Writing Conferences: Whoopee or Whoopee Cushion?

Roosevelt Hotel

Does everyone else always wonder if someone’s having more fun in their hotel?

Writing conferences can be a grab bag of goodies and ghastlies, and what sounds like such a soaring boon to your writing wits on the program page can become a glaze-eyed dust bowl when you’re plunked in your chair at a presentation. I was at last weekend’s Writer’s Digest West Conference in Hollywood, and it was the usual mix of fruit and nuts, though many of the offerings were tasty.

Being set in Hollywood, there was a lot of glitter on the grounds, seeing as how we were ensconced at the Loews Hollywood, in the Dolby Center right off the Boulevard, set in the midst of a panoply of glitzy shops and eateries accessed by a spidering array of cross-courtyard escalators and walkways. The only star of any consequence I saw was on a 50-foot poster of Daniel Craig pushing the latest Bonding, though there were a couple of Nikki Minaj-lookalikes that had apparently been baked in one of the wood-fired makeup ovens at a local salon.

Several of the conference presentations and workshops were held in big, airy rooms with comfy chairs and plenty of tables so that you could take notes on the next chapter of your zombie-vampire-federal budget epic, while presenters flagellated the crowd on the wobbly knees of publishing today and how in this time of vital authorial authenticity, it’s now necessary to send your fans small pieces of your flesh as well as your imagination.

Pitch Slam or Mosh Pit?

Actually, I loved Chuck Wendig’s “25 Ways to Earn Your Audience” talk, though I do willingly gravitate toward speakers who consistently use variants of the word “poop” imaginatively. Got some good stuff out of the Hardcore Author Marketing panel too. But one of the main reasons I attended the event was to pitch my just-finished novel at the literary agent pitch slam, and for some reason, the organizers held that event in one of the smaller conference rooms, that packed in 20+ agents, plus what seemed to be every conference attendee and most of the homeless people on Hollywood Boulevard (hard to distinguish between the two groups), so that it was literally quite hard to hear in the ensuing din.

Because of the maze of lines and the teeming (and steaming) attendance, I was only able to pitch 3 of my intended 7 agents, and felt lucky that one requested a full manuscript. The other two were happy that I didn’t ask them for a handout, though if I would have seen them in the lobby bar later, I would have, since I paid $18 there for a Manhattan. Probably just as well, because if I had a few more of those, I would have been offering those authorial pieces of flesh to reluctant takers, and the ensuing handcuffs would have bruised my delicate wrists. Instead, I got to go back to my 12-floor room and stare at the lovely old facade of the Roosevelt Hotel and its charming neon sign, and then pass out (in a writerly way).

Back that Poop Up

A little coda to the event: as I said, I was given a request for the full manuscript of my new novel from an agent. When I came home, I scrambled through some last-minute edits, which seemed to scramble the hard drive of my not-that-old Macbook Pro. Thus, I had a few electric moments of panic when I thought my manuscript (and all of my business writing besides, since it’s my business computer) was lost. Gack!

But being the tidy sort, I did have a fairly recent backup, and was able to stumble through using an external drive to boot the machine, edit and get the damn thing printed and off in the mail. Indeed the hard drive had given up the ghost; probably a consequence of me putting naughty bits in my new novel, which you’ll see me peddling soon on Hollywood Boulevard.

Authorial bits of flesh extra.

How Being Short Can Take You a Long Way

Being short, you’ll never have to worry about seeing all of that guck that’s on the top of your refrigerator. Me being the long, lanky type, so shamed am I when I spot that accretion of grime that I have to stop the speechwriting I do for the American Graham Cracker Collection Society, and clean it immediately. But here I’m referring to length, not height, where bigger isn’t necessarily better—in writing.

There’s a situation that brings this to mind: I’m going to the Writer’s Digest West writing conference in LA in late October, and there I’m going to engage in a frolicsome thing called a pitch slam. A pitch slam isn’t where you test your curveball to see if you can strike out Albert Pujols; it’s where a hoard of peevish, underfed literary agents listen to your strangled proposal for your book, and then press a button that puts you in a trash compactor, while you hear the waning sounds of their maniacal laughter.

The slam part is this: you have 90 seconds to pitch your book. Ninety seconds: that’s easily enough time for me sit in front of the agent, swallow my tongue, fall to the floor and writhe spasmodically. I have scanned the agents who are available for this particularly torture, and I see that I will have at least five chances to pitch—a fit—in front of them. Thus my writing exercise for the next month will be to put the novel I’ve just finished into a readily digestible pill: sweet, vivid and utterly condensed.

Brevity Is the Soul of Lingerie

I’ve written before on how challenging (yet oddly freeing) it can be to be forced to write with brevity. It’s refreshing, like ice in your underwear. For ballast, I’ll be checking out some information on pitching and synopses from the Guide to Literary Agents blog, where I’ve gleaned good information before.

Writing short is a useful art. A couple of months ago, I won a great MediaBistro Literary Festival conference pass just by tweeting what I judged to be the best sentence I’d ever written. (Never mind, with counting the hashtag, that my first three choices were longer than Twitter’s character count allows). As Dorothy Parker said, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” Thus, to display my lingerie, I just entered the Gotham Writer’s Workshop 91-word memoir contest, where you are supposed to deliver your biography in 91 words. Here’s my first half:

A Cardboard Fort, Conquered by Language
At six, long backyard hours in cardboard refrigerator-box fort, alone with clock, dinosaur books and languid time. At twelve, graduating to Hesse, Twain, Steinbeck, and hearing the sweet siren call of language. At twenty-four, English-degreed, writing crabbed copy for catalogs, questing.

You’ll just have to wait for the rest; I don’t want to reveal the part about my secret marriage to Doris Duke while the contest is pending. Have to run—have to figure out how to squeeze my multi-points-of-view tragicomic opus into 90 seconds, without including all the sighs, cries and lies.

(And hey, if any of you agents happen to read this, I don’t really think you are peevish or underfed. I will remember all your children’s birthdays forever.)

Bonus Material! Missing Teeth, Dangerous Drugs and an Unsober Man

And for a little comic relief, of the not-so-short variety, take a look at my guest post on the charming aspects of hysteria experienced in the dentist’s office. That minor play of neuroses is courtesy of Dr. Richard Wilson’s Bite Point blog; Doc Wilson is the author of many a toothsome tale, including the forthcoming epic, The Man Who Wore Mismatched Socks.

Writing: Wrangling With, Warbling About, and Wobbling After

Writing Quills for Desert Conferences

I came back yesterday from Wrangling with Writing, a 3-day writing conference in Tucson, AZ put on by the Society of Southwestern Authors. I got a full ride for the conference (hotel and meals too) on the virtue of penning a variation of this Why I Write essay for their scholarship contest. Of course, the real reason why I write is because I’m so fond of the closing parenthesis mark (the open-parens glyph is too glib for me), but it was fun to be in the company of so many writers.

Because I write such a fruit salad of stuff, my workshops were all over the place, from short-story essences, to how to pitch agents to mastering point of view to “all about ebooks” and more. There were a couple of entertaining keynotes, including one where Stephanie Elizondo Griest essentially did a slam poetry reading, including dancing out her book excerpts with bossa nova moves and other vocal and visual atmospherics. (I checked her site and it says she studied “tribal gypsy belly dance” for six years, which is undoubtedly helpful for contract negotiations.)

Hey, Faulkner Used the Juice Too
I had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out a bit with Chuck Sambuchino, an author and the editor of the Guide to Literary Agents, and someone I’ve written for in the past. It was also jolly to meet another of his writers, Ricki Schultz, who demonstrated how to drink a cocktail on her birthday. (Sadly, there were no lampshades involved.) Writers do like to take a drink now and then (mostly now), which is probably why a couple of the guys seemed to want to show their dangling participles to a few of the fetching agents and attendees. I don’t think there are any lasting psychological scars, though.

Besides making some helpful contacts, I came away from the conference with new angles on and motivations toward editing—and then submitting—some material I’ve been sitting on for a while, as well as a nice feeling of writerly collegiality, but then again, it may have been the martinis. Here’s a good list of writing conferences from around the country. Check ’em out—it might only take you submitting an essay to nab an invitation. I think “How I Used Tribal Gypsy Belly Dance to Elude Freaks at the Bar” might be a good topic.