Helping Writers Write – The Washington Writers Conference Continues Its Mission

By Garinè Isassi

On May 12 and 13, 2023, the Washington Writers Conference is celebrating its 10th conference — in its current form, that is! That final caveat leads us to a bit of local literary history. It turns out that this mainstay event of the DMV literary scene is actually an inspiring comeback story.

There was an annual writers’ conference throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s organized by The Washington Independent Writers (WIW), an association mainly made up of freelance journalists and nonfiction writers. Over the years, due to the unfortunate decline of the newspaper industry, WIW membership shrank, and eventually, they stopped putting on the conference.

David O. Stewart was a member of the WIW Board in its final years. He secured his agent via the WIW Conference agent sessions and knew how valuable a local writers’ conference experience could be. He and several other board members wanted to continue the mission of WIW, which was to help writers at every stage of their careers. So, they decided to launch The Washington Independent Review of Books, often shortened in conversation to the Independent.

“It was an era of disappearing newspapers and disappearing book review sections,” Stewart said. “So, we hoped the Independent would give reviewers an outlet for their work, would help readers find books, and give writers a valuable resource.” Stewart is currently on the board of both the Independent and The Writer’s Center.

To continue their mission and to help support the website financially, they revived the annual conference, including the hallmark attraction, agent sessions. Attendees were thrilled with the new version of the conference, and more attendees have found their agents through the event, including Paula Tarnapol Whitacre. She attended in 2014 and 2015 to pitch her non-fiction manuscript.

“The first year, I wasn’t quite ready,” Whitacre commented, regarding her agent sessions, “but it was a great experience to have the meetings and figure out how to interact.”

After her first conference, she combined what she learned from there with classes at The Writer’s Center. “The nonfiction course taught by Ken Ackerman was hugely helpful. In fact, he had us create a several-page summary of our idea, and I used a version for my second, ultimately successful pitch.”

The Washington Writers Conference and The Writer’s Center share the important vision of creating a supportive and inclusive community for writers at every stage of their careers. While The Writer’s Center mainly focuses on helping writers develop their craft, the Conference shares information about how to get writers and their work out into the world.

“The conference fills a niche by focusing on the business side of writing, because there is so little good information about how publishing really works — and most writers really want their work published,” noted Jenny Yacovissi, the President of the Independent.

Regarding how the conference helped her, Whitacre added, “The agency pitches were, of course, the most memorable. But the whole atmosphere was great, and I felt like I was really part of the Washington writing community. That is still important to me today, but it was especially validating before I had published.”

For 2023, the organizing committee is hard at work, putting together another great event. They make a point to make the atmosphere easy for attendees and fun.

“The conference always gets high marks from the attendees for being well-organized and well-run,” Yacovissi said, “And I believe we have exceptionally good panels and speakers. This year we are particularly excited about our keynote speaker, Dolen Perkins-Valdez. She is the author of three New York Times bestselling novels and chair of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation here in DC.”

Additional highlights of this year’s conference include over a dozen literary agents scheduled to attend and the following panels and writers:

  • Historical Fiction: In Living Memory with Anthony Marra, Cheryl Head, and Louis Bayard, moderated by Mary Kay Zuraleff
  • Thrillers & Horror & Crime: Oh, My! with S.A. Cosby, Alma Katsu, and E.A. Aymar, moderated by Anjili Babbar
  • Small Press Publishers with Monica Price of SFWP, Jennifer Harris of JackLeg Press, Michael Tager of Mason Jar Press, and Annie Marhefka of Yellow Arrow Publishing, moderated by Caroline Bock with the Washington Writers’ Publishing House
  • Voices Across Genres with Bethanne Patrick, Mary Kay Zuravleff, Leeya Mehta, and Diana Parsell, moderated by Tara Campbell
  • An Agent, an Editor, and a Publisher: Publishing’s Holy Trinity featuring Monica Price of SFWP, moderated by Chloe Yelena Miller
  • Muzzled Expression: The Alarming Rise in Book Banning featuring Nadine Farid Johnson of PEN/America, and David Payne of Enoch Pratt Public Library, moderated by Sarah Trembath

The Washington Writers Conference is an event where writers learn from other writers, connect with publishing professionals, and become part of a vibrant literary community.

Garinè Isassi is active in the DMV literary community and a member of The Writer’s Center. She is the author of novel, Start with the Backbeat, and on the organizing committees of both the Washington Writers Conference and the Gaithersburg Book Festival.

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