2011 Wordstock (Portland)

This past weekend, I attended my first writer / reader convention–Portland, OR’s Wordstock. It was and it wasn’t what I expected.

The Misses:

Not much free stuff…at all.  I’d hoped for free books, bookmarks, pens, pads, etc.  I got nothing but a 3/4 inch diameter button proclaiming the festival.  I found this particularly annoying on day two when I realized I’d forgotten a pen and could find no free ones anywhere.

No agents trolled the area for amazing new talent such as myself, and those that were there kept very low profiles and/or told us to leave them alone and go to their websites.  They stated they found being approached by so many writers overwhelming.  Fair enough.  I just hadn’t expected that.

Book signings were limited to the speakers.  Certainly a few intrepid authors had their books available for purchase / signing, but they paid for that right by renting a booth.  The other authors were either mobbed or stood lonely at their signing podiums waiting for readers to approach them.  Frankly, the whole signing thing felt a little intimidating as the popular authors had really long lines.  Those whom I’d heard speak felt like unapproachable Gods / Goddesses.  I know this is my own perception because I’m sure they all put their pants on one leg at a time and are probably lovely people.

Most of the publishers who rented booths were local indie presses.  I didn’t see any of the BIG names there, names like Random House, HarperCollins, Scholastic, Avon, Mills and Boon, etc.  I didn’t even see any of the larger e-publishers like Carina, Wild Rose Press, Ellora’s Cave, Samhain (these being all Romance e-publishers, of course).

Most of the other booths were writing services like editors, self-publishing support services (e.g. Amazon Createspace had a booth), the Wall Street Journal (offering a high pressure deal that came with a massive coffee table book–I didn’t have the heart to say I don’t read newspapers anymore), local literary press magazines, non-fiction writing suppliers, libraries raising money, etc.  All worthy exhibitors, just not what I wanted or needed.

I didn’t get to see two big name authors I really wanted to see:  Ursula Leguin and Scott Westerfeld, nor did I get the books I brought by Maggie Stiefvater and Mr. Westerfeld signed.  Our schedules just didn’t align correctly.

The Hits:

The authors who spoke or read were AMAZING!  My favorites were:  Jennifer Egan, Steve Almond, Chelsea Cain, Moira Young, Ellen Hopkins, Lauren Oliver, Kimberly Derting, Patrick Carmen, Lidia Yuknavitch, Cheryl Strayed, and Lindsay Leavitt.  All these writers impressed me either as speakers and/or they whet my appetite to buy their books.

I mean why wouldn’t I want to read a YA book about a girl who falls for the boy sitting in front of her after she is required to write a journal entry about an inanimate object and she chooses the back of his head (Leavitt’s Sean Griswold’s Head), or the female teenaged Dexter (Cain’s Gretchen Lowell in The Night Season and its sequels), or the girl who falls in love right before she is scheduled to lose her ability to feel the emotion (Oliver’s Delirium).

On the titillating side, you have to admire a woman who can write so openly about her descent into promiscuity after losing her mother to cancer (Strayed’s memoir Wild).

I’m not normally one for literary fiction, but I think I’ll have to buy Pulitzer prize winning author Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, after her reading and explanation of how and why she wrote a chapter in Powerpoint!  Plus, her ability to explain in such intelligent terms her technique for layering lush writing techniques left me feeling vastly unworthy–like comparing refrigerator art to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The sheer volume and variety of choices when it came to speakers more than made up for the lack of exhibitors handing out trinkets and trash or those of current interest to me.  I filled up two days moving from stage to stage to hear authors from many genres speak on a wide variety of topics that weren’t only about their books.

Here are the sessions I attended over the two days (an hour each):

  • How to win over agents and editors
  • Book Trailers: A driving force?
  • Jennifer Egan (reading)
  • The death of print and digital humanity
  • Pushing the limits of form and fiction
  • Teens facing fears in fiction
  • What’s with America’s Sexual/Literary hangup?
  • Vampires are so last season
  • Mean Girls
  • Smells like teen spirit
  • Ellen Hopkins and Jen Violi (readings)

I give props to the festival organizers who did an awesome job keeping everything organized, for selecting terrific moderators for the panels, terrific authors to speak.

The festival featured a heavy Portland, OR flavor with most of the authors either living in or near Portland, OR or the Pacific NW.  This I REALLY appreciated.  I’ve always known my part of the world was home to many authors, but I’d no idea just how many.  Color me impressed and proud of my hometown colleagues.  It must be the rain that inspires us to write.  Must be.

Jennifer Egan

Chelsea Cain

Ellen Hopkins

7 thoughts on “2011 Wordstock (Portland)

  1. Yeah for fun and good learning. I personally hate the tchotzkes from conferences. They all end up in the trash. Though I can see where a pen would have been nice. 😉

    • Given the cost ($10 for 2 days and the parking of $14 for 2 days), it was VERY cost-effective, so I really am not complaining in the long-run. There was HUGE value for my money. (Cause you know I’m always a numbers gal. 😉 )

      • You’re right, great value for the money. (Even cheaper if you take the Max train instead of paying for parking!) Glad you enjoyed it.

        It’s not the same feel as the Willamette Writers Conference (which is also Portland, in August each year) – not as educational and writers bumping elbows with agents and editors. It’s more of a celebration of writing, I think. A chance for us to just hang out – learn some, see a lot.

        Maybe next year we AWers can make plans to meet up before it starts. Finding people in the crowd was nearly impossible.

      • See, I didn’t even know any of these conferences happened, I’d been under a rock. Apparently the PDX booksellers ones was right after Wordstock and it too sounded good. I was expecting more like what you described for Willamette WC. I’ll have to try again next year and yes, we need to designate a meeting spot and time to meet up next time. I think your description of Wordstock was very apt–less pressure to network, more to learn.

        I almost took Max from either Delta Park area or the Airport but figured if I’d driven that far from Clark Cty, WA, might as well keep going. Not knowing what to expect, I wanted my car handy and on my schedule in case I stayed later than expected.

  2. The agents actually said “they found being approached by so many writers overwhelming” ? What did they think they were attending? A Privacy conference? Seriously, it’s agents like that that make me question whether writing is the thing for me.

    Glad you were able to make the best of it. There are great authors out there that are a dream to hear speak. Robert J. Wiersema is one as is Susanna Kearsley (even though I’m not a romance fan per se, she writes outside the box) and Kelley Armstrong was also amazing.

    • Yeah, I was a little taken aback at first too. I gather they were there as speakers or their clients were there as speakers. I guess it was a different kind of convention than the ones I’d read about where everyone swaps cards and gives their elevator pitches to any who will listen…and most there DO listen.

      One agent was Portland-based. The NY agent on the panel walked on stage late. All were good speakers who repeatedly told us how they were just like us and were in competition with other agents for writers. Kind of like the best-looking, most talented football players waxing on about how they too have to compete to get a date but neglecting to mention they are all chasing after the same head cheerleader. sigh…

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