a tee time was just an estimate of when you should arrive on course. Oops! After making her apologies, she grabbed her new driver and stepped up to the tee box. How hard could it be, anyway? The people on TV seemed to do quite well. She swung as hard as possible, spun all the way around, and completely missed the ball. After a long day on the course, she decided golf was harder than she thought, and definitely not for her.

Whiney ran her computer character over the obstacle course in record time. What a performance. And her heart rate was soaring. Virtual exercise! Yes, perhaps that was the way to go. At any rate, it was definitely safer. She wondered if she could find a golf program. Hmm… Maybe she should keep those clubs.


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Like a Good Neighbor, Your Subconscious is There

Hilari Bell


by Hilari Bell

Before I became a writer, I wasn’t well acquainted with my subconscious. It was a bit like having a neighbor who keeps to himself. I knew it was there. It said something in passing every now and then and I acknowledged it. But we never really dealt with each other until I started trying to come up with an idea for a picture book every month. 

At first, my subconscious refused to cooperate. My critique meeting was looming, I needed to bring something to read…and I was blank. Zero, zip, nada. It got so bad I sought advice in the how-to-write books, where one person suggested that you keep an idea file. The trick, she said, is to write down every idea that occurs to you without judging it. If you write down everything, she said, your subconscious will be encouraged to trot out ideas and ultimately get into the habit. If you condemn the ideas it produces, your subconscious will get discouraged and quit. I couldn’t see any harm in jotting down bad ideas, and I thought there might be some good ones mixed in with the bad, so I started writing up every idea that popped into my head. And some of them were horrible. (One that sticks in my head to this day was, “A story about a lollypop that wants to be licked.”) But some of my ideas weren’t quite that awful, so I kept at it. After only a few weeks my subconscious started turning out more and more ideas…and their quality started improving as well. In fact, after a few months, my subconscious got so accustomed to turning out ideas that I only had to write down the good ones to keep it going. This not only helped me write picture books—it taught me that my subconscious was trainable. 

It wasn’t till I started writing novels that I reached the next stage in our relationship. I prefer to write first drafts in January, which means I need to start plotting in the fall. If I don’t have a story idea I’m really excited about, I’ll pick the best idea I have and tell my subconscious, “OK, if you don’t like this idea, you have till November 1st to come up with a better one. If you haven’t given me a better idea by then, we will write this book.” If I don’t want to write that book, then I know my subconscious really doesn’t want to write it—it’s never failed to give me a better idea by the deadline.

By the time we’re outlining that good idea, I don’t usually have to resort to threats. Say I need to get my hero from point A to point B, but I don’t know how to do it. Right before bed, I’ll pick one story problem to focus on. I’ll think about where my hero is now, where I want him to end up, the difficulties in his way—then I’ll ask my subconscious to come up with a solution and go to sleep. (My subconscious is a complete night owl—it does its best work when I’m asleep.) I don’t always have an idea by the next morning—sometimes my subconscious takes three, or even four days to solve a particularly thorny dilemma. But it’s never failed me, and I don’t think it’s ever taken more than four days.

 At this point, you may be thinking my subconscious is a wimp, always doing just what I tell it to…but it’s got a lazy, deceitful streak. When I’m getting ready to start my first draft, my subconscious will suddenly start throwing out ideas for other wonderful stories I could write. At first I thought it was trying to be helpful, but if I pursue one of those ideas it will throw out another, and another. I soon realized that my subconscious was deliberately trying to lure me away from this story so it wouldn’t have to work! Now, when I hit the “about to start writing” stage and my subconscious throws out a great idea for some other story, I thank it, write that new idea down, and save it for later. 

Every writer uses their subconscious, whenever they write anything—whether they’re aware of it or not. And yes, subconsciouses can be tricky, and even blindside you if you’re not paying attention. But the next time you’re stuck in a plot predicament, or have run out of ideas, ask your subconscious for help—you might be surprised by what a good neighbor it can be.

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3 comments to Like a Good Neighbor, Your Subconscious is There

  • I love how this process works for you. I’m afraid if I told myself to think about a problem to focus on right before bed, I’d never get to sleep! I agree with you that our subconscious is working all the time without our even being aware of it.

  • I’m coming late to this party, but I LOVED this post! It was fun and helpful. I’m really trying to access my subconscious to help me when I’m stuck on a scene or with a character. Thank you, Hilari!

  • Ceil

    What a great (and fun) blog, Hilari. It won’t be long before I need to come up with a new story. I love your ideas and hope my subconscious is as good a neighbor as yours!

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