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New York City
August 2002

Word Watchers Weigh In At MMC Writers’ Conference
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Capping 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.#



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All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2002.