While many writing conferences tend to wind down at the end, the James River Writers conference saves the high-energy Pitchapalooza for last. Attendees put their names in a hat for the opportunity to be randomly selected to pitch their book.
Succinct is the name of the game, with each writer getting only one minute in front of a roomful of people and a panel of judges including Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, co-founders of the Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping authors get published. It's here that some fortunate writers make the leap from talented amateurs to professionally published authors as they're introduced to someone who can help move their project along.
"It's really fun to watch," says the conference's chairwoman, Lana Krumwiede.
Perhaps because writing is a solitary occupation, the James River Writers conference has been popular since taking hold in 2003. Held every year in October, the three-day literary festival brings together published authors, literary agents, publicists and aspiring writers for immersion in the writing world. As part of the Virginia Literary Festival, the itinerary of master classes, award-winning speakers and one-on-one critiquing attracts a more than 300 attendees, volunteers and speakers.
The conference isn't geared toward any specific genre, which makes it stand out, executive director Katharine Herndon says from the group's offices overlooking St. John's Church. "Our goal is to educate people and help them reach goals across all genres," she says. "We try to have a good mix of panels that appeal to all genres, things like character building, language choice or world building."
"Every kind of writing has its strengths," Krumwiede adds. "Writers benefit from other approaches. Romance writers really know how to keep tension going — you know how it's going to end — but others can learn from that. It's cross-pollination."
One new feature is RVA Loves Writers, an outreach effort to bring elements of the conference to all of Richmond. Four Saturday afternoon time slots have been designated for conference speakers to give presentations at various locations. No registration is required and the events are free.
The conference also keeps up with industry trends. In recent years, sessions have been devoted to self-publishing and ebooks after years of focus on a more traditionally defined publication path. Networking also is a compelling draw for participants accustomed to working alone.
"It's really validating," Krumwiede says, referring to attendees who often are at the beginning or intermediate stages of their writing journey, despite considerable skill in some cases. "It can be a really big step to start calling yourself a writer at a conference like this."
Perennially popular, First Pages Critiques offers a chance to have a first page read anonymously to the group and then scrutinized by editors and agents. Part of the point is a lesson in how to get your manuscript noticed by people swamped with submissions, but just as important is a lesson in subjectivity. Three panelists may hate it while a fourth is intrigued enough to want to read more, a reminder of the importance of persistence.
The event also underscores the strength of Richmond's growing literary community.
"Every year we hear of someone the conference touched who's moved forward in their writing career and says they wouldn't have done it without us," Herndon says. "The Book Doctors say we're their favorite conference. We even have agents asking to come back each year to participate." S
The 12th annual James River Writers Conference runs Oct. 17-19. For details and to register, visit jamesriverwriters.org.
Free Public Events
"Multicultural Books: The Importance of Diversity in Children's Literature," 4 p.m., Art 180, 114 W. Marshall St.
"Taking Liberties: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Historical Fiction," 4 p.m., Virginia Commonwealth University Globe Building, 817 W. Franklin St.
"Rapid Fire: Self-Publishing and the Changing Climate for Writers and Readers," 4 p.m., University of Richmond Downtown, 626 E. Broad St.
"Not Just Muppets: Jim Henson's Cultural Influence," 5:30 p.m., Playhouse Auditorium St. Christopher's School, 711 St. Christopher's Road.