Monday, November 28, 2016

Notes on the Kaua'i writers conference

From October 31 until November 6 I attended the Kaua'i writers conference ( It had two aspects, first four days of master classes, and then three days of the conference more broadly. The master classes consisted of groups of 15 students with one, or in my case two days each of two successive "masters" for a total of 75 participants. The conference itself consisted of various roughly one-hour sessions, sometimes in parallel for up to 150 people.

Kaua'i ( is a genuine tropical paradise, a relatively small Hawaiian island with a population of about 60,000. It happens my son is a middle school teacher there, which is one reason I attended.

Demographics: I was able to count the house for the master classes. Middle-aged women dominated them, like the conference.  The group was 80% women, only a few of them under 30. Some men  -my class happened to have 4. Five Blacks, considerably above the normal percentage in Kaua’i, and five Asians, considerably below. Faculty was all white except one Asian and evenly split between men and women.

My impression was that the most popular genre was memoirs by people who believed they had led interesting lives or, more often, had had interesting jobs or professions.

By and large I came away with a good feeling. I felt partly that it was useful but more broadly warmly towards it, unlike the San Francisco writers conference (, the only other such conference I have ever attended, which basically seemed to me like a tacky fair.

Luis Alberto Urrea ( opened the conference proper with a truly inspiring speech about how he wrote to give voice to people without voices. He told, for example, about how when he was a young man he was doing charity work in the Tijuana dump (Not far from his birthplace). He was keeping a journal. A garbage picker came out of the dump and asked him what he was doing. He explained that he was keeping a journal. The guy asked what that was. He said it was like a diary. The guy asked if Urrea would write about him. He replied that he probably would. Urrea commented that at that moment he did know weather they guy would hug him or punch him. Urrea is a big guy; I would think twice about punching him. The guy said that was good, he should write about him, tell that he was born in the garbage dump, worked in the garbage dump, and when he died they would bury him in the garbage dump. Wow.

But beyond that there was very little discussion of the purpose of writing.

Agents dominated this conference. Of the faculty of 21, seven were agents and another agent took a prominent role. The group leader for the second two days of my master class was not a writer but an agent. There were two panels on how writers and agents work together, to on how to acquire agents, and agents tended to dominate various broader panels.

 I was reminded several times of a friend of mine who writes thrillers.  He wrote a book proposal for a possible thriller about a Silicon Valley nerd who is transmitted by technobabble into Mayan times. He wrote a book proposal, sent to his agent who said that it was great, he could sell it, but he had a few suggestions. After two or three cycles of that sort the agent sent it to publishers one of which said it was great and they'd like to publish it but they had a few suggestions. After two or three cycles of that sort the book that resulted was about a group of eco terrorists who are fomenting climate change to increase the value of their property in Canada. What my friend liked about the whole process was he still had his original idea, which he also later wrote and self published with some success.

Except for two talks, the fact that the publishing industry is in turmoil or and perhaps far-reaching change because of electronic publication including a wide range of forms of self-publication mostly went unmentioned. It was usually as if this were 10 years ago and the New York publishing industry and paper books completely dominated publishing. The two exceptions were a an excellent, experienced and well organized talk on self-publishing and little presses by Terry Persun (, and in the talk by Christina Baker Klein (, which was billed as about her novel The Orphan Train, but in response to questions she gave a very intelligent and up-to-date overview of the publishing industry including self-publishing and e-books. I sensed that the parts are trying to ignore each other. She reported that when she gave a talk at a convention of independent bookstores she was instructed beforehand that she could not mention Amazon. She also spoke the memorable phrase, "There are so many gatekeepers."

Incidentally, I had read The Orphan Train, which I found soundly written but boring. I wondered how it had sold so many copies. I figured it would only be of interest to young teenage girls were who were disaffected with families, but it turns out there are four million descendants of the orphans on the trains.

The agents allocated obsessive attention to the first page of novels. The theory is: the way novels sell is this: the customer goes into a bookstore, picks up a novel, opens it to the first page, is then hooked or not – only if hooked buys the book. When I asked an agent if he believed this, and commented that I could never remember doing that, but rather I bought books on the basis of reviews or recommendations from friends I trusted. He replied that he did not know if it was true but he knew publishers believed it and so it may as well be true. As was occasionally mentioned, people go through a similar process on Amazon, which tracks your every click for marketing purposes so Amazon knows the answer to my question for its readers. In general agents prescribed a first page focusing on the protagonist who has at that moment a sense of urgency about something or other.

There was a panel by authors who had been involved with Hollywood and the Hollywood came up several other times. No one suggest the possibility of non-Hollywood movies. On the whole the experiences were difficult although Baker-Kline is happy about the plan for a movie of The Orphan Train. The most difficult negotiations were over Jamie Ford's novel The Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet (, in which all important characters are Asian except for one black man. This is a problem for Hollywood, which does not want to undertake a movie unless it has a slot for a "bankable" actor, that is a Caucasian actor. Urrea, who has not completed a deal, reported a fabulously wealthy producer commenting to him, with self-conscious irony "I'll turn you into a whore yet."

There was a master class and one session on screenwriting. The session consisted of playing a number of clips and commenting on structural features. The clips tended to be extraordinarily cliché-ridden and stereotypical Hollywood box office successes including, for sooth, Ben Hur. As far as I could tell, all the movies were from Hollywood. Surely there are things to be said about screenwriting of good movies.

Priya Parmar ( is an interesting example of the attention to the relation between authors and agents. She and her agent did a presentation on the subject. Her agent was not part of the regular faculty and was described to me as a very important New York agent, but I've forgotten her name. Parmar looks about 16 but is 40 ( I found her novel good and interesting and she talked enough to show that she was intelligent and interesting, but mostly when there were hard questions she handed the mic to her agent. I had a slight feeling of seeing Svengali and Trilby.

Short stories got short shrift. There was virtually no discussion of them except a presentation on the subject by the indefatigable Jonathan Mayberry ( who is a publications industry unto himself.  He reports that he publishes about a million words a year. He sees short stories as improving market particularly in anthologies.

I never heard a non-US writer or publisher mentioned. I did not hear poetry mentioned.   I heard no complaint about pressure on writers to continue series.

The writer's discomfort with Hollywood constraints made me reflect on their feeling about publishers constraints and my perspective as a reader.  I'm not a fan of Hollywood movies, not that there is not a good one occasionally, but it is definitely the exception for me. I watch a lot of movies, generally not from the United States. Likewise I seldom read novels that have been on the New York Times bestseller list. I read five by presenters preparing to come to this conference. Two I thought were pretty good, as good as the novels I generally read, which are mostly from outside the United States or from the past. The other three were soundly written but not interesting to me. They are the product of rather stringent process, a lot of gatekeepers as Christina Baker Klein commented, particularly of course the first page, which really has rules as intricate as a sonnet, as do query letters and book proposals.  Nor are the gatekeepers reliable. We all know the stories of Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Gray being turned down on numerous occasions and those of us who know writers all read unpublished books or books published in very limited printings that read better than most of what appears in the stores. I heard writers complaining about Hollywood strictures but no one here complained about the similar New York publishing strictures. Yet if you want to get fame or money or readers in the United States it is a game it is useful to play. It is not necessary to play because people are getting fame and money on readers via a wide range of sorts self-publishing these days.  But that involves the burden of self-marketing. But so does working with big publishers. These are not new thoughts; every writer that does not have an established market is harboring them. I have a novel in hand that, as it happens can be tweaked pretty easily to fit the strictures (or so I imagine). That is, it can be tweaked without destroying its meaning for me as the meaning of his novel would be destroyed for Jaime Green by Hollywood casting a Caucasian star. Not everyone has that luxury.

I have a number of interesting conversations with writers. For example I talked a couple of times with a physician that works for the Social Security Administration rather than practicing – presumably evaluating claims for disability – but her primary interest was combining Native American medicine with astrology. I quizzed her some on Native American medicine and she seemed to have a broad knowledge reflecting understanding that what they practice depended on their culture and local geography. She was writing a memoir and was worried about its reception among her astrologer friends who might condemn her for her turn towards Native American medicine.

A guy I chatted with was a short middle-aged man, a little rotund with a round face and balding head, a semi retired patent attorney. He writes romance and erotica for women. He drew a sharp line between erotica and porn but I did not understand what it was. He was intelligently articulate about how to construct such novels, for instance when to follow the woman's point of view and when to follow the man's. He gave an interesting account of when he told his wife and each of his three sons that he was pursuing writing romance and erotica and portrayed interestingly their very individual reactions. He has a friend who writes porn but has never told anyone else that he did it, except my informant because he consulted him on a legal matter. He has a wife and family and has a problem accounting for the income stream without letting them on his little secret.

This is only the third year of the conference, and it is larger than it has been before. Many ragged ends showed, mainly having to do with the schedule, which, since I first heard of the conference, constantly changed and changed from day to day even hour to hour when we were in session.  I had to make an expensive alteration to our airline flights on that account. Meals provided by the hotel varied from very good to poor. There was a luau with fire dancing that impressed me but with mediocre food. My son, who has been to many luaus, joined us and commented that luau food was generally bad and that this particular set of fire dancing, was second rate. However, unlike the big-deal San Francesco writer’s conference, the mics worked and presenters generally knew how to use them.


  1. Thanks! Your description was the next best thing to being there. I wonder if there is any real distinction between erotica and porn. Vargas Llosa thinks they only difference is that porn is erotica poorly written.

  2. As I recall, his distinction had to do with emphasis on the emotions of the people vs. the action.

  3. Dirk, I was very amused by reading this account. I think you have invented a sub-sub-genre, reflecting on writing via reflections on publishing as exhibited at writers' conferences. I got a number of good laughs out of this. One was that what publishers believe may as well be true since that is what publishers believe. The account of the transmogrification of your friend's novel so total it still left him with his original idea to pursue was another. I especially like that this was all accompanied by luaus and fire dancing. The guy Urrea bumps into in the dump is truly a knockout memory/story and in regard to writing and deserved your wow. That the reason for writing or the meaning of writing was not particularly encountered in the proceedings (except memorably Urrea) adds some pathos and verisimilitude. All in all, however, it sounds like it was worth that change in plane tickets, as witnessed by your usual droll account.

  4. Your sentiment that "the parts" of the publishing industry "are trying to ignore each other" (trad, self, e-) is probably true. As in the music biz, which also has the "reality tv contest" possibility, each track is now viable unto itself. I do wonder if Millenials are able to draw distinctions between these routes to success, or if Boomers and Gen Xers are inherently stuck in the trad ways, of wanting a book product to thump in a desk or nightstand, as culled and reshaped by the trad industry. Millenials have the advantage of seeing their friends "published" as readily as the old masters of the craft... I see no New Canon forming.