One of my goals for this year was to attend a writer’s conference. I went to the 2017 OWFI Conference last week, and I’m glad I did. I made connections.
Why a Conference?
I said several years ago after the Pennwriters Conference that two of the best things you can do to further your career as a writer are to join a writers organization and go to conferences. That’s still true. There’s nothing like rubbing shoulders with other writers, especially in your genre. It’s a great opportunity to vent about your trials and frustrations. It’s also the perfect chance to network with people you need to know. There are always agents and editors at conferences, but even self-published writers need to network. You can meet cover artists, book designers, social media experts and hear unvarnished reviews from writers who have spent money on these people.
I’m a member of Tulsa NightWriters and by extension, the Oklahoma Writer’s Federation. TNW has monthly meetings that I make it a point to attend, even though they’re a 90-minute round-trip. Even spending a couple of hours a month with other writers helps keep me going. Writing can seem like a solitary existence, especially if your family and friends don’t quite understand what you’re doing, or still hold a traditional view of publishing. But other writers get you. They know what it’s like to sweat and cry and bleed over a 150-word scene. They understand what you’re saying when you say your muse is or isn’t talking to you.
We need connections like that in this business.
I went Thursday night for the pre-conference session. Ben Montgomery of the Tampa Times gave a talk titled “Dirty Little Narrative.” Built around his Dozier School reporting, he spoke about how to do a narrative non-fiction story. He pointed out that there’s a difference between an article and a story. The former is just a reporting of the facts: Something happened to someone at some time.
The story gets a lot closer to the facts and the people involved. An article about the Dozier school just reported that bodies were found where there weren’t supposed to be any buried. The story about the Dozier school focused on Erin Kimmerly’s work to locate, exhume, and identify the bodies buried in the cemetery, as well as her fight with Florida state officials. It focused on how their time at the school had affected the 500 or so men now in their 60s and 70s: decades of PTSD, health and relationship issues, and scars that still remind them of their youth.
I had been on the fence about the conference, but when I heard that Montgomery was going to be there, I had to attend. He was nominated for a Pulitzer for his reporting on Dozier, and it was a powerful, heartbreaking story. I was very glad I did the pre-conference. I had a chance to speak to him after his talk while he autographed my copy of Leper Spy. We talked about my dreams and he gave me a couple of ideas to consider. We made a connection.
I had a tough time deciding which sessions to attend. I’d looked at the schedule several times beforehand and still spent half an hour Friday night deciding on sessions. Almost every period had at least two people I wanted to hear from. I ended up focusing on plotting and promoting Friday, along with another session by Ben Montgomery, this one on pitching and writing non-fiction.
He made an interesting point about the Dozier story Thursday night and repeated it Friday. Not every great news story should become a book. People asked him if there would be a book about Dozier, and he spoke with his agent about the idea. She asked him if he would buy the book for himself, and he said yes. “Would you buy it for someone else, as a gift?” she asked. He had to admit that he wouldn’t, and that’s what convinced him not to write that book. He’s got two others out though. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is about a 67-year-old grandmother who became the first woman to walk the entire Appalachian Trail. I picked up a copy of The Leper Spy, about Josefina Guerrero, her support of American troops as they retook Manila during World War Two, and her fight to come to America after the war, with leprosy.
I also attended a session on incorporating for writers. It’s been on my mind for a while, especially as my wife and I went through our estate planning recently. The estate planning service we used wasn’t quite up to speed on dealing with a writer, so I’m going to be doing more research. Kris Rusch has a series up about estate planning for writers, and I’m feeding off of that. I’ll probably incorporate because my understanding is that that will make it easier to deal with copyright issues after I die. Writers need to understand that their creations are a property that can be managed for profit, even after they die.
Saturday, I again had tough decisions. Revision process, or raising the stakes for your characters? How to write more, or how to use email marketing more effectively? Writing in multiple genres, or how to enter contests effectively?
Kelley Armstrong’s session was another one of my definites. She was the keynote speaker Friday night and spoke Saturday on writing page-turning fiction. She’s written almost thirty books across fantasy, horror, crime, and romance genres, so she seems to have a pretty good idea about how to do it. Her advice? Make sure your opening scene makes a valid promise to the reader. Start the story in the right place, and start with an active first scene, but not necessarily an action scene (and make sure you know the difference).
During the awards banquet Saturday night, author Cara Brookins joined us at our table. We talked about everything from her life in the spotlight to ghost and estate writers (that’s my term for writers like Ace Atkins, and Red Coleman who are continuing Robert Parker’s series) and Bouchercon and Thrillercon. It was great to speak with and connect with her.
There was more going on at the conference than just the teaching sessions, as usual. There was a costume contest Friday night; attendees dressed as their favorite author or character. We had the Grim Reaper, a ghost writer, a prisoner in an electric chair, Mary Poppins, Maria von Trapp, Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale, Merlin, Medusa, Morgana, and even Jack the Ripper. There were plenty of others in costume, too. I had decided not to try and pull off any kind of costume because of time constraints. I turned in my last school assignment about three hours before I left for Oklahoma City. We’ll see what next year’s conference holds. It’ll be the 50th OWFI Conference, so I expect it to be a big deal.
I also got to meet The Sad Girl reviewer and fellow Absolute Write member Lucie Smoker, which was one of my favorite moments. We were standing in line at the buffet Friday night when someone asked me what I wrote. I mentioned The Sad Girl and the woman beside me exclaimed “I reviewed that book! I loved it!” Hearing those words in public from a reader will never get old.
How do you get ready for a conference? Get a copy of the schedule as far ahead as you can. Research the presenters and their sessions to see which ones you want to attend. Don’t be afraid to decide ten minutes in that this session isn’t what you need. Just leave as quietly as you can.
If there are two sessions you want to hit, consider asking a friend to attend one while you attend the other. You can both take notes and collect handouts, and share afterward.
Be prepared to take notes. A well-organized conference will have notepads and pens available for you, but they’re often small and unlined, and hard to keep organized. Have a couple of your own pens or pencils available.
Take a water bottle and some snacks. You may not have time between sessions to get something, and taking your own will be cheaper in the long run. I forgot this part and paid $2 a bottle for Diet Dr. Pepper a couple of times.
Comfortable shoes and clothes are a good idea, too. You may be walking a bit between sessions.
Lastly, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to shake hands with a stranger. Remember, you’re here to make connections.
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