WriteCamp2: A Stimulating and Energizing Day

Had a marvelous time at WriteCamp Milwaukee 2 Saturday.

Mercy Hill Church at the Hide House is a fantastic venue, which you can see for yourself in the Flickr feed. The space was broken up into five session areas: Two in the main “sanctuary” area, with plenty of separation, so no one got confused by audio bleedthrough; three smaller classrooms.

The whole conference had a pretty analog feel to it for this techie. I brought my laptop, and lugged it around unopened pretty much all day. I confined my notes to pen and paper.

Sessions were 45 minutes long, with 15 minutes in between to move around. Usually enough time to take another look at the board and pick another location. Take a look at the full schedule. This review will of necessity take up only the sessions I could attend.

Morning Sessions

First session was with Daniel Goldin of Boswell Books. While mostly focused on fiction, he had great stories about the business of book selling. Best factoid, only peripherally writing-related: you  know how mass-market paperbacks used to be all the same size, around 6″ x 5″? As the reading population has aged, publishers made the paperbacks a little bit taller, so the font could be bigger!

Next up, I went to my only foray into the fiction realm, a session called “Reading as a Writer” hosted by Chris (whose last name I never did get — sorry!), an English prof at Columbia College in Chicago. He brought readings from three short stories (Gogol’s “The Nose,” John McNally’s “The Vomitorium” and something from Katherine Anne Porter). He would pick random people in the crowd to read a page or so aloud, and then we’d discuss the memorable bits of material on the page. Chris emphasized that simply by noting what stands out in a reading will improve our own writing. For fiction writers, the lesson was not to get all hung up on the symbolism and the Great Message behind a story (at least not at first). Just concentrate on the details that pull you into a story and make a story memorable. Good lessons for nonfiction writers too.

Todd Sattersten of 100 Best Business Books of All Time fame led another business-and-marketing session with perhaps the best title of the day: “Venture Capital, Viruses and Versioning: Three Things Every (Book) Author Needs to Know.” Do I need to tell you he knows a bit about marketing? This was the most satisfying session I attended.

The Venture Capital part of this talk is a reminder that publishers are really good for just two basic components of book marketing: Distribution (getting your book into bookstores) and Media Connections (getting media attention for your title). Authors are responsible for connecting with readers. As one publisher explains: “I can’t sell a copy to your mother.” The venture capital analogy works like this: Venture capital for a startup is (when it’s good) about giving your business a chance to succeed. After that, it’s up to you.  As an author, if you’re not conscious of this reality, chances are your title won’t sell, and maybe you don’t get a second chance.

Once you have the idea firmly implanted that it’s your job to market your book effectively, you want to do everything you can to create a buzz around it. Today, that’s often about making your book and its idea(s) viral. Recommending Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick, Todd explained the six basic elements of an idea that sticks: It’s Simple, Unexpected and interesting, concrete, tells a story, and is credible.

The last part of the session was about versioning: Make your content/idea available in as many ways as possible. Find your audience, and let your audience find you. One example: Someone apparently turned a chapter of her novel into a PowerPoint presentation. Building an audience through a blog on the topic. Always put your audience first.

Lunch and Afterwards

The lunch break featured a Slam Poetry demo by members of the Milwaukee slam team preparing to contest for a national title this summer in Minneapolis. You’d also find me feverishly preparing for my session(s).

We had an excellent discussion about “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” based on the book of that title by John Nichols and Bob McChesney. The discussion was greatly enhanced by the presence of Ricardo Pimentel, who runs the editorial page at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He was willing to offer some on-the-ground perspective on the state of the newspaper business. Unfortunately, time ran out just as we were getting into a rather spirited discussion of coverage of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I do think it was a worthwhile conversation.

After running my own session, it was nice to decompress in a smaller session about real-life networking dos and don’ts.

After the networking session, I had a great conversation with Karen Ford, Internal Organizing Vice President of the National Writers Union. She came up from Chicago to see what this WriteCamp thing was all about. We may have more to announce at some point down the road.

At the end of the day, I opened myself up for questions about WordPress. This session was lightly attended, but lots of fun (presumably all the real WordPress geeks were at WordCampChicago). We worked to solve a problem where  commenters weren’t getting notified when someone responded to them. Someone else was interested in the differences between WordPress blogging and wikis. I also talked about some strategies to get more readers.

All in all, a great day! I’m really looking forward to next year. I’m also hoping there’s a way to keep WordCampChicago from conflicting! Reports from that conference sounded great too.

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