Report from the Embarcadero: SFWC 2020

San Francisco has a lot to offer the visiting writer, from outstanding clam chowder to the renowned City Lights Bookstore. For me, one of the best reasons to  visit was the 2020 San Francisco Writers Conference: A Celebration of Craft, Commerce, and Community, held over 4 days in mid-February on the Embarcadero.

Embarcadero from the Hyatt Regency

Although I arrived at the Hyatt Regency Hotel a bit late on Thursday evening, I was still able to meet my pal George Stenitzer as he finished one of the Master’s Classes. We adjourned to the Lobby Bar for a late dinner, where a number of other attendees wandered in after class. Lively discussion accompanied the friendly get-together of writers from around the country.

Friday began on a positive note struck by breakfast Keynote Speaker Jonathan Maberry, who entertained the audience with the tale of his own journey from night club bouncer to writer across many genres. His message was one of encouragement to “try everything” and never say “no” to anything.

Jonathan Maberry

There was much to say “yes” to: The exhibit hall was staffed throughout the conference by representatives of writing and publishing organizations such as Bublish, Ingram Spark, and Smashwords, plus many non-profits. Also on site was the SFWC Bookstore, tables loaded with an assortment of books on craft, and also books by the speakers and presenters, with a schedule of signings. (Even copies of The Ghost of Jamie McVay were available.)

SFWC is one of those “full service” conferences, with presentations, workshops, and panel discussions in several threads throughout the week-end: You can skip around among sessions in marketing/promotions, publishing, and the craft of writing. My Friday choices included talks on fiction: Characterization, Crafting High Stakes, and Terrifying Your Readers, followed by marketing guru Rusty Shelton. Later in the afternoon I had brief one-on-one meetings with Shelton and with editor Mary Rakow.

Rusty Shelton

George and I took advantage of the sunny weather to visit the nearby Ferry Building for lunch. We went back there for dinner, too, having missed the traditional “Dinner With Harvey” and others at a downtown restaurant.

THe Ferry Building

Saturday morning’s  keynote speaker was publisher and author Brooke Warner, who spoke on “Embracing Your Publishing Dream”. Warner discussed current trends in publishing and brought up some recent controversies.

Added to the other threads on Saturday was the SFWC Poetry Summit, introducing a panel of local poets and a schedule of poetry-oriented workshops and discussions I attended.

Poets Maw Shein Win and Dr. Andy Jones

Breaking that up was an entertaining lunch with author Walter Mosley, one of my favorite novelists, honored and interviewed by a local personality. Mosley reminded us to “write every day” as he does. His no-nonsense responses seemed to clear the air about some racial issues – he refused to be baited into any kinds of divisive comments.

Walter Mosley

I wasn’t prepared to pitch my novel to agents or editors, although many participants pay extra for such meetings, which are scheduled throughout the week-end. However Saturday afternoon, the conference allows one to “Ask a Pro” in an open setting where professionals are available for brief Q & A chats on a variety of topics.

A Saturday night highlight of the event is the Gala Cocktail Networking Party, with a nice buffet and a semi-cash bar, followed by the Poetry and Jazz Party, featuring the all-poet band COPUS and readings by poetry summit presenters. George and I read at the open mic portion, with the talented band providing an awesome soundtrack.

Screenshot_2020-03-14 Hightail Spaces
Reading “Cosmic Blueprint” with COPUS.

Sunday the conference continued with more sessions on all tracks, while others made their way to a pre-paid scheduled hour of Speed Dating with Agents.  This activity gives writers a 3-minute opportunity to pitch their projects with the agents at private tables set around the room. At the sound of the ending bell, writers move on to get in line at another agent’s table. It’s a hectic, crazy experience, but if you deliver a well-composed pitch, the agent may offer some good advice, or even request that you send more pages for review.

Other than the speed dating, the pace of the conference slows on Sunday as participants check out and begin their homeward journeys with much to process: supplemental material (much is available online); lectures and other sessions (which can be purchased on tape); promotional materials from the many vendors; and books from the expansive collection of the bookstore.

George and Ray

With much on my mind and a little extra time to kill,  I headed out to the Embarcadero and walked along the bayside enjoying the cool breeze and  sunshine, in search of that San Francisco clam chowder. I found a hearty bowl at The Waterfront before my ride to the airport. Likewise, the SFWC served up satisfying, nourishing, invigorating fare.

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.

The Plot Thickens at Iowa Summer Writing Festival

IowaPictureI enjoyed a great week in Iowa city at the Summer Writing Festival. This is the second year I’ve indulged myself in this floating literary community, where writers of all genres, abilities and experience wade into the waters as deeply as they please. Personally, I wanted to dive into the deep end and participate as fully as I could. But getting the most out of it takes a lot of energy.

I had signed up for Kelly Dwyer’s class on “Plotting the Novel.” To start with, Kelly took it easy on us, not requiring any reading or writing before the class met. But from our first session Sunday night, it was work work work the rest of the week. Our ultimate goal was for each of us to produce a working plot outline for our fiction projects, but additional assignments had us writing every day.

Possible distractions from writing  are the social activities of the week-long sessions. I wouldn’t want to miss these bits that make the Summer Writing Festival special. Every day the “11th Hour” lectures feature presentations from the talented faculty. A Monday night reception (with open bar) at the most excellent Prairie Lights book store is followed by readings. The Beadology store offers an open mic for the participants to share their works in progress. Throughout the week there are dinners, dancing, and lunches with classmates. All day every day participants are hanging out writing, drinking coffee, and socializing at the Bread Garden.

Arriving in Iowa City I had only the vaguest idea for a book. By the end of the week I had somehow put together a fairly detailed outline for my next novel. Thanks to Kelly Dwyer and the helpful and astute comments from classmates, I have enough of a plan to start work immediately, plus an opening scene and lots of good ideas. Beyond that, I also feel refreshed , energized and motivated to begin the new project.