Writers Gather for 10th Regional Conference

Yours truly and Kim Leigh Martin on the blogging panel on opening night.

This past weekend was the 10th edition of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference at Hollins University. I have been to most of them. Dan Smith is stepping down as director, but, as he told me in an email, he will still be on the scene when we gather at future conferences. That is good news.

Dan Smith.
Dan Smith.

Dan was honored on opening night for his vision and leadership. There wouldn’t be a Roanoke Regional Writers Conference without Dan. He felt the love. It even brought a tear to his eye.

“Dammit,” he said. The words got stuck in his throat.

The highly capable and affable Liz Long will take the reins from Dan.

Following are some of my notes and highlights from the conference.

In her class about how to make editors happy, Carol Alexander, editor of Shenandoah Living, encouraged careful listening in 2017–listening to clients (editors), to readers and to sources. She said, “Be a servant, not a diva.” She also said to expect corrections and make them cheerfully.

Author Rod Belcher had great anecdotes and tips during his session on science fiction and fantasy. “The biggest career skill is tenacity,” Rod said.

Cara Ellen Modisett led a class on travel writing and essays. “Chattanooga is travel for Chicago,” Cara said. She encouraged us to write about our hometowns. Personal writing (memoir and essay) is reporting on yourself. It’s a document of the individual mind at work and play.

Roland Lazenby had a slew of personal stories and observations during his session about not violating the trust of sources. “The deeper you dig,” Roland said, “the more you get to a truly human story.”

I also enjoyed sessions with Terry Maggert and Diane Fanning, and was sorry to miss others. Finally, I always love the conversations in the lobby and the hallways and at lunch, renewing acquaintances and making new ones.

I can’t wait until next year.


A Free Service to Help Writers and Their Books

By Dan Smith
Director of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference

My old friend and colleague Darrell Laurant, the retired journalist-turned author-turned writing magnate, is starting a free service aimed at authors who are having difficulty getting exposure for their books. This is something Darrell is good at. He was the founder of the late Writers Bridge, which helped get writers of all stripes jobs in their craft.

Did I mention the new service is FREE?

He had to disband WB when he moved to New York after retiring as an award-winning metro columnist (25 years) for the Lynchburg News-Advance. He had previously founded the Sedalia Writers Conference in Bedford County (on which the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference is based) and was a regular teacher at RRWC for several years. He’s always been there for writers.

His new venture is “Snowflakes in a Blizzard” (here), a free service for authors, which “arose out of my experiences trying to market [his new novel] The Kudzu Kid,” he wrote me in an e-mail the other day.

Darrell goes on: “As you know, the game has changed. With more than 12 million books (one and a half times the population of New York City) on Amazon, it’s not about getting published any more — given the advances in technology, anyone who really wants to can do that. It’s now about getting noticed.

“Very quickly, I realized that there was absolutely no reason why someone would randomly pick my book up off a shelf, or click on its Amazon page. The vast majority of people in the world have no idea who I am, and our tendency is always to go with what we know when money is involved. I get that.

“A fact that a lot of writers seem to miss (or ignore) is this: Everybody isn’t going to like, or be interested in, their books. .. Trying to market to everybody is a waste of time and a recipe for frustration. … The blog will run twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, I’ll take a single book — I accept both fiction and non-fiction — lift it out of the blizzard of books surrounding it, and give the author some ‘alone’ time with visitors to the blog.

The template we use is extensive, the idea being to allow the authors a chance to convey the background behind the book and about themselves. I send press releases to all the print media in the authors’ area about two weeks out, and e-mail a preview blurb to the blog followers a couple of days before that book appears.”I screen these books, because our collective credibility depends on it. I’m also looking for work that is different — I wouldn’t automatically reject a vampire tale or romance novel or serial killer epic, but I’d want the approach to that subject to be unique. … Every author is asked to send e-mails to friends, relatives, fellow writers, etc., announcing that he or she will be featured, and so each person will theoretically draw a different audience.

“Once we get up to 1,000 or followers, which I truly believe will happen quickly, media outlets will start printing those press releases instead of deleting them. Moreover, I can ask an indy bookstore in that author’s area to carry copies of that book, on consignment, for a month after the author is featured. In return for giving that book something of a prominent place in the store, I will run a brief article about that bookstore on the blog.”

Darrell believes word will spread quickly: “Getting what I call ‘micro-publicity’ for books is good for writers, bookstores and publishers — even Amazon. Meanwhile, other publicists can use it as just another arrow in their quiver.”

If you have a book out there, it’s probably struggling from a sales standpoint, because almost all do. Maybe Darrell can help.

The Rebellious Essay

Cara Ellen Modisett.

I’m not an essayist, but at this year’s Roanoke Regional Writers Conference I sat in on a class called “The Rebellious Essay.” I liked the title. I was curious.

The session was taught by Cara Ellen Modisett, a woman of many talents: magazine editor, English and Journalism instructor, on-air host of classical music for our regional NPR station and music director.

As I recall, Modisett asked us what came to mind when we thought of essays. Several people chimed in with these words:


Here are points that Modisett (and perhaps others) shared about the form.

An essay is the “force of the author’s opinion.” Voice is important. We write to learn. An essay is about understanding the world. Modisett asked us to take a few minutes to write a mini essay describing an object.


It has teeth.
Jagged, gold in color.
They fit perfectly into my life.
When they turn, I enter.
My world (and those closest to me)
opens up and comes alive.
I panic when I think I’ve lost
such a valuable, significant
and small piece of metal.

Yes, it’s a key.

Beth Macy on ‘Story Beacons’ and More

At the recent Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, Beth Macy’s topic was “From Article to Book.”

Factory-Man-202x300Beth Macy is an author and a feature writer for the Roanoke Times. Her first book, FACTORY MAN: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town, is due out from Little, Brown and Company in July.

That American town is Galax. The factory man is John Bassett III. The book was spawned from “Picking Up the Pieces,” a Roanoke Times series that included Beth’s reporting on Bassett, a maverick who bucked the wave of Asian imports in the furniture industry.

In Babcock Auditorium at Hollins University, Beth explained why she decided to turn a 5,000-word article into a 120,000-word book. But first she provided the simple litmus test for any story:

“Does it move me? Do I want more?”

Beth talked about “story beacons,” those people who illuminate and guide a story.

Her first story beacon for FACTORY MAN was Bassett himself. Among other things, she learned there was a family feud. From a storytelling standpoint, it just kept getting better.

The story had contemporary relevance and multiple elements—a social history, a dying U.S. industry (dislocated workers, 20,000 lost jobs) and a compelling character with a fascinating supporting cast.

Beth Macy.

A few more of Beth’s story beacons:

There was Wanda Perdue, a former furniture worker who said, “I wish you would go there [Asia] and tell me why we can’t make [furniture] here anymore.”

So Beth did go there.

There was also Pat, a lady who lived in the town of Bassett and knew everyone. Beth described her as someone who was like a soul of the book.

There was also Coy Young, the town barber, a beacon who had personal experience with virtually every important character.

“People want to tell their stories,” Beth said near the end of her talk.

Beth certainly knows from experience. People want to be heard, and they often want to talk to her, even though they know she is a reporter. She has a special talent as both a reporter and a writer.

I always enjoy hearing Beth speak. Now I eagerly await Beth’s FACTORY MAN.