In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kansas Authors Club during the first weekend in October broke new ground when it hosted its first ever virtual writers convention.

The oldest statewide writers organization in the United States (chartered 1904) has held an annual writers convention almost every year since 1905. War intervened on two occasions. Disease now threatened to do the same.

Typically, the site of the convention rotates between KAC’s seven districts. This year’s convention, “Writing Across Kansas ... A Sense of Place,” originally was planned by District 7 to take place in Colby.

“Instead, we met in the comfort of our members’ homes,” Duane Johnson, KAC president said.

As the deadly disease spread across the United States, Johnson realized in May that the convention might need to be cancelled.

“I was in close contact with convention planners, so I knew how hard they had worked to put together an impressive lineup of speakers and workshop leaders,” Johnson said. “I knew I would be letting them and the rest of our 250-plus members down unless I found an alternative.”

The solution—video-conferencing the event—Johnson said, was obvious. Figuring out how to do it was not.

He spent a month reading online articles and watching Zoom webinars on webinars. Then he assembled a four-member “zoom team” to host the convention. The team, Carol Yoho, Curtis Becker, and Tracy Million-Simmons, met each week to strategize, rehearse, and role-play. A mock webinar was held with as many of the workshop leaders as could attend. Team members then met with workshop leaders, who had various levels of experience with Zoom, in blocks of two or three to make sure everyone knew what to expect and were up to speed. They even hired a videoconference specialist from Webinerds.

“We were pioneering unfamiliar terrain, and we had to get it right the first time,” Johnson said. “No Mulligans allowed.”

All the while, they coordinated their efforts with the convention committee and contest managers.

A normal Kansas Authors Club conference consists of 12 to 15 workshops, some presented two or three times; keynote speakers; presentation of awards for children’s writing contests, adult writing contests, and newly released books in several categories; a state board meeting; annual members meeting; and an awards banquet.

“For the better part of two days, multiple events are going on simultaneously,” Johnson said. “How the devil were we going to duplicate that with a video-conference?”

The solution: purchasing not one, but two webinar add-ons to the group’s Zoom account. During the convention, the team split into two two-member teams on each webinar.

“We had to ditch the banquet and postpone the board and members meetings to the next weekend, but we got everything else in,” Johnson said. “We even set up a virtual bookroom for members to sell their books and a silent auction.”

The Webinerds specialist recommended direct cable-to-computer connections to guard against the instability of Wi-Fi, and head-sets. As a result, each zoom team member had out-of-pocket expenses to go with the hours of time they contributed. At least one team member also had to purchase a web-cam.

Johnson said the convention, which featured Kansas Poet Laureate Huascar Medina and Academy award-winning playwright Kevin Wilmott, experienced a few minor glitches, but everyone seemed pleased with the outcome.

“My most terrifying moment came during Rich Hawkins’ “Writing for Radio” workshop when the lights blinked off for a second and I lost my connection,” Johnson said. “I went into panic mode until I realized that Carol was still supporting the webinar on her end. When I reconnected five minutes later, everything was fine. No one even knew I was gone.”

He said the best part of the experience for him was the bond the four zoom team members formed with each other as they trained each other.

“We laughed a lot,” he said. “I think we all had a good time as we taught each other how to do something KAC has never done before. I look forward to when we can get together over a six-pack. And corn chips. And M&Ms. That’s an inside joke.”

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