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