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Warning: Harsh realities and cruel myths ahead.

I recently attended the Willamette Writer’s Conference. I find these conferences to be an odd mix of inspiration and desperation. Inspiration in that they can get you focused on the possibilities, get you swept up in the excitement of improving your craft, making connections, learning how to improve your book’s chances in the marketplace. But desperation in the sense that the publishing industry is hard. Some argue that it’s a numbers game, and those numbers are piled up so high against you that you could be buried beneath them if you dare to hope too much. I tend to walk away from conferences with an odd excitement/depression. So, from that inspired and despondent place, I offer you some perspectives on attending a writer’s conference.

Choose your workshops wisely and if you picked wrong, don’t be afraid to bail.

I’ve found no algorithm to help me predict which workshops will inspire and which will prompt distress. I try to mix my workshops, alternating between the craft and the business end. During one time slot, I had my mind on two possibilities, and at the last minute opted for the craft. Problem was, my intuition had favored the business-related offering: Fearless Marketing by William Kenower. But I ignored the promptings of my intuition.

Instead, I sat in my selected workshop for about ten minutes listening to tired advice about building tension. Use shorter sentences! Speed things up with shorter paragraphs! Use lots of white space! I chastised myself for ignoring my intuition. I debated leaving, but I’m a huge introvert and I don’t like to draw attention to myself, or to be rude by walking out early or walking into the other workshop late. I told myself, one more pat piece of advice and I’m out of there. It was delivered momentarily.

So, I snuck into Fearless Marketing. Well, not really – I had to sit in the front row. So much for slipping in unobserved. I feared that this workshop might just be an exhortation to summon a boldness in my marketing that I didn’t have access to. That it would just leave me feeling like I was under-promoting and inadequate to the task. But Kenower had a startling take on the subject.

Market from the place that knows your story is worth telling

His premise is this: find the spark that lights your imagination when it comes to your book and then create your marketing approach and content from that place. He had us access that spark by answering the question, “My book is awesome because…”

I find the approach empowering because it taps into the place from which we create our best writing: a place of fearlessness. While a lot of marketing techniques leave me feeling like I have to inflate myself into something I am not, Kenower’s tactic does just the opposite. It helps you start from a place of authenticity, from your joy in creating. It cultivates a space from which your marketing can emerge organically. I was energized by the workshop and promptly downloaded Kenower’s inspiring book, Fearless Writing.

Be careful with your heart

At a previous writer’s conference, I attended a panel on crossing genres. I was in great need of advice here. My novel was hopelessly genre-impaired. But despite it being a panel, where I’d hoped to hear diverse perspectives, the workshop had one consistent theme: don’t cross genres. And if you have made the mistake of crossing genre, pretend that you didn’t. Pick one.

Hmm… not even kind of helpful. Why would a bunch of genre-crossing haters decide to get together and be on a panel about genre-crossing anyway? This same panel offered up some of the prejudices publishers have against debut female authors. I decided not to share those details here after some equivocation. But I don’t want to dampen anybody else’s dreams. And I certainly don’t want to perpetuate stories about prejudice as an “oh, well, that’s just the way it is” kind of immutable reality. I want to be inspired to bust through those barriers. But if you’re at all sensitive like me, then tread with caution at a writer’s conference: your optimism may be squashed.

The experts might be crazy

You need to be circumspect about the advice doled out at a writer’s conference. Some of it is not relevant. In some cases, a writer might only be talking about what’s true for her genre and unable to translate that advice into broader terms. But in at least one case at my most recent conference, the advice just seemed wrong. At a workshop on fandom, the speaker suggested that if you have no fanbase, that you become your own superfan, posting your own raves about ‘this book’ that you just ‘discovered’. Now I don’t know how widespread this practice is, but to me, it just smacks of wrong. It certainly doesn’t pass the integrity sniff-test: how would you feel if people find out that you made posts like that?

So, just because someone has years of experience, all sorts of credentials, etc., don’t yield your sense of propriety to them and follow their advice blindly. Act from your own authenticity and integrity.

The value of critiques

The Willamette Writer’s Conference had this new feature called the Big Critique. It was a little mysterious what was to happen here, but I figured getting a few more eyeballs on my work is always valuable. We had each submitted one page of our manuscript. Participants were assigned to tables with one industry expert and about five writers. Each person read their page and then listened to the critiques from the expert and the other writers. I was sort of skeptical about how much I could gain by sharing just my first page. But this exercise blew me away.

The expert was good, but what I really appreciated were the ideas from fellow writers. The key problem with my opening page was revealed and someone suggested a great fix that I’ve incorporated. Darn, I didn’t even catch her name… but this is one of those inspiring aspects of the writer’s conference: that sense of tribe that you find amongst others pursuing similar dreams.

 The dangers of backstory

After my experience with the cross-genre panel last year, I was afraid to go to a workshop on backstory. I thought that Hallie Ephron might just be there to announce “no backstory allowed!” She did not. Instead, she gave a great breakdown on how to weave backstory thoughtfully and purposefully into the overall story. The mistake that a lot of writers make is to load their story down with large clumps of info-dump-y backstory. The problem, according to Ephron: “The reader doesn’t care yet. Only reveal what the reader needs to know now.” Cool. I’m still allowed to tell backstory and now I can do it more effectively.

Create tension by expanding the moment

I was also leery about a workshop entitled “Every Novel is a Thriller.” I thought maybe the conclusion would be that literary historical fiction just wasn’t allowed. Instead, in a wonderful, off-the-cuff presentation, author Chelsea Cain shared her perspectives on building tension. She talked about that moment that happens when you are caught in an accident. You know, when everything slows down. She said this occurs because suddenly the brain no longer knows what’s important. In ordinary processing, the brain filters out 99.99% of the available information. But in the midst of an accident, your brain is taking in much more, frantically searching for that one bit of information that could save you. So, we should write moments of extreme tension from that insight: expanding the moment, unpacking it, providing those sensory details that the brain is seeking out.

Another helpful insight that Cain offered: describe the experience of the thing before you name it. “The gunshot wakes her up,” is a bad sentence. It depends on the protagonist drawing the conclusion that the sound that woke her was a gunshot, which is not how we experience events moment by moment as they unravel in time. Likewise, “He tripped on a rock.” Better to ask: how did he first become aware of the rock? Focus on that experience.

Writer’s conferences can be enriching. I wouldn’t forsake the cool things that I have learned at such events even though there are attendant risks. To get the most out of a conference, it’s key that you are clear about what you want out of going and that you do what’s in your control to tailor the experience to meet your needs.


Let me know about your conference experiences. I’d love to hear what has worked for you and what hasn’t.

I coach entrepreneurs to write and writers to thrive. Check out my services at:

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