Preview: The 2017 James River Writers Conference Helps Guide Would-Be Authors to Publication

If you’re like most people, when you think of a professional writer, you picture someone hunched over the typewriter, banging away into the night and discarding a forest’s worth of paper into the wastebasket.

Sure, that’s part of it, but once the masterpiece is finished, then what?

Then it’s time to find a publisher. For many would-be authors, this is a real sticking point, but James River Writers’ writing conference helps guide writers toward agents, publishers and others with expertise in the industry. To find out what it takes to get published, Style spoke with two Richmond-based authors, Sarah Glenn Marsh and Patty Smith, who will take part in panel discussions at the 15th annual conference, scheduled Oct. 14-15.

Along with celebrity speakers like Margot Lee Shetterly, author of “Hidden Figures,” and lifetime achievement award winner and bestselling novelist David Baldacci, the conference gives attendees the chance to meet literary agents and editors, receive in-depth writing critiques, and get creative and business tips from published authors.

Marsh published her first book, “Fear the Drowning Deep,” last year and has an astonishing nine other titles under contract, including “Reign of the Fallen,” a fantasy novel with an LGBT romance at its center, coming out January. Marsh’s specialties are young-adult, geared toward ages 12-18, and middle-grade fiction for ages 8-1), as well as picture books for younger children.

A few years ago, Marsh was feeling stifled at a dull office job, and her husband suggested that she quit, write full-time and find an agent. And that’s sort of what happened, but with a few footnotes: Marsh wrote a first book that wasn’t picked up, although she did find an agent relatively quickly and now has two, one handling her young-adult fiction and the other pitching her picture books.

For would-be authors, Marsh has two key pieces of advice. Find people — other writers, editors or agents — who are willing to critique your work. And be willing to help other authors promote their work and become part of a writing community, whether in-person or online.

Conferences that offer face-to-face meetings with agents are great opportunities, and although writers can get nervous in these situations, Marsh advises, “They’re just people like the rest of us.”

Smith, who will be part of Sunday’s Queer Literature panel with Marsh, took a longer path to become an author, taking several years to finish her first novel, 2017’s “The Year of Needy Girls.” Taking place after the murder of a boy in a New England town, the novel is written from the perspective of a teacher new to the community. Like her protagonist, Smith is a full-time teacher and currently works at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg.

“I get up at 5 and try to write an hour before I go to school,” she says, and during the summer, Smith sets aside a chunk of uninterrupted time to write.

The conference, which she’s attended almost every year, has helped Smith make important connections and get more comfortable pitching her work. “It’s like being a freshman in college,” she says. “Everyone’s there for the same purpose.” S

For information about this year’s James River Writers conference, held Oct. 13 to 15 at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, visit


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