Tuesday, September 1, 2015

PNWA Summer Conference 2015 Report

It's been over a month since the Writer's Conference here in Seattle, and I haven't posted about it, yet. I think it just goes along with my weird year of not being able to do much more than sleep. Sorry!

This was my third consecutive year, and it was full of fun and learning, as usual. It's interesting to see how my experience at the conference has morphed over the past three years:

  • 2013 - My first year, not knowing what to expect, was a bit overwhelming. I held up throughout the four days, but Saturday was definitely my high - the day I pitched agents and garnered the nickname of "The Zombie Lady" was busy, busy, busy. I crashed hard that night, barely able to drag myself to the Sunday brunch speech, but managed.

    I met a lot of interesting writers, agents, and editors. I focused on pitching more than learning, and only took a few workshops/forums on indie publishing, and writing craft.
  • 2014 - Year Two, I was immediately greeted Thursday morning by some writers that I had met the previous year. The next four days were spent running into writers I had met before, a few of which I had stayed in touch with, and some writers I knew from outside PNWA; and meeting a lot of new people. I pitched the same book, but knew I had to make revisions before it was publishable. I took a few more classes on writing craft, which was helpful.

    This year had a lot of bar meetings - most nights post-conference were spent in the hotel bar, with writers and agents. Made for some interesting moments, but I am not drawn to drama.
  • 2015 - The pace felt less hectic, this year. It could be chalked up to the fact that I slept in most days - arriving early on Thursday, but showing up between 9:30 and 11:30 the other days. I looked specifically for craft classes to take. I pitched two sessions on Friday, early in the con, and connected with a lot of writers. It seems I have collected quite a number of acquaintances in just three years, and am glad but surprised to be remembered by so many. 
The keynote speaker Thursday night was Andre Dubus III. I heard some attendees were disappointed with his speech, but I was shocked to hear that. I think those people expected more of a class lecture? I have no idea. I enjoyed it. Andre was genuine, sharing his own story of how he went from being a Boston bar bruiser to a successful author. I think, anytime someone shares their story, it gives the listener/reader a chance to identify those traits and qualities in themselves, and find a guidepost for what to do or what not to do, depending on the story. It is a way to connect with the creative drive within each of us. It is a way to look at the process, and what is shared and what is different from writer to writer.

Earlier in the day, I decided to check out the panel, "How To Get the Most Out of Your PNWA Conference." It was mostly attended by first-timers, but there were a few, like me, that had been to the con before. I was pleased to see Steve Jaquith sitting on the panel - it was his group, the Seattle Scribblers, hosting this panel. He waved to me as I took a seat in the front row, and after beginning his address to the room, pointed me out as someone he remembered from the past cons, even recalling the name of my novel! I enjoyed the panel, and met a very nice writer at the end, with whom I ended up lunching with a few times over the weekend. I think it is good to have this panel - the four day event can be so overwhelming! It is best to plan early - before you get there, you should know which agents and editors work in your genre and who you want to meet with. Then go through the program to choose classes and panels. And talk to everyone!

I attended Scott Driscoll's "Character, Value, and Change" class. He is an established creative writing professor and author, but I must admit that his style is a bit dry for my taste. I had trouble staying awake - more on me than him, I am not usually awake so early - and couldn't relate the literature examples he used. But that's okay... we all have different ways of writing and reading, right? This would be great for anyone looking to finesse their literary skills. Scott is very nice, and even though he forgot his handouts, he promised to have them the following day for us, which he did.

At 3:30 pm, the only thing to do was go listen to Robert Dugoni speak, which I would have done anyway, because he's an excellent speaker. (I really need to read those books of his I bought, despite not being a crime fiction/thriller fan...I'm sure they're great.) "The Writer's Connection" was a revamp of his Sunday Brunch Speech from the previous year, but that didn't bother me one bit. His stories are entertaining, informative, applicable, and inspiring. Plus, his mom was in the audience this year, so that was fun.
Robert Dugoni
Literally, the only photo I took all conference.

It was chatting and networking until the dessert reception with Andre Dubus III. I have to admit, I have yet to read any of his work...I was first introduced to him by Bill Kenower, in a three-part memoir class I took in 2014. Dubus's Townie was a recommended read. After hearing him speak, I purchased a copy of Townie, and stood at the end of the line to have him sign it. After signing the books of perhaps 80 people, he was still fully engaged, which was refreshing. 

"Enough about me," he said to me. "What do you write?" Taken aback, I explained my strange brew of memoir and horror and other fiction and non-fiction styles. He listened, and was sincere in his wishes for my success, and stood to give me a full hug. (Not creepy.)

After sleeping in and missing the Editor Forum, I made it in plenty of time for the Agent Panel. These Friday AM panels are where each agent and editor introduces him or herself to the crowd, and answers questions. It is the place to learn more about what each person is actually looking for, and whether or not it is worth your time to pitch to them. This is where you can tweak your pitch-list, adding in some you hadn't considered and prioritizing those you plan on meeting.

The rest of my day was spent pitching. The 2-3:30 block and the 4-5:30 block. I pitched both my horror novel, How I Spent My Zombie Apocalypse, which is STILL in need of revisions, and my emerging memoir, which I hastily titled "Unfamiliar Places" that morning. I sat in several pitch practice rounds the night before and that morning to work on the memoir pitch. It went as well as can be expected - memoir is a flooded market, and I am not a platform-ready name. I hardly know what the hell my memoir will end up looking like, but I figured I might as well get some ideas. Rita Rosenkrantz was as nice and helpful as ever (I spoke with her in 2014 about how to do memoir) and suggested I attend her 4pm class, "How to Write an Irresistible Nonfiction Book Proposal." Since my second pitch block list was was full, at 4:55 pm, I decided to go to her class rather than stand in line to possibly get one more pitch in.

Rita knows her business, and is more than willing to answer any and all questions regarding nonfiction books, memoir writing and publishing, platform building, and author-agent-editor relationships. As usual in this process, I left feeling informed, encouraged, and discouraged at the same time. But more on that the next day.

Friday night dinner happens in the hall with an author panel headed up by the always entertaining Robert Dugoni. It is an informal group interview/conversation on the writerly life, which I believe is the format every year for the Friday night event. It is enjoyable, once again, despite the authors being unknown to me:
  • Nancy Kress - Science Fiction since 1976 (why have I not read her?? Must check her books out)
  • Elizabeth Boyle - Romance (not my genre of choice)
  • J.A. Jance - Mystery and Horror ( I missed this part). Famous for SPD Det. J.P. Beaumont series, set in Seattle. I bought one, and she talked me into buying another - "Second Watch" to read first. I have read Second Watch, and it is not the kind of thing I usually read, but was very good!
  • Kevin O'Brien - Thriller writer. Funny guy, might have to check his books out, too. Couldn't afford all the books!
Now, this is usually the Big Day, with all the attendees present, and the awards ceremony dinner at the end of the day. But, I'd already pitched the day before. I didn't enter the contests this year, but was rooting for several friends. And, I didn't feel the need to do the First Page forum again, since I am so not ready-to-go with new work. 

I slipped into "The Five Essential Elements of a Short Story" class with Bharti Kirchner, whom I believe was a first time PNWA presenter, although she does this for a living and has taught at many conferences around the country (world?). She was a very good presenter - clear on her work, her presentation, and meeting the class goals. At the same time, she went with the flow, and answered questions that came up with ease, allowing for a very organic structure. 

Nest, I chose to attend Jason Black's "EDITING: Revision: Top Seven Manuscript Pitfalls." Okay, this is good for those with grammar struggles, but not so much me. I was hoping for more of a developmental revision list of pitfalls - story structure, plot holes, character arcs, etc. but instead, we covered a lot of sentence work, vocabulary within style and tone, and other useful tips. Not for me, but good.

Actually, in the middle of this, I stepped out to meet for a pop-up coaching session with Bill Kenower. It was a last minute add-on, when he realized he had time to kill for Saturday afternoon. He opened up half a dozen or so twenty-minute appointment spots, and I happened across the sign-up line the day before. I spoke with him about the whole author platform for rmemoir and non-fiction, and his advice contradicted Rita Rosenkrantz's but felt more authentic to me. 

"Rita is an intellectual. She is smart, but doesn't necessarily understand the creative mind. You and I are creative, and the idea of planning and business isn't where we excel. Where Rita might focus on building the name and platform first, I would focus on the writing." [paraphrased] 

"So would I," I respond. "That's more me."

Bill went on to explain, "I can't tell you what my platform is. I can't tell you what my brand is. Other people can tell you; they can tell you who I am as a name, an author, a brand, but I can't. I just write." [paraphrased]

I get that. Just write, and put it out there, and let others figure out who you are. Even though I write creepy ghost stories, funny campy horror stories, cultural essays, personal essays, memoir, travel, sci-fi... they are all united by ME. My style, my voice, my experiences, my color. My brand is who I am, and what I write is what I do. I can work with this. I am pleased with my twenty minute session. I feel less confused and discouraged, and more authentic to my own self.

I am stymied at 4pm, because there are so many good classes available, I narrow it down to Waverly Fitzgerald's "Deep Revision" and A.C. Fuller's "The Five Stages of Editing." I took a class from Waverly years ago at the library, and remember her being a studious, capable writer and instructor. I look for her, but she is not yet in her presentation room. I walk down the hall to speak with A.C. Fuller, who is a first time presenter, He is pleasant and helpful, describing his class as more of what-to-do-in-what-order and less of how-to-do-it. I thank him for his advice and head out to find Waverly. I run into a few other writers I know with the same dilemma. Some are going to take notes in A.C.'s class, so I go to Waverly's.

It is exactly what I wanted: deep revision - how to identify story problems, how to work with beta readers, how to assess and address your novel (or other work) as a whole. I get several good tips and take a number of notes. There are writing exercises and discussions. Very helpful!

I later hear that A.C.'s class was also fun and helpful. He has emailed notes to all, and I request to get a copy, which I did. 

Saturday's dinner reception and awards ceremony seemed to drag on too long, as each recipient is allowed to make speeches (what?) and most do. There is some trouble with the microphone, and overall, I am ready to get home. I stick around long enough to hear all the winners, but admit to reverting to my East Coast nature at the table, and making too may snarky and sarcastic comments. No insult intended... just having that kind of night. 

I peruse the bar, chat with a few friends, and head home.

I arrive just a few minutes before Bill Kenower takes the stage.

He gives a great speech, with lots of useful advice and several exercises for us to do, both while in the room, and on our own.

I will include the notes I took from this speech, below, in the comments section.
(If anyone wants notes from other events, let me know.)

A small group of writers has a long-standing tradition of a post-conference brunch/lunch after the Sunday speech, over at 13 Coins. I was invited to join them my first year, and have looked forward to it, ever since. It's great to have time to chat with other attendees afterwards, with no one in a rush to go pitch or join a workshop, or just hear each other over the crowded hallway traffic. We talk about the classes and events we attended, what we thought about them, what we liked or didn't like, what we learned, and throw ideas and stories around casually. Very good, even if we ended up with two conversations going simultaneously- one at each end of the long table...

If you go to PNWA next year, join the 13 Coins post-brunch!