Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Taking Writer's Conferences to the Next Level

In a 6/22 post on In Reference to Murder (, BV Lawson offered some very interesting reflections, including links to others with something to say (Jenny Bent, Debra Webb and Barbara D'Amato), about the value of writer's conferences. With so many conferences competing in an economy that is showing few signs of vigor, organizers should be looking for ways to differentiate their product. Even if this weren't the case, I think attendees and presenters who have been traveling to these events for several years would welcome some judicious innovation.

How can we as a community take our conferences to the next level? What are some of the problems we might solve if we shook things up a little? We're all familiar with the standard fare - tracks to please writers at different stages of professional development, the learned panel of (fill in the blank with agents, editors, authors), the star-studded keynote speaker, the pitch session, the smarmy rewrite workshop, the late night reading session, the no-host cocktail party where three agents huddle together in self defense against a tidal wave of publishing wannabes. As I get to know more agents, I am developing real empathy for them in this all-too-familiar moment. It must be unsettling to face a stampede of calculating strangers threatening to pin you to the facade of the portable bar before you can snatch your glass of Chateau d'Plonk and retreat behind the nametag table.

Opportunity #1: Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could invent fresher ways for people to get to know each other? As a group we are never short on words and we know exactly what to say in dialogue, but put us in front of a stranger and we are as tongue-tied as a minister at a pole dancer convention.

Opportunity #2: Wouldn't it be great if we could deliver basic information in exciting, new formats so that even those people who have heard the same advice fifty times get something they can use? For example, agents and editors feel obligated to point out that typos in submissions are the death knell. Yet, panelists are so tired of going over this old ground, they rush ahead and fail to add anything helpful. How can there be anything new about typos, you ask? There is and I will get back to it in a minute.

Opportunity #3:Wouldn't it be great if there was more spontaneity at conferences? I know organizers try to pack in as much as possible so attendees feel they are getting their money's worth, but I don't think the problem lies with delivering value. Rather, speakers are pigeonholed into the roles they must play by virtue of their industry position and panel assignment. Besides, an agent has to play the agent role because there are competitors and prospective clients in the room. Editors are trying to maintain their brand as well. Projecting the proper image all the time, doesn't leave you much of a chance to think outside the box or be a good listener.

Opportunity #4: How can we better leverage all the talent in the room? At the California Crime Writers Conference in Pasadena, the organizers delivered a brain trust of publishing know-how, but each attendee managed exposure to only a subset of that fire power. There must be better ways to spread the wealth. I believe the same thing can be said for the writing talent among the attendees. I am willing to bet that surfing from session to session were a number of exceptional writers waiting to be plucked from obscurity. How can we make conferences into a better venue for unearthing gems?

Okay, enough questions. How about some possible answers. (If you have a suggestions, I hope you will post below.) I like to come up with new ideas by borrowing solutions from other industries or organizations, countries or constructs. This involves trying on a new way of doing things like trying on a new outfit or hairstyle. Even if the up-do doesn't quite suit, the experience can take you in a new direction. So, I'm disclosing right here, all my suggestions are a) stolen from somewhere else, and b) put forward in the hope of stirring the pot.

Case Studies: (stolen from business school) When I was earning my MBA, about half the subjects I studied were taught by the case method. Case studies of publishing successes would make for interesting presentations at writing conferences. The author, agent and editor could talk about the book acquisition and launch, what worked, what didn't and the course corrections they implemented.

Role Play: (stolen from psychologists) It would be fun to have agents and editors act out the pitch of a recently published book. It would be even more fun when they switched roles. Or a writer and editor when the editor requests a major rewrite.

Plot Jeopardy: (stolen from improvisation theater) A panel of experienced writers is asked to develop a plot sequentially. They are given a starting premise and each author adds the next twist.

Cross-Country Rally (stolen from sports car enthusiasts) A team of randomly assigned attendees is sent on a chase for clues around the hotel with a time limit. Taking what they find, they develop a story and a query letter to sell it. A panel of agents hears the impromptu epistles.

Skunk Works (stolen from the high tech industry) A randomly assigned group of attendees and guest pros is asked to brainstorm a major industry problem and bring their suggested solutions to the entire group.

Speed Agenting (stolen from dating, or was it dialing?) Agents get five minutes to tell authors why they should represent them. Isn't it fun to turn the tables! Just think, when you get to the cocktail party, you already will have met the attendees so they won't be strangers anymore.

All of these approaches are good icebreakers. They move the spotlight off individuals and expectations and on to open dialogue and problem solving. Before I close and wait for your suggestions, I'll go back to the issue of typos. (I'll bet you thought I forgot!) Again, I'll borrow my thought from a different discipline, the world of clinical testing and statistical sampling. Specialists in these fields worry about how many times they revisit the data they are using, because every time they do they can alter or contaminate it. They don't dive into the data willy-nilly; they have a plan. Now, substitute manuscript for data. I wonder how many times I have edited a manuscript and managed to introduce more typos than I eliminated. That pesky cursor! You turn away to answer the phone, click your mouse and poof, you erase a word or letter or introduce a page break. Step awaaaaaaay from the mouse! I hope agents and editors move away from telling audiences to eliminate typos and move toward sharing their process for producing pristine manuscripts.


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  1. I love some of your ideas, and I think you've hit the nail on the head with #1. From the writers conferences I've been to, ranging from intimate to huge (2500 people), I would say that getting close to the "stars", whether writers or agents or editors, is the main objective. Some people are too shy to approach them directly, even at the designated cocktail party. There should be a way to spread the wealth--allow more time for non-stressful face to face contact; make sure that the panelists/honored guests sit at lunch or dinner tables with the attendees, not just their best friends. And have fun! The most entertaining panel I can remember at a conference was one where the panelists, all multi-published, solicited suggestions from the crowd and put together a mystery plot on the spot (Sven the snowplow driver, with a body in a snowbank...). It definitely demystified the process of plotting, and it sent everyone away laughing.

  2. The Public Safety Writers Associations conference is small so everyone gets acquainted. So far we've not been able to attract any agents, but we've had great authors who've shared their expertise in many ways.

    You can see some photos on the site at

  3. Katharine,

    I enjoyed your critique of the writing conference structure in your recent blog on the subject. I will be attending my first national writing conference next month: ThrillerFest (including AgentFest) in NYC; July 8 -11. Maybe I'll have some comments/comparisons after that experience, but I do hope to be one of the discoverable "gems" in the crowd you mentioned!

    Thanks for the great ideas,

    Darden North
    Mystery, Suspense, Medical Thriller

  4. Great demo of the "typo" curse in my initial comment now corrected:


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