Teamwork Makes the Dream Work—Random Musings on #WDC19

The weirdest Summer of my professional career came to a surreal close this past weekend as I attended the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference as a speaker and freelance journalist rather than the publisher and marketing director who curated ~80% of the event before my departure in early July. I’m obviously still biased, but overall, it was an invigorating experience—from the amazing keynotes and insightful presenters, to the mini-reunion with some of my all-time favorite colleagues, survivors of F+W Media’s disastrous bankruptcy process that seems to have ended relatively well… for Writer’s Digest, at least.

I even got some on-the-spot creative writing done, participating in a couple of unexpected writing exercises!

Writer's Digest Annual Conference 2019My speaking gig was on Friday afternoon, moderating a panel of professional marketers discussing the realities of their jobs, dispelling myths about what publishers do and don’t do for authors. I think it went pretty well, especially since we took questions throughout the panel, dedicated 20 minutes at the end specifically for questions, and the panelists still had a line after the session ended. Mission accomplished!

(I believe the session will be covered in an upcoming issue of The Hot Sheet, and once I have a minute to review it and clean it up, I might make the full recording available.)

Of the eight other sessions I attended throughout the weekend, not including keynotes, there wasn’t a single miss among them—not even the somewhat… philosophical, 101 take on platform one presenter/sponsor delivered because I had to acknowledge I wasn’t really the audience for it. All of the others delivered great insights and actionable takeaways, and the writer in me was extremely glad I attended.

Insightful Sessions

Out of all the sessions I curated, the one that was the closest to being purely selfish was Ran Walker‘s “Using Prose Poetry & Flash Fiction to Improve Your Novel,” because I’ve always been a firm believer that poets make better novelists—despite having absolutely nothing to base that on! He framed the session as a workshop and took us through a couple of challenging exercises, giving us 10 minutes each to write a Kwansaba (7 lines, 7 words/line, no more than 7 letters/word) and a Dribble (50-word flash fiction). I don’t usually participate in interactive exercises at conferences, but I didn’t have my usual excuse that I’m working the event and Ran was so engaging, I took a stab at both.

I cheated a little on the Kwansaba and also forgot to write it as a prose poem…

while I couldn’t resist tackling a current event for my Dribble, “Embargo”:

Jonathan stared at his library’s website, fuming. “All these books… Who even needs libraries anymore? Prime has everything.” Behind him, Jeffrey chuckled. “Exactly. Now, send it, Jonathan. Send it!” He paused, a familiar but fleeting sense of dread he couldn’t quite recall… and then he did as he was told.

I also attended Lilliam Rivera‘s session on Worldbuilding which, in addition to offering a variety of great insights—”Research is your friend; not only are you writing creatively, you become a journalist.”—and resources on building engaging worlds that center your characters, she also had us do a couple of writing exercises, one of which I again participated in.

PROMPT: Pick a setting, write two visual details, two sounds, two tactile details, two smells, and then write something incorporating them.

The loose footing on the gravel trail was sporadically interrupted by mini-obstacle courses of rocks and roots, more challenging thanks to the steady drip of sweat stinging my eyes thanks to the hot, humid air. An occasional breeze rustled the trees, shifting the shade and fading the distant traffic from the highway a half-mile away.

Considering I haven’t done any creative writing in several years, these exercises were actually a delightful surprise to knock some rust off the gears and remember what it’s like to transform thoughts into words on paper, in the moment—even if they all ended up having a nonfiction spin to them!

The SF/F panel—which I didn’t curate—was especially good as authors Tobias Buckell (a friend and favorite for his excellent Xenowealth series) and Sarah J. Sover (who wrote one of my favorite articles during my WD reign on embracing your weird side), and editor Ruoxi Chen had a fascinating, wide-ranging conversation about the genre, moderated by WD’s Amy Jones. I wish I recorded it because I was so engrossed the only notes I took were book recommendations to add to my already overflowing to-be-read list:

The Best Keynotes!

One of my main goals with WDC19 was to really diversify the program, challenging our staff to go beyond our core group of recurring guests and find new voices, and despite the huge obstacles the whole bankruptcy situation put in front of us, I think we did a decent job improving upon previous years. For the keynotes, though, the main goal was what it’s always been: book a compelling trio covering different genres and different voices—N. K. Jemisin, Karin Slaughter, and Min Jin Lee absolutely knocked it out of the park!

From Jemisin’s practical and personal primer on what it takes to be a full-time writer, to Slaughter’s dark humor and family history paying off in one of the best author origin stories, to Lee’s humble and inspiring talk that nearly moved me to tears—I don’t think I’ve ever seen three keynotes at a single conference complement each other so perfectly and organically and totally coincidentally. It’s an event programmer’s dream come true—book the right people and let them create magic—and judging by the feedback I overheard throughout the conference and saw on Twitter, I think the hundreds of attendees overwhelmingly agreed.

I gave up any illusions about writing fiction years ago as I came to terms with my preference for nonfiction and the business side of the industry, but I still left WDC19 fully inspired, energized, and educated in ways I didn’t quite expect and will always be grateful for. I’ll be covering four other sessions I attended individually over the next few weeks for a freelance assignment and will add those links here as they go live—Spoiler: Amy Collins, Kilby Blades, Dima Ghawi, and Christine Conradt were all great!—but keep an eye on the #WDC19 hashtag for other perspectives on the conference, too.

And if you attended, let the Writer’s Digest team know how it was for you—on Twitter, via email, the attendee survey, and whenever you see them in person. The Writing Community can be an amazing and supportive group—we all saw that firsthand throughout the bankruptcy—and hearing from you directly is like a shot of adrenaline.

PS: Not to play favorites, but I want to give a specific shout-out to two of my former WD colleagues who ensured the conference didn’t miss a beat when I left, and in whose hands I fully expect WDC20 to be 100 times better: the aforementioned Amy Jones—mark my words, she’s the next Jane Friedman—and Taylor Sferra—the most organized and unflappable events director I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.

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