Where aspiring writers go to learn the ropes

The telephone on a book reviewer's desk rings frequently with calls from beginning authors who have questions like this one: ''I've written a children's book, and I want to find out how I can get it published?''

How to get published is apparently the question being asked by hundreds of writers these days. And many are turning to the numerous writers conferences being held throughout the United States to find out. (Literary Market Place: Directory of American Book Publishing, published annually by R.R. Bowker in New York, currently lists 41 such conferences.)

Writing conferences are conducted throughout the year, but in the summer they burst forth like wildflowers, and people often combine learning and vacation to attend. Some of the sessions are sponsored by colleges. Others are sponsored by independent writers organizations such as the national Society of Children's Book Writers and the local writer-organizers of the Cape Cod Writers' Conference.

Colleges may offer credits for those who complete requirements during or even after the conference, but many of the people who come want guidance and training , not credit.

Of course, writing conferences aren't all that new, but the sudden increase in the number is. The Bread Loaf Writer's Conference held at Vermont's Middlebury College is in its 57th year. The Chautauqua (N.Y.) Writers' Workshop is in its 36th year; the Cape Cod Writers' Conference in Craigville, Mass., held its 20th session Aug. 22-27. Simmons College, in Boston, recently hosted the 6 th annual New England Writers' Conference (previously called the Eastern Writers' Conference and held in Salem, Mass.). The University of California at San Diego held its second conference in July.

The conferences share a common goal - to get beginning writers together with published writers, editors of publishing houses, and literary agents to learn more about their craft and the mechanics of getting a manuscript into print. It seems that most aspiring writers are in the dark about just what to do once a manuscript is ready to send to a publisher.

Bringing new writers together with published authors has long been the norm at these sessions, where the teaching staff may use the creative-writing faculty from a college or university and then round out the sessions with visiting authors of best-selling books. However, the inclusion of agents and publishers is a recent development. The New England Writers' Conference began with the idea of doing just that, according to Theodore Vrettos, its director and the author of five books.

This face-to-face exposure allows the aspiring writer to ask questions like:

* What happens to my manuscript when it arrives at your publishing house?

* How many manuscripts do you receive each year?

* To what publishing house or houses should I send my manuscript?

* What are the chances of a first novel being published?

* What exactly does a literary agent do?

And the new writers are frequently surprised with answers like:

* Every manuscript arriving at my office is seen by me. (This is what one editor told the conference at Simmons. Many houses, however, don't accept unsolicited manuscripts.)

* Our house receives over 2,000 manuscripts each year, and we publish around 125 books, so the competition for acceptance is stiff.

* Look at the books in your own library and see if there is a predominance of any one publisher; if there is, and if your writing is similar to that style, then perhaps send your manuscript to that house first.

* There were a large number of first novels published last year, but one of the best ways to submit a first book is to get someone known to the publisher to formally or informally introduce you and your material, since we receive so many manuscripts and are often overworked.

* An agent is a specialist who, for a standard fee of 10 to 15 percent of an author's royalties, sends manuscripts to appropriate publishing houses and represents the author in negotiations with interested publishers, not only for the initial printing but for subsidiary rights, too. Established agents often are asked to find writers for special projects, as well.

Often anyone who wants to enroll in a writing conference is required to submit a sample of his or her work, such as one chapter of a book, several poems , a magazine article, or a completed manuscript for a children's book. The applicant also selects the genre of interest, such as poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or children's literature.

When accepted to the conference, the writer is assigned to a group, and the manuscript is given to an author-instructor for criticism. The manuscripts become a basic part of workshop instruction and discussion in class, as well as during individual sessions with the instructor.

There are similarities in the schedules of the various conferences. Usually about half of the time is spent in workshop sessions dealing with the literary genre one has selected. In these the author-instructor shares insights and asks students to read from their work and to criticize material from other participants.

At Simmons College, where the conference lasts five days, workshops are held each morning. On three days this year, the afteroon sessions (for all the participants) featured well-known authors. Ann Beattie (''Chilly Scenes of Winter''), Dan Wakefield (''Under The Apple Tree''), and award winner John Updike (''Rabbit is Rich'') talked about their writing and answered questions. On alternate days the afternoon sessions consisted of panel discussions, one of which included a literary agent, an author, a director of subsidiary rights from a publishing house, and an editor from the Boston Globe Magazine. The second panel included the chief editors from Atlantic Monthly Press, Houghton Mifflin Company, and Little, Brown & Company, all located in Boston. There were impromptu reading hours, when the participants read their works for those outside their genre, and a daily social hour provided for more interaction between speakers and participants.

Traditionally conferences are held away from the noise and busyness of the city. The Bread Loaf Conference, where the participants, staff, and writers work and live together for two weeks in late August each year, is held on a remote campus surrounded by the Green Mountain National Forest. The participants use a Victorian inn, a large barn with a fireplace, and a cluster of cottages with porches and wicker chairs. This helps promote informal dialogue between the novice and professional, free of distraction, say the sponsors.

The Cape Cod Writers' Conference meets in an open wooden-truss building called ''the tabernacle'' located on the highest point of the 60-acre Craigville Conference Center, which has a private beach on Nantucket Sound.

Tuition for the conferences varies from $35 for a single course and $20 for a private session with an instructor at the Cape Cod Writers' Conference, to $250 for non-credit participation at the New England Writers' Conference, and $450 for the two-week, all-day and evening sessions at Bread Loaf. Living costs at each conference are extra.

Is it worth it? Without exception, the participants interviewed at the closing session of the conference at Simmons were enthusiastic. ''The instructors were so knowledgeable and interested in helping me as an individual, '' said one beginning poet who lives in Cambridge, Mass., and who works at a publishing house. ''The criticism and enthusiastic support of my writing from fellow workshop members makes me even more enthusiastic about continuing to write,'' commented another from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. ''The knowledge gained from the authors and speakers at the general sessions will be an invaluable help to getting more articles published,'' said another participant, an engineer from Texas. ''I'm rewriting my whole manuscript, using what I've learned here,'' remarked still another, a recent college graduate, from Stowe, Vt.

While the conferences can't guarantee the literary success of a single participant, they find that serious and talented writers do enroll, and some of these do meet with success. Beatrice Gormley of Duxbury, Mass., might be called a triple success. After being rejected by one conference, she applied to the New England Writers' Conference after seeing an ad for it in The Writer magazine. Ms. Gormley attended the 1979 session with her completed children's book in hand. After the conference, she revised her manuscript, incorporating some suggestions from her instructor, Jane Langton, an author of numerous children's books, including the 1981 Newbery Honor Book, ''The Fledgling.'' Ms. Gormley submitted her manuscript to an editor at E. P. Dutton, along with a personal recommendation from Mrs. Langton.

Three months later, Mrs. Langton ran into the Dutton editor in London and said, ''You didn't like the book?'' The editor responded that she liked it so much she intended to publish it, but just hadn't found time to get back to Ms. Gormley. After three more revisions, using the Dutton editors' suggestions, ''Mail-Order Wings'' was published last fall. Ms. Gormley's second book, ''Fifth Grade Magic,'' will be released this month, and she has just put her third book, to be released in the fall of 1983, under agreement. Ms. Gormley credits the instruction and good advice at the writers conference for opening the doors of publishing to her.

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