I shook my head, “No, no. A writing conference, where editors, agents, and publishers are there to listen to participants’ pitches, and looking for work to sign.”
She stared at me like I had grown an extra head or two.
“Even poetry?” Her doubt was evident. “I need it for my PhD,” she added, as she looked me up and down, waiting for me to be impressed.
I have my own graduate degree, so I just carried on, “Yes, even poetry, if you find the right publisher, of course. Poetry, fiction, articles, and non-fiction books. Everything. At the conferences around here, with your registration you get one blue pencil session to have a professional critique your work and one pitch session to present your project to someone who is looking to buy. If you read through their bios, you can be sure to choose someone who is looking for what you are offering for both appointments.”
She wrinkled her nose as if I were selling stenchy snake oil. “That actually works?”
I shrugged. “I signed contracts with two publishers and a literary agency due to pitches at conferences.”
Suddenly she stood up straighter and studied me more closely. Apparently, my publishing credential halo was beginning to glow.
“They’re great for networking, too,” I continued. “You sit down for meals with multi-million selling authors whose work you love, and they ask you what you’re doing, and tell you about their experiences. There may be an agent from New York or Toronto at the table who asks everyone what they’re pitching and hands out his card and tells you to call him if he likes what he hears. You network with other authors who tell you about their social media tricks or the opportunites they’ve discovered. You develop a support network of authors who know you. You celebrate and promote them; they’ll read your first novels and write blurbs for their covers. It’s wonderful.”
She blinked blankly, plainly astonished at the existence of magical realms where publishers and authors mingled.
I remembered something. “You were speaking of slush piles?”
She nodded mutely.
“A popular opportunity at conferences is the highly informative slush pile workshop. They’re like a masterclass. A few hundred people listen while a page of work submitted by a brave soul is read to a panel of four or five agents, publishers or editors. The panelists pretend they’ve just taken the page off their slush pile. The panelists put up their hands when they’d stop reading, and when a few hands are up, the reading stops and the panel discusses why they’d have stopped reading where they indicated. They explain what they like about the piece and what needs work. Then they go on to the next page in the pile. After you’ve attended a few of those workshops, you learn the clichés, the tropes, and you see first hand the techniques that captivate an audience. If your writing is good, a publisher may even ask to see your manuscript based on what they hear. That’s how I got my agent, actually.”
Her mouth had dropped open and she looked faint.
At this point, the moderator of the literary event went to the podium and everyone moved to find seats. I didn’t get to tell the student the fun of having been to enough writing conferences to amass an assemblage of anecdotes with which to pepper writerly conversations. When you present a workshop or do a reading, how delightful to be able to honestly say, “When I was having lunch with [insert famous author here] one time, she was telling me…” Real authors have friends who are real authors.
I didn’t have the opportunity to discuss with the student the importance of finding your tribe. As a student, her supports are built into her program, but someday, she may leave university and it will be valuable to have developed a network of writers working in the real world. We need friends who understand about the importance of metaphor in quotidian life, who know what a big deal it is to get five hundred words written between diaper changes. In other words, we need people in our lives who are not at all alarmed to know about the voices in our heads and can reflect our experience by telling about theirs. Having friends to celebrate the milestones of a writer’s journey, friends who truly understand the challenges and accomplishment, is not just a thing to cherish, it’s vital for mental health.
At the end of the event, I passed the student my card and suggested she check the “For Writers” section of my blog, where she’d find a links to the writers’ festivals and conferences that I regularly attend. I’m not sure if she ever did; she’s certainly not sent a message to inform me that I changed her life with my advice, but someday she may.
Writing conferences changed my life, after all. They can easily change hers. Who knows, perhaps they’ll change yours, as well.