I’m sitting in a small conference room at the Madison Concourse Hotel with 11 strangers at tables arranged so we’re all facing each other. Under other circumstances, it would be uncomfortable.
We’re gathered on this overcast and chilly late-Friday afternoon to hear Patricia Skalka — author of the popular “Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery” series — talk about her journey from nationally published freelance journalist to successful novelist.
This is exactly the kind of experience I’d hoped for when I registered for the 2017 UW-Madison Writers’ Institute, a 28-year-old spring tradition helmed by the university’s Division of Continuing Studies.
Two decades ago, as part of a non-credit writing class at Madison Area Technical College, I wrote a short story that my instructor and classmates suggested I expand into a novel. I never did. But now, as my own boss and with two older kids, I think the story still holds up, and I’m determined to write my first book.
At the March 24-26 Writers’ Institute, I found myself among 300 aspiring, emerging and experienced writers — most of them at least 35 years old — who want to hone their craft, learn more about the publishing industry and make potentially life-changing professional and personal connections.
About 75 percent of us pursue fiction, 20 percent write nonfiction and the rest are poets. Sprinkled in among us are probably a few screenwriters, too. I’m among more middle-aged men than I expected (organizers have made a conscious effort to attract more males in recent years), and although many writers are introverted, there is a camaraderie I haven’t experienced at conferences in other industries.
Fellow writers include a city clerk from Illinois, a tech support specialist from Nebraska and a professional photographer and volunteer high school forensics judge, each from Madison. They write about such diverse topics as mermaids, the Napoleonic Era and falling in love in Nepal.
The roster of almost 30 speakers includes established fiction (Sara Dahmen, Patricia Skalka), nonfiction (Blair Braverman, Nina Amir) and local (Pat Zietlow Miller, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Oscar Mireles) authors. Ten agents and editors also are available for eight-minute one-on-one pitch sessions for writers willing to pay $15 a pop and who, unlike me, have a book proposal or manuscript ready for submission.
The event has earned its status as “the Midwest’s premier writing conference” by changing with the times and having a dynamic leader in conference director Laurie Scheer, whose network of publishing, TV, film and music contacts runs deep.
Revered crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard was the event’s first-ever keynote speaker in 1990, when the Writers’ Institute was held at the Pyle Center (known as the Wisconsin Center back then), and things took off from there. This year’s presenters include transgender author Renee James, speaking about the self-publishing experience for her first book, Coming Out Can Be Murder, and game designer Matt Forbeck, who writes Halo novels and Captain America guidebooks.
Larry Brooks, a USA Today-bestselling novelist and author of three critically acclaimed books on writing, is also here. During the opening keynote session, Brooks starts by countering the idea that aspiring authors should “just write.” It can be “one of the most toxic pieces of advice” writers receive, he says, especially if they are unprepared for the monumental task they’re undertaking: “Everything in your story needs to be there for a purpose.”
Clockwise from left: nonfiction author snd sled dog driver Blair Braverman, director Laurie Scheer and keynote speaker Larry Brooks.
Around the same time that Christine DeSmet, an author and scriptwriter in the Liberal Arts and Applied Studies program at UW’s Division of Continuing Studies, was building the Writers’ Institute, Milwaukee-born and Marquette-educated Scheer was making a name for herself in the entertainment industry on both coasts. In the early 1980s, she was involved in the development of two of ABC-TV’s biggest dramas of the decade, Dynasty and Moonlighting. Scheer later worked as a producer for Viacom, Showtime and AMC-Cablevision during some of those networks’ most successful years and eventually was named vice president of programming for WE: Women’s Entertainment (now WE tv).
“Then I realized I wanted to be a teacher — it was that simple,” Scheer tells me over iced teas one February afternoon at Java Cat on Monona Drive. So she began teaching the art and craft of writing, securing part-time gigs at such prestigious institutions as Harvard, UCLA, Northwestern and American University. Eventually, a full-time job opened up teaching writing courses at UW-Madison, and Scheer jumped at the opportunity to return to her home state.
By the time Scheer arrived on campus in 2010 as a faculty associate and writing mentor in UW’s Liberal Arts and Applied Studies program, the institute was a contender among Midwest writers’ conferences. All it needed with a little extra oomph, which Scheer brought by diversifying the offerings and creating a hearty Midwestern vibe.
“This is the biggest writers’ conference in the Midwest, and we sell it that way,” says Scheer, who has become the face of the event. (DeSmet, now director of the annual Write-By-the-Lake and Weekend With Your Novel retreats, still speaks at the institute and is revered among longtime attendees.)
The inspiration for today’s UW Writers’ Institute comes from the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Ore., now in its 48th year and considered one of the country’s biggest and best.
“It was in the Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel — nothing special,” Scheer remembers about the time she attended. “However, I knew in a minute this was the Pacific Northwest. These people had stories about being in that part of the world. They transformed this regular hotel into a place to share those stories. That’s what I wanted to create here, so people can feel the energy of writers in the Midwest,” says Scheer, who in 2013 founded an annual literary journal, the Midwest Review. “The Writers’ Institute is a grand example of the Wisconsin Idea. We are bringing these resources to the community.”
And participants are reaping the benefits. Madison resident Margaret Goss attended her first Writers’ Institute in 2010; five years later, a small independent company called Three Towers Press (an imprint of HenschelHAUS Publishing in Milwaukee) published her debut supernatural thriller, The Uncommitted, to positive reviews (including one in Isthmus).
“That was a bucket list item for me,” says Goss. “Some people want to run a marathon; I wanted to write a book.”
In 2013, Scheer relocated the event from the Pyle Center to the Concourse, a risky but ultimately effective move she says altered the weekend’s entire vibe. “It has changed the conference from a school to a community,” she says. “Everybody feels like we’re in this together.”
“I really don’t feel like I need to go to the Chicago Writers Conference anymore,” says Carlo Kennedy, the author of two time-traveling novels who lives in suburban Chicago and has attended the Writers’ Institute the past six years. “I get more out of coming to Madison. It is better in every way.”
Writers to authors
The pen name Carlo Kennedy didn’t exist when the writer first attended the Writers’ Institute in 2012 as a speaker about church-related nonfiction writing. “I was so inspired by so many people wanting to write fiction that I wanted to give it a try,” he says of the book that became 2014’s Time Signature, a time-traveling rock and roll story published by 220 Communications, a small Chicago-based company that also published Time Signature II last year.
“I wanted to be free to write books that might offend the audiences for my other books,” Kennedy adds, explaining why he took a pen name. “People swear in the Time Signature books, and they sometimes have sex with each other without being married.”
The Writers’ Institute also provided Goss the inspiration she needed to finish The Uncommitted. “It gave me the kick in the pants to clean up the book and look at it more seriously,” she says. “In a very short time, I learned a lot of information.”
Over three days, Goss immersed herself in both the art and business of writing — everything from building her narrative to crafting a query letter to publishers. She also experienced her first opportunity to pitch The Uncommitted to agents, one who envisioned the novel being adapted into a feature film.
At the institute, Goss met DeSmet, who began critiquing and providing invaluable structural feedback. Goss worked on emphasizing showing over telling and creating more realistic dialogue.
Likewise, Marianne Flynn Statz found the breakthrough she was looking for at the institute. A former detective with the Madison Police Department who is now an MPD supervisor, Flynn Statz worked on the Jean Zapata murder investigation — a former cold case reopened in 2004 in which Eugene Zapata claimed his wife, Jean, simply disappeared one October day in 1976. Then, in 2008, he admitted he strangled her to death.
Flynn Statz journaled about the case “to come to terms with it” and decided after the case was solved to write a true-crime book, with the permission of Jean Zapata’s daughter, Linda. “It felt uncomfortable writing about myself,” Flynn Statz says. “I didn’t want to follow the facts of the case literally, so I switched to fiction. But that felt icky, because I knew it was a true story. It felt disingenuous to me.”
Then, at the 2016 Writers’ Conference, she pitched to Paul Levine, a renowned literary agent from California who has sold more than 100 fiction and nonfiction books to publishers. She concluded by declaring, “I investigated this case.”
Levine looked her in the eye: “I don’t want a novel,” he said. “You bring a level of credibility to this true-crime story because you lived it, and it’s a one-in-a-million story.”
Today, Flynn Statz is working on the umpteenth version of her nonfiction book about the Zapata case, titled The Gift of Goodbye. She will send it off to Levine when she’s done and ultimately hopes it will give voice to victims of domestic violence. “Some days, I’d rather clean the toilet than write,” she admits. “That said, I’m looking forward to having this done and putting it out in the world.”
One of the biggest success stories to come out of the Writers’ Institute in recent years might be that of Heather Lyn Mann, who founded Madison’s Urban Open Space Foundation (now known as the Center for Resilient Cities) in 1996.
In 2007, Mann and her husband, Dave, set off on a multi-year Caribbean sabbatical in their sailboat, Wild Hair. “There were so many stories that were coming up — so many things happening at sea felt very cinematic, very alive — that I thought, This is something I need to write about,” says Mann, who published pieces for Cruising World and Blue Water Sailing magazines.
Based on what she learned at the 2014 Writers’ Institute, Mann wrote a book proposal for a sailing memoir that included an outline, a business plan and a review of comparable titles. Within a year, she found a home for Ocean of Insight: A Sailor’s Voyage from Despair at the nonprofit mindfulness publisher Parallax Press. She also was fortunate to be one of Parallax’s first authors whose book was involved in a new sales and distribution deal with Penguin Random House Publishers Services. Parallax even provided Mann with a publicist who booked multiple tours for the author — something that doesn’t always happen.
Mann moved from Madison to Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 and couldn’t attend this year’s Writers’ Institute because she was on a book tour. But she’ll make a stop at A Room of One’s Own on May 4 to promote Ocean of Insight. “It’s been a little dizzying,” she says.
Three hundred aspiring authors looking for a break gathered at the Concourse Hotel.
Finding a market
If there was one overwhelming message at the 2017 Writers’ Institute, this is it: Writing is hard work, but that’s only one step in a potentially years-long process that also includes pitching, editing, rewriting and marketing. It requires an immense level of commitment, but for writers who dream of a published book, the demanding journey is worth it.
Take Matt Rogge, who develops fundraising copy for the University of Wisconsin Foundation. He wrote most of his giant 150,000-word first novel, November in Nepal, between the hours of 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.. When he pitched it to four agents at this year’s institute, three of them asked for pages to read, and the fourth provided what Rogge calls “invaluable” advice.
“The opportunity to meet with New York agents right here in Madison is really remarkable,” Rogge, a first-time attendee, told me. “I knew that at some point I’d have to sell my book, and that might mean trying to get to New York to pitch it to agents. I really appreciate the ability to connect with New York without leaving town. Writing is a business, and there are marketplace issues that I need to be addressing as I do my work.”
The publishing business, never known for its compassion, has become more brutal in recent years. I heard more stories than I wanted to of authors who lost their agents or editors to layoffs, and there are scammers out there who charge writers for agent representation and book publication.
We also have to contend with the realities of the market. As Noah Ballard, an agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. in New York City reminded us, white women between the ages of 35 and 60 comprise the largest readership segment in the United States. If my book doesn’t appeal to that demographic, does it hurt my chances at a scoring a deal?
Few authors make big bucks these days, but we writers tend to define our own success. For many, seeing our work between two pieces of cardboard is (or will be) enough. “It feels good to be in a room with people who take their work as seriously as I take mine,” Rogge says. “There’s a sense of solidarity. Writing is hard, and we all do it pretty much alone. These opportunities to get together with fellow writers is reenergizing.”
“Rejection is part of the process, and it did discourage me at first,” adds Goss, who now is listed on the Writers’ Institute website as one of its success stories. “But if your story is good, it’ll find a market. So see it through to the end, no matter how long it takes.”
In my case, that’s 20 years and counting. But if the story has stuck with me all this time, maybe I finally should do something more with it. When a publisher at the institute who is familiar with my Isthmus work tells me she’s interested in taking a look at my first novel when it’s done, I realize I need to write this thing.
My goal is to have a draft ready for the 2018 Writers’ Institute next April.