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The Ladder Literary Conference returns for second year


You've done a few handstands, redecorated your entire living space, and still no words have reached your frontal lobe. Or perhaps you have written your closing sentence and have no idea what to do next.

The Ladder -- a literary conference presented by Writers & Books, now in its second year -- aims to link writers at all levels with valuable resources. Presented this weekend in downtown Rochester, the event will showcase authors, editors, and publishers who will discuss how to navigate the struggles that all writers face.

This year, the day-long boot camp will feature 55 eminent literary professionals from Rochester and beyond. The panels are organized into four "publishing ladder" rungs: Write, Edit, Connect, and Publish. Throughout the day, conference attendees will have the chance to meet with agents (including one-on-one, three-minute appointments), editors, authors, and publishers.

The Ladder's inaugural conference took place last year. Writers & Books' former Executive Director Kyle Semmel founded the conference in an attempt to quell persistent authorial woes and strengthen Rochester's literary community. He says he hopes the conference will one day resemble the Rochester Fringe Festival, but for literature.

Semmel has since stepped down from leading W&B, but he says stepping away from his brainchild was a bit more difficult. While W&B was focused on finding his replacement, Semmel volunteered as a committee member for The Ladder, alongside author Brian Wood, to help plan and organize this year's panels.

"I just wanted to step in to make sure this would go on for at least another year," Semmel says, adding that he is unsure of The Ladder's future. "I just wanted to see this continue, that was the main thing."

The event, which is split into four 75-minute intervals with five simultaneous panels each, allows attendees to choose from such topics as "Crafting Character," "Is a Small Press Right for Me?," and "Meet the Agents."

"One of the things I wanted to make sure we did was have a new set of panelists, because they have a new set of knowledge to share," Semmel says. "We also wanted to diversify our panelists and bring in people who have a different experience or a different voice to give."

Among this year's panelists is CaTyra Polland, founder of Rochester Black Author Expo. After presenting her organization's materials at the conference last year, Polland was invited to speak as part of the "Self-Publishing Forum" panel this time around.

This year, many panels -- including "Cut to the Chase" and "Starting Strong" -- seem to focus on securing, catching, and keeping readers. These days, authors have to compete with easy-to-absorb stories in a variety of media, so even if you can catch readers' attention, it's a constant battle to keep it.

"You have to hook them fast, or else they're going to go onto something else," Semmel says. "I think too often that part of writing is ignored, and at the peril of the writing itself. You want to tell a great story but you have to do it in a way that, frankly, doesn't bore the reader."

And more than one panel summary characterizes the audience as something elusive, something to be caught and secured. "Starting Strong," will discuss our increasingly fast-paced world, and what that means to writers as they approach the page. "From Hook to Book" is focused on how to create a nonfiction book proposal to present to agents and publishers.

Also included in this year's lineup of panelists is Alex Sánchez, who recently moved back to Rochester. He will participate in the "Cut to the Chase" panel, which gives tips on trimming the boring bits out of a manuscript. Sánchez is perhaps most famous for his "Rainbow Boys" series, which focuses on three gay characters and their coming-of-age stories. He is now working with DC Comics on a graphic novel that reimagines Aqualad as a queer narrative.

"Each of us has a story," Sánchez says. "When I'm teaching other writers it helps me to remember that. Often times it's those stories that are the scariest to tell, because it means being vulnerable and sharing who we are. For me, one of my stories was growing up gay and the struggles that came with that -- especially given the time of the 60's and 70's."

Sánchez says he focuses on the emotionality of a story, and how universal themes -- like love, friendship, and growth -- can bring large groups of identities together. Regardless of whether the character is queer or straight, white or a person of color, male or female, the reader should fall right in step with them.

Readers are attracted to conflicts, he says, and gripping ones at that. They want to see characters facing exhaustive adversity and rising above it. And people who are queer or different in some way are the underdogs of reality, facing adversity on a daily basis.

With the expertise of Polland, Sánchez, and the multitude of other influential, dynamic panelists, the conference is poised to be a valuable resource for writers.

"I hope that the attendees and the panelists as well become more encouraged and informed about the power they have as an author or writer," Polland says. "And also learn that they're not experiencing their struggles alone; that there are people who have already gone through this that can help."

Information about need-based scholarships can be found at Applications are due on Thursday, June 6, by 9 p.m.