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All writing conference and no play makes Steph... better?

Monday, May 17, 2010

I went to a writing conference this weekend, the Storytellers' Summit at the University of Florida. My goal was to A) get inspired, B) network, C) have fun and D) discover my husband, Jack, is a typewriting murderer.

Arrived with my friend Alex at luxurious Holiday Inn after a full day's work at the newspaper in St. Pete. We changed into cute dresses and walked five blocks to the conference cocktail party, then climbed stairs into a big party room where, naturally, all the sticky heat followed. We bee-lined for the buffalo chicken on the buffet, which may not have been the wisest move in history. I tried to schmooze with best-selling author Michael Connelly while sweat pooled on my upper lip and trickled down my back, while buffalo chicken residue surfaced on my fingers, while regret filled the air.

Friend Emily arrived later. Went to "dinner," which meant chips, margaritas and a huge bowl of GUAC, YO. Felt immediately crusty and elderly when college hotties started streaming in for the night. Seriously, I have NEVER seen so many glossy blonds in one place at one time. It was all legs and boobs and tan and body shimmer and cute dresses. In a move of desperation, I scrounged a palate (palette/pallet?) of lip gloss from the bottom of my purse and passed it to my colleagues in crust. It was our only option. Friend Hillary informed us that the upscale taco joint we picked at random was the most egregious of hottie magnets on campus. THAT WOULD FIGURE. So we moved to a place that played 90s music. When's the last time you heard King of Wishful Thinking in a social setting? That's what I thought. Thanks to Go West, we instantly felt young(er) again. That is, until I tripped on a suitcase back in the room and hit my face on the wall. I'm happy to report I'm robust and fine.  Say it with me: "College is over for a reason."

Showered off cocktail party buffalo sweat and drove to first day of sessions. Unfortunately the streets in Gainesville are designed to ruin lives. I made a left at a green arrow, then continued. What I didn't realize was, the right lane had ended in some sort of short, stumpy fashion a ways back. As we drove down the street pondering, "Is this one way?", a cop pulled me over. He wasn't trying to hear that I was from out of town and confused. He wrote me the craziest ticket on the face of the universe. The debacle not only sent me to the poor house (OK, I already live there), it made us miss the first speaker. And who was that, you ask???


What I'm saying is, I failed at getting to know Michael Connelly.

I made it to a session with superstar agent Jane Dystel. She is fabulous. She gave so many great tips to aspiring authors, the foremost of which was "DO NOT GIVE UP." I really appreciated the session and encouragement, and I know everyone else did, too.

Next, we all filed into the auditorium to hear Pulitzer winner Rick Bragg, a lovable southern genius. He sat on a stool and talked in a lullaby meter and told great stories. Then, when you least expected, he was all BAM, I'MA DROP A LESSON ON YOU. And then you felt like you learned something, kind of accidentally.

Next, something REALLY COOL happened, but I'm not going to tell you right now.

After the really cool thing, I went into a session with chick lit author Kristen Harmel, she of many titles. She was the perkiest, most-adorable person ever. If you have an idea, she said, think about it for a couple weeks, and if you can't stop thinking about it, you should probably write it. That's good advice for journalists and novelists. I asked if publishers are still buying chick lit, and she said it's picking back up, but it's best to call it "women's fiction" in a query. The market got so oversaturated with subpar chick lit that it fell off. But commercial women's fiction -- stuff that goes a little deeper -- is hot now.

We had dinner at The Swamp. SO DELISH. I was so starving I ate all food in sight. I'm not kidding. I was on that food like whoa. We went upstairs to the second night schmoozing summit cocktail party and hung out with more cool writers. When it ended, we partied like rock stars! (Translation: We got frozen yogurt and read the student newspaper). On the way back, we stopped at a gas station where I accidentally left my phone and camera. Fail. Went back to the room, and tried to have a glass of red wine to relax, but my glass was CRACKED and wine went all over the sheets (sorry, Holiday Inn). Fail.

Had nourishing breakfast of McDonalds and Diet Coke (this was not a weight loss trip), and made it in time for the first session with Tom French. Tom described snippets from his book, Zoo Story (which I have read and found equally enjoyable and poignant, buy it in July!).  He reminded us that even if the medium changes, there will always be a human thirst for stories.

After Tom, we heard biographers William McKeen, John Capouya and Ellis Amburn. It was a really fun session, full of salacious tidbits about celebrities. They talked about "the big get," that interview that changes the game. I've wanted to read Gorgeous George since I saw John speak at the St. Pete Times last year. Now, I really want to.

David Finkel had the entire room captivated with his talk on the Good Soldiers. Seriously. Wow. I. Need. To. Read. This. Book.  I tried to buy it a couple times since Christmas, and it always seems to be sold out. I ran immediately ran upstairs to buy it after his session, but it happened again. Fail. (Notice a theme to the weekend?) David reinforced the fact that sometimes you need to wait until the story shows itself. Patience, childruns, patience.

America's sweetheart Lane DeGregory (assisted by Deal Divas contributor Tucker) gave her talk on 20 tips for finding stories. I've had the pleasure of sitting in on the talk before, but it doesn't get old. Hearing Lane talk about her stories always makes me want to be better. Roy Peter Clark from the Poynter Institute ended the weekend with a benediction and practical tips for writing, including placing your best words in "hot spots" of a sentence, and burying attribution in the middle. Example: "The queen, my lord, is dead." Or in my case, "MY FACE, YOU GUYS, IT HURTS."

We stocked up on salty pumpkin seeds, Doritos, Gatorade and Diet Coke and came back to Tampa. We gabbed about a lot of stuff on the ride, but spent most of the time talking about stories. That tells me the weekend was a success.


  1. Love the recap. The summit sounds amazing!! Wish I had gone!

  2. Thanks, Mal! It was an intense weekend, to say the least.

  3. "I'll pretend my ship's not sink ..." Oh, sorry.