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The Santa Barbara Writers Conference:
Impressions of a First Timer

By William Honey -- May 29, 2006

Bill Honey's thoughts on a great conference for writers. "I moved to Santa Barbara from a city in the Deep South with three universities and a long tradition of literature (Scott Fitzgerald wrote there), yet no writers conferences. In my first year in Santa Barbara I attended the SBWC, Perie Longo's Poetry Workshop, a one day writers' workshop at Antioch University and joined a writers' support group. SBWC was the first conference for writers I ever attended, so I didn't know what to expect."

I didn't know any of the names, had no favorite workshop leader from conferences past, so I sampled a number of them. The read and critique sessions were very helpful. I was surprised by the quality of my peer group. The leaders were excellent; they were good writers, good editors, and good critics, all of that, but just as important, the quality of my fellow attendees was far above what I expected. Participants included many talented and published writers. Their critiques were excellent and had the benefit of experience. There were very few "I have a wonderful idea for a book, but I haven't begun to write yet." Everybody there was a writer, defined by the maxim, "Somebody that writes every day." The conference is proof that no matter how accomplished you are as a writer, you can always get better.

The emphasis was on getting published. Good writing is a necessary part of that experience (sometimes), but the workshops were not about verbs and nouns and how to build an interesting sentence. They were about how to catch the eye of an editor or agent.

The first line has to engage and hold. "Nobody heard the gun go off," is an opening line, and it may be half way down the second page of your story because you wanted to set the scene, describe the characters, and spill a little of your personal philosophy of life at the beginning. I learned that my "real" opening line needed to be moved to the fore.

I found the leaders very accessible. Because it is a conference for "writers" there was mutual respect between the leaders and the participants. I have written extensively, both academic writing and for a city magazine which I owned and edited. Nevertheless, like many other writers there, I was a learner. There was much to be learned about writing for publication, and I benefited immensely.

My current writing effort is a memoir about working with a group of young black boys in the inner city. I picked out several stories from later in the book to read in the workshops I attended. This was a mistake because the questions and criticism were about missing background for the story, all of which was in the proceeding 200 pages. I learned to read from an opening chapter or to give extensive background before reading.

The conference featured agents, editors, publishers and writers leading workshops. We really were hearing from the horse's mouth. One of the conference benefits for me was a meeting with an editor of a national magazine who advised me that the collection of stories about the boys would be more interesting to a publisher as a memoir incorporating the same stories and also my personal experiences in the inner city. I got the impression that the genre publishers (detective, adventure, self-help, mystery, romance) offered a better opportunity for a first time writer than "literature," a collection of short stories or a memoir, except for the "Self Help Memoir" about overcoming a tragedy that many face or perceive they face.

One conference day is devoted to private meetings with agents. My first agent continued talking to her previous participant well into my half-hour. This doesn't happen often, but I complained, and immediately I was fixed up to talk to another agent. For many it was the first opportunity to pitch a book to an agent and get direct feedback on how your book fits into the market. I know there were books sold that day.

We all have sent out stories and poems and received printed rejections. If you haven't attended a conference like SBWC, rejections can be discouraging. I was relieved to discover that established, published writers also receive rejections, and that it has nothing to do with the quality of your writing. Finding a publisher is a happy coincidence of time and topic: that the publisher is not up to his neck in books he just accepted and doesn't have time or space for another, or that the publisher hasn't just published a war poem and isn't looking for another right now. It was comforting to hear that established poets like Perie Longo and Barry Spacks send out poems that don't hit the right market at the right time just like the rest of us.

The conference is very intensive. Workshops dominate the mornings and early afternoon. Speakers occupy the early evening. The pirate workshops last well into the night. Fellow writers really bond during the pirate workshops. The ability to nap sometime during the day is helpful to last through the day's offerings and the pirate workshops.

I left the conference feeling energized, far more confident of my ability to structure a story, having gained a knowledge of the market, and with a strong sense of a community of writers here in Santa Barbara.