The San Francisco Writers Conference

Boy, am I tired. But it’s a good tired — an overstimulated, oversocialized, too-much-useful-information-and-not-enough-sleep tired, not a how-many-trips-to-the-grocery-store-did-I-make-today tired.

While my Shabbat-celebrating , guest-blogging husband was up in the mountains skiing, I spent the past three days at the San Francisco Writers Conference. I’d never been to a writers’ conference of any sort before: Last year I found out about this one after the fact, to my great frustration and probably to the detriment of my work.

The days were fully packed with workshops on both the craft and business of writing — topics such as how to work with a freelance editor, create a writing critique group, plan your own book tour, use place and setting as part of your writing, and write literary fiction that keeps readers turning the page. In addition, there was a constant background buzz of networking, with dozens of agents and editors floating around among the several hundred writers. On Sunday morning, there were hour-long sessions of “speed dating with agents,” where a bunch of agents sat at tables and writers queued up for the chance to pitch their work to them for three minutes – then the bell would ring and you would move on to another agent.

What struck me was how the conference blended both the craft and business sides of writing, unlike many MFA programs that just focus on writing as art. It also drew writers from a wide range of formats – romance, thriller, memoir, non-fiction, poetry, how-to, as well as “literary” fiction.

With a twinge of shame, I must admit that my first reaction upon arriving was to feel threatened. All these other writers! Competitors! Or worse, incompetents! Nabobs! There’s something comforting – not particularly positive, but comforting — about working alone in your office and feeling like you are One In A Million.

But the lead organizers kept ragging on us about how one of the best things about the conference would be getting to know other writers. I wouldn’t say it was the best thing, but I pushed beyond my threatened state of mind and went on to meet some terrific people, including one woman with whom I hope to follow up and create some kind of writing support group.

Part of what was encouraging was hearing the speakers’ success stories – or better yet, the failure stories that preceded their success stories. One keynote presenter was Steve Berry, who has written numerous best-sellers in the international-thriller genre. Berry used to work as a lawyer, which he hated, and had his first books rejected eighty-five times before he finally got a contract. Now that’s music to the ears of an aspiring novelist who feels sorry for herself with a scant three or four rejection notes!

The overarching messages weren’t different from what I’ve read in various books about writing. But it really sinks in when you hear it in person, from established writers and editors, over and over:

Writing is re-writing. Be prepared to kill your babies (your most precious sections). Expect to rewrite. Get feedback from professional writers or editors. Rewrite some more. Write every day whether you feel like it or not. Oh, and did I mention: You need to rewrite!

I’ve struggled with rewriting The Mothers’ Group, the novel of mine that is closer to being finished. I’ve been through about 16 rewrites so far, just counting the numbered versions on my computer. It’s hard to distance myself enough to see changes that should be made, or even to hold all 300 pages with their pacing and flow in my mind at one time and see the book as a whole. I’ve gotten feedback over the years from family and friends, as well as the agent who represented my non-fiction book about girls’ schools, but the weekend makes me wonder if I should bite the bullet and hire an editor.

Meanwhile, the conference allowed me to introduce myself to probably a half dozen fiction agents, who said they would be willing to look at the opening section of The Mothers’ Group. So I think what I’ll do is send it out – see what kind of responses I get – and then gauge whether I need to hire an editor.

But first things first… bedtime!



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8 Responses to “The San Francisco Writers Conference”

  1. Jim Richardson Says:

    When is this next year? I’m coming. Gotta get off my butt and back on the front lines of words. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      It’s usually during February. I’m sure the web site gives the date. If you sign up far in advance, you get a discount on the (steep) price and you also force yourselt to actually attend. :-)

  2. Judy Levin Says:

    What an amazing experience. Good for you for going well beyond your comfort zone!

  3. susan milligan Says:

    Sounds as if you had a worthwhile experience. I feel that way about my Bank Street Writers Lab every month. Focusing n the work and facing challenges about characters, plot and precise language motivates and inspires. We too have cases of writers whose work was rejected 85 times before publication which keeps me from giving up.

  4. Frances Dinkelspiel Says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the conference. I can relate to the exhaustion. I was tired just after attending on Friday. Another fabulous writing conference is the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I went there twice and really felt it helped my writing and career. This year it is held at the end of July. I look forward to hearing which fiction agents you clicked with.

  5. Mitch Martin Says:

    Yep. I’m pretty tired tonight, too. I loved the conference and was inspired by all those writers out there in the wilderness. Ilana is a good person to stand in line next to as you prepare for speed dating with agents!

  6. Catherine Svehla Says:

    Kudos for even attempting to process and summarize the weekend! It was my first writers conference also and like Ilana, I recommend it to anyone who wants (needs?) to take their writing more seriously. Back to (re) writing.

  7. Robin Says:

    Best of luck with those agents who asked to see your work. Remember still to send a good query letter and mention where you met them!

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