Attending Writers’ Conferences

The ultimate metamorphosis

The ultimate metamorphosis

Attending a Writers’ Conference is fun, educational, and overwhelming. Writing is difficult enough, managing characters, places, descriptions and dialogue, words and ideas all onto pages, then editing, editing editing.  If you’re still in the first draft process, editing or ready for an agent, a conference can help.

Whether you have questions about the process or the business, if you need some enthusiasm to push you to the next level or you’re  in need of  some fellow writers, people who understand the challenges, refusals and rewards of writing to hang out with, then it’s time for you to attend a Writers’ Conference.

They seem to be in every city these days, put on by Writing Programs  associated with Universities (UW Madison, Wisconsin or Ball State in Muncie, Indiana), Literary Magazines (The Sun Magazine) or by enthusiastic members of local writing groups who are just crazy enough to take on such a difficult project and are successful despite the many challenges (Evanston Writer’s Workshop near Chicago).

Conferences offer opportunities to learn from people who have accomplished what we hope to one day.  When I’m at a conference it seems I can never get enough.  Sometimes all the walking and stairs can be too much for my aging muscles. All the new information and faces can be enough to collapse my brain synapses.  Still, I do three conferences a year and would love to do more.

The presentations at the Writers’ Institute (April 11-14, 2013) in Madison were so wonderful, I often wanted to be in two places at once for most of the three days.  How do you choose between Taking Your Writing to the Next Level and Writing for YA?  I ran around like a crazy person, squeezing in as much as I could into every minute, refusing to take a break for fear that I would miss some essential key to unlocking my publishing dream, drinking coffee and snacking on sugary pastries that were free and easily accessible (sweets I usually avoid), taking notes and asking questions, then running down the hall to the next group session or agent presentation, sneaking out (they all expect this) to make one of my six-minute pitch sessions to an agent or an editor.

After three days at the conference, I came home and collapsed for at least that long while all the input simmered, settled and gelled into a form I could put into action. At that point, my work is only beginning. I have promises of pages to fulfill, books to read, edits to make, and blogs to create.

I’ll never forget Judith Engracia saying on the first day of the Writers’ Institute in Madison that she had NO Pet Peeves.  I saw a doubter’s eyebrow crunch on the faces of  the other agents on the panel and heard a muffled gasp from the writers in the room, followed by a silent “Wheee” and a “Yahoo!”  I know, I know. Give her time.  But maybe she is one of those extraordinary individuals who can forgive us our human and writerly foibles. From the six minutes I had with her, I thought she was FABULOUS!

Then, there was Julie Matysik, the amazing editor from Skyhorse Publishing, who talked about all the challenges of working with a first time author.  Tanya Chernov shared amazing details of her journey to write a memoir about her dying father. Her Agent, Gordon Warnock talked about how he first found Tanya, and after 150 queries to publishers, found Julie Matysik and put the two of them together (that detail even surprised Julie!).  After talking about an arduous editing process and problems with a retailer refusing to accept the cover art they’d worked so hard to perfect, Julie Matysik declared in no uncertain terms, that she still loves memoir and is looking forward to finding the next manuscript that moves her to tears like Tanya’s did (that’s not a quote, but the gist of her enthusiastic response).

Right there and then, I crossed my fingers and toes, kissed my four-leaf clover, and made a wish on a falling star that I would be her next project.  From my lips to…you know what I’m saying.  (Sorry for using so many cliches.)

I don’t want to forget to mention the wonderful presentations by agents.  It began with an intense Agents Panel where sometimes they agreed and sometimes they totally disagreed (but always with a pleasant tone).

I was lucky to get into a session (most were packed, with even standing room filled up) by Bree OgdenResearching and Querying Agents.  Bree said it was okay for writers to stalk agents in order to find the right one (agency website, agent’s blog and twitter) and to have the ammunition to convince them we’re the author they’ve been looking for.  But don’t do anything ugly or scary, she cautioned.

For me that means every time I want to query, I need to read blogs, follow on twitter, check out all the helpful how-to articles on the Agency’s website, and read a book or two that Agent has represented or stated it’s what she’s looking for right now.  (Overwhelmed yet?  You ain’t a kidding! But that’s the Biz. Do you still want to be published? Sure you do!)

Also, a note to agents and writers alike. You know how no one wants attachments anymore.  “Put the first twenty pages after the one page query in the body of the email–and be sure it’s double-spaced, to make it easy on our eyes.  We get hundreds a day and we will read the ones that are easier to read and formatted as we have laid out on our website.” (Again, not a direct quote.)

Well, if you own a Mac Computer, you probably know that MAIL application won’t let you double-space, unless you go into the document and do a double return after each line.  If you cut and past a double-spaced document into MAIL, it will reduce it to single-spaced.  I’ve talked to several of the Apple Programmers and they didn’t even notice it.  I’ve requested that they fix it, but who knows how long that will take.  I’m just sayin’, all you agents out there, please take note.  We’re not doing it because we’re lazy or want to make you mad. It’s just that it’s near impossible to accomplish.

April Eberhardt’s presentation with self-pub author, Mary Driver-Thiel regarding her self-published novel THE WORLD UNDONE was packed full of details regarding the new trend in self-publishing by authors.  They talked about HOW TO DO IT RIGHT.  Talk about overwhelm!  It’s hard enough completing a full-length manuscript and then editing it numerous times to have it ready to send out.  Authors need to keep up with all the changes in the industry, research agents, editors (Big Six vs. Midsize vs. Small Publishers) and then weight it against the pros and cons of Self-Publishing.  You’ve got to be kidding me.

Once home, I  needed to make essential changes to my YA manuscript before sending it off, based on what I learned about my story from hearing others talk about theirs.  What to do.  What not to do.  This year, it was adding a pearl I’d forgotten and showing a diamond a bit more often so it can shine throughout, weaving a thread to tie it all together.

Next, I needed to check all the agents’ and editors’ websites to make sure the query and pages I was sending them was formatted correctly. I proofread the query four times to be sure I hadn’t misspelled their name or committed some other grieves “pet peeve.”

The biggest thing that I learned at the Madison Conference (Learned again, I should say, but on a whole new level) is that this is a difficult business.  It takes tons of work, years of time, with no guarantee you’ll ever get published and if you do, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever make a dime.  No matter which way you chose to publish, you’ll still have to do most of your own promotion and maybe even hire a publicist. That could mean big bucks. If you self-pub, you need to pay for editing, line editing, cover art, interior layout, and maybe some help getting it all formatted for the various E-pub distributors as well as the printer.

To be a published author today, you’ve got to love it!  The writing, the community, the business, the marketing, the readers.  And I do.  All of it.  Really.  Even after all that.  I think I love it even more.

So thanks Laurie Scheer for a great conference.  I’m looking forward to next year’s.

imageThe first edition of the Midwest Prairie Review published by UW Madison Continuing Studies Writing Department is gorgeous!  And I’m not just saying that because three of my photographs were selected to be published within its pages.  I’m hoping next year to have an essay or short story included.  Fingers crossed.

Becca, Kathleen and Mary celebrating at the Writers' Institute with me behind the camera.

Becca, Kathleen and Mary celebrating at the Institute with me behind the camera.

Did I mention? The conference Judges gave me a FIRST PAGE Award.  First Prize for Non-Fiction for my memoir DANCE WHILE THE FIRE BURNS.

It’s the best feeling, short of getting an agent, an editor, and launch day, that is.  Stay posted.  Maybe I’ll get there yet.

Catherine and friends swapping stories at the Writers' Institute.

Catherine and friends swapping stories at the Writers’ Institute.

About the overwhelm, what I do to manage it is: I do one thing at a time.  I focus until it’s done and then I figure out what’s next.  One baby step at a time.  It’s a journey.

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On Being A Professional Writer

I’ve been writing for marketing and ads for almost thirty years, and wrote a first draft for a non-fiction-how-to-horse-massage almost twenty years ago. Life intervened and the book was stuffed into a box while I moved twice in the next year.  Four years ago, I wrote and researched for a year, my first attempt at a novel, then, when I realized it wasn’t working, I stuffed it in a drawer.  So, what do I call those early attempts?  Which is my first book?  I believe it’s neither, but rather a memoir that I started the following year, but not really.  That’s when I found my first writing conference, a journey that includes seven conferences over three summers.

I started with MIDWEST WRITERS WORKSHOP in the summer of 2010 at Ball State University in Muncie Indiana.  I went, in part, because I wanted to meet a blogger and staff member of Writer’s Digest who I’d been following.  Jane Friedman became and remains one of my all time favorite experts. She’s easy to understand and is generous with her extensive treasure trove of insider information for establishing a presence on the internet as well as the latest skinny on the publishing industry.  She’ll be there again this year (July 26-28th) along with Pulitzer Finalist and one of my favorite writer’s LEE MARTIN, who will be the keynote speaker this year’s event.  I first met Lee at AWP in Chicago earlier this year and fell in love with his writing.  The Muncie conference is less than four weeks away.  I can hardly wait.  But let’s not skip ahead.  Back to my first conference in July 2010.

When I arrived in Muncie, I had written almost 200 pages of my memoir.  I was overwhelmed and enthralled with all the writers and publishing professionals, with their generosity and openness.  I had signed up for several one-on-one “feedback” sessions, with one question echoing from the experts throughout.  “Where are you going with this?”  I wasn’t sure how to answer that because I thought I already had.  When I arrived home, I was totally confused about how to proceed.  I realized I was taking on too much for one book.  The questions kept coming as a result.  Should I break it up or push through to finish a first draft?  If I broke it up, how would I do that?  Needless to say, my head was spinning.

Serendipity intervened.  A few days after arriving home, exhausted from the impact of my first conference and rushing to take my college-age daughter to town, I slipped on a rug in my laundry room and went flying, crashing onto ceramic tile, all my weight on my left wrist.  With Greg out of town, my daughter drove me to emergency room.  The doctor told me I had shattered my wrist and it was bad.  So bad, that after my first surgery, he said it couldn’t be fixed.  I proved him wrong, but it took an intense six months of pleading for another doctor to take me on, two more surgeries, and months of physical therapy. The good side of this turn of events was that I had the time to rethink my book.  In early 2011 when my wrist brace was off and I could type with two hands, I began writing in earnest again.  Soon I completed a 150 pages of a new manuscript with a limited timeline.   It was time for another conference.  After more research on the internet, I chose THE WRITER’S INSTITUTE in Madison, WI. For three days on the lake at UW Madison, I had a blast–with teachers, writers and agents from all over the country.  I also met Laurie Scheer and elected to do some one-on-one work with her because of her enthusiasm and encouragement for my writing process.  It was the first of many workshops and conferences where I would search out her expertise.

Over the next few months, I did some editing, wrote fifty more pages and submitted the first chapter to a contest connected with the EVANSTON WRITERS WORKSHOP.  Evanston’s In the Trenches With the Writer Conference  was different from the other conferences in that it’s run by volunteers–writer’s helping writers.  They started by organizing several monthly critique groups that are actively attended in the Chicago area.  Though the conference was a bit smaller, it had the greatest impact on me because I won the Evie Award for Non-fiction.  The encouragement I received as a result of winning this award propelled me to go home and finish a 367 page manuscript in four months.

That was October of last year and since, I have been editing and refining DANCE WHILE THE FIRE BURNS, a Life On the Move.  I’ve attended A WEEKEND WITH YOUR NOVEL at Madison, AWP in Chicago, returned to THE WRITER’S INSTITUTE (the next one is in April 2013) and have enrolled for both Muncie and Evanston conferences.  I’ve started on a YA that’s been brewing in the back of my head and on yellow pads for a few years, and am actively looking for an agent and publisher, as well as exploring all the changes with ebooks and the Big Six.

The main reason I’ve been spilling my guts about my journey is because on July 14th, I will be part of a panel discussion for IN PRINT, my local writer’s group that meets at Cherry Valley Library from 1:00pm to 4:00pm (the last hour being for networking with the other members). It’s open to the public.  If you’ve been going it on your own and looking for some support for your writer’s journey, stop in.  They people are great.  Encouraging, enthusiastic, and generous with a ton of resource material.  It will be the first time I will be on the other side of the table.   Hopefully a first of many, especially after my book is published.  So, wish me luck.

If you’re on a writer’s journey, I’d love to hear about it, a bit or a lot in the comments, and if you have a blog, be sure to leave a link.