STORY BROADS: 8 Writing Lessons Learned from Organizing a Writers’ Conference

Waka T. Brown is the 2016–17 Film & TV organizer for the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, OR. Waka was one of the six 2013 Quest Initiative participants led by Scott Myers of Go Into the Story at The Black List and her screenplays (comedies, romcoms, & animated features) have been 2nd-rounders at AFF, and placed in the semifinals of PAGE, and quarterfinals of Screencraft writing competitions. Waka has also authored a variety of units and teacher’s guides on international topics through her work with the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education. Please follow her sad little Twitter/Instagram accounts that she only set up because someone told her she needed to establish more of a “social media presence”: @wakatb

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STORY BROADS: 8 Writing Lessons Learned from Organizing a Writers' Conference by Waka T. Brown #scriptchat #screenwriting

A little over a year ago, a good friend (and member of my writing group) asked me if I’d help him organize the Willamette Writers Conference (WWC) in Portland, OR. I hesitated at first because being responsible for the Film/TV side of a conference with 700–900 attendees seemed like a daunting task. But, this friend had – just days before – supplied me with a Coke and a Snickers after I’d almost passed out at a pitching contest (I’d forgotten to eat because of nerves, then adrenaline rush during pitching, then… uh oh). Then, I’d forgotten my folder in which I had all the contact info for people who had asked to read my script. In a panic, I called on the future conference director to rescue it from the recycling bin. Despite my seeming inability to handle essential tasks like feeding myself and remembering to hold onto really important information, he still wanted me to help with the 2016 WWC (go figure), so I kinda felt like I owed him…

Fast-forward a year and the 47th Annual Willamette Writers Conference has come and gone. Having had some time to reflect on the experience, I’ve found that many of the lessons learned apply not only to planning a writers’ conference, but to a writer’s journey in general.


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Say Yes

As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t like I jumped at the opportunity presented to me. Like any writer, Self Doubt was the immediate response. I don’t know about all of you, but I’m pretty good at talking myself out of opportunities. “I don’t know if I can do this,” “I’m probably not the best person for this job,” “I just need to think of this conference as if it’s a party! A party for writers! But wait, most of the parties I plan suck. And writers are introverted, would they even want to come to my party? Why would I want to plan a party for writers who hate parties?” Aaargh!

Conference planning, like writing requires a bit of a leap of faith. You know how a writer wonders before starting a project, “Will this idea develop into a screenplay that I’ll be proud of?” I also wondered, “Will the conference be a success? Do I really want to spend a year of my free time doing this?” While “success” is a subjective term and an elusive goal, one thing is for certain: saying ‘yes’ to the challenge means at the very least you’ve started on that path.

“If You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Get”

One of our first tasks in our conference planning was to see who’d be willing to lead sessions and/or take pitches. Over the years, I’ve established some contacts, and knowing that there were people I wanted to invite was one of the reasons I ultimately decided to take on this responsibility. But I also needed to ask people I didn’t know personally and this was a somewhat daunting prospect. It’s never fun to extend an invitation and to receive rejections or no response whatsoever. Like in one’s writing career, though, whether it’s a read, or a grant, or some sort of favor, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Of course, some people weren’t able to make it. Some people didn’t respond at all. But, the people who were able to attend were rock stars and some of the people who weren’t able to attend in 2016 have indicated they will in 2017.


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Surround Yourself with Good People

When writing a screenplay, it’s crucial to work with people who support your endeavors. Same rule applies when planning a conference. Definitely not all fun and games, working toward the conference had its share of obstacles, plot twists, and Act Two Blues. However, working with the team we had in place made it worth the while. I think we’ve all known people who question your ability, who don’t get your writing, and even why you’d ever write in the first place. In regard to these naysayers: forget ‘em. Focus on the people who are rooting for you.

It Won’t Be Perfect

Let me be honest – at the conference, mistakes happened. Since no one’s perfect, they’re inevitable. But, the way you respond to mistakes can make a world of difference. A room or two were not ready. There were conflicts in scheduling with some pitches. But as a team, we worked hard to correct our mistakes. The solutions might not have been perfect, but at the very least, we tried our best and people (for the most part) were grateful for our efforts. Our writing certainly isn’t perfect, either. Nothing is ever perfect. But how do you react when someone tells you it’s not? That’s what really matters. Closely related to this lesson is the next one which is…


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Listen to the Note

Throughout the conference, we received feedback about aspects we could have changed or improved. For instance, the delightful Lee Stobby suggested that in the future we have color-coded badges for our conference VIPs so that they wouldn’t be mistaken as attendees (and prompted to GET OUT! by our well-meaning volunteers when a pitch session had ended). Sure, I could’ve been like, “Whatevs, Lee Stobby! You know so much about planning this conference, why don’t you do it!!” But, you know, he had a good point, and we’ll do that next year. I also have some ideas brewing for our ever-popular “Pitch for the Prize” contest (thanks to feedback from a couple more Film VIPs) and I’m excited because all these suggestions are only going to make our conference better.

And I know I mentioned earlier to forget the Negative Nellies and focus on people who support you. But there’s a difference between negativity from someone who cares neither about you nor your writing and someone who knows the business and is trying to offer constructive criticism. Feedback is support.


Script EXTRA: Getting Honest Feedback


Screenwriting is a Craft AND a Business… but Craft is King

Another reason I took on this position was because I knew it would also be a good opportunity to cultivate relationships. We’ve all heard that in this business, it’s as much who you know as what you know. When organizing classes, I made sure we had a good mix of sessions that focused on the business side of screenwriting as well as craft. It was fascinating to me that the classes that focused on craft were much more well-attended. Similarly, while a lot of this past year has been furthering the “business” aspect of my writing, as a result, I had less time to work on my writing. And while business is certainly important, I sincerely believe that knowing your craft takes precedence.

Enjoy the Journey

When I was just starting out, the Willamette Writers Conference jump-started my education about the different aspects of writing, business, making contacts, getting reads, etc. For many of us, writing can be a lonely endeavor and it was my first exposure to being around so many people who shared my dreams. Through this conference, I’ve always felt a spirit of camaraderie that’s fueled me for months afterward. Working together toward a common goal of delivering the best conference we knew how to, I’ve met many wonderful people I might not have otherwise. Who knows where my writing will take me? Where it will take any of us? Did working on this conference help further my writing career? Who knows. It’s not like I’m making a living off either my conference planning or my writing prowess at the moment. So at the very least I better be enjoying it.

Last, But Not Least: Abuse Your Power (?)

I hesitated to talk about my writing with any of our Film VIPs outside of designated pitch times. A couple of them told me I was being silly and I should just chat them up in the hallways or at mealtimes about my writing. I told them I felt uncomfortable with this and that it seemed a bit of a conflict of interest with my position. I told them I didn’t want to be that person with scripts (instead of fake Rolexes) tucked inside my jacket asking them, “Would ya like to see a screenplay? I got lots ‘o screenplays for ya!”

“First rule of Hollywood,” one of them told me, “If you have any sort of power, abuse it.” Ah, not really my style, but you know what? I’m OK with shameless plugs – Willamette Writers Conference Aug. 3-6, 2017 – Mark your calendars! We’ll have an amazing line-up of sessions, reps, execs and maybe even a Coke and Snickers waiting for you.

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