What I Learned at the JRW Conference: Day Two

As the second day at the 2012 James River Writers Conference began, I was ready to dive into whatever the day held.  The previous day had been a whirlwind of information and insightful discussion. 

The opening session on day two kicked things off by discussing the path from completed manuscript to a query to publication.  Editor Liz Bicknell and literary agent Molly Jaffa were on hand to discuss the differences between a proposal, a pitch and a query, while also outlining what specific traits they are looking for in work that excites them.

For attendees who were not yet ready to submit manuscripts, the most inspiring moments came from seeing how Bicknell and Jaffa interacted with their authors and fellow panelists Jeri Watts and Lana Krumwiede.  The support and respect evident between the women underlined the fact that editors, agents, and authors should act like business partners — each person is equally interested in making sure the book does well.

My next panel that morning was called “Your Day Job and Your Book.”  I was particularly curious what topics the panelists would cover, especially since I worked an office job that I often saw as an obstacle to my writing dreams.

Author Nancy Redd stressed, “Everyone’s life is full of material for some project.”  No matter what we may be doing for a day job, she asked us to think about what we wanted from our creative work. Who are we writing for? Why are we writing? What is our end goal?

Author Brad Parks chimed in by saying, “Writing with authority is good writing.”  The best goal is to ignore the fickle muse and commit to a consistent writing routine, no matter whether you were writing to escape your job or to enhance it.

As I thought about the legal ramifications involved with making my co-workers or customers characters in a farcical piece, I was pleasantly surprised when the panel “Finding the Time, Keeping the Faith” picked up where the last had left off.  Before starting the conversation, each panelist listed the different aspects of their busy lives and how it challenged their writing schedule.  Each admission felt like a group acknowledgement: how could we possibly write when the world gets in the way?

The panelists debated whether it was better practice to write every day or to write when you can make the time.  Editor Cherise Fisher suggested, “Start with a small amount of time and make it richer and richer until you have a solid practice.”  The only required constant was self-discipline.  Author Jeri Watts agreed, “You are the writer in charge of your writing.  We can all do it because we have to.”

With these words echoing in my mind, I grabbed my lunch and headed to the facilitated lunch discussion on whether or not or pursue an MFA.  I chose this topic because I’m in the middle of the application process for an MFA program.  I wasn’t entirely confident about my chances, so I thought I should probably talk over my options with a neutral person.

My choice was fortuitous; the discussion was headed up by author Emily Mitchell, who had gone through an MFA program, and her husband Jason Tyree, who was also an author and had not done a grad program.  “An MFA is a way to say that writing is the most important thing,” Mitchell said, although an MFA doesn’t guarantee a writer immediate publication.  It does, however, grant someone teaching experience, as well as mentors and a supportive community of peers.

Tyree, on the other hand, took the position that writers do not need an MFA to find their niche and make their own path.  “The key is time and taking yourself seriously,” he said.  He reminded us that writing is not self-promotion, but a way to connect with people who share our interests.  Our writing paths should follow that same philosophy.

The day wound down as I headed to Pitchapalooza with literary agent Alec Shane and The Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry.  The day had begun with industry professionals revealing the process committed authors take to publish their work.  Pitchapalooza promised to start a number of writers on this same path by offering advice on how they could strengthen their pitch and get agents interested in their work.

As I watched nervous, eager authors stand up and talk up their novels and memoirs, I realized that writing was a contact sport.  We writers may think that our work is a lonely profession.  But the truth is that we need other people and new experiences to deepen our perspective and to help us refine our work.

The 2012 conference was just one place where those new connections were possible, but the sense of possibility there was fantastic.  I’m still wondering what great books will come out of this past weekend.

— Elizabeth Rabin, JRW website contributor

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