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Writers Conference #1 – My ah-ha moment

I attended my first ever writers’ conference in April – the Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Can you believe that I’ve been writing professionally for 16 years and I’ve never attended a writer’s conference?  Here’s the rub.  I attended this conference not as a journalist, not as a non-fiction writer.  I attended as a fiction writer – a novelist.  Initially, I didn’t feel like I had a leg to stand on.

We arrived in the lobby of the Marriott hotel admidst a flurry of writers.  People were already hovering around the bar (at 7:30 in the morning.)  To be fair, the bar area doubled as a Starbucks until after lunchtime.  Most of the writers were holding out for their morning shot of espresso, not their morning shot of vodka.  Although, who knows.  Some may have had both in those recyclable cups.  I’ll admit that I felt like I could use a shot of something to calm my nerves.

Why was I so nervous?  I’m usually the epitome of calm when it comes to professional engagements. Although I’ve never attended a writers’ conference, I’ve attended plenty of professional conferences.  Usually I roll in composed and maybe even a little annoyed that this professional development opportunity is taking away from the daily grind of my ever-looming to-do list.

But in the case of PPWC, I didn’t have a novel-ing to-do list waiting for me back at the office.  Sure, I needed to whip through some article writing, but since my fiction writing hiatus started at the end of March, I didn’t have any novelist to-dos at all.  In fact, I wasn’t even a novelist.  I was an ASPIRING novelist ready to take off the mask and declare myself to the greater writing community.  I felt a bit like the green-faced woman in the painting above – hovering on the outskirts of the smartly dressed novelists at the bar and reeling from the anticipation of it all.  In her case it might be the absinthe that has her reeling (not the writer’s conference nerves), but regardless of the potion (distilled Green Fairy juice or novelist-coming-out-of-the-closet anxiety) I was a bit green around the gills myself.

I did the only thing I could: took a deep breath, picked up my registration packet and jumped in with both feet.  The weekend was phenomenal.  The people were friendly.  I don’t know if it’s just that Colorado has a kick-a$$ group of writers or if it is writers’ conferences in general, but the majority of attendees were truly interested in learning about and supporting their fellow writer.  The weekend was exhausting.  Taking a break from the daily grind and spending 10+ hours/day focusing only on the craft and business of writing was inspiring… and exhausting.  The weekend was epiphinous.   More on this writing epiphany in a bit.  But first, my top five tips for surviving your first writers’ conference:

1.  Have a plan:  Study the schedules, biographies and class descriptions ahead of time.  Wandering aimlessly from session to session is definitely an option, but carefully selecting your sessions ahead of time will give you the most bang for your buck.  Let’s face it writers’ conferences are expensive, and I feel like I got my money’s worth because I went to sessions that were right for me rather than following the herd to the next big-name presenter.  (Note: I did attend several sessions by the “big name” presenters also, and let me say that Donald Maass and Jeffery Deaver did not become “big names” accidentally.  The insight these guys offered an aspiring novelist like me was priceless.)

2.  Deviate from the plan (or follow your gut):  I wasn’t pitching a novel because I didn’t have a completed novel to pitch.  I wasn’t drafting query letters because I didn’t have a finished work about which I could write a query letter.  In spite of the fact that I wasn’t ready to face the query or the pitch, there were two sessions on the agenda that kept calling my name.  And I’m so glad I deviated from my plan and went to those sessions.  The first was a Read-and-Critique session which was open to the public.  Authors read their own first page and a literary agent responded.  In this case, the agent was Taylor Martindale from Full Circle Literary agency.  Martindale provided valuable feedback in a very kind-hearted way.  I think the writing of everyone in the room will benefit from her evaluations.  And the courage of the authors to read their first pages buoyed me.  As I sat green-faced in the corner imagining that I might pass out if forced to read my fiction in public, these authors made me realize that next year (PPWC 2013), I too can survive the firing squad and learn something from reading my own first pages in a public setting.

The second deviation proved to be my smartest choice of the weekend. Agent Weronika Janczuk from Lynn C. Franklin Associates led a breakout session call Crucial Compactness.  I took more notes during this one-hour presentation than I did the rest of the weekend put together.  She discussed the writing and editing of compact queries, synopses, and first chapters. You wouldn’t know it from this long-winded blog post, but I learned a boatload about compactness.

3.  Take a walk:  10+ hours sitting in hotel banquet chairs and three meals a day of hotel banquet food can be hard on the mind and the body.  Make sure to schedule time to take a walk.  Get up early or skip half of the lunch session.  Fresh air and sunshine will keep your body in sync with your brain and might even allow some time for the muse to swoop down in the midst of the information overload.

4.  Be friendly:  I’m a shy person by nature.  I have a hard time being the first to stick out my hand and introduce myself.  I had an even harder time at the conference because as a novelist I didn’t feel as legit as many attendees.  What I quickly learned is that it doesn’t matter if you’ve published five novels or only written five pages.  The majority of the writers at the conference were not only interested in their own craft, but the craft of their fellow writers, too.  As writers we spend a great deal of time talking to (and about) the voices we hear inside our heads.  Make-believe voices.  Voices that our spouses or friends may never understand.  To sit in a room with 400 other people who also talk to the voices inside their heads was a breath of fresh air.  Take advantage of the unspoken commonalities and enjoy being a part of the larger whole.

5. Embrace the bigger picture:  I arrived at the conference thinking I was working on a YA historical fiction novel.  I left realizing that my long abandoned 2009 NaNoWriMo manuscript was the story I need to tell.  This realization dawned on me while sitting in a session called “A Survey of Childrens and Young Adult Books” by Denise Vega.  Somewhere in the midst of Denise’s description it dawned on me that Sliver of Souls deserved a different title and a suspenseful/thriller twist.  The pieces all came together and I almost jumped from my seat.  I’ll admit that this ah-ha moment had nothing to do with the deconstruction of a board book storyboard, but something Denise said resonated with me.  She quoted Madeleine L’Engle: “You have to write the book that wants to be written.”  It dawned on me that FOR NOW writing my historical fiction novel was like putting a round peg in a sqaure hole.  It didn’t want to be written – right now.  Sliver of Souls? That story has been trying to crawl out from under the bed since I finished NaNoWriMo in 2009.  Maybe it was time to let it see the light of day.

All in all my first writers’ conference was a triumphant success.  I signed up on the spot to attend the 2013 conference.  You can belive that as a “veteran” attendee, I won’t be quite so green when I walk through those lobby doors.  I’ll be ready to read my pages, ready to pitch, and more than ready to join that smartly dressed group of novelists at the bar.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wonderful piece, Sara! I’m glad you’re going to get back to that NaNoWriMo draft. You’ve inspired me as well to pull the one i did in 2011 back out and take another look at it. Thanks!

    August 28, 2012
    • I’m so glad I could inspire you to rethink your NaNo manuscript, Shutta. Let me know what you decide once you give it the once over.

      August 28, 2012
  2. Fantastic advice Sara…conference sounds like it was great. Thanks for sharing the effects on your writing drive.

    August 28, 2012
  3. So glad you had a wonderful time at the conference! I love that it led to a change of direction for you, and you’ll be revisiting an older nano novel!

    Happy writing (& conferencing!)

    August 29, 2012
  4. Sounds like a great time. I really need to save up for one of those conferences, too. Thank you for your insightful and, indeed, useful posts on all things writerly. You’re doing a great job and it is my pleasure to nominate you for this little award: http://jweberle.com/2012/08/30/its-a-major-award/

    August 30, 2012

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