Random Thoughts from PNWA 2016

My spontaneous appearance at the 2015 Singapore Writer’s Festival aside, last month’s Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference (PNWA) was the first such conference I ever attended. And now that I’ve had time to study my notes and reflect on the dozen-plus panels and lectures I witnessed, I truly believe that this was an important step forward in my career as a novelist.

PNWA offered the gift of immersion. Twelve hours a day, from morning coffee through after-dinner cocktails, we attendees surrounded ourselves with writers and agents and editors. For three consecutive days, we solitary creatures convened at the Sea-Tac DoubleTree and bathed in a font of passion, inspiration and creativity. And after three days I returned home in a freshly banged-up Nissan and watched, helplessly, as professional commitments conspired to nearly snuff out the flames lit by PNWA.

But that’s a story for next week. Today, to quote keynote speaker Robert Dugoni’s repurposing of the famous Braveheart speech, TODAY WE WRITE… about attending PNWA.

Why I Attended

Despite wearing badges around our necks that display our name and genre, everyone asks everyone what they write. It’s the most common icebreaker at PNWA. And no matter the answer, whether it be non-fiction, historical, fantasy, or erotic robot westerns, the follow-up is always the same: Are you pitching?

Most attendees are there to pitch, whether to an agent or an editor, it seldom matters. For many, the conference is merely the package in which their 90-minute pitch session leaves the factory. The request to submit, a glimmer of hope that shines brighter with length, is the goal. Some agents request a synopsis, many request three chapters while others ask for fifty pages, and a few request a full manuscript. The size of the submission request, a sign of the gatekeeper’s interest in your story, is both directly and inversely related to the amount of drinks ordered at the hotel bar.

I was not there to pitch. Despite countless assurances from other writers that it doesn’t matter if you’ve yet to complete a first draft, it matters to me. The last thing I wanted was to prematurely get an agent or editor excited about my story, knowing I was only 45,000 words into a first draft. That’s not how I operate.

No, I was there to attend the sessions, to meet fellow Seattle-area writers, and to hopefully join a critique group. And if through the natural course of small talk while waiting in line for coffee, or for a panel to begin, or for the banquet hall to open for dinner (I spent a lot of time standing around waiting, now that I think about it) my story attracted some interest, then all the better. No, I wasn’t there to pitch. But I will be next year, that’s a fact.

Top Takeaways From PNWA

Rather than try to provide a summary of each of the sessions I attended, as I did for SWF, I’m going to simply go over a few of my favorite pieces of newfound knowledge, comments, and anecdotes from the conference. Presented in no particular order:

  • Travel Memoir Is Dead: Those who read this blog regularly, who know me personally, or who may have followed our journey on Two Far Gone know I was planning on writing a travel memoir, but shelved the idea in favor of fiction. Andy Ross, in his introduction during the Agent Forum, listed off the types of books he’s currently looking to acquire and ended by saying, “And sometimes, when I feel like taking on a book I can’t sell [to a publisher] I’ll accept a travel memoir.” Ouch. Another agent added, “Telling me you’ve written the next Eat, Pray, Love is a great way to have me delete your query.” A quick glance at the best-selling travel memoirs reveals largely the same names it has for decades: Theroux, Krakauer, Bryson, and Steinbeck. Yes, that Steinbeck. Unless you’ve truly written this decade’s cross-over hit, don’t expect any major interest.
  • I Alone Haven’t Finished Harry Potter: In a presentation about crafting anti-heroes and villains, the presenter matter-of-factly divulged a major spoiler from the Harry Potter series. I whispered to my neighbor that I had only recently begun reading the fifth book in the seven-book series. Some snickering and murmuring ensued, the presenter asked what it was about, and I spoke up. The room burst into shocked laughter, and it was generally agreed upon that I must be the only person at a writer’s conference anywhere who hadn’t finished Harry Potter. I acknowledged that the statute-of-limitations on spoiling the book had run out; that I wasn’t upset, and no spoiler-alerts were needed. Between being known as the guy who rear-ended another attendee or the one who hadn’t finished Harry Potter, I’d prefer the former.
  • Donald Maas is Brilliant: My favorite session of all (and it’s not even close) was the First Page analysis. A moderator chose an anonymously-submitted first page and began reading. Four agents listened attentively, raising their hand when they would choose to stop reading and pass on the submission. Once two agents had raised their hands, the moderator stopped reading and a discussion ensued. I could have listened to them do this for hours. The quality of the insight and criticism the agents displayed after hearing as little as a paragraph was truly enlightening. Donald Maas and Chip MacGregor were particularly impressive. As were some of the submissions. A few pages were read through to completion, receiving applause from the hundred-plus attendees in the room and no doubt giving the authors a feeling of tremendous satisfaction. Yet this is not for the thin-skinned. One submission’s opening line was essentially a gussied-up version of a dark and stormy night and two hands shot up instantly. It was politely ripped to shreds in a matter of seconds, sending a woman fleeing through a door I’m fairly certain led to a closet. I didn’t have a first page submission of my own to share on account of those professional obligations getting in the way, but I can say with certainty that the first page residing on my laptop, in its current form, is not up to standard. It’s only a first draft, yet I have my work cut out for me. I came away impressed by my peers and inspired by the knowledge on display.
  • I Need a Critique Group: I’ve always been leery of joining a writer’s group for a number of reasons stemming from so many horror stories I’ve heard (and from the so-bad-it’s-almost-good movie Author’s Anonymous). But after attending a panel presented by six members of, what appeared to be, a group functioning at a very high level I have reconsidered (one of the members commutes nearly 90 minutes to attend — how’s that for a testimonial?). Listening to how this group was run and how their meetings were conducted gave me instant critique group envy. It also taught me how to spot a bad group, what to look for in other writers, and, more importantly, it made me really think about how I work best with others and what I could bring to the table. I hope to be a contributing member of a critique group in the next few weeks. PNWA was great for making contacts looking for the same.
  • That Guy is Everywhere: It can’t be helped, it can only be ignored. Every conference has that guy. You know the one. The one who thinks the panel is a private presentation for his ears alone; the one who considers any request to hold his questions to the end a violation of his Constitutional rights; the guy who believes his meandering rant masquerading as a question is nothing if not a knowledge bomb dropped for the benefit of all within earshot. Yes, that guy was in Singapore, he was in Seattle, and I can recall other similar events where he’d shown up. He’s easy to spot, given the ever-present disheveled look and the sexist, ageist way he condescends to the largely female collection of presenters and attendees. Yes, the past-his-prime, perpetual victim will be there, and the sound of him grinding his axe will echo in your sleep for days to come.
  • Don’t Sweat the Genre Thing: I typically don’t read so-called genre fiction. Not because I’m elitist scum, but because I never fell in love with any one of the individual styles. I’ve sampled from the buffet of horror, fantasy, westerns, and even some romance, but always gravitate to the fusion that is upmarket, mainstream fiction. Literary-light, as I like to think of it. I read (and aspire to write) stories in which the characters are more important than plot, yet aren’t so loaded with the former, they skimp on the latter. Yet, so much advice and books on craft command you to focus on genre. Singular. Agent Sarah LaPolla put my mind at ease when she explained that it is perfectly acceptable to describe your book as mainstream/upmarket/contemporary fiction with elements of genres X, Y, and Z. In her eyes, she explained, genre is primarily about marketing. Yes, it’s about setting expectations for readers and obliging certain conventions of a genre, but its also about figuring out where to shelve your book in the store. Genre fiction is in the rear; I typically read from the front, books on the shelves that simply say “Fiction” over them. That’s where I want to be.

The conference was an excellent opportunity to learn, to network, and to be inspired. There were so many other takeaways I could list, but I had to stop somewhere. Provided I haven’t secured representation by this time next year, I’ll be back again to pitch. But I hope to not need to attend a third time. Writer’s conferences like this seem to be great for those just starting out or for those pitching a finished manuscript. But there’s a reason the bulk of the attendees are unpublished: the published ones don’t need this anymore. They’ve moved on to expos and fan-friendly conferences or are at home prepping another novel to send to their editor. In short, they’re working.

Have you ever attended a writer’s conference? Were you at PNWA? Did I buy you a drink? Let me hear your thoughts below!

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6 thoughts on “Random Thoughts from PNWA 2016”

  1. Great commentary on the conference, Doug! Just reading your post brought back the warm feeling of being there amidst other writers. It was good to meet you. I hope to be able to join you at a future expo, book tour or fan event once we become published authors! 🙂

    1. Thanks Sarah. Great meeting you too! And do keep in touch if you’d like to do an email-based critiques or need a beta reader. Great luck to you with your submission!

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