Having just completed Day 1 of my first ever writers conference in Lexington, KY, I can safely say that I have learned enough in 13 hours to make it all feel worthwhile, and by that I really mean worth my $125. Yeesh. It’s a good thing these gatherings aren’t once a month. I had a wonderful experience speaking to Miss Janet Reid about my query letters, I met some wonderful writers with different platforms, and I heard some wonderfully blunt honesty from an industry pro, Mr. Chuck Sambuchino. That said, I think we writers have earned the right to voice a few things we don’t (or shouldn’t) want at these conferences, given the time that we invest and money we, well, also invest. Ka-ching!
1. A Worthless Keynote Address: This point bubbled all the way home in my head as I walked down Broadway in Lexington, KY, returning from a keynote address by the lovely Barbara Kingsolver. It was an utter waste of time and money. Are you indoors? Look up. See the ceiling? Beyond that were my expectations. Look down. Do you have a floor? Grab a shovel. Don’t get me wrong. The Poisonwood Bible made me decide to take my writing seriously. It changed my world view. Kingsolver is rightfully a Kentucky treasure and seems like a wonderful person.
Is she gone? Okay, let’s start trashing her address.
I’m always skeptical when I hear that an author at a writer’s conference is going to be “reading from an upcoming book”, because it tells me that said author is really just appearing to lend the conference some pro cred and isn’t intended to actually be helpful. I knew Kingsolver was going to be reading from her new book—I’m sure it’s another masterpiece—but I also heard she was going to discuss the process and where her originality comes from. Unfortunately, I never got there. I bailed 40 minutes into her address from sheer boredom and disillusionment.
The address started with about ten minutes of her giving us background information we either already knew or could have looked up on Wikipedia. It then digressed into another ten minutes of useless exposition about Kentucky when every single person in the room, I believe, was from Kentucky. We perhaps could have used some insight into her time in Arizona, but for crying out loud, she didn’t have to spend five minutes remarking on the strange little names of towns in our backyard! I’m from BAGDAD! My mother is from BALD KNOB! I’ve heard them all!
I know that’s a lot of exclamation points, folks, bear with me…I’m not trying to be disrespectful. She really did seem like a charming person, with Tina Fey’s voice and cute in a kind of “First Wives Club” Diane Keaton by way of Helen Mirren kind of way. My point is that I came for the good stuff. I came for the insight and knowledge of someone who has been called one of the most important writers of our generation and who is indisputably one of the most important writers to me. Instead, I got a snoozable history lesson followed by five minutes of lame jokes (the audience ate it up, though) and what felt like an eternity of Kingsolver reading her own poetry.
I’m sorry, but that’s just phoning it in. If I wanted to hear her poetry, I can find it on my own. I like to think we want real, candid advice. It would be like attending an acting class with Daniel Day Lewis and just having him play a couple of short snippets from “There Will Be Blood”. Who knows, maybe she completely turned it around after I left, but her address simply left me wanting something worthy of her reputation.
UPDATE: Miss Kingsolver has a chance to redeem herself! I have discovered she will be speaking to us in a less formal session in the morning. I’ll chalk that up to exhaustion. The keynote address was still worthless self-promotion but at least I should get to hear her genuine input on Saturday. Hopefully she’ll deliver and I will have nothing bu rave things to say about one of my favorite writers!
2. The Basics – Another grievance I had with the conference was all the time wasted on walking people through the basics. Now, I know people of all learning curves and writing levels attend these things and I don’t want to slight their efforts or needs, but they should have isolated an entire breakout session to people who were just starting out instead of wasting half of all the other sessions starting on the bottom floor. In one session, I kid you not, I had a speaker spend twenty minutes explaining structure to us by using actual bricks that he could have found in the parking lot for all I knew. His audience? Myself and about a dozen retirees. I’ve purchased scores of books on plot building, structure, narrative, etc.; I’m a little beyond the brick metaphor phase.
Now, I realize I’m the jerk who is saying “I’m too good for that stuff” and, well…I don’t really have a comeback for that. I guess I am being a jerk. Obviously the basics are important, but that’s why we have books on them! That’s why we have the drafting process and editors and feedback and criticism…So that we can get past the basics. Hearing what I considered to be obvious retreads, to me, felt like showing up at an NBA team’s tryouts and saying, “I’m here. Teach me how to play basketball.”
3. Flattery: At this point, I’ll also mention that the night before this conference, I stayed out late in Louisville watching the Red Hot Chili Peppers live in concert, so I was a weeee bit tired come morning. Accordingly, if my demeanor comes off as grouchy, I assure you that’s all it is. I’m not really this conceited. I’m speaking more in hyperbole than anything else. However, the one thing that annoyed me in our breakout sessions was the blind effort by speakers to appease absolutely everyone there. Every comment was met with a condescending “Oh, how insightful…” from our speakers or “That’s a brilliant idea…” to the point of absurdity.
The worst case was in one of my workshops where an older professor who looked like Wolf Blitzer started talking about his book and suddenly began describing it with the kind of adoration that I imagine Robert Frost would use to describe an…wait, there might be kids around. The word I was going to say starts with an “O” and ends in “asm”. That should be enough for you to solve the puzzle, Blues Clues. Anyway, I like to think I know enough about the English language by now to tell when someone is just lobbing meaningless words and clichés into the air and shouting “PULL!” before blasting them out of the air with the shotgun of incomprehensibility. As this man spoke, I swear I saw through time for a moment. I could hear colors and feel smells. I saw my life flash before my eyes. There was not a single logical or cogent thought that escaped his lips and, yet, once he had finished the speaker looked him straight in the eye and said “…That is so true.”
For a moment, I thought I was just being ridiculous and suspected maybe the exhaustion had simply taken its toll at last, but then the woman next to me literally whispered, “WHAT??” and I knew I was not alone.
Let me contrast this with author Chuck Sambuchino, who spoke to us all just after lunch. I heard several attendees describe him as “a bit of a dick.” I got that vibe myself, at first. Then guess what? He blew us out of the water with what was easily the most blunt, informative, helpful, and HONEST session of the day. No stroking egos. No shallow compliments. He was just raw insight, great observations, brutal honesty, and my pen bled notes. His bedside manner may not have been much, but at the end of the day, he was like the Dr. House of our writing conference.
4. Writing Exercises: Holy sweet moly. I write enough on my own without attending a conference and having some speaker tell me to write “therapeutically” and answer flippant questions or hypotheticals about my book. This is clearly a diversion technique for when speakers simply don’t have enough material to fill a block or, frankly, don’t really have anything useful to say at all. For the first 40 minutes of the block in question, we were forced to answer such gems as “What do you like about your book?” and “What don’t you like about your book?” and “What do you want to do most with your book?” I’d like for my book to see Paris just once before it dies. Obviously I could only think of stubborn, sarcastic answers, but I did my best to jump through the hoop.
Then, we got to read our answers to the class, which isn’t really helpful. It’s like fourth grade show & tell. I don’t learn anything by hearing that Josephine likes the fact that her book has “humor” or “heart” or that she “hopes to get it published”. Oh my God, PUBLISHED! Why didn’t I think of that?! I just realized that other people can’t access my book when it’s sitting on my laptop! If only it were placed on some sort of horizontal storage space possibly made of wood where other books like it could be gathered perhaps in a store that specializes, now bear with me here, only in those sorts of things and people, are you still with me, could come to said store and buy them and we would all receive some sort of financial compensation for each sale.
Okay, we have reached the sarcasm threshold for this site. I’m going to temper it back down. Thanks for sticking with me, everyone. You’re a lovely audience.
5. Stupid Mistakes: I’m actually going to be quite serious here, briefly. This incident kind of set the tone for this entire snippy entry. If you pay money to attend a conference with the intent of seeing a specific agent, MAKE SURE THE PEOPLE IN CHARGE OF THE CONFERENCE GET YOUR APPOINTMENT CORRECT. At my conference, two agents were visiting—one in charge of book pitches, the other in charge of reviewing query letters. I specifically requested the pitching agent, by phone, and heard the woman on the other end repeat it back to me. When I showed up this morning, they had completely botched everything and I was scheduled to meet with the query letter reviewer.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a wonderful and eye-opening meeting with the query letter professional but it was NOT the meeting I requested and for which I paid. Double check with your conference and always make sure they have everything right on their end. Literally, the people in charge of my conference only had one simple task to get right for me and they completely blew it. I received a partial refund, of course, but that’s not going to put my book on shelves any time soon.
Once again, apologies for the complaints in this email. I promise I won’t do this very often and I’m laughing about them now. Feel free to tell me your conference nightmares. I’m not saying my insights apply to all conferences. They only reflect the nuisances I encountered in Lexington, KY. Drop me a comment and let me hear about your experiences.