On a writers’ list I subscribe to, a conversation recently came up about writers conferences and whether or not it was a waste to attend them. Since there are several conferences coming up this fall, I thought I would take a stab at seven things you should expect from a writers conference.
1) Tips and tricks to either make you a better writer or remind you of things you know already. Honestly, if you’ve attended even two or three decent conferences, you should already know things like not starting your story with a flashback and that most of the time your dialog tag should be “said”—not expelled, huffed, growled, or any other –ed. But for the many people who haven’t attended a lot of conferences, learning these kinds of things can be eye-opening. I had a teacher in one of my classes say, “But we teach our students to use tags other than said.” I nodded and answered, “And you are teaching them wrong.”
So first point, if you have not been to a writing conference before, get to every “writing basics” class you can. Yes, I know classes on negotiating a contract and on-line marketing sound sexier. But if you haven’t finished your first book, you should be focusing on writing, not tweeting.
2) But let’s say, you’ve written a complete book or two. You know about creating conflict and multiple storylines. Why should you attend workshops? (We’ll get to agents, and editors, and publishers, oh my, soon.) First of all, don’t expect some amazing new revelation. Presenters like to make their workshops attractive with titles like, Ten Guaranteed Tips to Getting an Agent! (And yes, I shudder to admit that was the title of one of my earlier workshops—less the exclamation point.) But the truth is that absolutely nothing is guaranteed. And if anyone really knew a 100% sure way to sell their manuscript for top dollar to the best publisher ever, they wouldn’t be spouting it for free at a $150 writers conference, they’d be writing their next “guaranteed” book.
Whether you are taking a class on character development, making a Facebook page, or creating a critique group, the truth of the matter is that it is one author’s opinion. Depending on who is teaching the class, it may not even be a very good author’s opinion. So take everything you hear with a grain of salt. Maybe you’ve heard a lot of what is being taught before, and some of the new stuff you are hearing doesn’t ring true. Remember two things. No matter how good you are, you don’t know everything—there are nuggets of information you can still glean, points where you say, “Wow, I never looked at it like that before!” And two, repetition is a good thing. If you hear something enough times, and keep realizing you are making that mistake in your writing, it will eventually sink in to the point that you stop making the mistake. Every writer, no matter how successful, should be looking for ways to improve.
3) Expanding your horizons. I finally read Uglies this weekend. I know I am really late to the game, but I thought it was going to be either a) an emo romance or b) a heavy handed social commentary, or both. Turned out is was neither. It was a great read. I totally loved it. One of the things I liked best about the book was that it had a little of everything. Romance, action, cook gadgets, great bad guys. You could easily call it a thriller, a romance, a Sci-Fi, or even a mystery. One of the cool things about many conferences is that you can take genre specific classes even if you don’t write in that genre. Need to learn how to add a little spice to your mystery? Take a romance workshop. Want to know why so many YA novels are hot right now, even though you’re writing adult romances? Think of it as cross training.
4) Meet people. I know this is the scary part for a lot of people. And not just the attendees. I know many authors who are big brave dogs behind a laptop, but cowering puppies when it comes to talking to people they don’t know face to face. All through high school, you were the weird one. The person who would rather read than play at recess. The person who had more imaginary friends than real friends. You taught yourself that you didn’t fit in. Well guess what? At a writers conference you do fit in. Don’t get me wrong, you are still a weirdo. But now you are in a room filled with other weirdoes. Sit down next to someone and say something like, “So what do you write?” I guarantee a conversation will quickly ensue. Conferences are a great place to make friends—friends who think like you, empathize with you, support you, and have similar goals to you.
5) Hear what agents and editors are looking for. We often think of conferences as places to sell people on what we are writing or have written, and I promise I’ll get to that. But how much thought have you given to finding out what a particular agent or editor would really like to see? Remember the Mel Gibson movie, “What Women Want?” Suddenly Mel is incredibly successful because he knows what his female clients, dates, and even his boss want. Well guess what? You don’t have to get electrocuted while cross dressing in a bathtub to know what publishers want. You can ask them. And they’ll tell you. About a month ago, I was having lunch with one of the people I work with at Shadow Mountain. I’d talked to him about a project I was working on, but when I asked him what he was really looking for, it was something entirely different. At first I had a tough time swallowing what he had to say. But guess what? I’m doing a project for him that is tentatively scheduled for this June. Would that be worth the cost of a conference?
When you sit in front of a panel of the people who you are trying to sell your work to and everyone else is afraid to raise their hand and ask a question, get your hand in the air and ask, “If you could have the perfect book land in your lap today—assuming it was well written—what would the book be?”
6) Meet agents, editors, publishers, etc. I almost held this one till last, because so many people think this is what conferences are all about—selling your book. Do people sell books at conferences? Yes. I know people who have pitched an idea at a writers conference and ended up signing a deal. Will most people who attend a writers conference sell a book there? No. Not even close. Imagine you are a guy for a minute. (Rob this may be hard for you.) You are at a dance with two-hundred other guys. There are exactly four girls at the dance. Only four, and two of them aren’t even that good looking (or talented, or funny, or smart, just to be PC here.) All the guys want to meet these four girls. They get asked out on every dance. Even when they walk out into the hallway they are barraged by pushy guys who want to not only meet them, but immediately launch a long term relationship. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they all have boyfriends at home and they are getting paid to come to the dance.
Maybe you will meet one of them. If you paid for a dance or are quick at the punch table, you might get to talk to one of them. Maybe, just maybe, you are so darn good-looking, smart, funny, and smooth-talking that you actually even get a phone number. Great! Good job. Are you really going to blow it all by gushing, “I’m good with kids and I like cats and I never leave up the toilet seat. So do you want to marry me? Huh? Do you?”
Dances are a great place to meet girls. Sometimes you come home with a phone number, sometimes you go to Dennys with the other guys who struck out. Writers conferences are a great place to meet agents. Sometimes you find one who likes your work. Sometimes you don’t. Most times you don’t. Don’t make that the determining factor on whether or not a conference was successful.
7) Get motivated. Writing is a mind game first and last. From coming up with an idea to writing a great query letter, to signing your first contract, it is all about confidence and belief. Going to a conference for the first time can be scary and intimidating. Here you are a wanna-be writer who hasn’t even finished a whole book and you are surrounded by people who have not only written, but actually sold many, many books. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there are also two-hundred other people all trying to sell their books. And going back to the dance analogy, they all seem to have nicer cars, better cologne, and cooler moves than you. Who wouldn’t be intimated?
But allow me to let you in on a secret. Every one of the people in this room is just as insecure as you. The guy with the national three book deal still cries on his pillow when he gets a bad review. The woman who can’t even remember how many books she’s published is afraid she’ll never get the big deal she wants. The guy teaching the class with so much confidence just had his new idea shot down by two different agents. And all those people around you who seem to have it all together? They’re still trying to figure everything out too.
Stop being intimidated by the people who have been published and start focusing on the fact that if they can do it, you can too. Stop looking at all the other attendees as competition and recognize them as validation that wanting to tell a story and maybe even have someone pay you for it is not such a bad thing. When you take a class and it seems like you have so much to learn and so far to go, remember that we are all trying to improve. Instead of thinking about what you don’t know, think about how you are going to use what you’ve learned to improve your craft. Understand that it’s a long road, and may people will quit along the trail, but that just by attending a conference you are placing yourself head and shoulders above most people who dream of writing a book one day. If you return home motivated and determined to write something truly great, there is absolutely no one who can stop you but yourself.