Watchers Weigh In At MMC Writers’ Conference
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.
a four-day seminar series on writing and publishing, led concurrently
by Ben Cheever, Grace Mirabella and Meg Wolitzer - Marymount Manhattan
College recently held its biggest ever 12th Writers’ Conference
proving that “words, words, words,” as Hamlet would say, have
not lost their compelling appeal in the age of mixed media. After
a breakfast registration of lively chatter and collegial reunions,
the existential crisis set in: which panel to attend? Everyone
wanted to be everywhere – sessions on literary agents, editors,
books, magazines, special genre. Each panel boasted a diverse
group of name-draw pros. Asked in advance to note the highlights
of his own presentation for the Memoir/Biography panel, the ever-mischievous
Malachy McCourt, who seems to have promised his session moderator
Mickey Pearlman “to behave,” had scrawled, “it’s all highlights!”
The expression served for the day.
While Elfrieda Abbe, editor of The Writer magazine was
delivering the goods about what writers should do before sending
off a book proposal (“know your market”), at the Editors’ Panel,
Lloyd Moss, from WQXR, was wowing Children’s Panel attendees with
a dry-humored account on how he went from playing trombone to
authoring the hugely successful Zin! Zin Zin a Violin,
noting, incidentally, that it never hurts to have a relative in
publishing. Meanwhile, down the hall, Susan Orlean from The New
Yorker was allaying fears of writing on specialized subjects,
advising audience members to confess they know nothing and to
throw themselves on the mercy of those they are interviewing.
Joining Abbe on the Editors Panel were Pamela Fiori, Jill Lamar,
and Enid Nemy. Sharing the Children’s session were Louise Borden,
Sally Cook, Karen Riskin, Mary Ann MacDonald, Cat Bowman Smith.
Roy Blount, Jr., Bel Kaufman and Toni Sciarra Poynter also delighted
the crowd at the Non-fiction panel, while Memoir/Biography also
hosted Daphne Merkin, Stanley H. Kaplan, and Judy Light Ayyildiz.
Ben Cheever, Patricia Volk, John Searles, Donna Hill, and Arthur
Bradford, cum guitar filled out the panel on Fiction writing.
Could there be a writers’ conference without a Publicity panel?
Impossible, as evidenced by panelists Tina Flaherty, Susan Shapiro
Barash, Miriam Silverberg, and Jimmy Franco. By late morning,
everyone came together for a Plenary session in MMC’s Theresa
Lang Theatre to hear keynoter Jane Isay, editor in chief at Harcourt
and former publisher of Grosset Books (Putnam).
Focused, articulate, with a conversational charm, Isay interwove
anecdotes and information as she talked about how writers can
best advance themselves with agents and editors. A book has to
be “positioned” for marketing, and authors must be prepared for
the “social part” of promotion, she emphasized. Approximately
40,000 books come out each year with an average shelf-life of
six weeks. “Passion, character, and overcoming barriers” was Isay’s
overarching theme. She noted in particular that books that make
it are books that consider their readers. “My story” has to have
universal resonance. Non-fiction writing generates no followers
so writers have to consider their choice of subject.
In any case, pursue what you’re passionate about, she concluded.
“Passion,” in fact, seemed to be on everyone’s mind –in the sense
of love rather than suffering, though Nancy Kelton at the afternoon
Magazine Writing Panel confessed to getting 156 rejections before
she succeeded with her first book.
At lunch, a moveable feast greeted the crowd in two senses: a
great buffet followed by a great Alan Furst, master spy thriller
novelist who gave the afternoon keynote address. Inadvertently
recalling advice given to Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate” Furst
said the key word to successful book publishing is ... “titles
-70% of getting there.” He proceeded to give a humorous, self-mocking
account of how he found his own titles, an entertaining account
of trial, error, and accident. What really emerged, however, was
the impression of a widely read and imaginative author whose curiosity
drove him to pursue subjects in WW II historical espionage that
had not been written to death.
Afternoon sessions continued to pack `em in: one Literary Agents
panel featured the heads of the Karen Zahler, Joanne Wang, Harriet
Wasserman and Richard Curtis agencies, along with Bill Banks,
director of the Harlem Writer’s Guild. Those who came to the later
session on Literary Agents heard more wise words from Fifi Oscard,
Ken Atchity, Lois Wallace, and Marianne Strong. Those interested
in acquiring session tapes should call Writing Center director
Lewis B. Frumkes at (212) 774-4811.#
Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: email@example.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express
consent of the publisher. © 2002.