Have you ever attended a writer conference? If not, what the hell are you waiting for?
If you have, did you get the most you possibly could out of it? If you did, great. I want to hear all about it in the comments. If not, you need to read this post.
Several weeks ago, I attended the Algonkian Write to Market Conference, north of San Francisco. I met amazing people, made friends with wonderful fellow writers, participated in some of the best live pitch critiques you'll hear on the West Coast, and on the first evening was ceremoniously sacrificed at the altar of upmarket fiction—with two fellow authors as witnesses and a horse-size cobb salad to bury my face in.
I emerged re-born with a brand new pitch and a kick-ass title for one of my upcoming novels. A pitch that got the initial nod of interest from five out of the five literary agents I presented to.
On the drive back home, cars seemed to peel away before me, no doubt sensing the effervescing euphoria emanating from my wheels (ooh, accidental alliteration!).
Granted, that was AFTER the pop-up traffic jam at Candlestick Park, darn those sporting events. Should've stopped for a hot dog.
So why was this particular writer conference so insanely great? Let's break it down.
Do Your Homework
You don't just show up at a writer conference. You need to be PREPARED. Any writer conference that promises heaven and earth, but doesn't make you move a finger before the first day, is more likely to deliver disappointment hell.
The people at Algonkian certainly made us sweat long before we set foot in the conference room. Here is a list of what we were responsible for BEFORE Day 1:
- Read "One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest" and "All the King's Men."
- Read 10+ articles about various aspects of fiction writing.
- Read the Algonkian Competitive Fiction Guide (88 pages).
- Write a simple story statement for your novel.
- Sketch out your antagonist.
- Come up with up to three killer titles for your novel.
- Become very familiar with your genre and research your comparables.
- Define the primary conflict in your narrative.
- Work out the inner conflict of your protagonist and the secondary conflicts in the narrative.
- Describe the setting of your novel in detail.
Not enough work? How about having to memorize your 1-minute pitch the night before the live pitch sessions with actual living breathing literary agents?
Point is. Before you sign up for a conference and pay their hefty fees, read through their entire site. Ask them questions. See what their conference organizers and faculty have published, who's coming to speak and give workshops, and above all, what they expect you to do before the event.
No Pain, No Writer's Gain
See above. But, since I've got the space, allow me to expound:
You don't become a great and successful writer without putting in the time. I'm not going to debate Joe's piece on the Ten-Thousand-Hour rule here, but the bottom line is, you have to put in the time. The greatest writers who ever lived, always put in the time. Whatever time that is, and however you apply it—working out your narrative arc, defining the antagonistic forces, fleshing out your protagonist's inner conflict, doing research—ya still gotta do it, ya know?? You know your strengths and weaknesses best. If you don't, you should. (Another reason to attend a writer conference!)
Not only do you have to put in time, you should also learn to embrace pain. The pain of rejection, of critique, of readers, agents, editors, and fellow writers completely misunderstanding your narrative—likely because you haven't written it effectively. Embrace it, face it, and learn how to walk through it to the other side. It isn't called "labor of love" for nothing; the analogy is very apt.
Yes, be the first to assume responsibility for flaws in your writing, be eminently grateful to those who point them out, and have the courage to listen to advice from people more experienced than you. I'll tell you a story Michael Neff, the director of the Algonkian conferences, shared with us that weekend: at one of the events Michael puts on (they do several writer conferences throughout the year), he worked with one writer whose pitch was falling to pieces. He helped the writer get his pitch to a level he knew, from his ample experience as editor and agent, would be acceptable for the agents attending the conference, and even accompanied the man to the pitch event.
To Michael's astonishment, the writer pitched the original version of his novel (yes, the one with no legs). Needless to say, the agent turned it down flat and POOF! the writer's chance at getting published by a big house was gone. When Michael inquired why in the world the writer didn't do the pitch they'd worked on together, he sheepishly confessed that at the last minute he'd called his wife who convinced him his original story was better.
Sound harsh? Maybe, but if you want to grow and learn and succeed as an author, you need a thick yet porous skin. If you want praise, call your mother (or your spouse).
Support Without Slobbering
Unless you're wealthy enough to buy your own personal writer's retreat in the Swiss Alps, you will rub shoulders and elbows (and maybe knock foreheads) with other writers. Some will be better than you, some will be not as good. Some will have sold lots of books, some will be just starting out. Whatever the case, you're all in this conference together, and the playing field has just been bombed flat by the dynamic personality of the conference director (that's a compliment in case you're wondering).
We spent the better part of two days listening to the pitches of our fellow writers, and engaging in detailed critiques of each and every one. The atmosphere sizzled with the neurons of close to 100 writers. We sliced the pitches to pieces, taking them apart on multiple levels: the literary, the narrative, the protagonist, the antagonist, the commercial market. If the story was good, it was recognized and challenged further. If it wasn't, it was discussed why—and, I must say, with a great deal of very intelligent, and very enjoyable, humor. And always with respect.
Then we'd go out for an incredibly delicious lunch, get to know each other better, and come back to do it all again in the afternoon.
I wanted those two days to go on for a month.
Supporting your fellow writers doesn't mean praise for praise's sake. It doesn't mean five-star reviews that drip off your screen. No matter how good their writing is, it can always improve—and that's why you're all there at a writer conference. To get better at your craft.
By the time Pitch Day rolled around, I was ready. I'd practiced my pitch up and down, backwards and forwards, pulling fellow writers off the catwalk at the hotel for impromptu pitch sessions (You play the tough, jaded agent, I play the up-and-coming writer). I thought for sure my pitch would evaporate right out of my brain the moment I sat down at the first agent's table.
One after the other, the five agents nodded as I told my tale, genuinely interested. "Send me the manuscript," they all said.
Now, I didn't attend the Write to Market conference to sign with an agent, per se. I attended because I respect Michael Neff and his tough-love approach to shepherding writers into the halls of commercial success. That's what he promised, and that's what he delivered. And that's the point of a writer conference.
What would you like to get out of your next writer conference?
p.s. Can you find me in the photo above?
Note: The original version of this post was first published on The Write Practice on December 4, 2013.