Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Packed, Practical and Powerful - An inside look at a far-away conference

There's one thing worse than never attending a writer's conference, and that's being all geared to go and suddenly have it snatched from you.
For nine months, Marion Ueckermann and I made plans to attend the Florida Christian Writers Conference at the beginning of March. The day before our planned departure, she fell and shattered her wrist.
Some months ago, a couple of you suggested I give a "report back" of the conference when I returned from America, telling of my experiences as a non-American at an American conference. In view of what happened, I decided to let Marion ask me questions, and I'll try to answer them. Enjoy!

Marion: Hi Shirl! Remind me. How far did you actually travel?
Shirl: In 11 days I travelled 30,382 kilometres (18,878 miles). That’s over 75% of the earth's circumference (at the equator)
Marion:How long did the trip take from the time you left your home in Port Elizabeth, until you arrived at your destination hotel in Orlando?
Shirl: I left home at 10:30 S.A. time (GMT+2) on Saturday 27th February, and arrived at the hotel in Orlando on Monday 1st March at 15:00 Florida time (GMT - 5). 19 1/2 hours of that was actual flying time. The rest was in transit. I also spent nearly 24 hours with family in Johannesburg en route.
Marion:What was the venue like?
Shirl: Stunning! The auditorium is large, well-lit and attractive. The classrooms are well-equipped. The scenery reminded me of Lord of the Rings, especially in the early morning with the mist rising over the lake. I found a few minutes spent outside in the beauty and tranquility was just what I needed for a quick recharge.
The bedrooms are comfortable with en suite bathrooms. Of course I had a two-bed room all to myself (sigh). They also provided me with the loan hair-dryer we had requested in advance, as ours wouldn't have worked on the American power system.
Marion: They say that Africa isn’t for sissies, but I believe Lake Yale has alligators?
Shirl: I believe so, but the weather was so cold they wisely stayed at the bottom of the lake. (America had heavy snow-falls my first day in Orlando and it was pretty cold a lot of the time.)
Marion: What was the program like?
Shirl: As the title says: Packed, practical and powerful! The worship was inspiring, the teaching at the general sessions excellent. The material presented throughout the conference covered everything from finding ideas, writing queries and submitting, to how to approach an editor or find an agent. There was teaching on traditional publishing as well as self-publishing, and they even had a Teen-track. This popular continuing class produced two of the overall conference winners. (Picture shows best-selling author, Cec Murphey.)
At the beginning of the conference, we selected a continuing class from a possible 12. We attended this class for a total of six hours throughout the conference. We also attended 8 (out of a possible 81) hour-long elective workshops. Throughout the day, we slipped out of our workshops to attend 15-minute one-on-one appointments with editors, agents or faculty members.
Lunch and supper times were not exempt. Agents, editors and other faculty members hosted tables, and we selected who we wanted to sit with during the meal. I often wondered how these poor people ever managed to eat with all the questions fired at them throughout the meal.
Marion: Was the food very different?
Shirl: Not at all. The meals were excellent, and similar to what we eat in South Africa. Not like last time at Sandy Cove where food was often different, especially at breakfast.
Marion: How did you get on with the American people? Did you have any problems understanding one another?
Shirl: Not at all. The other conferees were very friendly and fun to be around. I had no problem with accents as we have Americans in our lounge every night on TV. To my surprise, they seemed to enjoy my South African accent. I know most of the words where our English is different to the American English, but I found it more daunting in real life than on paper. So I put my luggage in the boot, walked on the pavement, and to their consternation headed for the driver’s side of the car every time.
Marion: Were you the only non-American?
Shirl: I was the only overseas conferee but there were a few Canadians.
Marion: As the only person from overseas, did you not feel the odd one out?
Shirl: No, not at all. After expressing amazement that I'd come so far, they treated me like one of them.
Marion: What was the most beneficial part of the conference program?
Shirl: That's a difficult question. For me personally, this would have to be the interviews—after I got over the initial nervousness.
Marion: Was there any moment that stood out for you?
Shirl: Many. One special moment was meeting Yvonne Ortega for the first time. We’ve been critique partners for nearly seven years, but this was the first time we've met. We recognized each other across the parking lot. (Picture - L-R, Shirl, Billie Green - conference organiser, Yvonne Ortega)
Marion: Out of all the things you learned, what was the most challenging?
Shirl: During a panel session comprising five agents, one of them said something like, "Editors are more interested in your platform than your good writing." I heard this several times during the week: the importance of building your platform.
Marion: Were there any speakers or workshop leaders who really stood out for you?
Shirl: They were all good, but I think the workshop leader that impressed me the most was Craig von Buseck of CNN.
I attended two workshops by him, both in that dreadful just-after-lunch-I-need-a-nap time. Yet not once did I feel sleepy. He moved around, varied his voice, and kept our attention throughout. Apart from his topics, that was another good lesson for me: How to hold people’s attention.
Marion: What was the worst moment of the adventure?
Shirl: You mean, apart from the realisation I was travelling alone?
That would be when I went to plug in my laptop the first evening in Orlando and discovered the new lead for the American socket didn't fit my laptop. I was talking on Skype with Rob when the battery died. I had no way to tell him what had happened.

I felt so alone and out of contact with my world. My cell phone didn't operate in America so I couldn’t text home. My room-mate was in hospital in South Africa. My family were back home wondering where I'd disappeared to. And I had no clue where I’d be able to get another lead. (The next morning I caught a shuttle to the Orlando Mall and found a computer shop. Problem solved.)
Marion: Looking back, do you have any regrets?
Shirl:There were a couple of people I would have loved to chat with, or as the Americans say, "visit with", but there was no time. Inevitable, but sad.
Marion: So would you encourage other South African writers to attend a writer’s conference in the America?
Shirl:Absolutely. We have no comparable opportunity in S.Africa, and I suspect most other countries, where you can learn so much about writing in a few days. The interaction with so many other writers cannot be equaled.
Marion:Thanks, Shirl. I wish I’d been with you, but the Lord must have His reasons. Thank you Marion. And yes, you have no idea how often I reminded myself that God was in control.

Shirl:As a final thought to all: Both my conferences have come about as a result of intense prayer and miracle answers. Rob and I don't have this sort of money. The Lord has provided in amazing ways. If He can do it for me, He can do it for you—if you're really serious about your writing.

In closing - if you've been to a writers' conference, what one thing benefitted you the most? 
If you haven't been, what would be the one thing you’d most look forward to?
P.S. To read more about the whole Florida Adventure, go to the special section of my website:


  1. How exciting this must have been, I do so wish that SA has something like this even on a small scale. Somewhere where one can communicate with writers who have had more experience just to give one guidelines

  2. Shirl and Marion,

    I've enjoyed following your story from the beginning when you both found out you were able to go to Florida, then hurt for you after Marion's accident, and rejoiced again with Shirl as I followed her trek to the US. Thank you both for sharing, and while we might never know why God allowed your accident, Marion, I'm praying that God will continue to use you both for His glory as you write for Him!

  3. Shirl, I promise, next time I'll stay off chairs - particularly those with wheels. I know that God has a special plan for the way things turned out and I believe He'll make a way for us to attend a conference together in the future. Thanks for my Jeff Gerke book, The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction . . . I'm learning so much. Thanks for taking us through the conference with this blog - almost like being there.

  4. Great interview, ladies. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  5. Enjoyed hearing more about the adventures. Come again, Shirl! Bring Marion with you.

  6. Oh, Marion, I'm so sorry you couldn't make the conference. I hope you're wrist is mending.

    It sounds like you had a wonderful time, Shirl. Conferences are exhausting but so worthwhile.

    Susan :)

  7. Shirl, it was great to meet you, and we hope you come back and bring Marion with you!

    Really enjoyed reading your interview. Bless you!

    (One of the Kindred Heart Writers...)

  8. Decided I should have commented publicly rather than through e-mail. Good post. I forwarded the address to the Kindred Heart Writers. Obviously one has already responded. Keep writing. Clella
    (A Kindred Heart Writer)

  9. Great feedback Shirl, well done! It was shattering news for Marion, and my heart went so out to my little sister. After many tears, she accepted her fate, with the peace of mind that in this too God has a plan for her life. Thank you Shirl, for being such a great friend to her. I pray that the Lord will bless you both in your passions for writing, and that in His perfect time, doors will be opened for you and Marion.

  10. Shirl and Marion, great interview! I love our annual Romance Writers of Australia conference (this year we'll be at beachside hotel in Sydney) but by far my most amazing conference experience was in 2008 at RWA in San Francisco. I'd love to attend an ACFW conference.

  11. As one of your critique partners I could do a crit on this...but I won't :) Amazing adventure. I look forward to some unknown time in the future when I too can experience one of these amazing American writing conferences.

  12. Thanks for all the comments.

    I came home with twelve proposals to produce. I whittled them down to ten, but then discovered I had to change my *.tiff one-sheets into MS Word. Yeah! Another learning curve. I've never worked with text boxes, graphics or columns on MS Word.

    So the challenges went up to twelve again. Ah well, Praise the Lord. It would have been far worse to return with no follow-up to do.

  13. It sounds like one of the hardest things would be narrowing down the choices of workshops! I'm so glad you got to meet your critique partner. Next year, Marion...

  14. Shirl and Marion,

    Many thanks for a super interview. I enjoyed attending the conference virtually through your blogs and Skype calls Shirl. A highlight for me was to chat with Yvonne, an internet friend who used to be a critique partner when I wrote non fiction, via your laptop while you were in Florida.

    Marion, I pray that you will be able to attend a conference in the near future.

  15. Shirl & Marion, great interview. It was a great adventure, with much information and learning. Especially interested in the agent interviews. Didn't know that this was possible and would love to investigate this further. I look forward to the wealth of information that will come from your pen (Laptop) Shirl. You certainly keep CWG-SA up to date and well-informed.