Last weekend, I officially had one of the best times ever at the James River Writers conference — a really terrific two days of panels and talks, presentations and conversations. I had the pleasure of staying in Richmond at the home of my colleague Dean King (whose book on the Hatfields and McCoys, The Feud, continues to win one well-deserved prize after another), where I discovered to my delight that I would also be bunking with his agent and editor (not in a weird way, mind you) — which meant each evening ended sitting around a table with great conversation. And bourbon.
As I mentioned the other day, I had plenty to do, from talking Jim Henson (twice!) to sitting on two panels, including a really fascinating session on research — and I say fascinating, because it was a real learning experience for me, since I was the only non-fiction writer sitting up on the dais. Usually, I’m at a conference filled with biographers where research is pretty much what we do, so a panel on research usually turns into war stories and measuring contests. Here, it was a lot of fun to hear about the kinds of research fiction writers and poets use to inform and inspire their work without necessarily worrying about every last neurotic detail of the research, as we non-fictionalists tend to do. Good stuff.
I sat on the research panel, by the way, with Hugh Howey, the current guru of self-publishing, who’s as charming a speaker and presenter as you’ll ever see. That meant that the ringside seat I had for Hugh’s discussion/debate on the state of the publishing industry with former Little, Brown editor Geoff Shandler–who is also one of the smartest and most charming speakers you’re likely to see–was destined to be one of the conference’s hottest seats. The session didn’t disappoint–and moderator Erica Orloff did yeoman’s work keeping things both raucous and civil as Hugh and Geoff went at it for nearly an hour.
It was a tough room for Geoff; Hugh’s one of the guys who’s made it big in self-publishing, and his passionate Screw The Man And Keep The Money narrative was an appealing one embraced by much of the room, even as Geoff just as passionately shot it full of holes and urged writers not to rush to give away or devalue their own work in defiance of The Man. All in all, it was a spirited discussion, and ultimately the two of them did their best to agree to disagree–but as an industry, this discussion and debate is far from over.
Another New To Me experience was attending the conference’s Sunday afternoon Pitchapolooza session, in which writers were given one minute at the microphone to pitch their book to a panel of editors and agents. It takes spectacular guts to stand up in a crowded room and pitch your book for critique–so, well done all you gutsy writers who took your moment at the mic. Oh, and the winning pitch that day? It came from an absolutely charming thirteen-year-old who had clearly rehearsed and re-rehearsed her pitch for her urban fantasy novel. Practice matters.
For me, the best part of the weekend was just sitting and talking with so many talented writers, poets and playwrights, all of whom had something interesting to say and were passionate about saying it. As I noted above, it was one of the best times I’ve had at a conference.
So: Thank you, James River Writers, for having me and taking such good care of all of us. I had a wonderful time, and I hope to come back.