2013 was perhaps my most ambitious attempt at a writing conference circuit yet. Six conferences, three of those major, in six months—which included Olde City New Blood, Daddy’s Girls’ Weekend, World Horror and Horror Writer’s Associations international conference, International Thriller Writers’ Thrillerfest, and Romance Writers of America’s international conference.
For a yet-to-be-published author not on a promotional tour, that is a heck of a lot. It’s a ton of expense, energy, and time commitment to attend one such conference. To attend, essentially, one a month could be considered a curious lifestyle choice.
The biggest question I get from fellow writers who don’t do this sort of conferencing is “Is it worth it?” Often that question is followed by a measure of silence that suggests the addendum “For the money?” It’s a fair question. And I don’t know that I can answer it for every writer. As with anything, it would depend on your particular approach, expectations, and finances. However, I can share what this experience has provided me and why I’m always eager to add another new conference experience to my agenda each year.
I’m going to preface the rest of my post by making it clear that I happen to be a writer that hopes to reach a wide audience. I know that seems to go without saying, but I’ve met a lot of writers that are happy to write for themselves and their loved ones and leave it at that. Noble and valuable, but I always find myself scratching my head when I meet that writer who doesn’t intend to pursue publishing. They shell out the hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands, and find themselves disappointed with the conference experience in the end. I’d say the international conferences aren’t really for those writers. That said, I think there’s a lot of value in attending a conference that fits your ambitions and pocketbook.
So what can conferencing do for you?
Conferences give you connection via face-time with bloggers, other writers, booksellers, agents, publishers, editors, and other industry types who, by the way, all have connections and who are all looking for people to work with, people to promote, people to promote them, and people to share support. I’ve met amazing contacts in the coffee line at a hotel sundries shop during a conference. I’ve had the chance to share a story premise and learn instantly whether that agent, editor, or reader is actually interested or not interested in what I’m writing. That’s huge insight for a writer and a timesaver for all parties when thinking in terms of acquisitions down the line. I can cross potentials off my list or put new names on it — dependent on how promising a relationship might be.
There are even a few people I’ve met that I thought prior to face-time, “Ooh, I’d really like to work with them!” for the prestige or some presumption I’ve made about them. But upon talking with them, I realized that though they are lovely, the match would never prove productive because of some incompatibility or difference in goals. That’s not something you can always determine from a bio or query reply or when faced with a contract decision with someone you know so little about. Face-time also means people have a face to put with my name and we’ve shared a smile, which trumps any faceless name on a query in a pile of thousands when my letter hits their desk. Yes. The writing still has to be good. But no one on either side of that acquisition coin wants to work with someone with whom they cannot jibe.
I’m not talking about crafting good sentences or learning the basics of writing. A good English teacher can teach that. I’m talking about developmental and advanced editing, polishing for publication, and business sense, the stuff only experienced authors, editors, and agents can tell you about your work and about the process. I’m not saying that people out there aren’t capable of going it alone. Many have. And they do it well. But let’s take a moment to think about craftsmen throughout the ages. Throughout the centuries self-taught prodigies are few and far between. Where there was a craftsman or artists, there were always apprentices. And if you can sit in a critique, workshop, or panel and gain insight about your craft from an expert or someone with experience, why wouldn’t you? Many of these conferences offer pitch and critique sessions with established agents, editors, and listed writers. That feedback can prove itself invaluable. If you are keen and thoughtful, that process can teach you how to write for publication.
Though writing is a solitary endeavor, the act of learning to write needn’t be solitary. How could it be if we are to challenge ourselves or to grow as writers? Being in a room full of people that do what you do is empowering. Writers understand other writers in a way that your mom or cousin Angie just won’t—unless they are writers too. Some of the best readers and support systems in my endeavors have come from people I’ve met at conferences. They know what you are talking about. They know your fears. They have similar struggles, similar goals. They have learned things you don’t know, and you have learned things you can share to ease their doubts. And if you live someplace that is rural, where there isn’t a large writing community, you can make your own online community through the people you meet. It’s a way to reach out and be reached by people that are actually interested in the work you want to do.
These types of conferences are the place to get the skinny. And knowing is half the battle, right? The more you learn, the more you know about the pitfalls and the challenges. And you get to learn it from people who have either fought their way through the slush pile or are sifting through it. The more you experience and learn, the more prepared you’ll be. I’ve seen surprise and enlightened ignorance paralyze writers. I’ve seen industry change send some writers packing. Realization that things are not how you imagined can be wounding, or worse, crippling. Consider the benefit of blowing through those pretenses and laying them aside quickly with the support of people who have been and are exactly where you are. All the wasted energy you won’t spend. All the time you’ll reclaim.
It’s not to say overnight successes don’t happen and people don’t go it alone. But those successes don’t happen as often as we think they do. Writers who make a living writing are few and far in between. Of course, rubbing elbows with the gods can be perspective shifting. After all, New York Times bestselling authors are people, too. They are people just like you who work hard, make mistakes, and learn from others. And if they can do it, why can’t you? It’s very easy to dismiss yourself, your talent and ability, then fall into a rut or feel disheartened about your writing. But when you can stand next to a writing idol or a dream publisher and they tell you “you’re almost there!” or “don’t give up now!” that is priceless for the esteem of a writer. It makes it seem doable, or at least worth the fight.
For me, the answer to the question of “is it worth it?” is “Yes!” It’s worth it because these conferences are my MFA in writing for publication. Spring and summer conference circuits are my trade school, my training ground. It may not be as structured and steady as a university writing program, but the experience is overstuffed with people who know what they are doing, are passionate about what they are doing, and want to share that knowledge. “For the money?” Well, that part each writer must decide for him or her self. But for those who ask me those questions, if you’re serious about the writing and look toward publication, wouldn’t it be silly not to try once? You aren’t required to attend six conferences a year.
That could be considered a curious lifestyle choice. Or is it? You decide.