Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Comments on the 2018 Kaua'i Writers Conference

From November 5th - 11th 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.

Kaua'i ( is a genuine tropical paradise, a relatively small Hawaiian island with a population of about 60,000. It happens my son teaches high school there, which is one reason I attended.  The picture is one I took of closing ceremonies on the beech.

The master classes seemed to have up to about 30 students each and met for three hours a day with one or sometimes two teachers. ( In the conference there were a variety of talks on various aspects of writing and publication. (

It took place in a grandiose, slightly worn resort with the largest swinging pool in Hawaii half-ringed with hot tubs and an island in the middle.  All overlooked a beach on an inlet. ( Our room was nice but not fancy, the food was good by conference standards. Things generally ran smoothly.

Demographics: My perspective may have limited my count, but I'd guess there were about 200 people in Master classes and about 300 attendees to the conference as a whole. There was a range of age and nationality, but the prominent group was middle-aged Caucasian women. My impression was that about half of the attendees were from the Hawaiian Islands.  There were a scattering of Asians and two blacks (one from Nigeria).  A few places had been allocated to students from a local college. I was sitting for lunch one day with a Brit. Conversation turned to how people stood in line for busses in different cultures. (I. E. a lone Brit is visibly in a queue whereas in Greece any group is a mob.) A young Asian woman sitting next to me had been rather quiet, so I asked her where she was from. She said Saipan; she was one of the local college group. I asked about bus queues. She said there are no busses in Saipan.

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.

I attended the master class given by Nicholas Delbanco ( on voice. It had some virtues and some faults. The faults were size and the room. Some fell away, but at the beginning there were 30 people. The room, which could have held 60 people, had narrow tables arranged in ranks as for hearing a lecture; it should have been is some sort of round-table arraignment. The virtues were the writers and the teacher. There were too many of them, but the writers were almost universally smart, experienced, and serious. Typically they were people who had written in some other field (I.e. the author of several history books, a lawyer who had written books on law etc.) and now wanted to write fiction. 
Delbanco has immense experience and resources as a teacher of contemporary writing and did marvelously considering the number of participants and the inappropriate room.

The version of the conference I attended two years ago ( was dominated by people form the traditional publishing world to the degree that, with a couple of exceptions in panels, it was as if hardcover books were the only game going on in publication, a strange illusion.  In 2018 that was no longer the case. Talks included discussion of electronic publishing, self-publishing, how to manipulate Amazon, and something new to me, "hybrid publishing", a sort of cross between self and traditional publishing, where a publisher selects a book submitted by an agent or author and they then share the cost and allocate any profits in varying proportions depending on what each contributed.

Never the less agents and prominent writers set a lot of the tone.  Characteristically the prominent writers urged people in the audience to be true to themselves, write what they inwardly wanted and the like, whereas the agents delivered strong guidelines about what the publishing industry wants and expects. Jayne Smiley, who always intended to and does write different sorts of books, commented that winning the Pulitzer Prize helped in arguing with her publisher. Her agent, however, told a story that elicited some sympathy for publishers. There used to be a mystery writer named Sue Grafton who wrote a series of rigidly similar mystery novels. Her publisher wanted her to write them as fast as twice a year whereas she wanted to slow down to one every two years, or something like that. The agent pointed out that at that time Grafton’s novels accounted for about half the publisher's income.

A couple of writers who had a calling to speak for their minority group were prominent in the conference two years ago and that was a live topic of discussion. Not this time.

Of the many talks ( the one I attended and enjoyed most was Smiley. I've read only one of her books (A Thousand Acres) and was only moderately impressed, but she's fun and smart and has had an interesting career.  The one I liked least was billed as on the Jungian notion of the hero’s journey. I thought, good, I can get ideas about plot structure. It turns out she was interested in only on step, (the second, "Refusing the Call"). She gave us brief writing assignments related to evocative phrases. One was "The stakes were high." Feeling irritable, I wrote about an enclosure walled by stakes so high they made the garden shady.

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