The Writer’s Conference: a drink from the fire hose
by Chris Mandeville
I just returned home after spending a jam-packed three days at a writer’s conference. This was the 25th or so such event I’ve attended as a writer, and as I sit here totally exhausted I’m pondering why I continue to attend these conferences despite the cost in time and energy as well as dollars. The answer is that most writer’s conferences are well worth it because I come away with a whole toolbox full of tools, resources, and other good stuff.
Here’s what I filled my toolbox with this weekend:
- Camaraderie. There’s nothing like being with your own tribe. The writers at the conference get me. They really get me. They understand the battles I fight against the blank page, perfectionism, procrastination, self doubt, lack of time, marketing, and deadlines. They know what it’s like to get a “send it” or a rejection, to win or lose a writing contest, to receive a good review or a bad one. There’s comfort, joy, acceptance, and relief in this camaraderie, and I revel in the support, companionship, and commiseration.
- Learning. I love learning, and there’s plenty to learn at a writer’s conference. There are workshops on the craft of writing, the business, and the writer’s life, and I can always find classes that appeal to me no matter the stage of my career. Typically there are speeches where veteran writers share the wisdom of their experience and offer sage advice. And more often than not there are small-group and/or individual sessions for critique, career counseling, pitch/query/cover coaching, and more. Then there’s the bar (or coffee shop, or lobby, or lounge) where I never fail to learn interesting and useful stuff from fellow writers. A writer’s conference is like a great, big Easter egg hunt where the eggs are plentiful and easy to find, and the treasures inside are things I need to learn to be a better, happier, more successful writer.
- Resources. There’s no better place for the hunting and gathering of resources than a writer’s conference. The on-site bookstore alone is a treasure trove. Not to mention the information offered up for grabs during workshops, speeches, one-on-one sessions, and in casual conversation. Articles, books, websites, classes, teachers, tricks and tips—my toolbox is practically overflowing with resources! Plus a writer’s conference is a terrific place to find subject matter experts—I’ve met an FBI profiler, a falconer, a broadcast journalist, a hacker, a jewelry maker, a pilot, a chef, a surgeon, a private investigator, an exotic dancer, a sniper, and more. You’d be surprised how many writers have unusual expertise and interesting day-jobs we can mine for our fiction.
- Skills & Experience. It’s not all cerebral learning at the local writer’s con—you can acquire new skills and gain hands-on experience. I’ve seen conferences that offer real-time skill building with classes on Scrivener, pitching and querying, designing a book cover, writing cover copy, and more. At the conference this weekend there was a master class “Vocal Training for Authors” where attendees practiced public speaking skills—how cool is that? For me personally, I love to gain teaching experience at writer’s conferences. It helps hone presentation skills, as well as provides the opportunity to learn an element of the craft or business well enough to teach it to others.
- Contacts. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if not for the contacts I’ve made at writer’s conferences: my editor and publisher, reviewers, mentors, famous authors who blurbed my books, critique group members, and so many friends. There are typically some formal/organized ways to make contacts at conferences: many have pitch appointments, critique sessions, mixers, and/or one-on-one coaching available, so be brave, sign up, and make contacts! And it almost goes without saying that informal opportunities for making contacts at writer’s conferences are more plentiful than books. I always make connections in the bar, green room, book signing, coffee shop, and elevator, plus I chat up my dinner table companions and anyone I end up standing in line with. *BUT* in order to make these connections, I need to smile, introduce myself, and be open to meeting new people. This can be uncomfortable and challenging if you’re shy, an introvert, or simply out of practice interacting with human beings because you spend all your time with the characters in your head. But give yourself a pep talk and put yourself out there—it’s totally worth it.
- Readers. Whether you’re published or “pre-published,” a writer’s conference is rich with potential readers of your work. Seek out others who like your chosen genre(s) in workshops with related topics, at the bookstore, at the booksigning, and in meet-and-greets. I started my advance-reader “street team” with folks I met at conferences. And now that I’m published, attending conferences increases my reader-base: not only do I sell books at the events, I also have an uptick in my online sales after every conference I attend.
- Opportunities. If you keep your eyes and ears open at writer’s conferences, you can find some great writing, marketing, and networking opportunities. Many conferences advertise opportunities for volunteering (which usually comes with cool perks!) as well as for presenting at future events. There are often opportunities to participate in writing contests, prize drawings, scholarships, and anthologies. I’ve taken a shot at all of the above, plus had the opportunity to participate in a StoryBundle simply because I was in the right place at the right time (yes, a conference). And last but certainly not least, you’re reading this because the opportunity to blog for Kobo Writing Life was presented to me at a conference.
- Inspiration. Though inspiration can be hard to define, we know it when we feel it, and I always feel it at a writer’s conference. Sometimes it’s a calling to try a new genre or a different writing habit. Other times it’s a renewed belief in myself as a writer. I’ve had a light bulb go on in an area where I was stuck, and I’ve been inspired with an idea for a whole new story. Though I never know what form inspiration will take, there’s one thing I can count on: when I leave a writer’s conference, I feel inspired to write.
I realize that some writers don’t think conferences are for them—they can’t afford the time or the expense, don’t feel comfortable in that type of environment, or aren’t sure they have anything to gain from the experience. If this is you, I hope you’ll reconsider. Because a writer’s conference isn’t just a drink from the fire hose of writing knowledge, it’s an opportunity to get drenched and fill your writing toolbox at the same time.
Come on in, the water is fine!
Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. You can find out more about her at chrismandeville.com