Saturday, March 1, 2008

2008 San Francisco Writers Conference

Last year I wrote a post about why anyone should go to a writers conference as well as my experiences having volunteered at the 2007 San Francisco Writers Conference.

I volunteered again this year, and had an even better time than before.

I carpooled down to The City (which is what San Francisco is called by people in the Bay Area - NOT Frisco or San Fran) with my friend Cindy Pavlinac. I have known Cindy for several years and she holds the same position on the board of directors for the Marin branch of the California Writers Club as I do on the Redwood Writers branch.

Cindy and I arrived early Friday morning wanting to hear Kemble Scott speak at the opening session. That was important because we wanted to introduce ourselves to him since he will be our guest speaker at a joint meeting for our two clubs in April. He had been a speaker at Litquake last fall with my friend Erika Mailman talking about their experiences as newly published authors.

His session was great and he gave several anecdotes demonstrating his business savvy. His book is entitled SoMa which is a nickname for the gritty South of Market Street neighborhood of San Francisco. He made Youtube videos of the areas in his novel helping to publicize his book.

One thing he did not plan on was being attacked by a local online critic who hates everyone. At first Scott was taken aback, but then he realized that it was great publicity. People were learning about his new book and it increased sales.

His book has gone on to become a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. Not bad. Not bad at all.

He has many reviews listed on his website, but this one seems the most intriguing to me:

"I read the first page of SoMa and never put it down until I read the last page. Then my housemate took it from me and read it in a day. It flows through your hands like water, yet it shocks, awes, repulses, exposes trade secrets, and illuminates the deep motives for extreme behavior. I know people who are less real than these characters. I laughed out loud. Kemble Scott is one sick bastard."

— Joe Quirk, best-selling author of The Ultimate Rush and Sperm are from Men, Eggs are from Women.

I had a great time meeting and schmoozing with Kemble Scott. I think he's a great guy, even if Joe Quirk thinks he's "one sick bastard" from his novel. It was nice that Scott hung around the conference all three days, and not just there simply for his session and leaving afterward. I even was fortunate enough to go out to dinner with him, Yanina Gotsulsky and Ransom Stephens on Friday night. We had a great time laughing, telling tales, and enjoying each others company.

I haven't read Scott's book yet, but I shall make a point of doing so before his talk at our joint meeting.

At our arrival I ran into Bryce Holt and his brother Kyle. I had met Bryce the previous year and had corresponded with him a few times over the past year. It was nice to see him again and to hear about his progress to publication in the intervening time.

I was surprised when I looked up and saw someone who had been a member of my writers club, but had moved to Oregon. I was happy when I was able to immediately come up with his name. As it turns out it was his first writers conference and being greeted by an old friend at its onset helped set his mind at ease.

Here's a picture of me with J.S. McDaniel as well as the glamorous Yanina Gotsulsky.

On Saturday morning as I was on my way to the first session of the day I crossed paths with J.S. He was on his way downstairs to the lower conference rooms. I asked where he was going, and he told me the name of the session he was planning on attending. I shook my head and said, "No. You need to go hear about Pitchcraft. Trust me." Then I redirected him to attend the session by Katharine Sands of the Sarah Jane Freyman Agency. J.S. had paid to participate in the Speed Dating for Agents on Sunday morning, so I knew he needed to hear what Sands had to say.

He did thank me, by the way.

I knew J.S. from the Redwood Writers meetings, and for some reason he always reminded me of Ransom Stephens. Here's a picture of Ransom and I mugging for the camera.

Yes, Ransom and J.S. are both white guys with black hair, about the same height and around the same age, and are both writers. However, Ransom has a dry, acerbic wit which is far different than J.S.'s style of humor.

I wanted to introduce them to each other because if for no other reason than they are both friends of mine. I had forgotten that both used spirituality in their novels. (Then again, I have only talked with them about their writing and without reading their stories, so I have an excuse for not recognizing that commonality.)

They hit it off with each other and I am hoping they will develop a correspondence and their own friendship.

That leads me to what I feel is most important aspect of the conferences. It is not the workshops, but it is interacting with the people there: the speakers, the organizers, and the attendees. It is in exchanging of ideas and expertise about various aspects of the craft of writing and the business of publishing that allows you to expand your circle of literary friends.

One of the best summaries I have ever read of how best to schmooze with others at a writers conference was written by Beth Proudfoot the past chair of the East of Eden Writers Conference.

She urges everyone to embrace any and all lines at conferences as opportunities to speak with people, exchange business cards, and establish friendships with people who share your interest in writing.

In my volunteer duties I saw myself as a roving ambassador to help answer questions about what to expect at the conference as well as offering tips for blogs, websites, etc.

I worked the Editors Roundtable session on Saturday afternoon. There were about ten editors participating and each sat at their own table with nine seats for participants to ask them questions. Each person had two minutes.

The volunteers had two minute egg timers to enforce the two minute rule.

Two minutes is not a lot of time to pitch your book and have an editor form an informed opinion about your book that you have spent years agonizing over each fine detail. We did not want individuals to try and monopolize time with the editors and cause others at their table to be given the short shrift. Overall, I think it ran pretty smooth.

The volunteers were allowed to choose which table they preferred working at and I picked Ten Speed Press. That is because of my time spent as a bookseller at Barnes and Noble and my being impressed with not only their titles but their organization as a whole. They are one of the largest independent publishers which produces about 150 titles each year. (That tidbit is from their website.)

I was impressed with the writers who pitched to the editor from Ten Speed because I think for the most part, they understood what that house published. The pitches were succinct and well received. I was surprised when Jo Ann Deck actually took sample pages, book proposals, etc., from writers. In the past I have seen most agents or editors refrain from taking anything, but instead handing out their business card to those people whose projects interested them.

She left that night with an armload of information and had made connections with a lot of writers who had promising sounding books.

And they did it in under two minutes. Incredible.

I was given another task which was to serve as a greeter at breakfast. Basically I was there with another woman to assure that those walking in for the coffee and pastries were paid conference attendees and not just people staying at the hotel who wandered downstairs and thought, "hey, free food!"

We greeted the bleary-eyed writers who were in desperate need of caffeine. I tried reading the badges for the home towns of the attendees as they walked by and saw that they were from all over the country. I remember seeing Florida, Virginia, New York, Nevada, Michigan and Hawaii. The one that surprised me the most was Zita Weber, a writer from Australia. She crossed seventeen time zones (!) to attend that conference.

Now that is commitment to your career.

On Sunday morning I not only worked as a breakfast greeter, but I worked the Speed Dating for Agents session. I was stationed outside in the hallway and did my best to answer questions of those who standing in line waiting to go inside.

Here I am trying to calm their jittery nerves.

If you squint you can see the logo for the California Writers Club on my tote bag. Yes, I was a walking advertisement for my writers club.

The one piece of advice that I tried to impart most often was to not immediately launch into a pitch upon sitting down in front of the agent, but instead to take a moment and make eye contact and smile. Make a human connection first before you start talking.

I also warned about complaining about anything, especially about not getting the full amount of time (three minutes) should the person in front of you not get out of the chair when they were supposed to.

You do not want to be perceived as a Client From Hell.

Agents are looking for professionals whose writing excites them and are a pleasure to work with. They do not want temperamental primadonnas.

I had read an agent's blog a year ago where an anecdote was related about two different writers at a Speed Dating session. The first writer grumbled and complained that they only got two and a half minutes and not the full three minutes (meanwhile wasting valuable seconds while whining.) The second writer sat down, cast a knowing glance behind them at their predecessor and then said something like, "wow, that must have been fun."

The agent was so grateful that s/he was far more likely to ask for a partial from the second writer even if it was not a subject s/he is normally interested in. Because the second writer treated him/her as a human being and not a magical gatekeeper lacking feelings.

After the conference I saw a post on Nathan Bransford's blog and contacted Joe Ramelo who mentioned he had attended the conference in his reply. I wrote to him, and as it turns out, Joe was one of many people I spoke with while waiting in line. He felt that I was an "encouraging presence" who dispensed good advice.

Yay. It is nice to know that my objectives were achieved.

One of the high points of the conference was having the opportunity to meet and talk with Tess Gerritsen. She is an amazing author as well as a warm, engaging and witty person. She gave a fabulous key note address on Sunday afternoon in which she talked about the idea of storytelling as an organic process that is difficult to define or predict.

She has given lectures to physicians who want to become novelists and she says that many of them are astounded when for the first time in their life they are not successful. They all want to know the secret. As if there was a mathematical equation which can be described and used to allow them to simply plug variables into an algorithm and get the desired result.

It is not that easy.

She gave as an example two people who might have had the same experience. "Uncle Harry" who when he begins a story causes everyone to yawn and check their watches and "Aunt Maude" who can tell the same story and have people hang on her every word.

It is not necessarily the events that are important, but it is the telling of the tale.

I was also blessed by chatting with Tess on Saturday night about medicine, wine, archaeology, and California along with my friend Cindy Pavlinac. At one point Tess looked at the two of us and remarked with a little surprise about how open we were about expressing our opinions. She now lives in Maine and people there are reserved.

We kind of shrugged at that. Cindy and I are both Midwestern gals who now live in Northern California and we do not hesitate in speaking our minds. It is part of who we are.

Here I am standing next to the lovely and talented Tess Gerritsen. I think she must have leaned down a little, because she is statuesque, whereas I am decidedly not.

I want to thank my good friend Cindy Pavlinac for taking these pictures and allowing me to share them on my blog. (My camera was being used in Yosemite while I was in San Francisco.)

All in all, I had a wonderful time at the San Francisco Writers Conference. It was some of the best weather I have ever experienced in The City, and I got the chance to schmooze with a lot of people.

For those who are interested in hearing any of the sessions from the conference, they are available on CD as well as downloadable MP3 at VW tapes. You can also find sessions from other writers conferences including the famous Maui Writers Conference at the same site.

By the way, after I returned home from the conference I was checking my overstuffed email box. I opened my spam folder and quickly scanned the contents seeing multiple notices for my winning overseas lotteries that I never entered, confidential communiques from people requesting my assistance in transferring large amounts of money from Nigeria, offers to lengthen anatomical body parts that I lack, and advertisements for horribly spelled pharmaceuticals. It was after I hit "delete all messages" that I noticed the letters SFWC in one of the message lines.

Too late. I did not notice the name of the sender and it was gone. Forever.

So if anyone reading this post tried sending me an email after meeting me at conference, and I did not respond to you -- I apologize and request that you write to me again.

Thanks and I hope everyone muse is treating them well!



Joe said...

WOW, you got to hang out with Tess! That's awesome. I just picked up "The Bone Garden" from the library. I was surprised at how complete the SF library's collection of Tess's books is. Actually, I'm always impressed by the SF library collection in general... :)

L.C.McCabe said...


The Bone Garden is a great book. I knew the story of Semmelweis and his discovery of the cause of puerperal fever from my father because he identified strongly with the idea of recognizing a problem and no one believing you.

I gave my dad a copy of The Bone Garden for his birthday and I shared that anecdote with Tess.

We had a great chat and talking with her was definitely one of the highlights of my weekend.

BTW, if you haven't visited her blog, you should:


pjd said...

I saw your post before heading over to the volunteers party this afternoon. I was hoping to see you there. A good time was had by all.

This was my first year volunteering at the conference, but I am looking forward to next year already.

Great writeup, thanks for the long and interesting post!

L.C.McCabe said...


I'm glad you liked my post. There's so much more I could have covered, but then it would have been longwinded. I wanted to try and cover my highlights instead.

I'm glad to hear that you had a good time at the party. I wish I could have attended, but I sent my regrets to Linda Lee days ago when I realized it was not to be.


Gypsy Soul said...

Yes, Bryce is just fantastic. That's for dropping by my blog. It was great to see you as well.

I was planning to come to the March meeting but I've been so busy trying to get everything ready for the workshop. I have less than a month between the SFWC and Donald Maass's workshop and so much to do. Not complaining in any way. I love every minute of it.

I'll try to make the April meeting. I really want to get involved with the Redwood Writers. I got the application, now I just have to fill it out and mail it in. Maybe when I get back from Portland.

So how did Speed Dating go for you? Any nibbles???

L.C.McCabe said...


I hope to see you at either the April 6th or 26th meeting.

You might consider making your membership start in July 1st because there is only a few more months left in this membership year.

Don't ask me why, but the CWC has its memberships go from July 1st to June 30th, and well, there's only a little bit left to this membership year. I'd recommend writing the check for the full year amount but dating it for July 1st.

Yes, I did get nibbles from two terrific agents. I have two different editors who are trying to finish that last 10% to make my manuscript as strong as it can possibly be and then I shall send it off knowing that I've done everything I can.

Then I shall start the publication dance in earnest.

Good luck on your endeavors as well.


Lee Lofland said...

Great post, Linda. Sounds like the conference was a big hit. I'm glad you had the opportunity to meet Tess. She is such a lovely person. You can inmagine how thrilled I was when she offered to write a blurb for my book.

I'm off to Florida this week to teach a few workshops at the Emerald Coast Writers Conference. It's the first conference of the season for me.

L.C.McCabe said...


I'm glad you liked my write up. It was a fabulous conference.

Have you had the pleasure of meeting Tess in person as well? I was thrilled for you when I saw her blurb for your book.

I was surprised to see her milling about the conference on Saturday. She didn't speak until the ending address on Sunday, but she arrived in California on Friday so she didn't have to worry about weather related delays coming from Maine.

After she checked in with the conference in the morning, I expected that she would be holed up in her hotel room writing, but instead she mingled and rubbed elbows with fellow writers. That was so cool. I don't recall ever seeing keynote speakers ever doing that at any of the conferences I've attended before.

She hung around with your buddy Doug Lyle, which was not a surprise at all. In fact, if I hadn't seen them chatting together I would have gone out of my way to introduce them - knowing how much they have in common.

BTW, have you dropped a line to Tess to let her know about your blog? I'm sure that she would be interested in your insights into police procedurals. You never know what bit of information will trigger inspiration and where that spark will lead.

I hope you have a great time in Florida. I'm sure that you'll appreciate leaving your cold winter climate for a few days.

Bon voyage!


Lee Lofland said...

Yes, Linda, I do know Tess. She's been really supportive and has always been there to help whenever I have a question. In fact, she's a very kind-hearted person. One of my favorites in the business.

Doug Lyle knows everybody.