Forty writers sat inside the conference building at long tables arranged in a squared-off horseshoe. Manuscripts lay piled in front of them or clumped in bags and binders on the floor. A woman scrolled through Word documents on her laptop. A man sitting across from her sifted through five inches of typescript. His name was Marty. Unshaven and nervous in his white T-shirt and jeans, Marty began carefully building a second stack.
It was the first night of the 8th annual La Jolla Writers Conference. The event drew 180 writers to Paradise Point Resort & Spa from Nov. 7 to 9. They came to listen to professional writers, agents and publishers who all donated their time to deliver lectures on the craft of writing. The conference featured classes on the topics of character development, dialogue, book proposals, genre writing and book marketing, as well as others.
Antoinette Kuritz popped into the conference room.
“I want you to know that I have spoken to Mark, and he is on the way,” Kuritz told the attendees.
Kuritz is a willowy brunette who talks with her hands and moves constantly even when standing in one spot. She is a La Jolla-based publicist who founded the conference as a response to a friend who lamented the long wait between local writing seminars. Several days after this year’s event, she was already planning next year’s conference.
“I can’t wait - in the future years - to hear the success stories,” Kuritz said. “I look around the room, I look at the faces and I wonder who’s going to be next.”
The clock read 9:02 p.m. when Mark Clements walked through the door and took over the room. Clements is a successful author of horror and suspense novels. He seemed charged up and ready to lead this late night read and critique session.
Clements told the writers he would initially limit them to reading four pages, but they could read more later.
“I’ll stay as long as you guys want to keep reading,” Clements said. “I’ve held sessions that literally went to sunrise.”
A woman in a white poncho named Sherry was first to hand Clements her work to read.
“I just started writing,” she told him.
Clements read in careful, precise tones. Going through the piece cold, he interpreted sentence rhythms and emphasis shifts perfectly.
Sherry sat with her hand clenched in a fist over her mouth, her eyes locked on Clements.
“That was horrifying,” she said when he finished.
“Well, you can stop worrying; you’re definitely a writer,” Clements told her.
“You have an amazing eye for the killer detail … I have to say I’m jealous,” said a man sitting across the room.
Marty sifted through his typescript trying to cull out four perfect pages while the group discussed Sherry’s work. He looked worried.
An older man named Jerry went next. His thin, graying hair covered his scalp like thatch over a hut. He read the work himself, in an easy drawl that dragged his listeners down into the maelstrom of Vietnam.
When Jerry finished, his listeners were silent for a moment. They seemed stunned.
Marty stopped scanning pages long enough to tell Jerry he really liked it. The others offered Jerry only minor suggestions for improvement. He made notes of their comments, head down over his notebook.
Marty couldn’t wait any longer. He raised his hand to go next. He told the group that the typescript was his unpublished novel.
Clements read Marty’s four pages. Written in the present tense, it sounded stilted and awkward.
“I felt you needed to show more and tell less,” said a woman across the room.
Clements waited for the others to express their concerns about Marty’s method, and then he used it as instruction.
"[Excellent] dialogue sounds really natural,” he said, “and yet, it is totally not. It is not how people talk. And yet it has to come across like it is how people talk.”
Marty told Clements he has already edited the book four times.
“Should I stop sending it out for two years and edit it four more times? I can’t wait that long!”
“It shouldn’t just be your obligation, it should be your desire to get it as refined as you can before you let anybody else mess with it,” Clements said.
Checking his watch, Clements announced a break and went out to make a phone call. It was 11:30 p.m. Some of the writers gathered up their papers and left. Those who stayed went looking for fresh coffee, but nothing was open on the hotel grounds. Even the bar was closed.
It was going to be a long night.