I’m a writer who happens to believe writer’s conferences are worth attending.  Sure, they’re expensive, and they take time away that could be used for, well, writing.  But they’re important sources of contacts, craft know-how, and most of all, inspiration.  The premier conference for crime fiction is Bouchercon, which will take place in Albany NY this September.  I can’t make it this year, which is doubly disappointing since many of my fellow writers at Poisoned Pen will be there, and being a new kid on the block, I’m anxious to meet them.

Fortunately, there’s a marvelous conference right here in Portland, Oregon—The Willamette Writer’s Conference.  One of the largest on the west coast, the WWC has a general lit and film focus, bringing together writers, agents, editors, and publishers from all over the country for three days of intense interactions.

I just came back from the first day of the conference, where I’m working in the literary trenches as a volunteer.  I work a half day and get the rest of the day to schmooze and attend workshops at a sharply reduced cost.  Since virtually all the volunteers are writers, the “work” provides ample opportunity to find out first-hand what my brothers and sisters in arms are up to.  Best deal in town!

What’s the conference like?  Imagine a venue filled with over a five-hundred 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 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.  Hard work meets opportunity.  And if you’re not shopping something, you can sharpen your skills in one of the many workshops led by seasoned vets.  Add depth to your characters, fix the glitch in your plot, make your dialogue crackle–No problem.

Truth be told, 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 makes the WWC so enjoyable?  Two things, I think.  First, writers tend to be irreverent, curious types with a decidedly low tolerance for BS, a high degree of skepticism, and an ear for a good joke.  In short, my kind of people.  Last year, 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 has a genuine Northwest vibe.  It’s casual, friendly and hospitable.  Coffee flows non-stop and good food from local ingredients is plentiful.  And you can pop in for a quick massage at a mere buck a minute.

Of course, the heart of any writer’s conference is the 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 of poorly organized, ineptly presented, sometimes wacko projects in the hopes of finding something that might sell.  The brass ring is having an agent or publisher sign you on the spot, or better yet, several of the above engaging in a bidding war over your material.  Barring that, at least pitching your work is more likely to put it near the top of the proverbial slush pile by virtue of the personal contact you’ve made.  That’s the theory, anyway.

Stress runs high in pitch waiting area, and often  humor, as well.  One nervous, harried writer waiting to talk to a lit agent looked up at me and said, completely deadpan, “If a crow can use a tool, I can give this pitch.”

I’ll be back at it tomorrow.  The best thing of all is that I’m volunteering with my daughter, a rising college senior who’s majoring in creative writing.  What a treat.