James River Writers Conference celebrates 10th anniversary

Writing is a solitary profession. That’s why it’s so nice to have James River Writers. The nonprofit group has been hosting its annual writing conference for the past 10 years, and I think I’ve been in attendance for at least 9 of them.

I recall being super excited the first time I went to a conference. I had just started writing fiction, so I was eager to learn, to be a part of an organization that encouraged creativity. I had never taken any creative writing classes, although I was an English major in college, so it was great to hear about the craft from people who actually wrote for a living. I took pages and pages of notes and applied what I’d learned at home. My book slowly came to life, but getting it published always seemed like an impossibility. Getting an agent to represent my work seemed more difficult than winning the Tour de France seven times without performance-enhancing drugs.

And yet, the James River Writers Conference has always put on a little session called “the first five pages critique,” in which a panel of agents and editors listen to an actor read the first five pages of miscellaneous authors’ works and then offer their feedback. I worked up my courage–and jazzed up my writing–to send in the first five pages of my novel for the 2006 conference. After a cringe-inducing five minutes, in which the actor read my submission with a thick Southern accent, the work was received favorably by the panel. One of the agents particularly liked it, so I introduced myself (in a stumbling and awkward monologue) to him after the session. He asked if the novel was complete–it wasn’t!– so he said that he wanted me to send it to him when I finished it. And to make a very long story short, that is how I got my agent, Byrd Leavell. He went on to get my novel, The Outer Banks House, published by Crown (2010), and my e-book, Chasing Eternity, published by Diversion Books (2012).

The James River Writers Conference became like a home to me, much like a vacation home where I could take time off from my hectic life and just devote myself to engaging with other writers and reigniting the muse. The folks that were, and still are, involved with the organization were genuinely happy for my success. They invited me to speak at one of the weekly Writers Wednesday events, then invited me to serve on two panels at the 2010 conference. I had come full circle, and it was quite a satisfying feeling to be able to offer to other writers my own knowledge as well as the hope of success.

I gave birth to my third child soon after that conference, and my life took on a misshapen size that still baffles me. There was a point when I considered not going to the James River Writers conference; there was so much to do on the weekends that attending yet another writing conference–especially after my “full circle” experience–seemed like a waste of precious time. But I knew that there was still much for me to learn, faces to see, muses to tickle. And this year, I wasn’t disappointed. The 2012 conference (at the Greater Richmond Convention Center instead of the usual location of the Library of Virginia) was well organized and peopled with talented panelists and bright-eyed attendees. The cake at the end was the exclamation point following the idea of “Tenth Anniversary”!

And to make the experience even more special, my friend Liz attended the conference for the first time. She is trying to get her first novel published, so she pitched one of the attending agents about her book. I wasn’t in the least surprised (I’ve read the synopsis) that he asked her to send him the entire manuscript! I think I teared up when she told me, because not only was I so happy for her, but I was also reliving my own excitement at getting my foot in the very heavy publishing door. There is nothing quite like affirmation for a writer. It’s also the possibility of reaching an audience, and of seeing your own book–your own hard-won words–bound up in hardback or glowing on a Kindle screen, an offering to the world, both present and future.

Thank you, James River Writers, for giving a physical home to so many of us that live too much inside our own heads. Can’t wait for 2013!


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