August 23, 2018
For most writers, conferences and in-person workshops are gifts we give ourselves. Often these options aren't cheap, but they let us get out of our homes and mix with other creative people. Since writing can be an isolating experience, having the chance to go to a conference or a workshop can go a long way to making us feel like part of the larger community of writers. They’re also wonderful learning experiences, and give us the chance to hear the most up-to-the-minute information about our business. Plus, just being around all that creativity can be inspiring. It encourages us to believe we can make it. All of those are excellent reasons to look into conferences and workshops within your budget. But if you do decide to make that investment, what are some things you can do to get the most from a conference or workshop?
Eyes On The Big Picture
It can be tempting to go to a conference or a workshop with the intention of finding a publisher (or agent) for a specific manuscript that you're working on or that you've completed. These venues often put agents and editors right there in front of us. And many offer open submission options to normally closed publishers.
That can leave us with the urge to treat the conference or workshop as a "magic door" to success for the specific project we have in hand. Certainly there are stories of authors connecting with publishers or agents through these opportunities, but the reality is that the number of attendees vs. the number of agents/editors means that there is no way every person can possibly make a connection. Plus, what if your project wasn't right for those publishers and you didn't realize it before you went? Does that mean the conference or workshop was a failure? Does it only have worth if you make a connection? The answer should be a resounding "no."
Go to the workshop or conference with a list of goals. Sure, it's fine to put, "learn more about X publisher and consider using the submission opportunity there" as one of your goals. But be sure that's only one in a list of goals. Other goals should be tied to the content of the event. Scribble down goals as you choose the sessions you will attend. You might write something like, "learn more about chapter books" or "learn how to add humor to my writing" when you sign up for workshops on chapter books or on writing humor. Refuse to put all your eggs in one basket, and you'll end up with a conference or workshop that simply cannot fail you because you're open to learning. Keep your goals reality based and keep them rooted in things under your control. You can't make someone publish your project, but you can certainly learn more about the publishers who send editors to the conference. You can't make an agent sign you, but you can learn more about agents and whether you really need one.
Take notes but don't try to take dictation. When you take notes, you're basically recording the things you connected with most. And those are the things you are most likely to make use of. Also, even if you don't go back and reread the notes ever, the process of note taking helps move information into your long-term memory. And since more note taking is a kind of summarizing on the fly, you're actually processing what is being said as you rewrite it in short form in your notes. That processing is a way of making the information yours. But focus on the things that struck you as important and relevant for you, because that will enable you to put much of your attention on the speaker rather than putting all of your attention on recording notes. Studies show that people who make an effort to reproduce every word of a session actually get far less from the speaker because they close off that part of their brain that wants to process the information, not just copy it. That means that you won't begin learning from the session until you get home and read over your dictation efforts––and by then, you don't have any of the nuances of the speaker's presentation. Listening with an active mind results in the most learning.
Listen to what the presenters have to offer at a workshop or conference, then consider questions that come logically from what you've heard. Presenters like to hear questions, because it means the audience was engaged with the topic. Let's imagine a writer of middle grade novels is speaking on humor because humor has been a big part of the person's career and she wants to encourage more writers to inject humor into their work. After hearing the speaker, feel free to ask questions relating to humor or to how publishers look at humor or even whether the speaker has found humor to increase book sales. Asking on-topic questions can help solidify the information in your mind. And it can help you be sure that what you think you heard is actually what the speaker meant to say. On-topic questions help everyone to understand better.
But what about all the other questions you came to the conference with? Maybe the speakers know those answers too! The Q-and-A portion after a workshop on humor is not a time to ask, "How many words per chapter in a middle grade novel?" Or “Do you have an agent and how did you get one?” You might want to know that, but dragging a session away from the topic at hand is never really a good idea. The speaker may not know the answer off the top of his/her head (since that’s not what the person came to say). This is especially true in a wildly off-topic question. It borders on unprofessional, and it will use up precious time everyone paid for.
But what if you really, really want to know how many words to put in a chapter of a middle grade novel? Consider that as a possible thing to talk about with the other writers around you. Conferences and workshops include writers at all levels of their career, and some may know the answer or be able to point you to a good resource to find out. Plus chatting with other writers is always a good idea. This leads us to the next point.
Go Beyond the Speakers
In-person conferences and workshops are perfect places to talk to other writers and that can be more valuable even than talking to the leader. Some of the best connections I've ever made in the writing business has been with other writers. Many of the publishing opportunities that came my way have happened because I was recommended. And I was recommended because I make an effort to get to know other people in our industry. Even when I get a chance to meet an editor or an agent, I try to get to know them as people and not just see them as a possible commodity. I want to know what books they're loving right now. I want to hear about their kids or their cat or whatever they feel passionate about, because the more I know about people, the richer I am as a writer. I’m always interested in writing outside my narrow experience and so socializing has value, always. And a side effect of being interested in other people is that people tend to remember me positively. And when they need to recommend someone for a project, they think of me. It doesn’t happen because I'm the best writer in the world. I think I'm a competent professional writer, but I'm far from the best in the world. But when publishers are looking for someone to do a competent job and who will be easy to work with, my name has come up enough times to keep my career going well.
Now, you might wince at the thought of getting to know others. I understand. I'm a profound introvert, and it's hard work for me to meet people because I'm pretty shy. And because later, I'll decide everything I said was stupid, it's scary to talk to other people. But over the years, I’ve realized it's scary for the other people too. Many, many writers find social interaction scary. That's why we're writers and not used-car salesmen. So I think about what I wish other people would do for me (namely initiate conversation in a friendly way) and I try to do that for others. I reach out. I smile. I ask friendly, non-probing questions. I notice things like the lovely necklace or the cute haircut or the cool bit of tech. And I mention them, and many, many times, I make a connection. And that other person finds the scary bits of the conference or workshop a tiny bit less scary.
So the next time you think about what you can do for your writing career, consider an in-person workshop (Highlights Foundation has some amazing ones) or a conference (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators may have one in your area). And when you get there, make the most of it. You'll be glad you did.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.