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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

One Writer's Trip to the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference

I signed up for the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference a couple months ago to giving myself a deadline by when to finish the last of my novel revisions. The conference appeared to be well-rounded. It was my first writer’s conference, and I didn’t know what to expect. I would definitely call it an experience to remember. Here’s my take on the different offerings.

Agent pitches
Above the regular cost of registration, you can pay an additional fee to meet with an agent for ten minutes. Ideally, you will meet, and the agent will adore you and love you and represent you. Realistically, you will meet.

The agents all sat at individual tables in one room. In speed dating fashion, a whistle blew to indicate the start time, an eight minute warning announced time to wrap up, and another whistle indicated it was time to leave so a new person could begin. There were some instances of Big Mouth-itis, where a writer somehow lost the ability to get up and walk away. Hopefully, you weren’t the next writer in line, standing there, eyeing the agent, watching your precious first minutes dwindle away in someone else’s hot air. Bouncers would have helped. In fact, a bar in general would have helped. I sorely needed a drink because I managed to say one of the dumbest things any writer can say to an agent: “I wrote a fiction novel.” (Please, laugh heartily at my humiliation.) I liken this experience to that dream where you go to school naked, only unlike those exciting fantasies, I didn’t want this to happen. I recovered with a little technique I employ whenever I say something embarrassing: I blurted out the very next thing that came to mind while my cheeks turned red. “I can’t believe I just said that!” Ms. Agent laughed and said, “Don’t worry about it.” I actually relaxed after that, because once I’d made a fool of myself, I no longer feared doing it. And for the record, Ms. Agent wound up taking the opening pages of my manuscript with her. Not that I recommend you copy my approach.

Craft Workshops
Even with all my sneaking in and out of workshops, I didn’t attend every workshop available. Sunday through Thursday, the workshops met each morning and afternoon. The workshop leaders – representing playwriting, screenwriting, humor, memoir & creative nonfiction, poetry, mystery, fantasy, women’s fiction, children’s literature, marketing, and more – chose how to structure their daily sessions. The most common structure appeared to be opening the workshop with a brief discussion of craft, followed by volunteer readings from workshop participants, and response and critique from the group. My favorite was the pirate workshop, the late night workshop designed for night owls. Admittedly, I am predisposed to call it my favorite because I am enamored by pirates (all in favor, say “Aaaargh!”). I enjoyed the pirate workshops because while the daytime workshops were 2 ½ hours and only so many people could read, everyone got to read at the pirate workshops as long as they were capable of staying awake.

Marketing Information
The conference ran a morning workshop dedicated to marketing, they held daily panel discussions covering publishing venues, first time authors, agents, and more, and every night night, bona fide authors gave a presentation. Among our speakers were Ray Bradbury, Pulitzer finalist Luis Alberto Urrea, and mystery writer Sue Grafton. There were so many angles on how to present your writing. The agent panel discussed how to successfully pitch. The publishing panel introduced writers to options outside the major publishing house route. The marketing workshop explored ways to find an audience for your writing. The established authors talked of their journeys to becoming recognized authors. What I really appreciated was that none of the panels and presenters told us to change our writing or make it something that it is not, sometimes the exact opposite of what happens in a workshop. I heard some pretty outlandish things in the workshops, the most notorious being the critique where someone told the writer she should change her style, genre, and protagonist. I’m not dissing the workshop process (did I really just say diss? I’m kicking it old school baby!). It’s great to hear these different voices and feel like as writers we are part of something bigger than just us, but it’s also confusing to hear ten conflicting interpretations of the same work. The panelists and presenters reminded us that, above all else, the key to good writing is to write what drives you. Write with passion. Write what you love.

Meeting Other Writers
Easiest tick off the list. At a conference this large, all you need is a mouth. Business cards come in handy too.

The Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference ran a few contests during the week. There’s a Worst First Line contest and a themed writing contest (they announced the theme at the opening ceremony and writers could enter in fiction, nonfiction, or poetry). The conference started a new contest this year, which I participated in, The Ultimate Writeoff, a speed writing competition. Every day, I was given a writing assignment with 15-30 minutes to complete it. And much like Spaceballs, the assignments went straight to ludicrous speed. How would you like to write a poem about a garden gnome, or dialogue in the style of Nathaniel Hawthorne? We also had to read the resulting pieces aloud, no matter how embarrassing. And did I mention the entire contest was videotaped? Judges (including Fannie Flagg) awarded points and at the end of the week, a winner was declared. I won second place. Anyone who participated in the contest knows that I won second place because of Day Four. The writing assignment was to imagine turning a famous novel into a musical, and then write one song from it. My book? Harry Potter. My musical number? You can watch the video clip of it here

All in all, the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference went beyond my expectations (because, really, who expects to write a song about Harry Potter?). It introduced me to new ways to view my writing, new thoughts on reaching agents, and readers, and new writers to include in my network.

In short, it gave me hope. And us writers? We live off that.

When she's not writing, Jessica DeVoe is running around after her two children. Her fiction has appeared in Thema and she blogs with reckless abandon here.


Janet said...

Sounds intriguing. Now all I have to do is finish my novel and I'm gold, baby. Gold.

Kristi said...

I always wondered what happens at those things. So no cultish ritualistic sacrifices to the publishing gods? Hmmph.

Damien Riley said...

It's so inspiring to me when a demagogue like Ray Bradbury gives back by speaking to aspiring writers. I would have loved to have heard him. Besides that it sounds like this was a place for writers to get inspired and it is good to know that is happening in this world. Stumbled!

ralbury said...

I can't wait to read your "fiction novel!" I have faith that one of the agents is smart enough to sign you!

TC said...

Brilliant post. Very funny, and useful too. I wish I could have been there (although I feel like I was).