The theme of the day was “Inspiration.” Poets & Writers publisher Elliot Figman started the event in San Francisco’s Brava Theater by describing it as “a living, breathing version” of what they offer in their magazine. The live event was similar to a writers’ conference, but it was not limited to writers, it didn’t have the breakout sessions common to such conferences, and was a bit more theatrical in nature. Because it was an all-day event consisting of eight separate sessions, I will not try to cover every moment, and certainly not all in one posting. But there was much of value to share.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize–winner Kay Ryan gave a brief but memorable keynote speech that included a few of her poems. With a wry sense of humor, she admitted that as a “non-joiner,” she rarely attended gatherings such as the one she was opening on that January Saturday morning. Furthermore, she declared that inspiration was a subject of much “bloviation” and joked that “much literature is a result of complaints and self pity.” But she supports the idea that writers need community, even if it’s just knowing that “other writers are out there.”
The first panel of the day focused on local writers’ resources, and there are many—far too many to list here. Representatives from City Lights Books, Small Press Distribution, Poetry Flash, SF Writers Grotto, and Kearny Street Workshop informed the eager audience of several writing-related programs available to Bay Area residents. I was intrigued by two. The first is the Basement Series, sponsored by SF Writers Grotto, which gives emerging writers the opportunity to read in public with published authors. The other is Lit Camp’s Writing and Drinking Club, which is basically writing quietly in a room for two hours followed by an hour of socializing ( i.e., drinking). During the Q&A session, a CWC member made sure that everyone also knew about the California Writers Club.
As part of a panel that focused on self publishing, editor Debra Englander and publicist Amy Packard Ferro discussed ways that writers could promote their work, including social media options. But in responding to the idea that one can simply request attention on these platforms, agent Ted Weinstein cautioned, “The saddest line in the twenty-first century is ‘Follow me back.'” He added that the best way to stand out is to “put something out in the world that is interesting.”
Attendees who had signed up early for the event were encouraged to submit query letters for judges to critique on stage. Three brave writers were chosen to read their letters aloud, which was followed by suggestions from the Perfect Pitch Panel, which consisted of McSweeney’s editor Jordan Bass, Graywolf Press’s Ethan Nosowsky, agent Danielle Svetcov, and publicist Megan Fishmann from Counterpoint Press.
I admit that this session was more helpful than I’d imagined. I previously thought that debut authors didn’t stand a chance of getting published if they submitted manuscripts of 100,000 words or more and, furthermore, that word counts were absolutely necessary to include. Yet one of the writers was pitching a novel of 248,000 words, and the panelists insisted that the length did not deter them from considering it. Svetcov even told the audience, “I don’t think most editors care how many words it is. So leave off the word count.” Nosowsky added, “The length is not as important as the writing.”
Other helpful tidbits from this session:
- Don’t say that a character is quirky. Show it.
- Pull an evocative quote from your book to show off your writing.
- Start with something “arresting.” Be explicit and brief.
- Put most charismatic elements of the book first.
Watch for Part II: Art v. Life and Why We Write