I attended the Montgomery County Community College Writers' Conference on 11/14-11/15. They have had prominent writers there in the past, including Norman Mailer and Edward Albee. This year, the main speaker was Michael Cunningham, who wrote The Hours. I have attended the Philadelphia Writers' Conference twice and was at the Baltimore Writers' Conference last year. I have found these conferences to be very informative about the business and craft of writing. It's also good to just talk to other writers, since we do our work in solitude, mostly.
At one workshop, we were asked to pick up pictures of people that had been collected from newspapers and magazines. We then had to make up character backstories which would then lead to plots for stories. It was interesting to see how our imaginations could be stimulated as we envisioned the lives of these people just by looking at their faces and seeing what they were doing in the photos.
A writer by the name of Michael Hogan, who had written two novels, Man Out of Time and Burial of the Dead, talked about how to start a novel. He said a common problem is to give too much exposition up front. He said you have 300 to 400 pages to get to develop the characters, so try to draw the reader in with a little information at a time. Sometimes you should just drop off your first chapter and start with the second. (I actually just did that with the murder mystery I am currently writing, and it did help). He also brought up the idea of starting the story with The Big Bang. Because you now have to get the reader's attention early, many writers feel they must have something exciting happen quickly (The first body drops in the first couple of pages of my OTP novel, A Lesson in Murder). But he argued that you don't have to have fireworks, as long as you "seduce" the reader with something interesting that will come later. He also argued for more verbs in one's writing and less adverbs and adjectives. This style make for a stronger narrative. Adverbs, he argued, tell, while verbs show.
I learned one writing strategy from reading Hemingway. I think it was in A Movable Feast that he says to end your writing day with an unfinished thought or action, so you can more easily jump back into your story the next day.
Just some hopefully helpful hints I wanted to pass on.
Gus Cileone, www.augustuscileone.com