Imagine a venue filled with over a thousand writers who’ve assembled to pitch something they’ve slaved over for the past year–a piece of daring fiction, a blockbuster screen play, a brutally honest memoir. Imagine dozens of publishers and editors–grizzled veterans of publishing wars– who’ve come from across the country in the hopes of finding something worth acquiring or at least a diamond in the rough, that when polished will sparkle like The Hunger Games. Sound like a recipe for disaster? Well, it’s not. The Willamette Writer’s Conference, it turns out, was a stimulating, battery-charging and exceedingly fun event, at least for me.
Being fairly introverted, I’ve never been stimulated by large groups of people, and that certainly includes all the meetings and conferences I suffered through in my corporate existence. So, what was it about the WWC that made it so enjoyable? Two things, I think. First, writers and editors are witty, cynical, no bs types who are fun to be around. For example, one speaker told us that the quality of our contacts is as important as the quality of our prose. “So, kiss a little ass,” he concluded. Second, the conference had a Northwest vibe, ie., casual, friendly and hospitable. (Okay, it didn’t hurt that I won second place in the WW’s fiction contest this year for my short story, “To Catch a Wolf.” It’s a national contest, which made the award doubly gratifying.)
The workshops this year were right on target. Larry Brooks (NW thriller author) talked about “story physics,” ie., the essential elements (there are six according to Brooks) you must have in a story to make it work. This is true whether you write from a detailed outline or just let ‘er rip organically (the way I tend to do). If you write “organically”, then you either know the elements intuitively or you bring them in in successive drafts. Interesting.
Suspense and How To author Hallie Ephron (the late Nora Ephron’s sister) gave a super workshop on the suspense-action-reflection arc in scene building. What are the keys to building suspense (suspense is when the reader knows something the POV character doesn’t know)? How do you write the action so the reader “gets inside of it”? Use reflection to make the reader care or question and want to read on. She quoted Lee Child as saying, “Write the action slow and the reflection fast,” meaning the action is fast, so “unpack it” to ensure the reader sees all of it. I’m going back to my action scenes with this in mind!
If you ever get a chance to take a workshop from Hallie, my advice is DO IT! She is a marvelous teacher.
Of course, the heart of any writer’s conference is the dreaded PITCH–the chance for a beleaguered author to sell in five minutes what it took a year to create, or, from the publisher or agents point of view, the drudgery of listening to dozens upon dozens of poorly organized, ineptly presented, sometimes whacko projects in the hopes of finding something that might sell. The big advantage of pitching your work at a conference is that the agent or publisher is more likely to put your piece near the top of his or her slush pile since there was a personal contact. At least that’s the theory.
My pitches went okay, although it’s clear I’d rather write than pitch any day! I’ll be busy for a while now getting manuscripts and samples of my writing sent off. Then it’s the inevitible six to twelve week wait before any word comes back…What a life!