Large Writing Conferences

This blog entry describes my thoughts and experiences at a large local three-day writing conference. If you have attended these conferences, I probably don’t have a whole lot of new information to share with you, but if you are new to this game, like myself, you might find the entry interesting.

This was my first experience at a writing conference so I didn’t know exactly what to expect. The conference was not inexpensive, but it was a three-day conference. The fact that I could take public transportation to the conference made the overall cost to attend a little more reasonable to me. Also, the conference had a lot of a la carte ‘pricing, which I found attractive. I did not want to pay for banquets that I did not want to attend. Coming home late at night was not a favorable option to me since I lived about an hour away from the conference site. The price looked right for me.

I discovered a few things about myself and about writing conferences in general.

Writing conferences are great networking opportunities. This  was about “writing” which was a very broad conference with a very eclectic group of people attending. Attendees came from all walks of life, making for a lot of opportunities to meet a variety of people. Like many aspiring writers I have a large streak of introversion, and I find networking quite difficult. I probably didn’t take as much advantage of the networking opportunities as I should have. I did meet a lot of interesting people, however who shared a passion for “writing.” In my own travels, I haven’t met many poets, but I met a few at this conference. I learned I have to work a lot harder at networking in the very new world.

I mistakenly walked into a room where people were waiting for a “pitching” event. In the writing world, “pitching” is like speed-dating with publishers and agents. I saw many very tense and nervous people preparing and rehearsing for their two minute one-on-one opportunity to impress a publisher or an agent. This is a very tough and cruel world. The supply of good writing far exceeds the demand for it. The odds of impressing a publisher or an agent in these meat markets are very long. This should have come as no surprise to me, as everyone I met in the writing world says “don’t quit your day job,” or “write because you like it, not to get it published.” Seeing the embodiment of this supply and demand imbalance in person is still a shock to the system, however. Although I had been told this already, the conference reinforced the notion that the writing world is tough, but if you are a good networker it should not be lonely.

This conference was very general. On the other hand, I wanted to try writing fiction, a thriller with an espionage and political theme. This conference had poets, screenwriters, memoir writers, copywriters, and all sorts of denizens of the writing world. It was interesting to meet such an eclectic group of people and hear what they had to say, but I wanted to learn about the thriller world. This conference only had a few sessions that I thought were pertinent. I was dead wrong.  I mistakenly landed in a session talking about writing romance faction. These women (yes, mostly women in this session) really knew what they were doing. They were expert marketers and knew everything about the likes and dislikes of their target market. I learned much from them. They were savvy and hard-working. Thrillers have elements of romance and romance has elements of thrillers. Good writing is good writing and good fiction is good fiction, whatever the genre. Publishing in this genre is every bit as difficult as publishing in the thriller genre, and the words of wisdom from the romance writers turned out to be very valuable. This session turned out to be the highlight of the conference for me.

There is a lot of “help” out there for aspiring writers. Some of it is predatory. People will critique,   story edit, copy edit, or “doctor” your manuscript. They will probably even write it for you. All for a fee, some for a big fee. An aspiring writer who has not landed an agent will most likely need some of these people. Many of them are legitimate, some are strictly predatory. Seek references. Buyer beware. It is a cruel, hard world.

Self-publishing is a viable alternative to the traditional publishing route. Most aspiring writers would like to see their book in a bookstore next to the current best sellers. Most will never get there. The self-publishing (and self-marketing) route is a distinct possibility. Some writers make a great deal of money doing this, although accurate statistics are difficult to obtain. A writer could do an “Angry Birds” strategy and sell online for $.99 a copy. Apparently the royalties and author-control are much higher in this category than the traditional publishing route, but ALL the work must be done by the author. This is not for everyone, but may work for an author with the appropriate technical skills and a good sense of marketing.

My biggest take-home from this conference was that an aspiring writer needs a lot of help. The “craft” of writing requires a lot of self-discipline, but your work will get exposed to the discipline of the marketplace. Very nasty discipline. Paid help is available, but may be predatory. A good starting point is to join a critique group, where a group of like-minded individuals read and critique each other’s work. If it works, it is free and very valuable. An aspiring writer needs a guide through the woods of writing and publishing. A critique group might be a good thing. I’m still not clear on how to go about doing that, but I am open to friendly suggestions.


Books About the Craft of Writing

When I decided I wanted to write a novel in my retirement, I knew I needed to learn about the craft of writing. A class at the local community college was my starting point. It helped, particularly by providing encouragement. I knew I needed a lot more, however.  I started looking at books about writing. Yes, there are a lot of these things out there. I knew I didn’t have time to digest them all. I went to a local bookstore and scanned the shelves. I had already determined that I was going to buy something that day. It had to be concise, easy to deal with, complete, and pertinent to writing a novel. These did not constitute a well-thought list, since I formulated it as I drove to the local mall where the bookstore was located.

One book caught my attention: “Writing Fiction for Dummies” by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy. It was about writing novels, it was relatively inexpensive, it was on the shelf, and it looked simple and well-organized. The academic elitist inside me said “Don’t buy anything with “Dummies” or “Idiots” in the title. I resisted those urges and bought it. I did the right thing.

It turned out to be exactly what I needed. It discussed the whole novel writing process from the very beginning to the publishing and editing processes. I knew this world a little from my own academic writing, but the process of conceptualizing a novel and the issues involved in a novel such as characters, point of view, voice, and dialogue were all new to me. I needed a good primer and this was it. I haven’t published or completed a novel yet, but this book got me started, and I recommend it to any aspiring novel writers.

It wasn’t enough, however. It was a good start, but I knew I needed more education in the craft of writing, so I decided I would be reading one craft book along with whatever else I was reading. I learned that what I was wanted to write was in the “Thriller” genre, so I needed to learn the rules of the game for thrillers. Much work was needed. I scoured some used book sales for craft books,  sought out recommendations from successful and aspiring writers, and kept my eyes open for whatever was out there that looked pertinent for my own ambitions.

A few of my finds, in alphabetical order were:

  • Bell, James Scott “Plot and Structure”
  • George, Elizabeth “Write Away”
  • King, Stephen “On Writing”
  • Le Carre, John “Conversations with John Le Carre”
  • Le Carre “The Pigeon Tunnel”
  • Phillips, Larry, ed. “Hemingway on Writing”

I have read some of these. Everything I have read from this list has some value, and I have harvested a few nuggets of gold from each of them that struck a chord with me. The others are on my to-do list. If any blog readers have suggestions, please put them in the comments section.

Some things I have learned from what I have read on this list.

  • Writing is very idiosyncratic
  • At my tender age I still have a lot to learn about the mechanics and process of writing
  • Writing is hard work
  • If you want to be successful, you have to make writing an important part of your life.
  • Writing (and learning about writing) can be a lot of fun in itself

That’s all for now, back to my reading list.