This past weekend, I attended the 2019 James River Writers Conference. I walked in this year feeling different. I didn’t care I didn’t have a book to pitch and all I wanted was to hear about was quality writing in all of the many forms it takes. I took some notes but I realized what I needed was to be around other writers.
I needed to catch up and laugh with some of my friends.
I needed to be reminded to set aside time for myself each week to put pen to paper and let this particular truth deliver a gut punch: I shouldn’t be devoting more time to my blog than to all my other writing.
Which is exactly what I have been doing for several months now.
Every novelist, screenwriter, memoirist, short story writer, journalist, poet and agent reminded me that there was story still beating inside of me.
The keynote speaker, the incomparable Marita Golden, emboldened us to celebrate ourselves as writers even if we are not published or under contract. This wise woman had me at the edge of my seat telling us how she had been birthed twice. Once on the day of her actual birth and again when her mother told her she was a writer. I also was blessed to hear her on the panel discussing memoir.
Marita shared that sometimes you need to write the memoir to free yourself to write fiction. The vulnerability in memoir panel impacted me emotionally the most. I love how they brought three writers with wildly different tales to share their points of view. I wish I could take classes regularly from Marita Golden (Migrations of the Heart), Mary Bonina (My Father’s Eyes) and Jon Pineda (Sleep in Me).
A special note about this year’s conference: It was beautiful to see the level of cultural diversity this year. James River Writers Conference has come light years in this respect, especially since my first year as an attendee in 2016. Thanks to the chair, Robin Farmer and co-chair Sonia Johnston for not only creating a conference that ignited my fire to devote more time to my craft but for creating an experience where I had the distinct pleasure of seeing faces that reflected the real world around us.
I spent the weekend at the 15th Annual James River Writers Conference 2017 which started with Master Classes held on Friday, October 13th. I did not attend the master classes but I was there on Saturday and Sunday. The conference offered one-on-one meetings with an agent or an editor, panels on writing (both the business and the craft), Library of Virginia Literary Luncheon featuring an interview with honoree and Richmond native David Baldacci, an opportunity to play the Agent Dating Game and First Pages panel.
Day 1, ready to connect with my fellow writers!
James RIver Writers Conference celebrating 15 years!
There were several sessions running concurrently so I could only go to three each day. The first session was a panel of agents answering questions about paths to publication. One agent, Cherise Fisher, made a striking point that as writers, that we should understand our dreams. The consistent message was that we should be self-aware. We should know our genre, be able to name realistic but comparable titles and take time to research the agents-their Twitter, other authors they represent and books they have sold. Ms. Fisher from Wendy Sherman Associates, Inc. also reminded us not to forget about the smaller publishing houses. I particularly enjoyed the tip that we should write such a dynamic query letter that they should have to do little else before sending it to a publishing house/editor.
The social media panel gave insight into how authors Sadeqa Johnson, Sonia Yoerg and Panio Gianopoulos manage their social media. They covered topics such as when to post, scheduling apps used, blogging and the major importance of a newsletter in reaching your audience. I admired how they didn’t pretend to have it all figured out and advised if you don’t, then seek counsel! A solid piece of advice given by Sadeqa was to know your lane and build from there when posting on your media sites. For example, if you like gardening, post pictures and video of yourself doing things related to that along with content about your writing. They all acknowledged that readers like to feel as if they know you, not just your work.
The Literary Luncheon was fun and the food was tasty. I was grateful they had a real vegetarian option (a flavorful Portobello mushroom and peppers dish). It gave us the opportunity to reflect on the first half of the day with friends (my awesome writing tribe!) and meet new ones. David Baldacci’s interview was engaging and although emerging authors like myself can’t relate to his meteoric rise, I believe it gave us all a dream to aspire to.
The third panel was moderated by a local writer friend of mine, David Streever. It featured Library of Virginia Nonfiction Award Finalists Belle Boggs, Patrick O’ Donnell and Annette Gordon-Reed. Belle Boggs recited a quote I liked: “Writing won’t make you a living but it will make you a life.” They shed light on what it is like to devote copious amounts of time to research, interviewing and unearthing untold stories that were long overdue for its place in the sun.
The end of Day 1 was fascinating: an interview with “Hidden Figures” author Margot Lee Shetterly. Getting to hear how she grew up in a neighborhood full of engineers, professors and mathematicians in Hampton and had no idea the greatness she was in the presence of astounded me. I loved hearing about her professional background which included founding an expatriate magazine in Mexico with her husband and working on Wall Street. I believe we all gasped about how quickly the book and the movie deal came together after the book proposal was accepted. Listening to this woman was a sonic delight I will not soon forget.
The second day was introduced by highlighting Richmond Young Writers’ books. I was inspired by the literary talent of Richmond’s youth led by Bird Cox. After the opening ceremonies, the First Pages panel began. I commend all of these people who submitted their first pages and were willing to be judged. I submitted my first page last year. Although it did not get selected for reading, I remember the anxiety I felt waiting to hear my words read in front of a crowd of strangers.
There was a Lunch and Learn session. I attended the one about content marketing. Phaedra Hise of Legacy Navigator explained in detail what it takes to succeed in that field. She was blunt in what we should expect and be asking for with content marketing. The session was a welcome departure from the long form writing heavily discussed throughout the conference. It opened my eyes to revenue streams with writing that do not get enough attention at events like these.
One of the more notable panels was Sexy Narratives moderated by co-chair Robin Farmer with authors Sadeqa Johnson, Tia Williams and Marguerite Bennett. The way writers describe flirtation, sex and the buildup between two people is more than titillating conversation. Tia Williams referred to it as a “careful, slow manipulation.” I love this advice! We all had a good laugh at their blanket condemnation of clichéd scenes with heaving bosoms and throbbing body parts.
My last panel before the Agent Dating Game was Family Stories: For Your Family or the World? My book draws so much from both mine and my grandmother’s life that I knew I needed to hear whatever the panel had to say about this subject matter. I did come to a realization that since there are many details about my grandmother’s life in Haiti that I cannot corroborate, it is best to keep my work as fiction.
The final event was the Agent Dating Game. It was a rendition of the throwback TV show. This time an agent asks his/her bachelors (or writers in this case) the same three questions about themselves, story lines or characters and based on their answers, determines which author they want to learn more about. The segment even had a corny but hilarious host.
I need to say a few words about this year compared to last year. Outside of the crowd being bigger (they sold out this year!), it was much more diverse. The authors were more of a representation of what I like to see, which is a healthy sprinkling of what this world already has to offer. I hope they continue this inclusion for years to come. No one likes to feel like they are the only, or one of a few.
All in all, I am excited about returning next year. I will definitely be ready to pitch my novel and get to know more of the smiling, nervous, pensive, curious faces I see roaming the Greater Richmond Convention Center in 2018.