Sorting out the Tracks


After a multi-day conference of any kind, a person requires plenty of time to process it afterwards. So I’m still thinking about my experiences at the U of W Writers’ Institute in Madison, WI April 12 – 15.  The institute was organized along the parallel tracks of writing and publishing, which gave the four days special significance to me and my friend George Stenitzer, who had invited me to join him in Madison.

George is seeking an agent for his book Gist, a business how-to based on his many years in corporate communications. I have been querying agents and small publishers to get interest in my YA novel The Ghost of Jamie McVay. We both attended all four daysand did our best to get all we could from the conference.

Panel discussions and presentations on writing skills ran concurrently all week-end. Much of the conversation about publishing considered the pros and cons of the traditional agent-publication route with the several options for author-self publishing. In addition, the Writers’ Institute offered contests, critique sessions, and master classes on craft. We started on Thursday with a helpful talk by literary agent Jeff Herman: “Why You Don’t (Yet) Have a Book Published.” Over the next few days, here are some of the other presentations that kept my attention:

         “Write a Sex Scene That Fits the Occasion” Dave Thome
         “Turn the Page! Writing Techniques Guaranteed to Improve Yourt Pacing”, Ann Voss Peterson
          “Nine Magic Spells That Will Make Your Characters Come  Alive” Peggy Williams
         “Mistakes Were Made – 5 Lessons Learned” Mark Chiarkas
         “The YA Market: Everything You Need to Know” Kristin Van Risseghem
          “How to Get an Agent”  Lucy Sanna

Each day began with a large-group general session, followed by the concurrent schedule of activities and presentations. Social events livened up the days. Lunchtime arrangements encouraged writers to gather under the banners of their chosen genres. On Friday evening we had the run of the ballroom with a cash bar; and Saturday night many of the participants entertained us with readings of their work. We were pleased to see our friend Chris Reid won a prize for her poetry reading. Looking back, I’m sorry we didn’t hang out in the hotel bar a bit. But the truth is we were pretty tired after the full days of the conference. Neither of us seemed to have the energy for late-night socializing.

Agent pitch sessions are highlights of conferences like this, with marketing/publishing emphasis. At least seven literary agents were on hand this year, speaking at public sessions and responding to pitches in private meetings with writers attending the institute.  George received some positive feedback with requests for further information.

My one pitch to Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary didn’t go very far when she dismissed my book as “more of a mystery” than YA ghost story. Guess I need to work on my pitching skills, or the “leadline” as they call it. I will say that I was surprised there wasn’t more than the one agent with an expressed interest in fiction for YA audiences. Definitely room for improvement there, UW.

If publication depends on luck, though, I should keep trying, because I am a lucky guy. Sometimes I win stuff, anyway. During the conference, for example, my name was drawn at random to win a $500 value book cover from Adept Content Solutions, a book production company. I talked to Lori Martinsek at their booth and she has already followed up with me as their designers work on graphic concepts for The Ghost of Jamie McVay.

Crappy weather all week-end kept us from straying too far from the Concourse Hotel venue. Otherwise it might have been nice to stroll the streets of downtown Madison in the evening. This year’s Institute suffered at the end from an unseasonable snowstorm that sent some participants scrambling home early; others were stranded an extra day as roads and flights shut down.

All in all, the Writers’ Institute in Madison provided a full schedule of events for writers of all genres and levels of accomplishment. They don’t do this for free, of course. The cost of the full conference was $375, with lodging additional. Pitch sessions and some classes were extra, so it’s possible to customize the week-end as you see fit. A number of local attendees came only for one or two days. Every profession has its costs, if you want to invest in it. This event could be especially helpful to new and unpublished authors, and invaluable to anyone looking to network and socialize with other writers. I’d definitely consider going again.

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