Mary: To begin, Jeff, please tell us a bit about your growing up and background.
Jeff: I grew up with a research-chemist father who liked to draw diagrams and equations on napkins. That propelled me into the world of writing straight through a bunch of rocks. Literally. I have a degree in geology and worked for five years as a petroleum geologist before I woke up one morning and realize I was a word man, not a rock man.
So I spent a full year working full time on a masters degree in journalism, but signed on with D Magazine, the city magazine of Dallas, as an intern one summer, after which they offered me a job. After five years of having the glorious opportunity to ask almost any question to almost anybody I wanted as City Editor, I moved to American Way magazine, where I started up and ran the short-fiction section. I also taught fiction writing at the University of Dallas. From there, I earned an MBA in corporate financial analysis (impelled because I felt ignorant about how business really worked).
Now I do Marketing/Communications Project Management for various clients. (If you’re on LinkedIn, connect to me Here with the code words “Mary’s Garden,” and I’ll quickly link back.)
Mary: How did you find yourself involved with the DFW Conference organization?
Jeff: I learned long ago you get the most out of volunteer organizations when you volunteer. Soon after I joined the DFW Writers’ Workshop, I asked to help on the annual conference. The second year, in 2010, I agreed to be co-director, which put me into the director’s chair for this spring’s 2011 conference.
Mary: What is the hardest part organizing such a big event? Do you have a committee?
Jeff: Working with people is always the hardest pzart of organizing anything of any size. Especially writers. I mean, writers aren’t conference organizers. They’re writers. They can sit around and talk and argue endlessly by email, but staging a complex event like an efficient business? Uh, yeah. That’s completely different.
Having a good, right-sized executive committee and a strong volunteer ethic is critical. We had five members, including the guy I call the Director Emeritus — he started the first DFW Writers’ Conference (which we call DFWcon) and has been involved in all four to date. He’s our institutional knowledge, our historian, our keel. Also on the committee were a treasurer, the 2011 co-director, and the person who had already volunteered to direct the 2013 conference. We were lucky to have a lot of continuity lined up.
We split duties. I handled communications, facilities, and finances; another handled registration; another education and speakers, and yet another invited and worked with all our publishing professionals (agents/editors/publishers).
Mary: There were many diverse genre’s at the conference, I loved being able to choose among such great topics. How did you choose the workshops? Did you have people apply or did you solicit the guests?
Jeff: Organizing the education and speakers is a tough job. You have to do a lot of research, ask a lot of questions, and turn down an awful lot of potentially good speakers who just don’t fit the bill for whatever reason.
Every year, we try to take two giant steps forward in professionalism, so we always look for better-known, more-polished, better-credentialed speakers and teachers. Most of them were located by good old-fashioned networking — asking writers, agents, and editors we know and trust who they recommend, tracking them down, and simply asking them.
The main direction I gave as director was, “I want to have a balance of classes about the Business of Writing and the Craft of Writing.”
Mary: Everyone, okay on refreshments? Stretch your legs and fill up your glass or plate. Okay Jeff, tell me the big secret, how did you get Sandra Brown to give your keynote? I’ll admit she was the decision maker when I choose my yearly conference.
Jeff: It was dramatic! It was like magic! It was superhuman!
No, really, it wasn’t. We just asked. Not me, but one of our more charming volunteers simply tracked down her publicist and asked about a year in advance. Sandra came back quickly and said “yes.”
We’d asked her every year before, and I think the fact that we kept asking, and the conference kept growing in quality and attendance, finally convinced her to give in to our annual torment.
Mary: So persistence worked, good to know. How long did it take you to organize the conference? And did your writing have to be put on the back shelf?
Jeff: A year-and-a-half. Normally, it would take a little more than a year, but this was a big step up in quality and a more professional location for us, so we spent an extra six months organizing it.
And that’s an interesting question about my writing being on hold during the conference. The answer is yes, I sacrificed the time it would have taken me to complete a second novel, maybe more. I estimate the time that went into the conference from all our volunteers, not just me, at about the equivalent of six or eight novels.
When you attend a conference put on by volunteer writers, they sweated something more valuable than blood to bring it to you. They sacrificed their own words.
Mary: What genre do you write? How long have you been writing?
Jeff: I’m not the kind of guy to see ghosts. But one day while visiting the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, I put my arm out to keep my young son from running into this kid who charged across our path. The kid did a one-armed vault off a cliff to our left. I ran over and looked down to a pine-needle-padded place where any kid worth his salt could land like an acrobat.
The kid wasn’t real, of course. I’d conjured him after getting the tour of what these people had done a thousand years ago. I asked myself, “What if this kid changed everything?” After a lifetime of being a short-story writer, I suddenly became involved with writing a historical novel that has taken me thousands of miles and eight years in research and writing.
I’m on the verge of submitting the novel to four agents who requested the work at DFWcon (that’s part of the advantage to being the director of a writing conference — a little extra attention from the VIPs).
Mary: Here in the garden we love to relax. When you and your wife want to get away from writing, the day job, everything, where do you go? And what do you do? Any good travel stories? We’d love for you to share.
Jeff: Ah, that takes me back to Pagosa Springs, Colorado. My wife and I travel there once or twice a year. We own a small city lot where we hope to build a little house one day.
As a young geologist, I started hiking the nearby Weminuche Wilderness, the second-largest designated wilderness area in the contiguous United States. I’ve hiked nearly every trail and worn out three pairs of hiking boots (and my knees) on what I learned much later had been the northern stomping grounds of the Anasazi Indians a thousand years ago. I have a strange emotional pull to that place and those people. So, even in getting away, we get pulled toward the research for more writing on our vacations.
Recommendation: Fourmile Trail about fifteen miles due north of Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Walk up it a few relatively easy miles to where you’ll see two thin waterfalls at the head of the valley. If you’re adventurous, continue all the way up to Upper Fourmile Lake, which is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet in my not-so-humble opinion.
Then when you go back into town, get a bite at JJ’s Riverwalk Restaurant & Pub, literally on the bank of the San Juan River. We’ve had nothing but outstanding meals there.
Mary: My husband has family from Pagosa Springs, we've never been. It sounds like it's time to visit. If any of us travel to your neck of the woods what would you recommend we see or do? Any good restaurants?
Jeff: We live in Roanoke, Texas, north of Fort Worth. And we’re not your typical eaters. We are vegetarian and almost exclusively buy our produce from locally grown organic farmers and gardeners (and we grow much of our own, grasshoppers and summer heat willing).
We spent three years visiting every farmers’ market in the region and decided the best is the Coppell Farmers Market, open every Saturday morning during growing season. If you’re in the area, stop by. The people are friendly and the produce is outstanding.
Mary: Is there anything that you’d like to share that I haven’t asked?
Jeff: Yes, in fact. The biggest lesson I learned from running DFWcon is that most writers put far too much emphasis on their agent “pitch session.” I believe that’s an enormous mistake. It’s like getting ten cents of value from every dollar you spend on the conference. The way to get ten dollars of value from every dollar you spend is to use it as an education and networking event. Talk to every experienced publishing professional you meet and ask them this one simple question (then be quiet and take good notes): “Who else do you recommend I talk to?” There’s very little in the publishing business more powerful than being able to say, “[Person you know] recommends I talk to you.”
Thank you so much, Jeff, for visiting my Garden. We all wish you much success with your writing career.