Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A recap on Unicorn Writers' Conference 2013

St. Clements Castle in Portland, CT (picture from their website)
This past Saturday I drove my two critique group members and friends, Sandy and Andrea, to Portland, Connecticut to attend the Unicorn Writers' Conference.

Each time I attend this conference, it is a unique experience. This year the workshops were outstanding. I will repeat: the workshops were outstanding.

The drive was uneventful considering the snow storm which had blanketed the metropolitan area the day before. I noticed as soon as I drove into the town of Portland that the roads were slushy and some of the side roads were a mushy mess. My car slid on the bridge and was pelted by flying snow from a plow. That will certainly wake up a person. This was the first year I entered the grounds of St. Clements Castle and saw it covered in white (the picture above is what I'm used to seeing).

What makes the Unicorn Writers' Conference the best event I've attended is how complete it is. From the meals to workshops, panels to critiques, Unicorn is the complete package. Now matter your level as a writer, be it beginner or published professional, there is something for everyone. Breakfast was enjoyable with a nice assortment of bagels, pastries and fresh fruit. Author Matthew Pearl gave the Keynote Speech from nine to ten o'clock. He is a successful novelist and he shared his journey to publication with wit, grace and a sly sense of humor.

The first workshop I went to, Beyond Elves and Dragons: Fantasy and Sci Fi, was given by author Elaine Cunningham. I enjoyed her laid-back approach (she was also recuperating from being ill) and I jotted down pages of notes to apply to my stories, especially when it comes to worldbuilding. Ms. Cunningham has a wealth of experience and knowledge which she shared  with us (what she could fit into sixty minutes and still offer a question and answer segment).

The Art Gallery is my favorite room inside St. Clements.
Each time I enter this room I expect to see candles suspended
from the ceiling and hear Albus Dumbledore's voice
booming across the space as he welcomes us. This is a
great place to be inspired in.
The next workshop I attended was given by literary agent Katherine Sands on The First Page. I  sat in on Ms. Sands' other workshop, The Perfect Pitch, the very first year I went to Unicorn and was blown away by what I learned. In this workshop, Ms. Sands spoke about viewing our first page as "an audition," "an interview," and to remember "the first page is different." Some writers then read the first two paragraphs of their novels as everyone listened followed by Ms. Sands' opinion on what what was strong, what was missing, and what raised questions/needed to be addressed. Very educational and eye opening! I  think everyone walked out of that session with a new-found sense of what our first pages have to contain. 

Lunch was delicious and the group of writers and a literary agent at our table were so nice and easy to talk to. There was a mix of returning attendees and newbies. After the meal, conference creator Jan Kardys introduced literary agent Gina Panettieri who announced she signed a writer from last year's conference. There was one other success story which seemed to put a smile on the faces of those present. For the first time in the history of the conference, there was no afternoon speaker. I honestly didn't miss it. Lunch lasts one hour and then to tack on another hour for a speech would become uncomfortable inside the Waterford Ballroom. With this schedule change, I really liked being able to fit another workshop into the afternoon. The way the day was scheduled was well balanced and I liked the change.

An angel statue adorns the windows inside the Art Gallery.
The next workshop I sat in on was given by Penny Sansevieri on ...Sell More Books: The Importance of Branding... This was a jam-packed hour of information and helpful tips for authors to do to "brand" themselves and develop their "platform" before their book is published. 

Following that, I sat in on an Agent Panel with Saritza Hernandez, George Nicholson, Julie Stevenson, Mary Sue Seymour, Rita Rosenkrantz, Irene Goodman, Stephen Barr and Sarah Yake. The Agent and Editor panels are invaluable resources for writers to hear from different professionals as to what they're looking for, their views on publishing and trends, what writers need to do correctly when querying and more. I noticed this year there was an increase in the mentioning of self-published writers being picked up by agents. It's also great when we can put an actual face and voice to the pictures we see online or in writing magazines. There was a wealth of information shared with the audience.

Following that panel, I took a break before I sat down for an insightful one-on-one critique. One main point I have learned over the years from attending conferences is that critiques are subjective. What one person may not like or 'get,' another may. As writers we need to understand that, respect and listen to all feedback, and then trust our instincts as writers when we later dive back into our works-in-progress or during the revision stage.

The final workshop I attended quickly became my favorite. "What "Show Don't Tell" Means in Fiction was run by Eileen Albrizio, a teacher and writer/editor. We may think we know what "show don't tell" means, but after one hour with Ms. Albrizio, I would say all in attendance were rethinking their previous impressions. By using the openings of ten of her published poems, the instructor showed us how to begin our works and apply the correct principles. There were two writing exercises which gave us the opportunity to read our own works and then have everyone interact by voicing opinions followed by the instructor's thoughts. Ms. Albrizio stressed that as writers "we are afraid to write too much." Then she further explained we need "to go over the top before you hold back." She reiterated what we always hear about not using adverbs in our writing, especially in identifying tags. She also told us to "absorb the reader into words and scenes." There was so much to take in and Ms. Albrizio made it fun. Another instructor, Jay Dixit, sat in and acted as devil's advocate, adding to the fun, but he also raised serious questions which the instructor fully explained. What a rewarding and satisfying workshop!

By then it was time for the Harvest Display of appetizers followed by the evening meal (this year dinner was an additional fee). Since the day is very long (began at 7:30 and the final workshop ended at 6:45), my friends and I were tired and headed out for a quick bite to eat before the ride back to New York.

This was my fourth time attending the Unicorn Writers' Conference and I must single out the hard work of Jan Kardys and her team this year. Every thing ran smoothly, questions were answered quickly, and the entire day was a huge success. 

I also recapped my experience at the third Unicorn Writers' Conference here.

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