Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Jealousy be my name

I just got this great e-mail from my friend Elizabeth Jennings. She's one of the incredibly hard-working organizers of the Women's Fiction Festival. Remember my trip to Italy last year? If you don't, you can refresh or fill your memory by checking out my home page for Crystal's Hyperchick Italian Adventure. Here, you'll get all the details about the first annual Festival in Matera, Italy. Basically, the Festival is a great way to network with other women's fiction authors and agents and editors from around the world. You get to discuss issues (like foreign rights and trends) that aren't normally featured in regular States conferences. The big bonus is Matera--it's breathtaking, and I don't say that lightly. There'll be another Festival next year, and I can't say enough words to persuade you to attend.

Elizabeth's comments, published with her blessing, are an account of what went on during this year's Festival. As you'll see, it's a lot of business *and* pleasure. So without further ado, here you go:

We started off the evening before the conference began with a truly lovely & lavish cocktail party at the Le Monacelle hotel, which people might remember from last year. It was in a gorgeous room just off one of the hotel’s terraces -- abuting the wall of the cathedral -- where tables were set out. It was a great way for the conference participants to get to know each other in a relaxed setting before the whirlwind of the conference itself. It was also a way for writers to get to meet the editors on a friendly and relaxed basis.

We met in the same beautiful building as last year, the Palazzo Lanfranchi, which is a working museum. Our meeting room was large and stunningly beautiful, up on the second floor, the Hall of Arches, and the panelists spoke beneath an 18th century fresco, as you can see from some of the photos.

The first morning session started with an opening talk by Dorothy Zinn, anthropologist, on food anthropology. It was fascinating and a tie-in with our Food & Wine Writing for Fiction Writers Course, run by Evan Kleiman, LA chef.

We had truly excellent panels – editors panels, panels on book distribution and promotion, agents panel and a translation panel. For working writers, the most immediately useful panels were the editors panel and the agents panel.

I think the editors said partly what editors all over say – write me that big blockbuster novel -- which at times is depressing if you’re not aiming for the big blockbuster, but a smaller, saleable novel. It seems to fit general overall trends of squeezing out mid-list authors, unless they are publishing houses like Harlequin and Moments-Verlag who specialize in category romance. One important big trend was mentioned by all the editors – historical novels are very popular and their popularity is increasing (our focus this year was historical novels and we had Sarah Dunant giving a Master Class in historical fiction that raised goosebumps it was so good. Good enough to swim across the Atlantic to hear!). Everyone said that about historicals. They weren’t necessarily talking bout historical romance, of course, but rather the ‘big’ historical novel, well-researched, well-crafted, giving insights into a special historical time and place. Think of The Birth of Venus itself, The Red Tent, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Isabel Allende’s latest, Zorro, etc. So maybe if you’re thinking of writing that breakout novel, you might want to pick a fascinating and unusual historical backdrop.

Speaking of breakout novels – I met Donald Maas last year in London and he expressed a willingness to come to next year’s WFF III. I know he’s very expensive so do you think there would be a lot of interest next year in having Donald run his famous workshop? I’ve heard so much about it, Writing the Breakout Novel, that it’s incredibly fantastic. He would also be available for panels and appointments, of course.

It was really interesting listening to the Italian editors. We were lucky enough to have about 70% of the major Italian publishing companies present and thanks to Maria paola probably next year we’ll cover all of the major publishers in Italy. The editors are all acquiring editors, too. We had simultaneous interpretation for all the sessions which really helped communication. The Italian market is of great importance to writers writing in English since a huge chunk of what’s available in Italian bookstores is translated from the English. One big publishing house, Sonzogno, translates about 90% of their list, mainly from English. It’s a big big market.

The agent panel was incredibly interesting, too, with a focus on foreign rights and how to protect your interests. It was fascinating seeing the utter difference in mentality between writers & agents – they are two entirely different animals. The writers asked a lot of questions and got answers I don’t actually think they can get anywhere else. Luigi Bonomi proved to be an incredible resource for us – friendly, open and amazingly knowledgeable. He was a senior editor for 8 years at Penguin and for another 8 years at Harlequin, then 8 years at a huge UK agency and has just now opened his own agency and he had great war stories and above all, since ours is such an intimate conference, he was available at all times for anyone who wanted to talk. He was more than willing to give great advice, and I think has taken on two writers as clients and had recommendations for everyone who approached him.

That’s another fabulous success story – this year the WFF became a true writer’s conference in that all the editors & agents were acquiring. It was a real UPHILL BATTLE convincing Italians that writers conferences are useful. At times it felt like butting my head against the wall. However, at the conference itself, the Italians took to the concept like a duck to water, as if they’d been to writers’ conferences all their lives. I think two English language writers sold rights to their books to Italian publishers and I think a couple of Italians sold their manuscripts as well. And they were giving good advice, too. Another thing -- Since so much of Italian publishing is in translation (and since I’m a translator myself and know how tight the market is) I insisted very strongly that translators be able to contact editors, as well (Italian publishing very badly needs new translation voices) and I think a couple of smart young translators, who otherwise would never be able to break into the closed shop of Italian publishing, got the opportunity to sit for a test. That creaking sound you heard was Italian publishing, opening up. ALL the editors are coming next year – they were incredibly enthusiastic – and we’ll probably have several more.

The public events were fantastic. We organized Happy Hour with the Writers (which of course became Happy Hour and a Half with the Writers) in a lovely square just outside the auditorium, where the evening panels were. We offered rosè wine and munchies to everyone who wanted to come along and it was just amazing – this square filled with writers & readers chatting and having a really good time. You can see that in Isolde’s photos. Happy Hour was when the journalists came and had access to all the writers and was an extremely convivial setting for interviews, both press, radio & TV. The evening panels were well attended- the auditorium seats about 300 (or 350?) and it was always between half-full and three quarters full. The panels were very interesting, serious enough to be true cultural events, fun enough to be entertaining. The public loved them, as did the writers.

At the literary prize presentation on Saturday, we gave our wonderful 'La Baccante' gold necklace (see website) to Inge Feltrinelli, an amazing woman, a German, who started her career as one of the most famous photojournalists of her time - interviewing and befriending the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir, Picasso, etc. - and after the death of her husband, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, she took Feltrinelli's publishing house and over the last thirty years she's turned it into an international publishing giant.

And we had an AMAZING concert - just incredible music - by Giuliana De donno, playing a Celtic harp and something called a Paraguayan harp, and a percussionist playing traditional celtic & Latin American music. Beautiful stuff.

And lastly – the gala dinner. Ahh, how to describe the gala dinner? A magical candle-lit room under a candle-lit bower, actors pouring your wine reciting poetry… divine.

I don’t know how we’re going to top that one next year, but we’ll think of something!!

Next year is an emphasis on mystery, crime & thrillers. We’ve arranged a series of Briefings for mystery/thriller writers to give you the background knowledge you need. We’ll have the US ConsulGeneral from the Embassy in Rome, a really smart lady named Barbara Cummins, talking about how the diplomatic corps works, a woman who worked very very closely with the CIA in the State Department (but who isn’t bound by confidentiality rules) talking bout how the CIA works, America’s top skip tracer/bounty hunter talking about how to disappear abroad and how to trace someone who has disappeared abroad, the FBI Legat from Rome, a general of the carabinieri and the Italian secret service talking about combating international organized crime, a couple of forensic scientists, an agent from Interpol and more, much more.

Do check the website, with updates, a beautiful poem written specially for us by Sarah Tucker and you can click and see interviews with the authors:

See you next year!!!

Xxx Liz

I'm incredibly jealous that I didn't get to go this year, so one of my goals for next year is to return.

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