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Pikes Peak Writers Conference heads into its 20th year of changing writers' lives

Newbies to the Pikes Peak Writers Conference almost always get one piece of advice.

"Never, ever, pitch an agent or editor while in the bathroom."

The tip is laughingly passed from person to person. I heard it many times myself as a former volunteer and two-time conference director between 2002 and 2008. (See more in Long Story Short).

But to hear 2012 conference director Laura Hayden tell it, it's no joke.

"It did honestly happen," she says. "A famous New York editor from Zebra said it happened to her one time. She had gone to the bathroom and someone literally slid [a manuscript] under the door. She said, 'They were very lucky I didn't use it for toilet paper.'"

While there's definitely a certain etiquette to be heeded, pretty much any other time a conference attendee can catch an editor or agent to pitch an idea to them — at meals, before and after workshops, in the Colorado Springs Marriott's hallways — is fair game. In fact, Hayden says faculty are encouraged to interact with everyone and required to attend every meal.

Marie Lu, at the time a 19-year-old unpublished writer from Los Angeles, met her current agent, Kristin Nelson, while waiting in line for PPWC's 2004 awards ceremony dinner. This year, at 27, Lu will present a workshop session with Nelson, telling their story of the publication of Legend, Lu's buzzed-about young adult novel, which moviegoers might have seen promoted in the previews for the new film, The Hunger Games.

Lu is becoming part of a legacy created by authors, editors and agents who visit Colorado Springs annually to network with writers and educate them in the realm of commercial fiction — a legacy now 20 years in the making.

Hungry for a legend

Released in November, Lu's Legend, a dark futuristic novel, is set in a post-civil war United States, and weaves the tale of two protagonists: a 15-year-old boy who is the country's most-wanted criminal, and a 15-year-old girl who is the country's most-prized military prodigy. (See "Short Stories," for more on the book.)

Publisher's Weekly called Lu's debut "a stunner." USA Today labeled it "a 'Legend' in the making." And author and New York Times book reviewer Ridley Pearson wrote, "I could only stand up and cheer ... a fine example of commercial fiction with razor-sharp plotting, depth of character and emotional arc, Legend doesn't merely survive the hype, it deserves it."

Which should make Nelson incredibly proud of spotting something in Lu when the then-19-year-old, who'd never been published, pitched her at PPWC.

"[Marie] was just sooo cute about it," Nelson remembers, "and I said, 'Absolutely, send it.'

"And she did — and I passed on it."

She laughs. "Oh you know, 'Go me!' But that wouldn't be the first time that I had passed on something that came back around, that the author came back to me."

Lu ultimately was signed by another agent she met that weekend, Donald Maass, a longtime New Yorker who had picked up writing team Giles Carwyn and Todd Fahnestock — friends who wrote together as students at Colorado College — at PPWC the year prior. (They would go on to sell their Heartstone Trilogy through Maass to HarperCollins.) As time went by though, Lu would leave Maass' agency and re-pitch the Denver-based Nelson with a new historical fantasy about Mozart as a child.

"This was several years after the conference," Lu says, "but she actually remembered me from the conference. ... so because of that connection, she signed me for that one. ... We actually tried for over a year to sell — and we actually didn't sell that one either."

She pauses and laughs. "It's a long journey."

However, it was during that time that Lu began writing Legend. When she finished that manuscript, Nelson submitted it to a number of possible editors; this one drew heavy interest, and Nelson ultimately took the manuscript to auction. Penguin Group won it, in a major three-book deal, in September 2010.

That same month, the Scholastic publishing company announced that Mockingjay, the third and final installment of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, had shot to the top of all U.S. bestseller lists in a single week. The hugely popular post-apocalyptic/dystopian series certainly had laid some groundwork for Legend, and last Friday's release of the Hunger Games movie certainly hasn't hurt. Penguin has kicked up its marketing of the book with a full-page ad in the March 2012 Hunger Games Collector's Special of People, and an animated preview before the film.

Ask the video-game-artist-turned-full-time-author about the comparisons between her book and Collins', and she says, "It's been really great. All of us dystopian writers are very grateful to Suzanne Collins for putting us on the map. ... It's just really, really flattering to be even in the same sentence as Suzanne Collins' book. It's definitely a huge privilege.

"On the other side, it can be kind of intimidating, sometimes because I hope that people don't look at Legend and just think, 'Oh, it's another dystopian.' Hopefully they'll read it for what it is and the story that it is."

If they don't read it, perhaps they'll see the movie: CBS Films has acquired exclusive movie rights, with The Twilight Saga's Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey as producers.

Tricky choreography

PPWC was the first writers conference Lu had ever attended.

"I hadn't really known any writers while growing up," she says. "So this was the first time where I actually got thrown into a room where everyone was a writer. And it was just fascinating, being around other writers all of a sudden. I was completely new to the industry and I really didn't know a lot about how it worked, and it was nice to talk with other writers about it and hear their experiences, and listen to panels by agents and editors."

That was the idea when, back in 1991, retired Air Force Col. Jimmie Butler moved to the Springs and aimed to establish the kind of conference here that he'd attended while living in California. With support from the Pikes Peak Library District and Imagination Celebration, Butler put together an inaugural faculty, and went to Pikes Peak Romance Writers to recruit volunteers. And in 1993, the first conference happened, with a total of 170 attendees, at what was then Sheraton South, and a faculty that included New York Times bestselling authors Paul Gillette, Robert Crais and Stephen Coonts.

A member of Pikes Peak Romance Writers, Laura Hayden, at 36, became a part of the very first volunteer committee. She paired up with two friends, one of whom worked for the since-closed McKenzie-White Booksellers, and the three organized the conference bookstore.

Hayden's since directed six conferences, oftentimes, as now, managing the position from out of state. (She's married to a career military officer.)

"Ya dance with the one who brung ya," she says. "And so that's why I've always stayed with PPWC, because they brought me. They brought me to the dance. They showed me how to dance, and now I'm dancin' with them."

She adds with a laugh, "Is that more homespun than you can stand? Done in my Southern accent, which has gotten stronger."

That first year, the Alabama native helped run the bookstore, and also won first place in historical romance in the PPWC-affiliated genre fiction contest. She was given a chance to read a section of it to one of the attending editors, and she remembers that day for a couple reasons.

"I didn't have a copy of it. I had to run home — I lived at the [Air Force] Academy. I had to run home from South Academy, print out a copy — dot matrix, chink-chink-chink-chink-chink — bring it back, and I had a chance to read it in front of Denise Little."

Hayden says her feedback from Little was good. And two weeks after the conference, she found out she was a finalist for the Romance Writers of America Golden Heart award. "That's their big unpublished contest," she says, "and so being a finalist in that was good stuff."

Two weeks after that, she sold an audio project to a small company in Denver. Two weeks after that, she won the Golden Heart. Her final-round judge? Denise Little.

But Hayden and Little still wouldn't connect. Two weeks (a good number for Hayden, obviously) later, Harlequin bought her first book, and Little thought it was the same book that had won the Golden Heart. But it wasn't. When Hayden finally was able to make contact with Little, and clarify, Little bought the award-winner on a two-book contract.

"So literally," she says, "it was the editor I met at PPWC, who bought my, actually second book, on a two-book contract."

As Hayden's career has blossomed — she's had 13 books published — so has PPWC. In 2000, Writer's Digest Magazine named it one of the Top 10 conferences for writers across the country, and after that, annual attendance regularly approached or exceeded 400. Speaker lists included more bestselling authors, both from outside Colorado — such as Nora Roberts, Jim Butcher, Jeffery Deaver and Jennifer O'Connell — as well as those closer to home, such as Kevin J. Anderson, Stephen White, Carol Berg and Barbara Samuel.

Hayden's only missed one year. "I foolishly — though it was a really good conference — went to another conference that happened to be the same weekend," she says, adding, "I missed the fact that I now can't say I've been to all 20."

'No accident'

Attendees this April will not only get to hear Lu and Nelson tell their success story in greater detail, but they'll also get to hear from other top industry professionals through 70-plus workshops and a series of keynotes.

Chris Mandeville, president of Pikes Peak Writers (the nonprofit with oversight for PPWC), says the conference offers "something to help every writer at every stage of their career," from basics in craft and creativity, to pitch practice and manuscript critiques, to how to maneuver e-publishing and small indie presses. And with its emphasis on all commercial fiction — romance, mystery, science fiction/fantasy, western — PPWC opens up opportunities for cross-genre education.

"A romance writer can learn something from a mystery writer ... all genres are equal," Hayden says. "We try to remove all hierarchy."

The speakers' lineup is a case in point. Friday night's keynote will be given by Jeffery Deaver. It kicks off a costume party, and rumor has it that the thriller-writer will take the stage as James Bond in honor of Carte Blanche, Deaver's latest Agent 007 book.

Saturday lunch highlights Maass, Lu's former agent. On Saturday evening, mystery author Crais will open up an evening of awards. And Sunday lunch features romance writer Susan Wiggs.

One of Hayden's favorite memories comes from a 2002 keynote given by Robert Vaughan, author of more than 250 novels under his name and 35 different pseudonyms, which he performed as a recognizable literary figure.

"When Robert Vaughn did his [Ernest] Hemingway," she says with a hearty laugh, "we weren't too sure what was in his glass up there."

So while the conference is well-organized, it's not necessarily beholden to traditional rules of order. And that's something volunteers take pride in: "It's friendly, it's open — that's no accident," Mandeville says.

As Hayden says, no hierarchy.

"Most New York Times bestsellers I know don't have a degree in English or anything like that," she adds. "PPWC is better than any MFA in writing."

kakens@csindy.com

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