4 Reasons You (yes, you) Should Attend a Writing Conference
This week’s guest post comes from #StoryDam chat regular, Deb Atwood:
You’ve been thinking about attending a writing conference or retreat and are wondering if it’s worth the effort and expense.
You should do it. Seriously. Here’s why.
One: Just as Goldilocks did before you, you can find a place that fits just right.
Some conferences may be too big, some too little—you get the idea. My first conference was Squaw Valley. It was large and impressive and featured literary notables including a Poet Laureat. I’ve also been to the San Francisco Writers Conference with its dizzying array of workshops and intense agent speed dating. I attended the East of Eden conference, which was smaller but still somewhat impersonal. Then I found Better Books, and, for me, it was just right.
Better Books (http://betterbooksmarin.com/) is a craft-based conference of fewer than 25 middle-grade or YA writers “facilitated by three amazing editors and a top agent.” Topics vary year to year. In 2016, Heather Alexander provided interactive examples of show-not-tell (including when it’s okay to show), Kate Sullivan led a discussion of theme, Andrew Harwell offered insights into the role of family in middle-grade/YA, and Abby Ranger explored character transformation. We also gathered for insightful critique sessions.
So, there are many types of conferences/retreats out there ranging from large and noisy to intimate and quiet. In fact, if you really crave quiet, there’s even a silent writing retreat at Dominican University. If cost is a consideration, consider creating your own retreat with a couple of friends over a weekend. You’ll be amazed at how much writing and critiquing you can accomplish away from kith and kin. My friend Cynthia and I do this once a year. We call it the El Cheapo Writing Retreat.
Two: You’ll meet and interact with new people in your field. Connections will happen.
This is especially true if your conference has a genre focus or is on the smaller side. Better Books, with its intimate setting, is specifically for middle-grade or YA writers. Because of this, there was much commonality. Cards, bookmarks, and Twitter handles made the rounds at the lunch tables. One writer arranged visits with a couple of teachers and librarians. Small groups that meet during the year invited new members to future get-togethers.
In the evenings we gathered for talk and games. Wine flowed. I played my first ever Cards Against Humanity. I laughed so much my ears popped. (I’m not kidding. I actually worried that I had damaged my hearing.) I met many writers I hope to see again.
Three: In critique groups, you’ll receive feedback from people who don’t know you.
Why does this matter? People who don’t know you will read your work in ways your writing buddy (or mother) won’t. I suspected (but was in denial) that my novel contained too many elements. My protagonist had a life-threatening allergy, faced a hostile school environment, was an adoptee, and began a birth search. Oh, and her bestie was battling leukemia. Too much? I’d convinced my local writing buddy it all fit together like dovetail joints in a wooden drawer.
My critique partners at Better Books, however, were not fooled. They helped me understand I had two different books and offered advice about how to begin detangling the two storylines.
Four: You’ll hear important stuff you need to know.
Something happened on the second day. A writer from my critique group mentioned a publishing controversy. Candlewick Press cancelled a book, When We Was Fierce by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, just before its scheduled release. I didn’t know a publisher would remove a book, particularly this one, which garnered starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus. The writer had created her own fictional dialect and received accolades for her lyrical, free-verse prose.
Young readers affectionately call author Charlton-Trujillo Wexican (Whitest Mexican American). The characters of When We Was Fierce are black. Members of the Own Voices community objected, citing insensitive stereotypes, and the publisher pulled the novel.
When this topic arose at the conference, we all looked at each other. Almost all of us were white. What should we as writers make of this information?
We returned to this news again and again over the course of the week–in our small groups, in the dining hall, enroute to our rooms.
Without Better Books, I would not have known of this controversy, and thanks to the publishing industry professionals present, we learned of the current guidelines. They are:
If you’re a white writer, you should write a white protagonist. (Or be prepared to justify your choice.)
If you’re a white writer, you should include characters of color and characters with non-hetero sexual orientations in secondary roles. To ensure you do not fall into the traps of either stereotyping or tokenizing, you should avail yourself of numerous representative beta readers.
For me, this information is both valuable and sobering. The protagonist I conceived was multiracial. Will she remain so? I don’t know. I do know I have some deep thinking to do as I turn one book into two and create a new cast of characters. Am I still glad I attended the writing conference despite some setbacks? A thousand times yes.
Comments? Have you been to a writing conference? What has been your experience?
Deb Atwood holds an MFA and lives in California with her husband and rescue dog Nala. Her time-slip ghost novel Moonlight Dancer was selected as a front page Featured Review by Book Ideas. Her interests include ghost fiction, big dogs, Korean culture, quilting, and, of course, reading. Deb has purple hair and likes spiders but is afraid of yellow jackets (the insect, not the garment).
31 Ghost Novels to Read Before You Die: https://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Novels-Read-Before-You-ebook/dp/B01D7XMQIU/
Moonlight Dancer: https://www.amazon.com/Moonlight-Dancer-Deb-Atwood-ebook/dp/B008XO9OCU/