>James River Writers Conference Recap

>I attended both days of the James River Writers Conference 2007 in Richmond this weekend. The program was all in the beautiful Library of Virginia on East Broad Street, which seemed perfect, although only just large enough to accommodate the conference. If it grows any larger – which maybe it should not – other arrangements will be needed. For now, the location was great.

I arrived shortly before the opening session on Friday and enjoyed the humor of adventure thriller writer David L. Robbins, who was moderator for the conference, as he made introductions and announcements.

The first session was the “First Pages Critique” in which participants had submitted well in advance (I did not) the first pages of a story or novel. Several were selected and read aloud and then agents and editors on a panel critiqued them. I understand that in past years the judgments by the panel has been quite harsh, but these folks were relatively gentle, maybe because each of the chosen submissions had some merit that could be pointed to. The revealing thing about the program was what kind of judgments a reader in the position of an editor or an agent can make after two pages, and that probably surprised a number of the participants. The reality, though, is that judgments are made after the first sentence or paragraph, and perhaps this program should become the “First Paragraph Critique” to even more closely mirror that.

Then there were four smaller programs to choose from and although I’ve hear a great deal about nuts and bolts, I chose to attend “Writing a Query Letter” because one of the panelists was an agent I was scheduled to meet with and I wanted to get a sense of her. I can’t say that I learned anything here, although I thought it was interesting to note the audience reaction to the news that a first novel must be around 80,000 words, regardless of genre, with greater or less flexibility depending on genre. Unfortunately, we got sidetracked on that issue, as horrified thriller writers with 120,000 word manuscripts tried to insist that it wasn’t true.

In the afternoon I attended a session called “Me, Myself & I: Writing in First Person” with novelists Nancy Lemann and Carolyn Parkhurst and poet Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda. It was an interesting session, but seemed to focus less on the craft choice implied by the point of view and more on the personal, psychological reasons for the choice, which it seems to me is much less important. The audience might have found it useful to hear more about the dangers of writing in first person and I asked a question to that effect, hoping to steer the discussion a little. Still, it was a good program and I enjoyed hearing all three writers.

Next was one of my favorite sessions, Jon Kukla’s interview with Kyle Mills, a thriller writer. Mills, unknown to me because I don’t read the genre, has just published his ninth book and listening to him describe his subjects and his process I think I might actually have to read one. He was charming and funny and neurotic, a banker-turned-novelist, and it was great to hear about his writing space at home, his commute (in order to get in the frame of mind to write, he gets in his car, drives to the bagel shop and schmoozes with friends there, then comes home to his basement office), how he broke into the business, how he generates very detailed outlines, etc.

The afternoon session presented some choices for me, but I went with “Is There Anybody Out There?: Finding Your Audience” moderated by my friend Logan Ward, and featuring my friend Michael Stearns (along with agent Jessica Regel and romance writer Sabrina Jeffries). This was mostly about book promotion – which isn’t completely self-evident from the title – and the assembled panel was a good cross-section to discuss that topic. [An interesting side note: Sabrina Jeffries is a pseudonym – I never did learn what her real name is – but when she does appearances and interviews, she uses the pseudonym in order to make sure that the press she gets is the name people would need to know to buy the books. Makes perfectly good sense, but it’s not something that occurred to me, and I wonder if it does something to twist the author’s psyche in some way – although Sabrina seemed very nice.]

The session I had to forego to attend that one was on the subject of “Point of View,” which perhaps was the craft discussion I was looking for earlier. (In fact I heard later that there was a friendly argument on the panel because David Robbins hates first person point view and at least one of the panelists, Carolyn Parkhurst, writes that exclusively so far.) But the reason I wanted to go was to meet the panel moderator, Thom Didato, editor of failbetter.com. I figured, though, that I’d have a chance to meet him later but, unfortunately that didn’t happen.

There were no evening activities scheduled (which I think is a flaw, considering that a lot of the participants are from out of town and might want to fill the time with more literary programming – I suggested on my evaluation form that a reading might be a good night program), I went to a nice dinner with one of the other participants who was also staying at my hotel.

Then – Day Two:

The first program in the morning on Saturday was “As Southern Writer’s Journey,” an interview of Sheri Reynolds by Virginia Pye. Although I’d heard of Reynolds, I have not read her books. I will definitely look for her stuff now, though. What a charmer. She was very warm and open talking about her process and her influences. A very funny moment came when she talked about being cut by her publisher after her second book, and she was looking for a publisher for her new book, “When Oprah called.” Although that was a life-changing call to have her book picked for the Oprah Book Club, she didn’t use that to get the publishing contract she wanted or the teaching job she wanted, both of which happened before the Oprah pick became public.

In the next time slot I wanted to attend all four of the choices, but went with “Saving Lives,” a panel with historian/biographers Jon Kukla, Dean King and James Campbell. And I made that choice first because Dean and Jim are friends of Logan’s and Jim is coming to Staunton on Tuesday to promote his new book, but also because Jim’s new book is about Asia and Dean has a book coming out early next year about China, and I wanted to hear more about both. I also have an idea in the back of my head for a history that will probably turn into fiction (if I ever make myself do some research), but I did want to learn about process. And it was fascinating to hear the lengths that each of them had to go to get their stories. Very useful stuff.

In the afternoon I began listening to Emyl Jenkins interview Sharyn McCrumb, but I had to leave early to have my “speed date” meeting with an agent. This has become a popular feature of conferences, I think, although I don’t know why agents put up with the aggravation. I had practiced my pitch, I had my writing resume to hand to the agent, she reacted well to both and was very nice, she invited me to send three chapters of my novel (which is exactly what I wanted from her), we had about thirty seconds left for small talk and that was that. Very odd process but I suppose it’s efficient in its way.

I then went to a panel on “Writing with an Outline” featuring David Robbins (who says he doesn’t use an outline, except that’s not really true – he does an outline of sorts in his head before he starts writing); Eric Van Lustbader (who works from an outline sometimes); and Kyle Mills (who always outlines and whose outlines can approach 60,000 words – almost first draft length). I was interested to hear what these thriller writers did, but everyone has to find their own way. I like the idea of outlines and did one for my first novel, but the second one I only had a sense of what was going to happen and I wanted it to be more organic. I think, though, that the next one I will outline, possibly in great detail, down to the scene level, in order to facilitate the actual writing.

The very last session was a panel including poet Claudia Emerson and novelists Eric Van Lustbader, Kyle Mills and Sheri Reynolds, along with Michael Stearns from HarperCollins, on the subject of “What I Wish I’d Known . . .” which was kind of a summary discussion of general advice for emerging writers. These are all charming, bright people and I loved listening to them, so it was a good wrap-up session.

Overall, I enjoyed the conference and it was great to meet so many people. There seemed to be a little too much emphasis on the thriller genre (Lustbader, Robbins and Mills were everywhere), but I understand that’s what a lot of writers want. And if there could be a bit more focus on literary fiction, maybe they could attract some interest from literary magazines to participate in some way. At one point a discussion arose about the possibility of JRW expanding into Charlottesville, which seems like a really interesting idea. There is already a branch of the Virginia Writers Club in Charlottesville, but JRW seems more dynamic, so there might be an opportunity.

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