PNWA Summer Conference: After Action Report

The weekend before last I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Summer Conference, four days of writing seminars and pitching to agents and editors.

My short summary is, “This would have been worthwhile if I had been able to really utilize what it offered.” Because this came right on the heels of two weeks in Kansas, work was not inclined to give me any more time off. And I was out of vacation hours to boot. Plus, my novel did not get finished. And no agent wants to invest time and energy into an unfinished. novel.

Starting out, I was determined to get the most out of my money. Because I’m a PNWA member and I registered stupid early, I think I paid only $395 for the weekend, plus $50 so that my girlfriend could attend one of the dinners with me. So my goal was to be there for every blessed moment I could manage.

Thursday night was a dessert reception at around 8. There had been seminars during the day, but I was at work so I missed them. The dessert was done buffet style. The keynote speaker that night was Andre Dubus III. I didn’t know his name before this, but I’d heard of at least one of his books: House of Sand and Fog. He was a wonderful speaker, and not at all what I would have expected. When they gave his introduction, the awards and recognitions he received made me think he was going to be this subdued scholarly type. Instead he was a lively guy with a Bostonian accent. (I will have the phrase, “Wicked awesome!” stuck in my head for a while.)

His talk was really nice, seasoned with anecdotes about classic authors and quotes. He is not an outlining sort of guy, and had much to say regarding the discovery of a story as you write it. One line that stuck with me, which I’m going to paraphrase horribly, was that there was a difference between the story that flows out of you and the story you assemble more consciously. If you’re the sort of person who is a very deadline driven sort of writer and you just have to churn out a novel to fit specific things you want to see, then you are just making up the story. Whereas if you let it flow out of you, you are imagining the story that’s within you.

It was a pretty striking thing to say at the beginning of a conference dedicated towards people trying to make a career out of selling their words. He expressed great respect for people who write to pay the bills, and make sacrifices to their art to do so. But still. Wow.

Friday night the girlfriend and I attended the dinner. This was a bit of a fiasco on a few levels. Our recollection was that we had bought a meal ticket for her for Saturday night. She wanted to be there for the awards banquet in the remote chance that I was a finalist for the contest. So it was a little frustrating to realize that we instead had a ticket for Friday. I didn’t bother complaining, since it was academic at that point which dinner we went to.

Further fiasco occured with the catering of the meal. It was buffet style again. Due to miscommunication with my girlfriend, she was one of the first people to get her food and I was one of the last. By the time I got up there, they were running out of stuff. Which meant the line just stopped while they went to get replacement food. I was there a good ten minutes before I just made do with what I had on my plate and forgot about the stuff I was hoping to obtain. This is not really the conference’s fault but, instead, the catering of the Hilton. Given the volume of people attending the dinner, and the fact that this was a “conference center” attached to the hotel rather than just some spare space in the hotel proper, you would think they’d be able to smoothly handle catering for large volumes of people. But, the answer is, “Not really.” One of the Hilton staff was running around trying to smooth ruffled feathers, but it was a lot of “too little, too late.”

The speaker that evening was Lisa Gardner. She was also quite wonderful, and filled with lots of great stories of her early work at becoming an author. The image that continues to put a smile on my face is the thought of her and a friend at age 17, trying to do research for her first novel by interviewing prostitutes in Portland.


Saturday was my first full day at the conference. I had to skip the morning panel because I had a half hour editor appointment smack-dab in the middle of the hour and a half panel. This represented my other frustration: I basically only had one day of panels to attend, and most of them had one of my appointments smack dab in the middle of them. =(

The editor appointment went well. There were a half dozen or so other people also in the appointment. We got to ask him questions about the firm he represented and read our pitches to him. He didn’t think his publishing company would necessarily be interested in my piece, since they mostly have female-targeted books, but he asked me to send what I have anyway.

Between this and my agent appointment, we grabbed a snack at the coffeeshop next to the restaurant. It was pretty mediocre, and seemed crafted to be mediocre.

Around lunchtime I pitched to my first agent. She was not interested in my pitch past the point of me saying, “The novel is not finished.” She gave suggestions regarding things I should think about regarding the sellability of my novel in general, but she didn’t ask to hear my pitch at all.

Lunch was in the restaurant. It was slightly better than our morning snack, but the service was ridiculously awful. Really, what is it with hotel restaurants and lousy service?

I attended an awesome panel called “Career Plan Boot Camp”, presented by by Ann Charles, Jacquie Rogers and Wendy Delaney. It was an excellent presentation and I felt like I really learned a lot. I feel horribly intimidated, but I learned a lot.

After that it was a panel on “The Secret To Grabbing An Agent’s Attention” presented by author Penny Warner and agent Amberly Finarelli from Andrea Hurst and Associates Literary Management. There was some really great information presented at this panel, but I had to duck out in the middle of it to do my final pitch of the day.

My afternoon pitchee was another agent and she was really awesome. I liked her a lot. She was bummed that my novel was unfinished, especially when she heard it was steampunky, but was willing to let me practice pitching to her and provided good advice. She also answered some questions I had about her as an agent, which I also thought she handled well. She gave me a card so I could query her when the book is finished.

By the end of Saturday, I wash bushwhacked. When my ride home suggested we bag on doing the dinner, the combination of exhaustion and memories of the logistical nightmare from the last dinner resulted in me suddenly wanting to get away as soon as possible.

In a similar vein, I didn’t go to the final events on Sunday, which appeared to be just readings by the literary contest winners and a talk by another guest (Elizabeth Lyon). I’m sure it would have been good, but I was horribly exhausted and parking was $8 a day. I tossed in the towel. Between this conference and the workshop conference before it, I was utterly burnt out.

I’d like to go again next year, though. Hopefully with a better plan than I had this year.

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