Monday, April 11, 2016

Making a Conference Work for You

Tell us which conferences are your favorites and why you like to attend them.

-from Susan

A déjà vu moment. I’m sure I’ve answered this one before. My memory is of starting by pointing out the differences between those events that are geared specifically to help writers write better, or market their work successfully, and those that invite readers to come and schmooze with authors. I praised Left Coast Crime and Bouchercon last time around, both events where authors and readers mingle.

I’m going to talk about the writers’ conferences this time. What makes a writers’ conference worth your time, money, and energy?

I’ll start with a salute to much-published, award-winning mystery author Hank Phillippi Ryan, who just posted on Facebook about her day-long attendance at a writers’ conference where she was absorbing as much good advice as possible toward improving her writing. Her openness and enthusiasm for taking a day to become a student at this point in her career highlights the value of a good conference/workshop/class. At any point in your writing process, it will include a nugget – or maybe a lightening strike – that can change your understanding of what makes a good story and how to make yours work. Hank is a pro and she knows we can always be better if we’re willing to park the ego at the door!

You don’t need to spend five days to find that magic moment, and it isn’t necessarily going to come from the most famous author at a prestigious retreat. It might be an online or community college course, or a half-day seminar. The trick is to be open to recognizing valuable insights in the context of what you’re trying to achieve. Scribble whatever it takes to remember – amazing how precious ideas can get lost in the woods! When you get back to your manuscript, keep going back to re-engage with the ideas honestly as you work.

Right now, I have a couple of lightening strikes jotted on Post-Its on the white board in front of me. One came from an online seminar, the other from a workshop, but I’ve heard versions of both many, many times since.

Put your protagonist in a bad situation, then make it worse.

Why write this scene? Every scene has to move some part of your story forward, even if that movement is deliberately hidden from the reader.

How to choose a writers’ conference? Try answering these questions: Where are you in your writing – 50 pages into your first novel or finishing up your third? Are you shy? Are you self-confident enough to talk about your work and share it with others? Are you already published – anywhere, in any format? And, what’s motivating you to invest this amount of money and time in your career right now (your goals, your dream, your promise to yourself)?

Everyone’s different, but here’s the template I use to make the call for myself: What three goals will make it a good investment? The first year, they included getting to know five people I could stay in contact with, people who were at the same early stage of their writing career. Next time, one was getting all the tools to write a damn good query letter. Later, the most important was learning how to ratchet up tension in a plot.  There’s always something to learn, ways to improve my stories or my marketing of my books.  My job in choosing a conference is to set specific goals and promise myself I will come away having done everything I can to reach them.

So, what are your goals, and how will you invest in your writing life this year?


Meredith Cole said...

Great advice, Susan! I think writing conferences can be great for writers at every stage of their career--if they're open to new experiences and ideas, just like you mentioned.

RJ Harlick said...

Great post, Susan, and terrific advice. As writers we forget that honing our craft never stops. It's been awhile since I attended a writers session. I think I just might sign up for one.

Susan C Shea said...

Robin, I'm thinking the same thing, and it was when I began pondering my blog assignment that I made up my mind. Now, which, is still up in the air....

Thanks, Meredith, and thanks for spreading the CM blog news via Twitter.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Aw. Thank you! SO lovely of you. And yeah--isn't it amazing how we often hear the one perfect nugget that we need? See you at the next conference!

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