Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Investing in Your Writing

Everyone is gearing up to go to writing conference this summer. Some have been and are trying to absorb all they've learned and apply it to their writing.

Conferences are a great place to network--you meet agents, publisher reps, other authors. You do learn a lot even from those seminars that don't quite fit what you're looking for. I've found some good info bits in some of them.

A writing buddy of mine, James Rafferty  recently attended a writer's conference shared some of it with me.

Recently I attended two conferences, one for my work in telecommunications and the second for my work in writing. The conferences were in very different fields, but I observed several common themes that applied to both events. At the conferences, I invested time in learning new things, networked with other professionals in the field and promoted my current projects.
I'm not a newcomer to conferences. I've probably attended 4-5 telecom events for the past 15 years. My participation in writing conferences is mostly much more recent. I attended a few SF conferences as a reader and fan many years back, but my participation at Boston area conferences the past two years has been as a writer. Why should writers attend conferences?
I view conferences as an investment. It's a chance to step out of the normal day to day routines and find out what's going on in the rest of the world. Publishing is undergoing a sea change which has much in common with the changes the high tech industry experienced during the past ten years. Business models are changing, there are new ways of getting products to the market and the roles of industry participants are shifting before our eyes. In this kind of environment, it makes sense for individuals to study up on the new trends, perfect one's own areas of craft and expertise and make contacts with the shakers and movers of your industry.
    Muse and the Marketplace, sponsored by Grub Street of Boston, offers a breadth of possibilities for              aspiring writers. The conference took place over a weekend and I chose to attend the Saturday portion of the event. From among a plethora of sessions, I decided to focus on a mix of craft, marketing and promotion.

Boston-based author Gary Braver conducted a session on ten essential elements for writing thrillers. A key point was that the mission of the thriller writer is to establish an atmosphere of dread and then build up tension throughout the novel. I'd previously read Braver's book Flashback and really enjoyed it, so he was a credible source for this kind of information.
Next up, I attended a session on promotion, which was useful, but tending toward being repetitious. The key point was an emphasis on the need for author to be ready to promote their work at all times and along the way, builds up a platform. Most of this information was familiar for me and the leader offered a useful reminder that we needed to be ready with an elevator pitch on our projects.
One of the unique parts of Muse was the chance to participate in their Power Lunch. For a reasonable fee, we could choose a lunch table and chat with four members of the publishing industry. I chose a table with two agents, a publisher and an editor. Three other conference attendees joined me at the table and we all had chances to talk with everybody at the table by changing seats a couple of times. I found this to be the best part of the day. My fellow authors and I each pitched our current projects and I even had enough time to chat a bit about a work in progress with a couple of my lunch mates. I put the prior session's emphasis on the elevator pitch to immediate use and got enough interest so that I've got a couple of action items to pursue in the wake of the conference.
In the afternoon, I shifted gears and went to a session called Agents on the Hot Seat. Agents are the gatekeepers for the traditional publishing industry and tend to be very knowledgeable about the market, so getting a chance to listen to four pros talk about how they chose authors to represent and how the agent's role is evolving was enlightening.
I concluded my day by participating in a Manuscript Mart session. This is another unique feature of Muse, since an author can prepare a submission in the form of a query letter, synopsis and a 20-page excerpt of one's work, and then get detailed feedback from an agent or editor. In my case, I submitted an excerpt from my first novel, Growing Up Single. The agent I chose had done her homework and offered a detailed review of both the query and the excerpt.
I had several takeaways from this session. One key point was to sweat the details on the query. The agent really wanted to get a clear idea about the book in just a few lines and offered her thoughts about whether I'd accomplished that. She'd also done a line by line review of the excerpt and gave me her take on what worked and what didn't. When I had a chance to take a fresh look at her feedback a couple of days later, I found myself agreeing on some points and not on others, but felt the overall critique was useful in giving me some direction on where I'll go with this project.
James Rafferty
By the end of the day, I felt like this day had been an excellent use of my time and that I'd learned a few things that will help me progress as a writer. I also had some great positive reinforcement that will help me to stay motivated on these projects. And I had those action items that will keep me busy for a while.

  • If you're a writer, what steps are you taking to advance in meeting your goals?

  • Do you feel conferences are the right investment of your time and money, or would you recommend a different approach?
You can find James on Facebook or on his Writer's Notebook blog


Dana Fredsti said...

Excellent summary of your experiences, James!
For myself, conferences are worthwhile depending on a: if I have a book to publicize or b: need to make connections of publishers/editors/agents. If neither of those two apply, they're great fun to mingle with fellow writers and other publishing folk, but I can't really justify the expense...

~Sia McKye~ said...

James, welcome to Over Coffee as a guest this time, rather than a frequent commenter. :-)

I think it's a good investment. I've made lots of contacts and, as I mentioned, I've learned quite a bit from various seminars.

As Dana mentions, the costs of conferences, especially in today's economy, are pricey. Some more than others. I try to choose wisely.

tonya kappes said...

Cheers from the beach, Sia!!
I agree that conferences are important to a career, but I think the type of conferences make all the difference in the world at different stages in your career. When I started writing, I focused on conferences where their were agents, authors, and editors. I also attended conferences that was going to give me some really GREAT classes to help hone my skills. Since I decided to Indie publish, I decided that the readers are where my time should be spent, so I changed my focus and started attending conferences where readers travel. Like The Annual Reader and Author Get Together with Dianne Castell and Lori Foster. I met soooo many readers and I love hanging out with them. That's where my conference dollars are going.

Anonymous said...

Good morning, Sia. Thanks for featuring this post on Over Coffee.

Hi Dana. I'd agree that there are different reasons to attend conferences and the quality can vary dramatically. The big value add for me at this particular conference was the networking with publishers and agents, which surpassed my expectations.

Sia, Grub Street is a great Boston area resource. They do workshops year round at various price points -- sometimes even free -- but the Muse conference brings together everything they do and pulls in a large contingent of publishing industry people.

Hi Tonya. I wish I was hanging out at the beach. ;-) Excellent point on the different reasons for attending conferences. When I do speaking engagements, my number one focus is on who the audience is and tailoring my message for them. In a similar respect, you want to pick a conference that has the demographic that you want to spend your time with. Right now, my focus is on networking and craft, but getting venues where the readers hang out makes lots of sense once you've got a book to get into their hands.

Kat Sheridan said...

Hi, James, and great to see you here! And a great analysis of your conference experiences. I've only been to two writing conferences (and one of them I only went to because Sia dragged me along!) The best ones offer a good mix of workshops and panel discussions with industry experts, as well as a chance to meet and mingle (and I am SOOO not the mingling sort!) When I have something to pitch, I'm sure I'll be heading to another conference, though. If only to hang out with Sia!

~Sia McKye~ said...

I'm your gal, Kat. And you mingled just fine. We had a great weekend. I liked the blend of seminars too.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kat. I like networking, but it's a skill I picked up when I had my own company. Like you, I'm sure my conference objectives would change if I have a book to pitch. Boston also has the Boston Book Fest, which is more of a reader-oriented event, though it also offers some sessions for writers. It's a good place for writers of all experience levels to get exposure to readers.

VA said...

I'm going to crawl back under my rock. I like my rock. It's cool, slightly damp, and quiet. Seriously, I need to nut up or shut up. I like the sessions of your conference, really get into the trenches. Probably what I'd need if I get the nerve.

Maybe a couple fortifying drinks. Sure, that's it. I'll be the Janis Joplin of writing, she was so shy she couldn't perform unless completely smashed.

I also really agree with Tonya's assessment of where to apply herself.

Awesome as always, Sia. Cheers!

Helen Ginger said...

That sounds like a great conference, with a variety of instructors and topics and some great opportunities to connect.

Anonymous said...

Hi VA. Yes, it can be a stretch to get out there, take sessions and network. But it's a nice way to repay yourself for countless hours of writing.

Helen, yes, this is a very well run conference, with lots of different possibilities depending upon your interests.

Other Lisa said...

Great summary, James!

As others have said, I think conferences depend largely on where you are in your writing career. What I'm finding is that just getting together with a bunch of other authors is both really stimulating, and, well, gratifying. Writing can be such an isolating business that I think doing something that makes you feel like a part of a larger community is really important.

The larger point, about investing in your writing, is also a good takeaway. I've done things this year, travel and events, that have cost me some money, but my feeling is they've been well worth it in terms of what I've gained in experience and exposure.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Lisa. Thanks for stopping in. I agree with you about the isolated aspects of writing. Conferences are one of the ways of reaching out to other writers and I liked that aspect of Muse and the Marketplace both years that I attended. We sometimes have the choice of buying things or investing in our future; the latter is often the right choice.

Talli Roland said...

Very timely, since I'm going to a conference next week! I love meeting people there in person and I've made some really great friends.

Anonymous said...

Talli, I hope the conference works out well for you. It's fun to meet people you know online in person.