Writing Conferences


A week ago, I headed downstairs from my hotel room to join the happy crowd picking up their registration goodies for the 2011 Pennwriters Conference. I’d already had some excitement the night before, what with my plane circling the Pittsburgh airport in the middle of some very cool lightning flashes,  landing between the thunderstorms sitting on top of the airport, then waiting an hour or so for the lightning to stop before we could get to our gate. I didn’t mind–the ride wasn’t bumpy at all, we landed safely, and–as our pilot told us after we were on the ground–ten minutes more, and we’d have been heading to Cleveland. I’ve got nothing against Cleveland, but, hey, the conference I wanted to get to was in Pittsburgh! I rode in on the airport shuttle with Denise Little, and we both agreed that making it there made up for any hassles along the way.

And it was great. Pennwriters is an amazing group, filled with warm, friendly, and energized writers. The conference coordinators brought in some awesome faculty–agents and editors and lots of writers to share their craft & market experience. Keynoters were Jacquelyn Michard, who told stories I’m not sure anyone else could have told and had us laughing, and Jonathan Mayberry, who shared all the misconceptions he had about writers when he first started out, before the Pennwriters proved him totally wrong.

Lots and lots happened, but here are five highlights from the weekend.

1. My three workshops went well. The Powerpoint presentations worked, and–let me tell you–it is a joy to give workshops in a hotel where the tech staff is there for you.  People asked lots of questions, and I think I got a few of them feeling better about finding a group and getting started with the whole critique thing.

2. I got the chance to sit in on other people’s classes. I mentioned Ramona DeFelice Long’s character workshop in Tuesday’s post. I also listened to Heather Terrell give a great talk about making the move from “adult” fiction to YA, and went to a fascinating workshop from Tamara Girardi about determining our learning processes, then finding writing techniques and tools that actually work with the way we,  as individuals, learn. I’ll be doing her homework, believe me. On Saturday, I ran in late to a workshop with Kathryn Miller Haines on researching historical fiction. I’ll tell you, sitting with that group, tossing around ideas about how to find the stuff we all need, how to weave facts into story, felt like coming home. Which, since I never thought I’d write historical fiction, is still a bit disconcerting, but wonderful.

3. Friday night, I sat up late (thank goodness for the time change) and did a Read-and-Critique session with Kathleen Ortiz. The last time I did anything like this, I was on the other side of the “table,” having an agent critique the (anonymous) first page of my picture book, so I know how intimidating it can be to be the writer in this scenario. Kudos and big hugs to the eight writers who handed over their first two pages and synopses and let Kathleen and I go at it!  And let me tell you, Kathleen is sharp–she has an incredible ear for voice and is dead on target about that divide between middle-grade and YA. If you’re looking for an agent, I can definitely recommend putting her on your list.

4. I signed books. Yes, I’ve done this before, but never behind long tables with other writers sitting to either side of me, all down the row. Quite fun, because there’s always someone to chat with. Tricky, because–you know–I had books of my own I had to get signed, and while I didn’t have a line out the door (Ha!), I was a bit worried that I’d miss someone while I stood in Jonathan Mayberry’s line, getting his zombie YA signed for my son. It is just so much fun to have someone come up to you, with your book in their hands, and get into conversation about their critique group, their writing project, and their hopes for both.

5. I bought books. Of course I did. I had even called my credit card company ahead of time so they wouldn’t freak out, because there was a conference years ago when they called me, to check if I really HAD gone into the same bookstore six times in two days. Um, yeah. You know. You grab the books you know you want first thing. Then you go to a workshop, and–boy, you need that book. And then another workshop…another book. There is just no way to be efficient about this, folks! I ended up toting home a nice, full suitcase, loaded down with the following:

All in all, the conference was one of the best I’ve ever attended. People came from all over the place; I met a woman from Alaska! I can see why. If you’re anywhere in the neighborhood next year–and, sure, Alaska counts as the neighborhood–I totally recommend this one. It’s a weekend you will treasure.

As you read this, or shortly after, I’ll be on the road (or many roads) on my way to the SCBWI Spring Spirit conference in Rocklin, California. For us non-geography experts, that’s right up in/near Sacramento. To get there, I head out of my mountains, through the heart of Silicon Valley, up into some lovely green hills (really green, this week!), and over toward the tip of the Central Valley. Not a long drive, but long enough that I’m taking an extra day, rather than rushing up and back the same day.

Road Trip!

Here are a few things I expect to do this weekend:

1. Drink “my” drink: Nonfat, decaf, light caramel macchiato. Just so you know. Yes, I do get that all out at the order station, and, yes, it’s worth the embarrassment. I’m not a big coffee drinker in every day life, but there’s something about sipping hot coffee from behind the wheel of a car that seems to work. And don’t push me to get the “hard” stuff–you don’t want me driving around on a full-caffeine hit!

2. Stop at the California Automobile Museum to do research for my WIP. I’m (hopefully) going to see a 1908 Model T, a 1911 Pierce-Arrow (think back to the car the dad bought in Cheaper by the Dozen), and a lot more. I’m going to figure out how you accelerated a car back in those days, which (if not all) had cranks to get things going, and–most important–what you might possibly bang your head against…hard!

(Note: I’ll be there on April 1st. I’m SO tempted to walk in, say, “Which one do I get to drive?!”, watch their faces fall, and then shout “April Fools!” Honestly, though, no chance I’ll have the courage.)

3. Hang out with kidlit writers and illustrators.

4. Meet Bruce Coville. Wait, let me say that again. MEET BRUCE COVILLE!!!!  He’s the keynote speaker at the conference, and I pretty much think he is brilliant in his ability to understand what makes kids laugh and what gives them the perfect world of fantasy to escape into.

5. Get back a critique from some professional (not sure who yet) on my picture book. Stick the still-sealed envelope in my bag and don’t open it until I’m somewhere quiet and safe? Tear it open upon receipt and block everybody else in the registration line until I’ve read it? Sneak a peak at lunch? What would you do?

Can you tell I’m ready to go? Have a great weekend, everybody!

I’ve got a couple of writing conferences coming up in the next couple of months. At the start of April, I’m off to the Sacramento area, as an attendee at the SCBWI Spring Spirit conference. Then in May, I’m off to Pennsylvania to present at the Pennwriters conference in Pittsburgh. Obviously, things are going to be different at each–there’s a different speed to a conference where you’re on faculty to one where you are part of the audience. I love both ways of doing a conference, and here’s why:

  • I love hanging out with writers. For too many years, it was just me and my pen/computer. Then I found my critique partners and suddenly I had a world I was part of–every conference I go to opens up that world to me and lets me totally immerse myself in it for a solid day or three.
  • I get to talk about writing. Yes, I do more of this if I’m up at the podium, but believe me–I do plenty when I’m an attendee, chatting with people in the workshops (NOT while the speaker is talking…usually!), at meals, in lines.
  • I get to travel. Okay, this isn’t quite as much fun as it used to be (but don’t quote me on that until after I see if I get the full-body pat down at the airport in May!), but I still love the feeling of going somewhere, surrounded by other people going somewhere. There’s a feeling of expectation and anticipation–a who-knows-what-might-happen tinge to the air.
  • I stay in a hotel. Every now and then I do the drive-there-and-back on the same day, but I try to treat myself to at least one night in a place that makes my bed, replaces my towels, delivers food (if only in the form of the candy machine down the hall), and basically makes me feel pampered. Honestly, I’m easy–I don’t have to stay anywhere particularly expensive to get this feeling. I just have to be somewhere where my laundry and my kitchen aren’t staring me in the face.
  • Conferences give me a break from work. Yes, sure, speaking is work–but such a different kind. A lot of the work we do–writing, editing, freelancing–whatever, has a bit of a delayed-feedback reaction. At a conference, whether I’m talking about critiquing, discussing someone’s manuscript, signing a book–I pretty much always get a smile in return: instant gratification. Something we all need & don’t get often enough, as far as I’m concerned.
  • A conference makes me shift my mental gears. It’s all to easy to get into a groove–not always a good one–as we go along, doing the same things, following the same patterns, day after day. Conferences push me out of this–they wake me up and let me look at things from a different angle, usually a pretty happy one.

That’s me. Those are the big reasons why I love writing conferences. What about you? Why–other than to learn the craft or make a contact–do you head out to conferences?

Last year, I guest-posted over at Shrinking Violet Promotions about the pluses of saying Yes. I believe firmly that it’s a much better word than No. Especially when you’re talking to yourself.

But how many yes‘s can you handle? As you move further along your writing path, opportunities are going to multiply.  Here are just a few things you may want to jump into as you get deeper into your writing and your writing community:

  • Writing on multiple WIPs
  • Taking writing classes
  • Going to some writing conferences
  • Volunteering at a writing club or conference
  • Writing a blog
  • Getting out onto Facebook and/or Twitter
  • Contributing to a newsletter
  • JOIN A CRITIQUE GROUP :)

And there are 24 hours in a day?

How many times can you say yes without feeling like those balls you have in the air are transforming into chainsaws and unhappy cats? How do you pick which things to say yes to, without a crystal ball to tell you how it will all work out.

You listen to your gut and accept that Baby Steps can win at “Mother May I” just as well as Giant Steps.

If something sounds fun or you really think it’ll help your writing (craft or career), say yes. If an opportunity has a sour “taste” to it, think twice. Or thrice. Either way, though, if you decide to go for it, remember you can go slowly. You can start with one class, not three. You can pick a local, one-day conference, not a four-day event that requires two days on a plane and another for recovery. Ask your conference coordinators if they can use another person at the registration desk, the day of the conference, instead of offering to handle catering for the entire event.

If you inch forward, even several inches at once, you get a chance to try things out, to test your gut with the reality, not just the picture your nervous imagination is painting. You’ll see what you enjoy, what you’re good at, and what makes you feel like you’re moving forward…versus hitting a dead-end.

You’ll be doing more and you’ll be enjoying it.

What about you? What yes’s are you considering this fall?

I’m getting close to finishing up revisions on The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. I’m not sure what the next stage in the editing process will be, but I know it’s going to be time for me to start thinking about promotion.

May I just say…Yikes!

No, actually, I’m looking forward to it. One of my favorite things to do is go to writing conferences, and I love giving workshops. With the book out, I’ll be able to focus those workshops on this soapbox of mine and, hopefully, help other writers find their way into critiquing with supportive, productive groups.

Anyway, as I scan the calendar and sites like http://writing.shawguides.com/, I’m realizing that conference season is starting up again. There just don’t seem to be as many during the winter, and it’s a nice hopeful sign of spring that they’re popping up again. A lot of them. And I started thinking about how we writers–never overflowing with tons of extra time or money–can pick the conference (or conferences) that are the best for us.

light-bulb-brain-teaser

Blog post!

Really, the most important thing you can think about, before deciding where to go, is your goal for the conference. Do you just want to hang out with some writers, take a few good workshops, and–let’s face it–get away for a day or two? These are all fantastic reasons. They’re not necessarily, though, reasons to spend a lot of money or travel a great distance. Smaller, nearby conferences can give you all these things, often with a price tag that lets you…go to another conference!

Are you hoping to learn more about the publishing industry in general? Do you want to hear experts talk about how to get an agent or editor, to find out about promotion and social-networking tools? Are you looking for the best way to focus your writing time and energy? You may want to find a conference that has a larger number of agents and editors as presenters. Check the schedule to see if there will be an agent and/or editor panel, or a panel of published writers discussing their paths. You may have to travel a bit further to this kind of conference, maybe to a middle-sized or large city. If you’re still working within a budget (who isn’t?!), a one-day conference with these kinds of sessions may be best-suited to your needs, rather than one that covers a whole weekend, or several days. You’ll save money not just on the conference, but also on lodging and meals, and–as long as there are presenters talking about the information you need–you’ll increase your knowledge and understanding without decreasing your bank account quite as much.

Is the conference running a contest you want to enter? While a contest-win may or may not help you get published, it’s a great detail to put into a query letter or mention in a pitch. Does the conference offer you the chance to get a critique of your manuscript? This is an opportunity to get some good, straightforward feedback about your work, and it means someone will be reading the first few pages of your book. This is a good thing. :)

Is there an agent or editor to whom you want to pitch your book. If you have a “home” in mind for your book, and you want to pitch your project face-to-face, you’ll need to find out which conferences this agent or editor will be attending. Check their website and google their name with “conference.” Again, if you get this focused on a specific conference, you may end up paying a bit more to get there. I have a few caveats to offer about this route. I’m not sure other writers or publishing professionals will agree with these, and they’re based on my gut feelings, not any facts I’ve learned, but think about them as you go about scheduling your conference year.

  • Research that agent or editor really well before you decide to travel across miles, even states, to pitch to them. Of course, you can’t be 100% sure who you want for your book without talking with the person, but don’t go at this casually. If you make the trip and then find out that agent is no longer representing your genre, you’re going to be disappointed. And probably a bit frustrated with yourself.
  • Finish your book. Revise your book. Revise it again. (I could go on!) If that agent or editor requests a partial or full manuscript, you want to be able to walk calmly out of the pitch room, find a quiet place, and do the dance of joy. You don’t want that dance tainted by worries about how fast you can finish the book or about whether it’s really ready to submit.
  • Read through the conference brochure or website to see whether there are other reasons for you to attend, other than the chance to meet this agent or editor. Do you see workshops that look interesting, writers you think you can learn from? If the agent or editor doesn’t accept your pitch, or you decide they’re not a good fit for your project, will you still be able to find something at the conference that makes you glad you went?

I am not sure that pitching directly to an agent or editor increases your chances that they’ll represent or publish your book. I do think the in-person meet may give you higher odds that they’ll ask for a partial to read, but a good query letter may have just as strong a chance of achieving that.

I’m not saying that a trip to meet an agent or editor isn’t the way to go. I’ve done it myself, and I know many stories in which this was the first step to an author’s being represented and published. The excitement and joy those authors experience seems proof that it was the right choice for them, the right path to take. Just don’t push your common sense and judgement aside. Don’t put all your financial or emotional eggs in this one-conference basket. Weigh the options, look fully at the possibilities, and make the decision that your gut says is the best.

Conferences are two things–they’re a pleasure and they’re a tool. This very minute, as we speak, other writers are out there, organizing venues and caterers, choosing hotels and conference centers…all for us! Browse around and give one (or three) a spin. And enjoy yourself!

Jessica Faust, at BookEnds Literary, has this important reminder about all the benefits of a writing conference.

http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2009/03/what-are-conferences-really-about.html

I’m a member of the California Writers Club, a multi-branch club that has members all over the state. One of the northern branches is the Redwood Writers club, which–for the past couple of years–has run a series of mini-conferences over three consecutive weekends. Last weekend, I drove up to Petaluma to participate in the third weekend, giving a workshop on the basics of critiquing a manuscript.

It was a lovely morning. The group was small, but everybody was warm and friendly and energetic. I did my intro talk, then broke my workshop participants into small groups. They read a sample scene, wrote up a critique, and then presented it to each other. I “eavesdropped” on the critiques, then gave them a few minutes of feedback. No, I didn’t tell them whether they were “right” or “wrong” on what they were saying about the scene. Instead, I focused on whether they were digging deeply into the manuscript, how much detail they wrote into their critiques, and how they presented their comments. I had some really strong critiquers in the group, and it was really fun to listen to them share feedback, then interact with them about the methods and styles.

I got there early enough to sit in on the first workshop of the morning–a great talk about memoirs, presented by Susan Bono. Susan is Editor-in-Chief of Tiny Lights journal. The journal has an annual essay contest, and it’s not too late to enter this year’s. The deadline is Valentine’s Day (this Saturday, folks!), and here’s the info you’ll need if you want to submit.

Linda McCabe is the friend who gave me the first connection to the group, and President Karen Batchelor invited me to speak and kept all the organization stuff running beautifully. Linda sat in on my workshop (Thanks, Linda!), and then took gathered me, Susan, and the other presenter–Ransom Stephens–together for a yummy lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant across the street. Ransom told us all what to order, and I had one of the best noodle bowls I’ve ever eaten.

My “students” were my guinea pigs this weekend; this was the first time for my critique workshop. I think it went well, but I hear a rumor of feedback forms, and I’m really looking forward to any comments and suggestions about how I could improve things. It was a weird experience, listening to a critique for the structure of it, instead of the content, but I think it worked well & I can completely see continuing with this workshop at more conferences in the future.

As usual, any time I hang out with other writers, I had a blast and came home totally recharged. I was even fighting a cold and had a party to go to that night, and I had all the energy I needed to get home, do a quick-change from professional to social apparel, and drag my husband onto the dance floor a couple of times. Son: no way! :)

Question for all of you.  I’d like to make this type of post a staple of my blog; just a quick, mini-report of conferences and workshops I go to, either as a speaker or an attendee. Confession–I am LOUSY with a camera and actually avoid taking one with me places, so you’re not going to see a lot of photos of famous/not-so-famous people here. (Although check Linda’s blog out later this week; I think she’s going to put up her pics!) So the question is: Do you like reading about conferences, etc? If not, I’ll probably keep the posts going, but maybe shorten them a bit (I say that like it’s so easy for me!). If you’re enthused, I’ll keep filling you in on all the fun stuff. I think conferences are a great place for writers to learn and just commune with each other, and if I can get you guys intrigued, well, all the better! Let me know!

One of the debates you hear as people talk about writing paths is whether or not writing conferences are useful. Me? I admit it. I’m a huge fan. I think the fact that I’ve gone to writing conferences has a lot to do with where I am on my own path, with the steps I’ve made toward becoming a serious, committed, professional writer.

Of course, many of my “reasons” may very well be an excuse for the fact that I just have a great time at conferences!

I do think, though, that we can have very different needs or goals for each writing conference we attend, depending on where we are on our paths. It’s not quite a “stages” thing, but I think there are several different reasons a writer should go to a conference.

  • To spend a day or two surrounded by “your” people, reminding yourself that you are a writer and that being a writer is wonderful
  • To learn more about the writing craft and improve your writing skills
  • To connect with other writers for a specific reason–learning more about a genre, doing research about someone in the publishing business, networking to locate one or more critique partners
  • To meet an agent or editor and to pitch a specific writing project, hopefully taking your path one step closer to publication

For me, there has been a progression in the why (and the way) I attend writing conferences. I’ve been an attendee, just happy to escape from daily life, attend workshops, and mingle. I’ve been a volunteer, judging contest entries, arranging flowers, passing out water bottles. And I’ve been a speaker, finding out just how cool it is to wear a Faculty badge, to have another writer come up and thank me for something I said in a workshop. Someday, soon, I see myself actually sitting behind a table, signing copies of The Critiquer’s Survival Guide and, hopefully, other books, too.

I’ve also had the bad times–the pitch to an agent that felt flat, the foot-in-the-mouth with someone I had hoped to connect with, the interaction with the attendee who isn’t having a good experience and can’t help taking it out on somebody, anybody.

For me, though, I give writing conferences a ten out of ten. I’m a writer and a reader. So much of my life is just about words. There isn’t much better than being surrounded by a crowd of people who feel the same.

Don’t take my word for it, though. I did a little browsing, and found a few other “takes” for you on the whole writing conference question.

What about you? Have you gone to any conferences? What do you like/dislike about them? How do you think going to a conference might help you move forward on your writing path?

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