Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Making of a Writers Conference

By Annette Dashofy

As the first snowflakes fall in Pennsylvania, I’m already nervously anticipating next spring. Specifically, mid May.

As everyone probably knows already, I am coordinator of the 2009 Pennwriters Conference. I still can’t say with any degree of certainty whether I’d have accepted the job had I known how much work it was going to be. And it isn’t so much the work. It’s the rejection. I’m a writer. I’m used to rejection. But I can accumulate enough of it with my manuscripts. Do I really need more of it from agents and editors that I invite to attend the conference?

Apparently, YES.

But I’m starting to breathe a little. The line-up looks good. So far. There is still much to be done. However, I thought since I had no idea what was really involved, unless you’ve tackled something like this, you probably don’t either. Therefore, as a public service to anyone thinking of organizing a writer’s conference, I am going to report on what it takes and what goes on behind the scenes.

Of the utmost importance is having a team. This is where having contacts, friends, and a good network come in handy. My first task as conference coordinator was finding a major-name keynote speaker. In 2008, we had Joyce Carol Oates. Nothing like having big shoes to fill! But with the support and assistance of Mary Alice Gorman from Mystery Lovers Bookshop, I was able to speak with Lisa Scottoline and she agreed to take the role.

After that BIG ONE, the next few were easy. I knew who I wanted for Saturday’s luncheon keynote: Tim Esaias, local, award-winning writer with poetry and speculative fiction published in more languages than I can count. He accepted my pleading invitation.

Next, I started using my connections in the mystery world. I asked John Lamb and CJ Lyons to be special guest speakers and both agreed immediately.

At some point, I realized that I was compiling my dream conference. And I was going to be too busy to enjoy it!

I had my top four speakers lined up. Since all four of my first choices said yes, I guess I became a little spoiled. My attempts to acquire agents and editors to attend brought me crashing to earth. As I mentioned above, rejection became the norm. However, four wonderful agents eventually agreed to come. Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency came on board followed by Uwe Stender of TriadaUS, Paige Wheeler of Folio Literary Agency, and Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident. Editors were even tougher. Jane Friedman of Writers Digest and Matt Holliday, editor of Pennsylvania Magazine both agreed to come. But editors of novel-length fiction were an even bigger challenge.

Back in June, in the midst of the agent/editor hunt, another matter required attention. On the Thursday before the conference, Pennwriters will hold two day-long intensives: one for fiction writers and one for nonfiction. I called for help from Pennwriters president, Lisa Kastner, and the 2008 and 2010 conference coordinator, Ayleen Stellhorn. Working together, we came up with the wonderful Marta Perry to lead the fiction intensive and the always popular Mary Jo Rulnick to again teach the nonfiction one.

Weeks and months passed. I’d begun this process shortly after the New Year. Planning had started in earnest after the 2008 conference in May. Here it was…October…and I still was stuck on agents and editors! Needing a break, I switched gears for a week and focused on the workshops. I’m still a long way from having those ready to go, but I’ve found authors and teachers much easier to deal with and willing to help.

Still, I want the agent/editor issue settled. I want to be able to put my full attention on the workshops without wondering who might be willing to give up a weekend and come listen to pitches. I called in favors. I begged other authors to ask their editors to come. Finally, Esi Sogah from Avon said YES.

Of course, like good writing, conference planning contains twists and complications. One day recently, I received an email from Alyssa Eisner Henkin saying she needed to back out. Later that same day, another message popped into my inbox from Colleen Lindsay of FinePrint Literary stating an interest in coming.

Which brings us to the end of October. I am waiting to hear back from a handful of editors. I’d like to bring in one more agent, but if I can’t find anyone else, I think the four I’ve got are great!

I have a fantastic team of committee heads. We’ve had two extremely productive meetings. We have set a menu and planned a beach party (in theme only…no sand) for Saturday night. I have no fears about things like registration, the basket auction, the author’s tea and book signing, the hospitality suite, brochures, or read and critique sessions. Those departments are all in excellent hands.

While I’m pleased with the progress we’ve all made up to this point, there is soooo much to do. We want to open registration online on January second. That leaves TWO MONTHS to have the conference largely in hand.

Stick around. I’ll continue to post occasionally about my progress, the set-backs, the victories, and the stumbling blocks.

The 2009 Pennwriters Conference: A Writer’s Tool Chest will be held at the Pittsburgh Airport Marriott, May 15-17, 2009.


Tory said...

Congrats, Annette, on it all coming together.

Thanks for all your hard work!

Annette said...

And thank you, Tory. Thanks to you, the Penn Pals and gift bags are also on my DO NOT WORRY ABOUT list.

Joyce said...

You're doing a great job, Annette. Quit worrying!

Annette said...

Joyce, I'll stop worrying at noon, Sunday, May 17.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Annette, If I were having a conference, I'd surely be comfortable with you at the helm.

BTW, just returned from Magna Cum Murder in Muncie IN. Great little conference. Jim Huang, who will organize Bouchercon next year was in charge of the programs.

Barb D'Amato, Austin Camacho and I ran an hour-long workshop on writing an interactive Flash Fiction Mystery. We needed another hour, but it was hilarious.

Jennie Bentley said...

Sounds awesome! You're obviously doing a stellar job, Annette - even if you're tearing your hair out - so I second Joyce: you need to quit worrying!

nancy said...

Annette, you have some enormous shoes to fill. (Pennwriter conferences have always been AWESOME, and I go to a lot of conferences!) But you have everything it takes to create a great event--including that worrying paranoia, which is a good thing, I think.

Getting editors to leave NYC is hard--especially now when the economy is tough and they're all doing double duty. It's especially difficult for them to plan anything beyond the 4-month period of their "seasons." If only we didn't need such long leadtime, I think we'd have better success. Ah, well--the nature of the beast.

Thanks so very much for all your long, hard work!

Annette said...

Will, the workshop sounds like it was great fun for all involved!

And thanks to everyone for your words of encouragement. Some days I think I've got things well in hand and other days...not so much.

If only there were about 30 hours in a day and 10 days in a week, I'd be in much better shape.

kathie said...

what a great job you've done!! I know there's a lot more to go, but wow, you've done a ton so far.