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USF Florida Suncoast
Writer's Conference

February's great writing escape.

Colleen Tripp offers her views from a sunny Gulf Coast satellite campus in St. Petersburg, where the annual Florida Suncoast Writers Conference brings instructors who shed light on the writing process.

Author Carl Hiassen at FSWCThe Florida Suncoast Writer's Conference, sponsored by the
University of South Florida,
is an event with
more than twenty-six years
of outstanding workshops,
featuring authors,
literary agents, and editors.

By Colleen Tripp
Special to Word Smitten


Appearing as a keynote speaker for a past event,
Carl Hiaasen takes time for a book signing.

During the winter months, people in cold weather climates plan winter vacations to get out of the snow. If like me, you hold a "day" job, with a novel sitting on your computer (or in a drawer) then you may want to head south to get out of the snow and wrap yourself in a book jacket.

Why not plan your vacation time to coincide with the Florida Suncoast Writers Conference? Held annually in February, the event offers tropical breezes, lush palm trees, and most importantly, publishing's most celebrated names.

If you are also looking to get close up and personal time with an agent, then this conference lets you rub elbows, if not manuscripts. It's a well known fact that an author's representative is a link to the literary brass ring which we all seek.

As aspiring writers, we look for them, dig for interesting research about them, and wonder if they are the mirage in the desert. Regardless of their specialty, they are God to us who walk in the land of the unpublished. They speak, we take notes, they walk, we follow (after attending several conferences where every agent seemed to dress in black, I found myself editing my wardrobe) these are the masters of our fate and suddenly they are 10 feet away and acting very approachable. Imagine my surprise when I met Betsy Lerner.

Betsy Lerner (of the Gernert Company) was an agent who spoke at the 2002 FSWC, and I sat through all her sessions to reap the rewards of agent illumination.

Sometimes agents are rude and sometimes they are brusque to the point of appearing to be annoyed to even have to be at a conference. But always, they are forthright. Betsy Lerner surprised me by being funny. She put the audience at ease with her humor, becoming human in the process. Ms. Lerner still insisted that we basically have talent, but went out of her way to emphasize the importance of "whom" you send your work to. She told us of her own dream to become a "Poet of Note," her transition from editing to agenting and she did it with grace and humor.

There were times during the workshop sessions when you could see her biting her tongue over some questions from the audience, rolling her eyes when an aspiring writer spent fifteen minutes outlining his book on hermit crabs, but never did she moan out loud or run from the room screaming. Writers arrive at these sessions with various degrees of skill and she understood and allowed for that diverse audience. Her lectures were succinct, to the point, no-nonsense. "Write a good cover letter," (she brought examples), "Write a better first page," and "Edit your work," make it the best it can be.

She told us about turning down Janet Evanovich as a client, (bet that stings) and somehow after listening to three lectures, I suddenly got over my fear of agents and realized that they were human, as different as the writers in the room, each choosing what they liked best. It wasn't personal, or even earth shattering, just subjective.

At the St. Petersburg campus of USF, the sense of community is expansive. The campus, small enough to easily walk from the main hall to the workshop classrooms, offers waterfront views, a quaint pub, a campus bookstore and café, and the well-run Bayboro Bookstore.

This astonishing program has grown with each year, introducing aspiring and published authors to some of the best writers in the business. The 2002 Conference headliner was Carl Hiaasen, and other years have featured Frank McCourt, Wally Lamb, Jane Smiley, and John Updike. The conference, under the auspices of the University of South Florida, is typically three days of intensive offerings. Beginning with a keynote address followed by specific writing sessions, there are more than five workshops per hour. Everything from "How to Write Sex Scenes" and "Writing the Blockbuster Novel" to "Plotting Techniques" tempts the would-be writer. Getting there is not the most difficult task. Choosing which session, that's agony. Besides current best-selling authors, FSWC offers lectures from magazine writers and editors, poets and in 2002 they added a songwriter.

Each year the conference breaks its own attendance record. This well known and well regarded conference, enduring and growing for more than a quarter century, may no longer be a well-kept secret. In spite of the worldwide 2003 travel slowdown the 2004 session was crowded. When you attend the conference (and I have many times in the past) I want to tell you two things. First, do not miss the keynote address. Second, if you choose to attend a session where an agent is giving a hands-on workshop, get to the classroom early if you want a seat. Or be prepared to stand.


Colleen Tripp writes both commercial fiction and mystery/romance novels while searching for the right agent and a publisher. She lives in Florida with her husband, children, and critters.


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