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An Insider’s Guide to Lit Fest

How to take advantage of Lighthouse Writers Workshop's annual celebration of the written word, no matter your budget.

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The Mile High City isn’t just beautiful—it has brains, too. Denver is brimming with literary activity, from its world-class indie bookstores to local Pulitzer Prize-winning authors (University of Colorado Boulder professor Elizabeth Fenn took the 2015 history award for her Encounters At The Heart of the World). Denver continually maintains its ranking in the top 10 among America’s Most Literate Cities—the results of a study conducted by Dr. Jack Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University—coming in at number seven this year. And it hosts Lit Fest, the Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s annual celebration of the written word.

I have been teaching classes at Lit Fest for four years now, and I always look forward to opportunities to connect with fellow book lovers and benefit from the wit and wisdom offered by local and national authors. From June 5 to 19, Lit Fest celebrates its 10th anniversary with its biggest event yet, with a full schedule of readings, panel discussions, workshops, parties, craft seminars, and more.

When so many book-loving people gather, literary magic often seems to happen. During Lit Fest 2012, Cheryl Strayed taught a weeklong workshop just after Oprah selected Wild as the first in her Book Club 2.0. Strayed proved to be a gracious and incisive teacher while managing the complicated logistics required after an anointing by Oprah.

If you’re a writer with a dream to publish a book, Lit Fest offers plenty of chances to schmooze with agents, editors, and publishers. It could even net you a publishing deal. “Both my books came out of Lit Fest,” says Denver author Gary Schanbacher. At the second Lit Fest, he met an editor at Golden’s Fulcrum Publishing, who mentioned he was looking to expand into fiction. “He liked the story I had submitted and asked if I had a collection ready and I lied and told him I did,” Schanbacher says. “I scrambled to pull together what stories I thought might fit, and he bought it.”

A few years later, Schanbacher pitched his novel, Crossing Purgatory, to an agent at Lit Fest. She recommended it to a colleague who offered to represent Schanbacher. The book eventually sold to Pegasus Books, and went on to win a 2014 Spur Award from the Western Writers of America.

In recent years, Lit Fest’s growing popularity has attracted out-of-state book lovers, as well. Still, people often ask me what the event is all about. My answer: It depends on what you’re looking for. While the writing classes do cost money, don’t let the expense keep you from attending. There are plenty of free events to experience, too. Here are my suggestions for enjoying Lit Fest on any budget:

Oliver Twist/Bob Cratchit Level: Visit Lighthouse’s Speakeasy Tent, located just outside its red brick Victorian headquarters at 1515 Race Street, for free author readings. The readings by visiting authors Andre Dubus III, Major Jackson, Mary Morris, and Robin Black (June 11, 8 p.m.) and by Emily Rapp, Kim Addonizio, Mat Johnson and Meghan Daum (June 18, 8 p.m.) are sure to be highlights, as is the free reading by participants in Lighthouse’s Young Writers Program (June 8, 6 p.m.). While you’re there, browse the books for sale at the pop-up branch of the Tattered Cover inside the tent, featuring works written or curated by Lit Fest-connected authors, and then hang out, catch a breeze, and have literary conversations with fellow book lovers on Lighthouse’s porch. No registration is required, but come early for a seat.

Tom Sawyer Level: Check out one of Lit Fest’s evening salon sessions, such as “Lighthouse Goes Psycho: A Night At The Movies” (June 13, 6:30 p.m.) or the “Fiction vs. Film Smack Down” (June 17, 8 p.m.), during which two novelists and three screenwriters will argue for the merits of their respective genres. Salons cost $20 for members, $30 for non-members, and include a catered dinner, drinks, and plenty of literary banter. For the same price, you can attend a Brown-Bag Business session, held at 12:30 p.m. throughout Lit Fest. Bring a lunch and learn from agents, editors, and writers about such topics as selling a writer’s first book, what editors look for in submissions, and “The Changing Landscape of Publishing” (June 18, 12:30 to 1:45 p.m.).

Elizabeth Bennet Level: Craft Seminars are two-and-a-half hour sessions that focus on specific topics ($65 to $75). Learn how to build a story from Colorado Book Award-winner B.K. Loren, how to establish a writing practice from Eleanor Brown, the bestselling author of The Weird Sisters, how to plan your novel from Houston-based novelist Mat Johnson, or how to make your memoir matter from essayist Meghan Daum. If you’re more of a reader than a writer, try one of the weekend Reading as a Writer sessions—Steve Almond will lead an appreciation of Denver novelist John William’s Stoner, while other sessions focus on Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet ($190 to $250).

Gatsby Level: If you really want to use Lit Fest to hone your writing or score a book deal, you can take workshops that last a weekend, two weekends, or a week. Some require advance registration based on a writing sample, while others are open to all levels (cost ranges between $190 and $800 depending on the length). Festival passes that include meetings with agents or editors, a variety of classes, and access to all the parties are available at several price points. While you’re at it, be sure to hit the opening and closing parties, which include dinner and drinks (June 5 and June 19, $30 to $40).

Jenny Shank’s novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and McSweeney’s

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