This post is a mental review and a private thank-you. I'm wondering why I enjoyed the NC Writers Conference so much more this year, compared to the one I attended several years ago. I assume the change is in me, rather than in the procedures.
All I remember (vaguely) from last time was David Sedaris sitting on a desk and reading one of his hilarious pieces; and Lee Smith leading a performance by several women. Well, those were fun, but provided no benefit to my writing ability or to career progress. I don't know what I had been working on at that point; and maybe someone critiqued something I'd written, but I doubt I paid for any extra services.
This time I had lower expectations; but I'd also completed a novel that is far stronger than anything I'd written before; I went to learn the business side of writing and presenting my work, not the writing side; I paid to have 20 minutes with an agent who had reviewed 20 pages of my novel, and I paid to be taught and to practice pitching my manuscript in 90 seconds. And I skipped all the (proudly parochial) readings and performances.
The result was phenomenal.
The single most valuable session was "Perfect Pitch", taught by Lauren Mosko. Her insightful review of how to present your concept in the briefest and most engaging form, together with her incisive comments on the presentations made by several participants, caused me to clarify the driving concepts of my manuscript, "The Gospel According to the Occupation", in my own mind. I can now express what the novel is about far more succinctly. And not only that, but I clearly have some more rewriting to do, in order to make the novel truly express those concepts, now that I have had to focus and prioritize my thoughts. Not just the presentation, but the book itself will be better! This in itself made the conference worthwhile.
The most uplifting experience was spending 20 minutes with Ellen Pepus, an agent based in Washington, DC. I suspect she had given my 20-page excerpt a fairly superficial read, but she was sharp enough to home in on some key issues of historical and contemporary prejudice and ask repeated questions until she could see where the novel was going. I may not have to rewrite the novel on account of Ellen's questions, but I am certainly going to have to be even more sensitive to the possible readings and misreadings that it could be subjected to. That Ellen then asked to see the next 50-60 pages of the manuscript - well, I came out on a happy high. Again, this alone would have made the conference worthwhile!
Then there was Mike Curtis, fiction editor at the Atlantic Monthly, discussing when and why short stories don't work. Not only were the anecdotes he told and the letters he read fully as hilarious as anything by David Sedaris, but they were directly relevant to crucial aspects of writing fiction. In fact, his comments triggered for me a solution to a problem I'd been wrestling with for months: how to create a stand-alone short story out of the complex novel. Yet again, this alone would have made the conference worthwhile!
So I feel I had triple value from attending... and there was even more! In a separate session, 30 of us who had attended Lauren Mosko's "Perfect Pitch" were given a series of 3-minute opportunities to pitch our manuscripts to various editors and agents, and get a response. 90 seconds to pitch, 90 seconds of response and discussion. You'd be surprised how much, or how little, can be communicated in that time! I pitched to Laurel - her response was as crisp, clear and revivifying as bright sun on a hard frost. I pitched to Sheryl Monks, publisher/editor of Press 53; she said that my novel was outside her normal Southern range, but the concept was so intriguing that she would like to see the synopsis and first chapters - they sometimes went outside their normal range. And I pitched to a couple of other people, which was all good practice.
All this (and more) in a day and half! Blogging and podcasting insights from Mur Lafferty and Amy Tiemann. Random conversations with other writers, published and unpublished, with outlooks very similar or radically opposed, but all exceptionally useful...
Of course, there were no guarantees offered from any of these contacts, and unfortunately I have no hope of making any sale through Lauren, who is an Editor at Writer's Digest Books. And I didn't find it all perfect, either - I walked out of one session because it was just too local and amateurish. And the box lunch provided was tasteless. And the decaf at the coffee stations and at dinner was disgusting.
But so what? Hey, listen: depending on your situation (and your attitude), you, like me, will find a Writers Conference an investment of time and money that will have a major impact on your writing, your presentation, your self-confidence, and your career!