View from UCSC, south of San Francisco
Having recently attended a writers conference, I've been mulling over what makes a good one. What do writers want and expect from a few days of writerly camaraderie and workshops?
I'm sure it depends on the writer. As for me, I'd like to learn some aspects of the craft, meet fellow writers in my genre and have the opportunity to network with professionals in the industry. A tall order? Maybe, but I have attended a conference that hit all three marks.
The Surrey International Writers Conference has been chugging along since 1993. Writers flock in large numbers to this suburb of Vancouver in late October for the chance to meet agents, editors and publishers and learn from well-regarded authors in a variety of genres. I remember leaving the conference a few years back feeling invigorated and excited about the two agents' requests to send a portion of my manuscript. The craft sessions explained nuances and other workshops provided a venue for querying questions. While not everything was rosy, overall I found the experience well worth it.
Fast forward to 2012. I recently attended a similar conference in San Francisco. The Write to Market conference promised two things: to help improve your craft and to help you understand today's publishing industry and improve your sales pitch. It sounded fantastic, and I liked that they kept the attendee numbers low (about 45 in total). But as so often happens, expectations can be misleading.
I'll start with the highlights. San Francisco and the location of the conference in Corte Madera (Marin County) charmed. I also give a big thumbs up to the hotel. And the best news of all, four agents asked me to send them a sample from my book.
However, very little craft discussion took place at the conference. The organizer spent the majority of time on the agent pitches. Unfortunately, so did we. For two days, we listened to writer after writer present their hopeful pitches only to be shot down by their fellow attendees and the organizer. Ouch!
In the end, I'm sure most people left with an improved pitch and many left the conference contemplating a complete re-write of their books. I don't think anyone improved their writing skills, and a couple of people left feeling very discouraged. Perhaps the oddest outcome of the conference was the attendee who pitched a book she hasn't written a word of yet. The idea for the book came to her the night before the pitch sessions and, using what she learned about structuring the pitch, she decided to test out the concept on the agents. Now all she has to do is write an entire book and send it to an agent who will have no memory of her by then.
One of the selling points of this conference is surely the chance to pitch to multiple agents. I pitched to five and probably could have squeezed in a sixth. A key takeaway from these agent pitch sessions was their advice not to rush it. All said: "Don't rush it. Make the book the best it can be before you send it to me."
A key takeaway from the conference itself? How much of an impact the Harry Potter series has had on writers. Perhaps three-quarters of the attendees had written a fantasy novel: adult fantasy, YA fantasy, middle school fantasy, sci-fi fantasy...you name it, and someone is out there writing it right now.
I believe it's important that people know what they're getting themselves into. If you're thinking of attending a writers conference and your main intent is to sell your book (you're a great writer, thank you very much, and you don't need to attend any boring craft workshops) then definitely consider Write to Market. But I caution you: leave your ego at the door.
The organizer hated my pitch and told me no agent would ever consider publishing my novel-in-stories. He suggested I pitch the book as a novel written from the point of view of the daughter. And then, of course, go home and completely rewrite the book. After some reflection on whether I could and should pitch a very different book than the one I've been working on, I decided not to pitch a book I hadn't written. Everyone else I spoke to thought the concept had promise...including four of the agents I pitched it to. I asked them if they had any issue with a novel-in-stories format. Only one said yes and passed on the book (also because he had no interest in the beauty pageant world). Another agent said a novel would be easier to sell than a novel-in-stories, but it all depended on the writing. He asked to see the first story to get a sense of how it could work.
That's the thing with creative writing, isn't it? It's so subjective. Where one person sees failure, another sees promise. Stay true to your course.