This past week and weekend saw the 21st Pikes Peak Writers Conference come and go. Since I’m on the steering committee for next year’s PPWC, I asked tons of people how things were going to look for ways to improve, maintain, or fix the conference. The responses I received were overwhelmingly positive. Long-time attendees said it was the best they’d been to, and quite a first-timers kicked themselves for not attending earlier conferences and swore to themselves to make sure they made the next one!
Now I’m going to focus on my experiences with a day-by-day accounting of what went down for me throughout the conference.
Even though the conference officially started with the Thursday add-on day, planning for the conference started over a year before the doors were opened. Outside the planning, the setting up of things, fetching equipment, getting people from the airport to the hotel and so on started for me on Wednesday morning. I picked up an opaque project from a local middle school Wednesday morning and got it to our faculty/programming director.
Then I bounced around town sitting at various coffee shops. While doing this, I answered a ton of emails, polished my pitch, worked on my query letter a little, and just got my mind geared up for the conference.
That afternoon, I helped haul things from the storage units to the hotel and got things set up as much as we could. That evening, I met one of our faculty at the airport and took him to the airport.
Now for the catch. Throughout all of this, a pretty good snowstorm was going on, and I found myself snowed out of my house. I couldn’t get home, and my hotel reservations didn’t kick in until Thursday night. I approached our conference director and faculty director with my quandary. They told me not to fret, and had a roll-away bed set up in the room that was slated to be used for pitch sessions on Saturday. For the rest of the night, I tested projectors, Mac-to-VGA dongles, the opaque projector and helped out with little things around the green room. I finally crashed out sometime around 1 AM.
This day started out fairly early, and with a frantic phone call from one of our agents. She was in Boston, but without an airplane to get to Denver and on to Colorado Springs. Her plane was stuck in nasty weather in Chicago. I passed word along to our faculty director, and they worked out to have the agent sit tight until flights could be fixed. I was this agent’s ride from the airport to the hotel. I was supposed to pick her up at 6:45 in Colorado Springs. I was told I’d be picking her up later in the evening, but to stay tuned for details of when she would really be arriving. No worries. All of this caused me to miss the opening session of Thursday, but that’s okay.
I managed to catch the afternoon session with Sorche Fairbank about improving query letters. This is where the opaque projector came into play, and it just didn’t create a clear enough image on the small screen the hotel provided for the room. Had we been able to move the projector back some or had a larger screen to project on, it would have worked well. It was a small snag, and we worked around it by having the moderator (the great and wonderful Shannon Lawrence!) read the query letters out loud. The session went fantastic! I learned quite a bit and made great progress on polishing my query letter to where it is more potent.
After the sessions ended, BarCon started up as many of us hit the bar and lobby area. I finally received word on the agent’s flight and used my Kayak App on my smart phone to keep tabs on the flight. The initial arrival time to Denver was 11:45PM. That’s too late for the connecting flight to Colorado Springs. I reached out to our faculty director and transportation coordinator and informed them that I’d be going to Denver to pick up the agent. Someone got word to the agent that I’d be meeting her in Denver, no Colorado Springs. As the night progressed, I kept an eye on the clock and the Kayak App. The flight kept getting more and more delayed. It finally read a 2:30AM (yes, AM!) arrival time. I kept downing the Mountain Dew and energy drinks to keep bright and alert. The time came for me to get on the road, and I checked the app one more time. Still 2:30AM. Good. Not great, but good.
I drove from Colorado Springs to the Denver airport (by this time the snowstorm of Wednesday had passed) and arrived there around 1AM. I received a text from our conference director asking me if I was busy and had Internet connection. I texted her back with the affirmative and immediately got online fearing the worst. She had sent me an email asking if I could do some research for her on our contest winners. I had nothing to do for about 90 minutes and was grateful for the chance to do something to keep me awake and engaged. I got online and checked my email. I did some research on our past contest winners for her and sent her a few emails with what I found. Then I checked the Kayak App and, somehow, the landing time for the agent’s flight got pushed up to 1:45AM. Somewhere, they had gained some time! Yay!
About the time I finished my research and put away the laptop, the agent’s flight landed. We contacted each other via cell phone and I told her where I’d be standing. When she came up the escalators to the main terminal and spotted me, I saw her physically change from an over-stressed, exhausted and beat-down traveler to a somewhat-relaxed, smiling, and grateful human being. It made me feel good to be able to be there for her. I drove her to the hotel in almost record time. During the drive, we had a great conversation about computer security, encryption, physics, mathematics and science fiction. The funniest part was that we were both really tired and stumbling over our words. Once I got her to the hotel, I parked my car and got up to my room to crash for the night. It was right around 4AM when I finally crawled into bed.
The morning came early at around 9:30AM. I was supposed to moderate a session at 9AM, but from the events of the night before, I tracked down our moderation coordinator and told her that I had to bail on the 9 AM session, but I would make the 10:15AM one. I managed to get into the session with bare minutes to spare, but I made it! This was Chris Mandeville’s session on plot. She did a fantastic job, and my job as moderator was super easy because Chris is a pro. I barely had to do anything, which was good because I was still a little out of it from the night before.
The Friday lunch keynote was given by long-time PPW member and supporter, Barb Nickless. She had lost her home in the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012 along with many other people. This gave us the conference theme of “Writing from the Ashes,” and Barb’s emotion-packed speech was fantastic. Usually, during a keynote, you can hear small whispers or hushed conversations going on. Not this time. It was pin-drop quiet in there. Everyone was enraptured by her words, experiences, losses, and gains from the fire.
After lunch, I participated as “catcher” for our speed pitching sessions. This is where people come in with their prepared pitches and throw them at a catcher for 2 minutes. Then the catcher gives gives feedback and suggestions for 3 minutes. That’s a pitch every 5 minutes. I did this for two hours. At the end, I’ll admit that my ability to focus was stretched very thin. I don’t see how agents and editors can do this most of the day on Saturdays! My hat’s off to anyone that’s ever received pitches for most of a day and stayed focused through it. Bravo!
After speed pitching was over, I took a break and hung out in the lobby for a session. I just couldn’t crank up the energy needed to focus on a session. There were some great ones for that time slot, too! Ah well.
After the break came the staff/faculty mixer, where the people running the show get to mingle with the famous authors, editors and agents. This was a great time. I got to talk to so many different people and meet some great folks! It also helped me (I think) come pitch time on Saturday because the agent and editor I planned to pitch to were there, and I got to meet them before the pitch.
Then came dinner with David Liss as the keynote speaker. He put up a great speech, but he had some big shoes to fill from Barb’s speech earlier in the day. I still think he did a fantastic job as a keynote speaker and really inspired many people in the room to work harder and do more with their craft. Good stuff there.
The rest of the night was taken up with some time at the bar until it closed. Then some of us retired to “the party room” where I hung out primarily with the editor I’m going to be pitching the next day. We conversed about many topics, but few of them touched on books or publishing or work. That was nice. Quite honestly, it felt like I was hanging out with an old friend that I’d not seen in a few years. That’s a good feeling, ya know?
The night ended right around Midnight for me as I ran off to bed to get some sleep.
This is probably the longest and hardest day of the conference. Pure energy can get an attendee or staff member through the first bit. This is the day I have to draw from my internal reserves and focus on staying attentive to what’s going on around me. There’s also the added stress of having to pitch (twice in my case), but for some reason the stress of pitching this year was drastically lessened. I think this was because I’d met both of the people receiving my pitch in a casual, social environment first. I’m also pretty experienced in my pitch, so I’m all good there.
The day got off to a start with an 8AM PPW board of directors meeting that lasted right at an hour.
Then I raced off to my first pitch of the day. It went great! The agent asked for the first full manuscript of the trilogy and synopses of all three books in the series. I ended the pitch session with a huge smile on my face. I mean, who wouldn’t smile after a great response like that? I hung out and chilled for a short while before running to my 10:20AM session with Cindi Madsen. This session was all about time management, how to make time for your writing and what to do with that time once you’ve got it. It went down incredibly well. I had a good time teaching folks and fielding the questions that popped up. I had a good time co-presenting with Cindi. I was told later by our moderator that we nailed it and everyone gave the session high marks. Yay!
Lunch rolled around with a speech by Barry Eisler. It was informative and an interesting viewpoint. However, it came out as being controversial. Twitter exploded with news of the speech, and several blog posts have arisen from the speech as well. I think Eisler pointed out some good stuff, but may have gone a wee bit too far with the words he used to describe the traditional publishing industry. He was by no means insulting or demeaning toward the traditional publishers, but he certainly did not paint them in a good light. To prevent this post from erupting into a storm of pro-Eisler vs. anti-Eisler sentiments, I’ll stop commenting here on the speech and move on.
After lunch, I moderated a session by Kathryn Eastburn on how to write sympathetic villains, antagonists, and other bad guys. She did a fantastic job of drawing from her real life experiences as a reporter and covering some of the most horrible crimes out there. She drove home the point that no matter how vile and reprehensible a person may appear on the surface, there is always something deep down that makes them human, makes them sympathetic, makes them someone to care about.
I took the next session “off” as I needed to mentally prepare for my upcoming presentation on computer security. I also had my second pitch of the day at 3:30PM. This was with the editor I’d hung out with the night before. Again, the pitch went great and was very casual because of the short-term, yet friendly, relationship we’d established the day before. In the end, he asked for my full manuscript. He told me that he’d only asked for one other full manuscript earlier in the day and might not ask for another, depending on how the day went. Wow. I practically danced out of the pitch room and to the green room to relax a bit before my presentation at 4:45PM.
Then an amazing thing happened. I’m sitting on the big couch in the green room when the agent I’d picked up in Denver walked in. She walked up to me and said something along the lines of, “[Editor's name] told me you had a great book and pitched it to me. I want to see a full from you.” *gasp* *shock* *awe* I was stunned. I looked at the editor and threw me a smile. I looked back at the agent and almost broke into tears. I recovered myself quickly enough to choke out a thanks to the editor and ask the agent for her email address. An editor (from Del Rey no less!) thought so highly of my book, he deemed it necessary to spread word about it on my behalf. I’m still shocked by this. I’m still so incredibly elated by these turn of events, I have a hard time putting together the right words to express myself.
Before my session started, I was hanging in the lobby telling folks how I had two pitches that turned into three full requests. That’s like killing two birds with one stone! Another agent overheard my story and she walked up to me. “Make that four!” She didn’t even know what my story was about, but trusted the tastes and instincts of her peers so much that she jumped on my bandwagon of supporters. Holy cow! What a great day. I still can’t believe this happened to me.
Of course, this put me in a great mood for doing my presentation on “Practical Computer Security for Writers.” My bubble was quickly burst. Three people showed up. Yeah. Three. Ouch. Then again, I was up against a handful of great speakers with wonderful topics in the same time slot. Despite having three people show up, I demanded the best of myself and taught them to the best of my ability. The presentation went really well (for those three people, at least) and I made my way to the bar for a consolation drink.
After a drink and some hanging out, I went to my room and threw on my suit for the fancy awards banquet we always have on Saturday nights. I entered the ballroom ahead of the main crowds (being on staff has its perks!) and wandered around. The ballroom was Drop. Dead. Gorgeous. I can still picture it in my mind and it was so incredibly well put together.
I want to take a moment to congratulate Shannon Lawrence for earning the PPW Volunteer of the Year award. She’s a great woman that does so much for us. I’d try to list it all here, but I’d be sure to miss something. She’s a true blessing to us. I also want to thank and congratulate MB Partlow and Jennifer LaPointe for their awards as PPWC Volunteers of the Year. They’ve both been amazing people and have truly helped in every area of the conference you can imagine. The success of the PPWC wouldn’t have been as great as it was without their Herculean efforts.
While I’m at it, I want to extend my thanks and gratitude to everyone involved in PPWC. This is especially true of Bonnie Hagan, our 2013 Conference Director. She’s a fantastic woman that drives to succeed and excels at everything she does. It’s her true leadership that helped all of us bring our “A Game” to the conference and make it such a success.
The keynote for dinner was Libba Bray. I can’t say enough good things about her speech. She walked us through her darkest moments as a writer, and showed us how she triumphed above all else. It gave me hope. I think it gave many people in the room hope for their writing efforts and careers. Her truly emotive style of speaking was engaging and inspiring. Thank you, Libba.
Once the official events had drawn to a close, I hung out in the bar and lobby for a short while. My Sunday was going to be an early one with a 5AM alarm and a 6AM meeting. I think I finally crawled into bed around Midnight or so.
The morning started with my incessant alarm. Ugh. 5AM had hit, and I finally crawled out of bed around 5:20 or so. I showered, got dressed and headed to the lobby to meet David Liss and an agent (the one I had pitched to!) to take them to the airport for their 8AM flights home. I did get them to the airport on time, but not without some issues. It had rained a little the night before and snap-froze sometime in the wee hours of the morning. It was a chilly 27 degrees out, and I had forgotten my jacket. When we got to my car, I found it covered in a thick sheet of the smoothest I’ve ever seen on a car. It took me 15 minutes to scrape the windows clear. We finally got on the road, and I got them to the airport in time for their flights.
I made it back to the hotel in time to catch the tail end of breakfast and hang out with some folks before running to my first session of the day where I moderated for Pam Van Hylckama Vlieg on another session about query letter writing. She did a fantastic job throughout talking about, “The Hook, The Book and the Cook.” The second half of her presentation was all audience interaction where people shouted out story ideas and she wrote query letters on the fly. It was a hoot! Well done, Pam.
From 10:10 to 11:10, I hosted a round table with our esteemed president, Laura Hayden. We talked about, “Now that conference is almost over, what do I do now?” We had some good conversation about everything from finding critique groups to joining specific organizations to future conferences. It was a great talk.
The next session for me was moderating (yeah, I did that quite a bit this year) Deb Courtney’s session on pacing. She’s a fantastic speaker, and did a great job with her teaching. Then she took writing from the audience and read it out loud. She was incredibly supportive of everyone and really helped them break down where pacing had fallen short (or had hit the mark) and how to fix or continue doing it well.
Sunday lunch rolled around, and we had a good lunch where I hosted a table of conversation before the farewells and thanks kicked in. One thing that surprised me, I’m talking totally caught off guard, was when Laura Hayden and Bonnie Hagan presented me with a “Super JT” t-shirt in the style of a Superman uniform. I’m going to have to take a picture of me wearing it and post it here. It’s a great t-shirt, and I’m completely and utterly humbled by their recognition. Later on, I found out that many people knew about it and were in on the construction and design of the shirt. Not one of them let slip that I’d be getting the t-shirt. Well done and thank you everyone!
After the official conference wrapped up, I met with the agent I’d “rescued” from the Denver airport and took her on a quick (about an hour) tour of Garden of the Gods. We had a good time walking, talking and teaching each other things. She taught me more about the publication and editorial process, and I taught her more about Garden of the Gods. We also got to know each other on a more personal level while talking some about family and such as well. It was a good time.
I when I got the agent back to the hotel, I ran into a few more people and said my “see ya laters” to them. Then I got on the road and headed home for the first time in almost a week….
Man, what a GREAT conference! I can’t wait to do it all over again next year. It’s going to be a blast.