by ANNA RABHAN
This past weekend, almost 200 writers came together in Jacksonville at the University of North Florida 2010 Writers Conference (www.unfwritersconference.com) for three days of workshops, critiques, networking and the chance to get published. Most of these writers live in North Florida, but some came from as far away as Texas, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. They were all attracted by the opportunity to meet and work with well-known – even famous – writers and others who, like themselves, are finding their way at the beginning of the literary maze. All seemed to agree that the people, place, program and purpose particular to this conference produced a creative energy uncommon to many such conferences.
The process of signing in on Friday morning could not have been smoother or more relaxed due to the organizational efforts beforehand of the UNF Division of Continuing Education staff, including Events Planning Associate Margaret Hardy, the University Center staff and the conference leadership provided by Director Sharon Y. Cobb, screenwriting instructor at UNF. Cobb was quite pleased with the turnout. “If we’d had 125 people, I would have been really overjoyed,” she said. “We got 185! There were 90 last year, so we doubled. We had to keep opening critique workshops. We originally started with five workshops and we ended up with nine.” Registrants received a slick package of information that included a brochure detailing the weekend’s schedule, a floor plan, session descriptions and faculty biographies. Flashes of the brochure’s green cover were seen before and after most sessions as attendees referred to this important information. The Florida Writers Association (www.floridawriters.net) co-sponsored the conference and the folder also included a brochure advertising that organization’s 9th annual conference in October of this year. A few bookmarks promoting faculty members’ books, an evaluation form for the whole conference and, best of all, a sheet of writing tips from each of the faculty members rounded out the package of conference materials. Sign-in was so smooth and quick that participants had plenty of time to enjoy the delicious continental breakfast and get to know one another a little. This is the kind of opportunity that contributed to the feeling expressed well by one writer who was overheard saying, “You feel like you’re working with your friends, which is missing in so many of these kinds of conferences.” This friendly atmosphere was also encouraged during Cobb’s opening remarks when she pointed out that Rik Feeney, a faculty member at last year’s conference and a regular at area writing conferences and workshops, had requested special accommodations for his “special” needs, including “hot ladies, filet mignon, frozen margaritas and 10-second hugs.”
Steve Berry delivered the keynote address. Those who regularly attend conferences in northeast Florida had probably heard him speak before. He makes it very clear that he attributes his success to 12 years of working with a local critique group and going to writers workshops. Now that he has achieved success in writing international thrillers such as The Charlemagne Pursuit and The Venetian Betrayal, he tries to pay the help he received forward whenever possible at conferences and workshops. Berry spoke on “What Every Writer Should Never Forget.” In a superbly organized and smoothly delivered presentation, he addressed issues of craft, the writing process and developments in publishing. The best comment about his speech was the resounding applause it elicited.
The UNF University Center is an open, airy conference facility with plenty of room downstairs for exhibition tables, which several jewelry and clothing merchants and a video production company put to use during the conference. There are also many café tables and chairs, as well as armchairs and coffee tables, providing space for conferees to put their things down, regroup and chat during breaks. Those who attend conferences on a regular basis have learned to appreciate such “landing pads.” The Friday workshops were all conducted in large, well-lit conference rooms in different wings of the building, thus sparing those attending the feeling of being cattle colliding in congested lanes on the way to boxcars. Another feature of the physical setup that conferees appreciated was the long conference tables in the workshop rooms and the numerous electrical outlets in the floors and along the walls of the rooms. It is much easier to concentrate on writing and taking notes when one has a table to work on than when one is forced to balance a laptop or notebook while sitting in a chair with no arms. Most agreed that it was quite cool in the building, but the experienced simply pulled on the extra layer they’d brought. Most everyone else was just thankful the facility’s cooling system was working over the sweltering Florida weekend.
The Friday workshops had been arranged and the faculty recruited by Victor DiGenti, FWA’s Regional Director for North Florida. DiGenti has a lot of experience, having organized a regional conference for FWA, worked on the Florida Heritage Book Festival for a couple of years and worked on UNF’s conference last year. That experience was evident in the careful choice of the 12 faculty members. Who better to speak on “The Top 10 Reasons Why Editors Reject a Non-Fiction Proposal,” for example, than interim editor-in-chief at the University Press of Florida, Amy Gorelick, who has reviewed thousands of proposals during her time at UPF? All of the workshops were quite full. Sharon Cobb’s “Characters on the Couch: Creating Characters from the Inside Out” even required that several extra rows of chairs be brought in. Conferee Kimberly Smith-Johnson of Jacksonville, who is finishing up a young adult novel, said, “The workshops were a nice mix of informing and entertaining. Every minute I think you could get something out of; there weren’t any lulls.” One theme that began to emerge during the workshops was that of evaluation. Participants had the opportunity to evaluate each workshop, lunch speaker, critique group and, indeed, the conference as a whole, which indicates a strong desire to improve from year to year. Cobb said, “I read every one of the forms from last year and proposed some of the changes for this year. We added a Young Adult critique workshop and a Children’s Books [workshop]. This year we added nonfiction and memoir together. So [the] evaluations are really important.”
Conference attendees were in for a treat while they enjoyed their delicious boxed lunches of sandwich wraps, chips, fruit and cookies. Award-winning middle grade and young adult novelist Adrian Fogelin delivered a dynamic and entertaining speech titled “The Writer’s Journey,” in which she expounded on humorous tips, such as, “Never poke your reader in the eye,” with even more humorous stories and explanations. Afterward, the door prizes (two $50 gas cards) were awarded. The day ended with a wine and cheese reception, during which published authors and conferees mingled and authors sold and signed their books. The number of writers who stayed through the reception was impressive. Usually, after a hard day of learning about and discussing their craft at such conferences, writers just want to get home and put their feet up. But at the UNF Writers Conference, attendees didn’t seem to want the fun to end!
Writers got down to business after Saturday and Sunday’s yummy continental breakfasts. The day and a half was devoted to some grueling, but immensely useful and satisfying, critique work. The success of these sessions was predicated, in part, on the dedication of the faculty. Participants had emailed their submissions long before the conference weekend. Those submissions were then distributed to the critique group members and leader that each participant would be working with. At the start of the conference, Sharon Cobb had this to say about the critique group leaders: “[They had] already been communicating with their students; they’ve been solving problems about technical things. They have risen above any expectation to care for their students. They’ve been so kind and so caring and dedicated to their students already and they haven’t even met them.” While Larry Brasington of Gainesville, who writes fiction and science fiction quipped, “Well, I’m not quitting my day job,” he and the other members of his critique group all agreed that they were getting comments that they could use to improve their work. Frank Coombs of Alabama, who writes action adventure, added, “The primary reason I came was for the critiques – to be able to get out of my usual circle of critique readers and get some feedback from other people was important.” The critique group leaders were equally impressed with their “students.” Award-winning author of middle grade readers, Jane Wood, co-chaired the Children’s Books critique group with Frances Keiser, who writes the Pelican Pete children’s books. Wood said of her group, “They’re a really cohesive bunch. They’re really going above and beyond to be constructive, and most of their books are quite good.” It’s a good thing that conferees had decadent iced brownies to refuel with during Saturday afternoon’s critique session as critiquing one another’s work brought up all kinds of complex issues that the groups discussed. Sandra McDonald’s General Fiction group delved into the geography of the page and, in Wood’s and Keiser’s group, participants debated where the line of acceptable topics and language in children’s books is drawn.
Saturday’s lunch speaker offered an opportunity for participants to think about the business side of writing. Josh Talkington, Chief Marketing Officer of the video marketing company Snapshot Interactive, gave a lively presentation about the importance and utility of video marketing. He also offered those attending the conference an unbeatable price on his company’s one-minute author videos. Jerry Smith, legendary local producer, also spoke briefly at lunch and made a very interesting prediction. He said that there is a film renaissance in the Southeast and, consequently, he predicted that the UNF Writers Conference would grow to at least 300 people next year!
Sunday’s lunch speaker, Mary Bridgman, whose work has been published in both national and local publications and who reads her essays regularly on WJCT’s In Context, presented “Redefining Success,” in which she compared her success in the business world to her success in writing. Afterward, 16-year-old Allyson Richards won the very exciting door prize of full tuition to next year’s UNF Writers Conference!
After lunch on Sunday, those who had submitted the first page of their manuscript along with their registration had it critiqued by a panel of faculty members in a general session. It was surprising how many conferees stayed for the critique. Usually when this is attempted at conferences, everyone but the group of people whose pages are being critiqued leaves, but just about all 90 or so people who had been at lunch stayed. Vic DiGenti, author of the Windrusher books, moderated the panel. Panelists included screenwriter and well-known local writing coach John Boles, memoirist Thelma Young and fiction writer cum creative writing instructor Sohrab Homi Fracis. DiGenti said that he received over 40 submissions of first pages but, due to time limitations, he had to narrow it down to about half that number. Participants read their page and then the panel offered their constructive criticism. A survey of some of those who read their pages revealed a consensus that the experience had been fruitful, but everyone present seemed to be taking notes, no doubt considering how the suggestions offered could be used to improve his or her own work.
The UNF 2010 Writers Conference wrapped up on Sunday with what most of the writers had been anxiously awaiting – the Pitch Book workshop. Most of you who have read this far are probably writers and may be considering attending this conference next year but have likely not heard of the term “pitch book.” That’s because this crown jewel of the conference was Sharon Cobb’s own brainchild. Last year, when she was brought in at the last minute to help organize the 2009 conference, Cobb said to herself, “We need agents.” Unfortunately, it was too late to provide that, so she took a page from the screenwriting world and decided to have writers prepare their pitches (literally a sales pitch of a writer’s book or screenplay) to be compiled into a book, which would be sent along later to agents, editors, publishers and producers that she would recruit. The concept worked so well that 46 requests were made for additional materials from 30 writers who attended in 2009. Cobb had refined the process and made some changes from the previous year, so conferees received a packet of information and instructions, which everyone went over together. Conferees also discussed how to write a good pitch. Cobb exhorted everyone to provide any party who requested additional materials with exactly what they wanted how they wanted it because, she observed in yet another example of the collegiality that had developed over the weekend, “If we start getting a reputation for the writers adhering to the guidelines and really being professional about it – that’s going to be good for all of us.” When Cobb asked how many people intended to submit pitches, virtually everyone in the room raised his or her hand! Even after closing remarks and a farewell from the conference organizers, the energy and motivation were still obviously high. Writers discussed amongst themselves their experiences in pitching manuscripts, their game plans for crafting their pitches and more. These writers were clearly excited and energized, or, more than likely, they were re-energized by this excellent writers conference.
Organizers expect next year’s University of North Florida Writers Conference to be even bigger and better, so keep an eye on www.unfwritersconference.com for information and registration details.
The University of North Florida 2010 Writers Conference
by ANNA RABHAN