2011 PNWA Summer Conference: After Action Report

This year I attended my second conference run by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. This year was a very different experience from last year in many ways. It was at a different hotel, I was able to attend on Thursday and Friday, and I wasn’t pitching to any agents or editors. This led to some good moments, some bad.

The Venue

The venue this year, the Hyatt Regency Bellevue,  was pretty posh. I’ve had the chance to visit a random sampling of hotels, many of which try to have the veneer of posh. But this is the first time I was actually impressed. It may have just been that this was a newer hotel than I usually go to, and other hotels were once this shiny looking. But I was impressed. I mean, there was a guy whose only job was to open doors for people, even though there was an automatic sliding door five feet away from him.

I also got lost a few times. The ground floor and garage is a sprawling, non-Euclidean maze that took me a long time to get used to. Also, I had a headache for all of Friday and Saturday. I’m blaming the recycled air of the hotel, though eating fast food three meals a day for a couple days probably didn’t help.


As I said in an earlier post, I decided I just wasn’t going to pitch. Though I had a paranormal romance novel that I had started late last year with the hope of pitching, I did very little work on it in several months. It still sat with an incomplete first rough draft and a lot of uncertainty about how to approach it. The feedback I got from the PNWA literary contest took a lot of wind out of my sails and left me thinking I had to drastically rethink the entire book. So after a lot of thought and consultation with friends, I decided I wouldn’t pitch.

I tried to cancel my appointments via email, but they had already printed up all the packets. I was told I had to turn my appointment cards in when I checked in. So, when I arrived early Thursday morning, I asked about doing just that. The volunteer didn’t know what to do about that, so she turned to the nearest expert that could answer my question. That expert happened to be PNWA’s president, Pam Binder. Who was incredulous that I wanted to just give these up. There would be long lines of people trying to get more appointments, and I was just handing mine in?

And, really, pitching your novel is sort of the main focus of the conference. It’s why you pay $300-500 to attend, as opposed to the $50 you spend to attend Norwescon. It’s a chance to make that personal connection with the person who can sell your book, rather than wasting away in a series of slush piles. But eventually she believed me and life moved on. But then I spent a lot of that day having the occasional panic attack and thinking I’d made a huge mistake.

One Day Writing Seminar, Part 1

Most of the day was spent in a writing seminar, the first half of which was taught by C.C. Humphries. Humphries was an excellent speaker, but it seemed to take him a long while to get to the meatier part of his talk. He brought a lot to the table in terms of experience, both as a writer and an actor. The part I enjoyed the most was when he got to ways to use your words. He brought up his own three Rs  of writing (Repetition, Rhythm, and Rhetoric), and talked about things like rhetorical rules and how Churchill used them to make his memorable speeches.

One Day Writing Seminar, Part 2

The second half of the seminar was taught by Robert Dugoni, who crammed a whole lot of really great information into his three and a half hours. And provided a monstrous handout that was really, really informative. I was struck, more than anything else, by his humility. He approached the class with the attitude of, “These are the things I screwed up and now know to tell you not to do.” He opened with the encouragement as authors to divorce from your ego and to come to terms with the fact that “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

The great illustration about the importance of craft that he gave was when he used the example of playing a violin. If you gave a violin to someone who had never played one and encouraged them to just “play from the heart,” you’d get something that sounded very little like music.

From there he covered a lot of pitfalls to avoid, focusing mostly on the opening chapter where you really need to hook a reader. He didn’t get through his whole handout. That would have taken more than three and a half hours. But he covered a lot of things, all with an eye towards, “These are things that tend not to work, and this is why.”

Boiling Down Your Book: One Paragraph to Pitch to Agents or Share with Friends

I’d sat in on a talk by Janna Cawrse Esarey on doing pitches before, but there was only one other panel in this time slot and this was the more interesting of the two. Plus I knew that she would be a good speaker. It was just as good as I remembered, but it fed into my overall anxiety over not pitching. And then she brought up that we would be partnering up to practice pitches. Not having anything I felt comfortable pitching, I bagged out to take an early dinner at Wendy’s. So Janna, if you were wondering why someone from near the front suddenly bailed on your talk and you happen to read this: It’s not you, it’s me.

Self-Promotion for the Introvert

I signed up for this thinking, “I don’t like to talk to people. I would love to learn how to promote myself without actually having to talk to anyone.” Had I read the description, I would have realized how very wrong that would be. It was about overcoming your fear of talking to people. I think other people had made the same mistake, because a lot of people fled from the room when it became clear that we’d be doing some exercises used in improv acting classes.

Kim Kircher and Lorraine Wilde were both excellent presenters, and I overcame my fear to participate in their exercises. And had a good time.

The part I least enjoyed about this was the room provided by the conference. Most of the events took place in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom, which were partitioned as needed. For the seminar, which had nothing opposite it, they had one big space. Then, for the first session after that, they split it up for two things. But then they didn’t open it back up when there was only one thing for you to attend. So, until people started fleeing in terror of improve, the room was filled to capacity and people were unable to find seating.

Keynote Speaker Steve Berry

The day wrapped up with a dessert and keynote address from author Steve Berry. He was a fun speaker to listen to, and the piece of advice he gave that I took away with me was, “Don’t write what you know, write what you love.” Steve Berry, prior to his success at writing thrillers, was a divorce lawyer. The last thing he wanted to do was write about divorces. As someone who’s worked a series of jobs he’s disliked for his entire adult life, I found that very inspiring.


Friday morning was entirely dedicated to pitches. There was a another session on pitching, a forum with the editors to hear what they are looking for, and a forum with the agents to hear what they are looking for. I slept in and arrived in time to have lunch with a friend at Sushi Land. Because I love conveyor belt sushi and tuna salad rolls. Nothing says “Japan” like canned tuna and mayo.

Now I want sushi.

Writing Great Books for Young Adults

Regina Brooks presented a very interesting talk on the business side of YA. Since I’m working on a YA novella, I figured this was a must. I think I was hoping for an answer to the question of, “Oh, god, what have I gotten myself into and how should I write this thing?” But I didn’t actually ask that and she focused mostly on the business end (average word counts, how to market, etc). I was surprised to learn that the age ranges they talk about with different sub-genres of YA refers more to the ages of the character than the audience who will read it. But, on the flip side, if you write a book about foul-mouthed tweens who engage in ultra-violence, you may have trouble selling the book.

Revision: Are You a Barfer or a Panters?

C.C. Humphries and Robert Dugoni teamed up for an hour and a half on ways to approach your next draft. They highlighted great things to look for, including examining what each scene does and phrases that you can delete to tighten up your writing. Really wonderful and informative.

Featured Speaker Jane Porter

Dinner was not a disaster (which was the case last year), but there were still long lines for the food buffet. Jane Porter‘s speech gave insight into the amount of rejection she went through before becoming the highly successful author she is today.It was okay, if a bit depressing.

The real highlight to the night was being able to share a table with Karlene Petitt and Linda Gray, who both write for the blog Critique Sisters. Karlene, who is also a airplane pilot (!), was also one of the finalists for the PNWA Literary Contest in the Mystery/Thriller category. It was a real honor to meet them.


The Three Narrative Arcs to Every Story

Bill Kenower, Editor-in-Chief of Author Magazine was the man behind this talk. I had thought he was going to cover the three act story structure, but instead he spoke about the different layers of story. In addition to the physical arc (what the characters do) and the emotional arc (what emotional changes the characters go through), he presented the idea of the Intentional Arc. It’s “Why Am I Writing This Story?” It’s not about “to find an agent’ or “to get published.” In the end you’re telling a specific story in the way you know how for a reason, and that informs other choices you make with the story.

I found this whole talk very empowering. I’ve had a lot of stories I’ve shelved because I thought, “Oh, this needs to be something else, because what I wanted to write isn’t viable.” And it really forced me to rethink that attitude and reconsider some projects I’ve shelved. I especially felt a lot more confident about the paranormal romance I’ve been working on. It may not be a Harlequin-style romance, but it’s the sort of story I wanted to write. And I’m going to go forward with it.

Urban Fantasy, or the Scooby Gang Saves the World Again

Some of what I write borders on urban fantasy, and I was curious about Yasmine Galenorn (whose books I’ve bought but not yet read). Sadly, this session didn’t do anything for me. The writing advice was stuff I’d heard before and the examples she used for urban fantasy were almost all from her books. I ended up leaving early.

Start Building Your Author Platform in Today’s E-World

Susan Wingate led this presentation. She was an excellent speaker, but only covered marketing platforms or electronic resources a little bit early on. Most of the rest of it seemed to focus on query letters and pitches to agents. Which wasn’t really what I was looking for.

This was the only time I went to anything in the auditorium, which was pretty fun. The seats were much more comfortable than in other rooms.


Lunch was another quick bite at Wendy’s around the corner. There I ran into Nathan Everett and we sat and chatted before he had to bolt off to an appointment. Nathan seems to be everywhere these days. I met him originally when he was organizing events for NaNoWriMo, but he was driving agents to and from the airport for the conference in addition to working a table for his publishing company, Long Tale Press. And the following day he was kicking off a 30 day road trip to promote his new book, The Gutenberg Rubric.  Very exciting stuff.

Writing in Scenes (Parts 1-3)

Saturday afternoon was filled with a three-part workshop led by SF writer Nancy Kress. It was, in short, amazing. Hands on exercises and really breaking down elements of scenes. I filled my notebook with pages and pages of awesome ways to look at structure to scene. I really felt like I’d gained a lot of insight into how to approach my writing now.

And in the end…

I bagged on the Saturday night awards dinner and didn’t bother going Sunday. I was exhausted, my head hurt, and there was much less appeal to me for sticking around. Sunday only had readings by contest winners and a two hour writing seminar. The seminar looked interesting, but not so much that I wanted to go all the way over to Bellevue just for it.

The only real grip I come away from the conference with is handouts. Every session I went to was perpetually short on handouts. It wasn’t until Nancy Kress’s workshop that I found out why: The conference told the presenters how many handouts to bring. Nancy was told to bring 60, and she had probably twice that many in her workshop. Somehow the conference really lowballed seating and handouts for presentations. Otherwise I had a really spectacular time there and felt like I got my money’s worth.

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