What You Missed: Schieffer, McDermott, Dionne et al

Or maybe the headline should read: Last Weekend’s News Tonight, or This Morning, or whenever you are reading it.  And, what a weekend it was at the 6th annual Washington Writers Conference (#DCWritersConf), sponsored by the Washington Independent Review of Books. Held at the College Park Marriott Hotel & Convention Center, it featured TV news icon Bob Schieffer, acclaimed novelist Alice McDermott, political pundit E.J. Dionne, other superb panelists and a gaggle of literary agents for aspiring authors to pitch to in 7-minute speed dating sessions.

Since its inception, I have had the honor of serving on the board of the nonprofit Washington Independent, which went online in February 2011, inspired by the demise of the Washington Post’s standalone Book World section. I have also been the chief organizer of panels and recruiter of speakers since our first conference in 2013. I’ve been pleased to introduce such notables as Marie Arana, David Maraniss, John Feinstein, Bob Woodward, Judy Viorst and this year Bob Schieffer, whose fame belies his modest and unpresuming character.

Some of these speakers and panelists have been pals from my years at the Washington Post. Others are new friends who have widened my horizons even as they expanded my network of contacts. I am grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to share their vision and their wisdom with others. Before you consume cable news with your eggs and coffee, take a few minutes now to hear what these folks had to say that was more food for thought than for indigestion.

In a morning devoted to craft, I organized a panel called Tools of the Trade (“Seasoned Authors Share Their Secrets”).  The idea came from a non-fiction authors lunch I attend every month or so in a classically mediocre Chinese restaurant in Rockville where we talk shop over fried rice and kung pow chicken.  Edited and condensed, here’s some of what our panelists said:

On selling your book proposal:

David O. Stewart, best-selling author of books of historical fiction and non-fiction: Happy endings are more commercial but seem to me less genuine, so I don’t do it.

Peter Cozzens, author or editor of 17 books on the Civil War and the American West:  Show you know where you’re going. Have a well-mapped destination for the story. How does your book differ and how will your contribution be original?

John Ross, a former executive editor of American Heritage whose new book is about explorer and visionary John Wesley Powell: You have to pack a punch [even though] you haven’t done all the research yet. You don’t know where you’re going to go. Give a sense of who you are and what you bring to it.

On voice:

Paul Dickson, prolific author of 60+ books, most recently a biography of Leo Durocher: I assume the role of an old man on the back porch telling the book to kids. In my new book, I am trying to assume the role of a writer in that period (1940-1941).

Ross: You don’t want to be didactic. Very intimate. On (his book about Eddie Rickenbacker), I incorporated the concept of speed, cadences, wrote shorter, jerky sentences on purpose. Get immersed in that time period, so the reader can feel ‘Here I am.”

On revising:

Cozzens: The contract called for 150,000 words. I came I with 290,000. Revision is critical. Reduce a graph to one sentence. Reduce pages to one graph. Sometimes less is more. Don’t bury the reader in detail. It’s important to have a thick skin and send out your manuscript to others, to well-read general readers and experts in my subject, before it goes to the editor. And you avoid making some really dumb mistakes.

Dickson: his editor’s advice: you’re writing this book for a person who has kids, a job, and it’s 8 p.m. Should they watch TV or read a book? You’re always thinking of that reader.

To these remarkable exchanges, add the second plenary with Alice McDermott, National Book Award winner, in conversation with longtime public radio producer Tayla Burney. Here’s McDermott: “The divide between a nonfiction memoir and fiction is research.” Writing is a job, so, “don’t expect anybody to be patting you on the back because you went to work.” And, no matter your resume, “When you’re shaping a new story, you’re a novice again. It’s always frightening, always leaves you with doubt. .It’s a scary process of discovery. That’s art.”

Schieffer, like all our speakers and panelists, received no fee. But his lunchtime talk was priceless. “We’re not there to be the opposition party,” he began. “We’re there to check on the message the politicians deliver. Without trying to sound too noble, we’re trying to find out what the truth is.” With the “overload” of sources (also the title of his latest book), he said, “The good news is people are more connected. The bad news is the nuts are all finding each other.” The last election, he said, showed us “how vulnerable this instant communication has made us.”

There followed a lively afternoon panel on political books in the age of Trump, but the discussion turned more on the future of books than the future of the country. “We thought e-books would destroy traditional books, but that’s ended,” said author Larry Leamer, whose newest book is about Trump in Palm Beach.  Pundit E.J. Dionne disclosed his daily quota is 750 words. “Never worry if something you write is awful,” he said. “Keep editing and keep editing.”

There was much more: Panels with first-time published authors, science fiction writers, women writers of crime novels (“Women in Crime”), and authors focusing on climate change. It was a good, long day that afforded attendees plenty of time for networking even as they pitched agents and learned from the best and the brightest on the D.C. literary scene. So, onto next year! Save the date: May 3-4, 2019.


Meanwhile, I will be speaking about FIVE FOR FREEDOM: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, on May 19, a week from this Saturday, from 11:15 to 12:05, in the James Michener tent. The book will also be available there for purchase and signing. After Gaithersburg, my next scheduled appearance will be at Politics & Prose on June 2, at 6 p.m.  You all come!

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