Thursday, June 23, 2005

Why attend a writer’s conference?

A few weeks ago, I got registration information for the 12th annual Harriette Austin Writer’s Conference, which is held at the University of Georgia, about eighteen miles south of my home in Jefferson. My first visit was in 2000. I went with a friend, who basically went for moral support. Although I’d heard a number of authors do readings and workshops at conferences for English teachers, I was intrigued by the people who showed up, as well as the wide variety of information available. There is a link to this conference on my website, and I am adding one to this blog as well, just in case a writer or a wannabe writer reads this entry.

At HAWC, I met a number of authors who, like me, were struggling to get the attention of an agent or a publisher. Some were jovial, realizing that their chances were small, but determined to have fun with the process. Others were almost desperate. At dinner one evening, I met a woman, in her mid-fifties, who had wiped out her retirement account so she could spend three years devoted entirely to getting her mystery novels into print. Her game plan was to then use the royalties to pay back her retirement. And if she didn’t succeed, then she would have few more years to work and hopefully restore at least a portion of her retirement. I was amazed at her devotion to her avocation and yet troubled by her sacrifice.

Often, there are far more folks over fifty than under at such events. This seemed strange at first, but often people don’t have time to write when they are rearing children and working hard to make a living. The empty nest years and the retirement years afford the opportunity to write, so writer’s conferences will have naturally have more older participants. However, most of the ones I spoke with were filled with energy and hope, just like their younger counterparts.

Apart from meeting a variety of people, topics at writer’s conferences vary somewhat, but there is usually a choice among small sessions, and large group sessions often revolve around a successful author. I’ve found inspiration in the speeches made by those authors, but occasionally, there is a bit of wisdom which will remain long after the emotional afterglow is spent. One well respected regional writer at HAWC advised writers to listen more to the opinions of readers than to those of editors or agents. I took that to heart, and while polishing Trinity on Tylos, I gave the manuscript to three trusted “first readers” rather than seeking a professional editor. Often, editors and agents are too focused on what they feel will sell, rather than on simply judging writing on its own merits. Readers are more objective, and really, they are the target audience. How many books are purchased by editors and agents, anyway?

In choosing small group sessions, I have often visited those held by agents or small publishers, hoping to find someone who might be receptive to my writing. At first, these sessions were informative, but after each speaker covered the basics of “what I am looking for” all of their advice began to blend into what soon becomes common knowledge. If you don’t know how to approach an agent or publisher, then these sessions are quite helpful, of course, but they tend to focus on the needs of the novice.

Overall, there is probably more to learn at sessions which focus on improving writing, and often those topics are quite varied. Since HAWC is co sponsored by an association of mystery writers, there are usually some presentations by forensics professionals. I don’t write in that genre, but I have attended a couple of those presentations, and they are quite interesting.

Almost all of the “how to write” sessions are led by writers who want to plug their own work, but even so, it’s possible to take away some new ideas. One of my favorite topics was “great first lines” and the author who presented it gave some wonderful examples from modern fiction, as well as acknowledging such lines from the classics.

During the last such conference I attended, a publicist gave a talk on book promotion, which I found both useful and quite interesting. Of course, she was touting her media relations firm, and if I had a few extra thousand dollars, I’d be interested. But she did have some practical advise, and some of it conflicted with what I’d been told by my previous publisher, Gardenia Press. In fact, I wish I’d heard her talk before I got my first contract. Basically, she said that it is a waste of time to promote a book which hasn’t yet been printed, and yet many publishers push authors to promote months ahead. Apart from seeking reviews, there isn’t much to do prior to the publication date.

So, why visit a writer’s conference? To meet other writers in various stages of their careers, to be inspired by the success stories of writers, and to garner information from real people who actually work in the publishing business. Writing is a lonely task, and attending a conference is a chance to make contacts with people who just might help you later in your career. If you have income from writing, it is tax deductible, too.

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