I just attended the Writer’s Digest Conference and as always, I returned home tired and full of inspiration. But there’s something that has stuck in my mind that is nagging at me. Saturday afternoon, I was sitting in the lobby, chatting with several aspiring writers who had a lot of questions about the industry and genre categories among other things. At one point, I overheard a conversation between two attendees adjacent to me. One of the writers turns to another and says, “Isn’t this so great? I’ve met a lot of people, exchanged cards with them.” Etc. Etc. But the other person shrugged and said, “I guess, but I think it’s lame the way these things are all about sponging off of the wannabes to make a bunch of money.”
I couldn’t help but stare at this person.
All I could think was: sure, I suppose one could look at a conference that way. But I’m frowning, even as I type that. Maybe this person had received a bunch of rejections lately–or maybe they just drank a bottle of misery for breakfast. Either way, I was flabbergasted.
I guess this person doesn’t realize the pro authors who attend donate their time and hard-won knowledge, and they are rarely paid, yet they do it happily to give back, to help others succeed. I suppose this person assumes the conference generates a tremendous amount of money based on conference fees, but doesn’t grasp the extraordinary amount of money needed to put on a convention in midtown Manhattan.
I have to admit, this comment irritated me, and the fact that I felt compelled to write this post, I suppose, shows just how much. As I look back on my years at conferences, all I feel is gratitude. Gratitude for the many generous and knowledgeable people I’ve met. Gratitude for the opportunities to connect with professionals who directed me on my path to publication, and also guided me in my learning.
Oodles and oodles of gratitude.
In fact, in the spirit of gratitude, I’m going to break down the positives about attending a writer conference.
I have to begin with:
Inspiration: Just being in the same building as lots of other writers gives me a bit of a glow. Suddenly I feel less isolated in my pursuit, and I am humming with a kind of energy that comes from being with others who get me—my passion for stories and the power of the written word. Talking about craft and plot and potential ideas gets me jazzed and by the time the con is over, I’m DYING to go home and write. Butt in chair, words on paper. Inspired!
Knowledge: When I first began going to conferences, I knew so very little about publishing as a business, or craft, for that matter. I looked at attending conferences as my education, a bit like another degree since I didn’t attend college for fiction writing. The cons were an investment in my future—a future I believed in and one that I’m still extremely passionate about. As a more seasoned writer, what I learn has changed. It doesn’t come in fast and furious amounts like it did when I was a novice, but I still glean gems from my colleagues that help me think about story or craft in a completely new light. I still learn new insights into the crazy publishing industry.
Access to Agents & Editors: Meeting agents in person is a great way to jump ahead of the slush pile. This is how I met my agent, in fact. It’s difficult to connect with an agent via email—they’re extremely busy and as you can imagine, everyone is vying for their attention. Querying can take years, but attending a conference and meeting with an agent face-to-face is a sure-fire way to gain their attention. The same goes for editors. But it’s not just the pitch sessions that are invaluable. Listening to agent/editor panels and having a chance to ask questions really opens your eyes to understanding the submission process as well as the market at large. Plus, hey, you may even get to mingle a bit with an agent or editor during the cocktail hour or over a meal.
Network Central: Cons provide a supreme opportunity to connect with friends and colleagues. On one hand, this doesn’t seem all that important since social media makes everyone much more accessible, but swapping emails or texts, etc, isn’t the same—at all. I can’t tell you how many times my experience with someone in person is vastly different from those online. It’s almost shockingly different, in fact. Writers need to connect with their colleagues in person, just like in any other business. Press the flesh. Who you know matters, always. I’ve found that my time at conferences has opened many, many doors.
Talk about Your Work with Someone Who Cares: It’s true that our nearest and dearest will listen to our endless thoughts, worries, and ideas about our work, but let’s face it: they don’t get it. Not the way other writers do. It’s our work and our passion. Stories make us feel both alive, and a deep sense of yearning. A yearning to capture something meaningful on paper. At a conference, you can talk about writing until your heart is content.
Added Bonuses: For me, there are many other little bonuses to attending a con. For one, I enjoy dressing like a professional for a change instead of wearing yoga pants, especially if the conference has a banquet dinner. I also look forward to swapping anecdotes and sharing war stories with friends over cocktails into the wee hours. And finally, I love checking out the sights in the town where the conference is held. I’m a huge fan of travel so this is just an added bonus to getting away from the daily grind of life’s expectations.
Attitude is everything. You can see the cynical and negative side to just about anything, but I suspect it won’t carry you very far, and it’ll make your journey much more painful and difficult.
I’d like to hear your experience at a writer’s conference. Were you Grumpy McGrumperstein or did you go in with an upbeat, open mind? What worked for you? What didn’t?
About Heather Webb
Heather grew up a military brat and naturally became obsessed with travel, culture, and languages. She taught high school for a decade before turning to full time writing and freelance editing. Heather's historical novels BECOMING JOSEPHINE & RODIN'S LOVER have been sold in six countries, were chosen as a Goodread's Pick of the Month, and have received starred national reviews. Her books have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, France Magazine, and more. Next up? Her WWI epistolary novel LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS releases from HarperCollins in Oct 2017. As a freelance editor, Heather has helped over two dozen writers sign with agents, and go on to sell at market. She may also be found teaching craft courses at a local college. When not writing, she feeds her cookbook addiction, geeks out on history and pop culture, and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world.
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