Friday Five: Pennwriters Conference

A week ago, I headed downstairs from my hotel room to join the happy crowd picking up their registration goodies for the 2011 Pennwriters Conference. I’d already had some excitement the night before, what with my plane circling the Pittsburgh airport in the middle of some very cool lightning flashes,  landing between the thunderstorms sitting on top of the airport, then waiting an hour or so for the lightning to stop before we could get to our gate. I didn’t mind–the ride wasn’t bumpy at all, we landed safely, and–as our pilot told us after we were on the ground–ten minutes more, and we’d have been heading to Cleveland. I’ve got nothing against Cleveland, but, hey, the conference I wanted to get to was in Pittsburgh! I rode in on the airport shuttle with Denise Little, and we both agreed that making it there made up for any hassles along the way.

And it was great. Pennwriters is an amazing group, filled with warm, friendly, and energized writers. The conference coordinators brought in some awesome faculty–agents and editors and lots of writers to share their craft & market experience. Keynoters were Jacquelyn Michard, who told stories I’m not sure anyone else could have told and had us laughing, and Jonathan Mayberry, who shared all the misconceptions he had about writers when he first started out, before the Pennwriters proved him totally wrong.

Lots and lots happened, but here are five highlights from the weekend.

1. My three workshops went well. The Powerpoint presentations worked, and–let me tell you–it is a joy to give workshops in a hotel where the tech staff is there for you.  People asked lots of questions, and I think I got a few of them feeling better about finding a group and getting started with the whole critique thing.

2. I got the chance to sit in on other people’s classes. I mentioned Ramona DeFelice Long’s character workshop in Tuesday’s post. I also listened to Heather Terrell give a great talk about making the move from “adult” fiction to YA, and went to a fascinating workshop from Tamara Girardi about determining our learning processes, then finding writing techniques and tools that actually work with the way we,  as individuals, learn. I’ll be doing her homework, believe me. On Saturday, I ran in late to a workshop with Kathryn Miller Haines on researching historical fiction. I’ll tell you, sitting with that group, tossing around ideas about how to find the stuff we all need, how to weave facts into story, felt like coming home. Which, since I never thought I’d write historical fiction, is still a bit disconcerting, but wonderful.

3. Friday night, I sat up late (thank goodness for the time change) and did a Read-and-Critique session with Kathleen Ortiz. The last time I did anything like this, I was on the other side of the “table,” having an agent critique the (anonymous) first page of my picture book, so I know how intimidating it can be to be the writer in this scenario. Kudos and big hugs to the eight writers who handed over their first two pages and synopses and let Kathleen and I go at it!  And let me tell you, Kathleen is sharp–she has an incredible ear for voice and is dead on target about that divide between middle-grade and YA. If you’re looking for an agent, I can definitely recommend putting her on your list.

4. I signed books. Yes, I’ve done this before, but never behind long tables with other writers sitting to either side of me, all down the row. Quite fun, because there’s always someone to chat with. Tricky, because–you know–I had books of my own I had to get signed, and while I didn’t have a line out the door (Ha!), I was a bit worried that I’d miss someone while I stood in Jonathan Mayberry’s line, getting his zombie YA signed for my son. It is just so much fun to have someone come up to you, with your book in their hands, and get into conversation about their critique group, their writing project, and their hopes for both.

5. I bought books. Of course I did. I had even called my credit card company ahead of time so they wouldn’t freak out, because there was a conference years ago when they called me, to check if I really HAD gone into the same bookstore six times in two days. Um, yeah. You know. You grab the books you know you want first thing. Then you go to a workshop, and–boy, you need that book. And then another workshop…another book. There is just no way to be efficient about this, folks! I ended up toting home a nice, full suitcase, loaded down with the following:

All in all, the conference was one of the best I’ve ever attended. People came from all over the place; I met a woman from Alaska! I can see why. If you’re anywhere in the neighborhood next year–and, sure, Alaska counts as the neighborhood–I totally recommend this one. It’s a weekend you will treasure.


  1. Becky, it was so good to finally meet you face to face. I just wish we’d had more time to sit and chat.

    I plan to bring some of the ideas you shared in your workshop to my critique group in hopes of changing things up a bit in the name of productivity.

    And let me say, you’ve made some excellent book selections. I’ve read all but one of those (and the un-read one is on my to-be read pile) and they’re all EXCELLENT.


  2. My personal highlights, other than being outed by Nancy for my careful decisions about publishing, were meeting the cool people like you, babe. Let’s make sure we stay in touch.


  3. Jen Hansum says:

    Many thanks for the tips on making the most out of my critique group. A lot of great information to take home from your workshop.


  4. What a great wrap up! Sounds like a great conference, though I would definitely NOT need the airplane drama.


    • beckylevine says:

      The best part was that it wasn’t bumpy at all. And the pilot was very smart not to tell us about the Cleveland possibility until AFTER we landed! 🙂


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