Author Rachel Ann Nunes gathered 30 of her friends who liked to write and held a conference more than 10 years ago. They called themselves LDStorymakers.
The conference, now in its 12th year, had grown out of a mailing list of like-minded authors who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to ldstorymakers.com.
James Dashner was one of these writers at the original conference, and he was publishing his first book with a small local press — a press that asked him to help pay for some of the costs of his book.
Four years later, an elated Dashner shared his good fortune at another LDStorymakers conference. He had just signed on with Shadow Mountain, an imprint of Deseret Book. He was goofy and pleasant, a bit of a joker, just the kind of guy who seemed destined to write stories for junior high boys.
This year, he was at annual conference again, and he was as likable as ever. He stood in the halls as people asked him questions, and you got the feeling that he would talk to you all day if you were up for it. It was hard to guess his books have been on The New York Times best-seller list for more than 135 weeks or that the movie based on his Maze Runner series has grossed over $340 million worldwide.
But Dashner is still grounded and said he feels he owes much to these conferences. On the conference’s Facebook page, he writes, “It’s been one of the highlights of my career to have been involved with this conference from the very beginning. Without the slightest doubt, it’s the single biggest factor that led to my success because of the things I learned and the people I met.”
LDStorymakers has grown every year since its inception in 2004 and this year’s conference, held May 15-16 at the Utah Valley Convention Center, boasted about 700 attendees.
Literary agents flew in from New York, and writers signed up for sessions where they have 10 minutes to “pitch” their book to one of these talent scouts. If the agent likes the book’s premise, he or she might ask for the first 50 pages. But even those that don’t successfully pique an agent’s interest still can get advice and an insider’s view of the market.
And a few writers score big. Erin Summerill, the conference's photographer last year, was taking a headshot of one of the agents when he asked her if she liked to write. She told him about the young adult fantasy she was working on, and he asked her to send him her manuscript when it was ready. Several months later, the agent read the manuscript, loved it and sold the manuscript to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt just three weeks after he submitted to editors.
Because of the buzz surrounding Summerill’s book, her agent sent it out early on foreign submission where it was bought by a German publisher. Summerill’s book, "Ever the Hunted," will be out the fall of 2016.
“We culitvate our gifts, and we strive and we work, and we do it with our hearts, and I think that brings a higher level of talent,” said Melanie Jacobson when she and fellow conference co-chairwoman Jenny Proctor about the talent in the Mormon community.
Proctor said one of the agents said he felt a buzz being at the conference because everyone was so happy and kind, and there was an energy he couldn’t explain.
“You put 700 people in a room,” Proctor said, “the caliber of person that is here in additional to the caliber of writer is just a really incredible group.”
Proctor and Jacobson have published several successful books through Covenant Communications.
“I found the attendees’ writing quality and the level of professionalism was higher than other conferences," said Suzie Townsend, an agent at New Leaf Literary and Media.
The conference is also a place to develop talent. The classes, taught by 60 presenters, range from the world of steampunk to the 21 deadly sins of writing romance. And because this is a conference targeted at those who are members of the LDS Church, the classes also include one on writing for LDS Church magazines, and presenters of other sessions also share how their faith has influenced their writing — and their words carry weight as many of them, such as Brandon Mull, Jennifer A. Nielsen, J. Scott Savage, Dan Wells, Heather B. Moore and Janette Rallison, have had books on best-sellers lists or they have won awards.
At this year's conference, attendees included Anne Perry from England, who has sold over 25 million copies of her mysteries, and keynote speaker Martine Leavitt from Canada, who is a National Book Award finalist and a Los Angeles Times book prize finalist.
During her keynote address, Leavitt's humility and compassion were apparent from the beginning, especially as she talked about the self-doubt she had to overcome to write.
“Real writers lived in New York City, not High River, Alberta. Real writers wore black, not maternity clothes," Leavitt said. "I wasn’t smart enough, talented enough, or special enough, to be a real writer.”
Still, there was something in her that pushed her to write, she said.
“I have to say that my understanding of my eternal parentage and divine destiny was a good antidote for these incorrect feelings," she said. "The mind-blowing truth is that we, as children of the creator of the universe, are capable of anything, so long as he approves. An important component in my progress as a writer was that life-changing process of believing in my divine nature, and thus my divine abilities.”
Going to a conference like this also creates a community of support and authors such as Dashner and Leavitt give writers a much-needed boost. The life of a writer can be a lonely one, and writers must press forward even when dealing with rejection. Since writers are a sensitive bunch, this rejection is not always easy to handle.
During one panel discussion, Dashner and Brandon Mull played off of each other like a comedy team to a capacity crowd. Dashner shared about a letter he received from a young cancer patient who kept reading his book because if Dashner’s hero could face monsters, then he could face chemotherapy.
Dashner said, “See, my book saved that boy’s life. Well, maybe the doctor saved his life a little but..."
Mull then quipped that everyone there needed to write books to save lives.
And why not believe them?
Leavitt said the night before that belief is foundational.
“Believing in myself and putting in the hours was the first thing I needed as a writer, and perhaps this is something every writer needs, even geniuses like Virginia Woolf. Believe, believe in yourself," she said.
Becky Blackburn is the mother of five children and is a native of Price, Utah. She graduated from BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School. Her email address is [email protected].