Thursday, April 19, 2012

Work-in-Progress...err Thursday: The Joy & IMPORTANCE of Writing Conferences

I'm back from my travels, but still running quite behind on things as you can probably tell by the fact that we are having Work-in-Progress Wednesday on Thursday.

To follow up on my last post (from way back in March, yikes!) the good news is that after much schedule juggling I did manage to meet my goal and get my partial in to my agent before I left for Seattle on the 5th. I ended up writing my synopsis on the planes to and from Seattle and polishing it yesterday and today, but the major goal was met and I was rewarded not only with vacation but a stellar conference experience at the RT Booklovers Convention when I got back!

I wanted to post about that for Work-In-Progress... Day because I think that socialization with other writers and publishing industry folk is KEY to being a writer. I know it sounds weird because the majority of our work is done alone in front of a computer screen, but if you don't have those outside-of-the-office writerly connections, your writing suffers. Here are the three very important things I get from other writers (and book industry people):

1. Improved Writing Skills

I have my MFA in Creative Writing, but I don't by any means feel like my education in writing is complete. In fact, I wish I could continue to take classes on writing and the various topics that I want to research for my books. (Right now that means mythology and also how to identify a corpse. Those are today's hints about what my WIP is about.) Since going to college forever is not an option, I talk to writer friends and I go to conferences. In the past I've been to really academic conferences (AWP) and really industry-focused ones (BEA and ALA). These are great in their own ways, but I was really excited to go to RT because it has a YA track with panels that spoke specifically to my interests like "Murder, Mayhem, and Madness," which gave me some great insight into writing suspense and action, a key in my WIP, and something I know I'm not as good at as say character development. I wrote down one seemingly simple nugget of advice from that panel (though unfortunately I didn't write who said it!): each character that goes into a scene should come out changed in some way. This is a great reminder for me to use in determining if my scenes are working.

Another amazing panel I went to was "Voices Inside Me: Shifting Between Narrators," which might have been the best discussion of point-of-view that I've ever witnessed. Hearing Melissa Marr talk about how her writing goals relate to trying out new forms of point-of-view storytelling like framed stories gave me ideas of new goals and challenges to set for myself. She also mentioned that one of the reasons she writes multiple point-of-view stories is because "a story doesn't happen to just one person." I agree that multiple threads make for a fuller story hence I've played with POV in every project... except oddly the one I'm currently working on. We shall have to see about that.

I also did my own panel on boundaries in YA fiction and learned from listening to my fellow panelists. Here is a picture that Rachel Vincent took of us. (I'm terrible at taking pictures during conferences so sadly I will be linking to other people's pics for the most part.)

2. Knowledge of the Market/Industry

The panel that I jotted the most notes down from was a marketing panel called "Wasting My Time: Making Sense of the Changing Landscape." There were authors who had tried many different promotion techniques from group tours to Skype visits as well as a "gatekeeper," Deborah Schneider, who does programming for the King County library system. (That would include Seattle, my fave place on earth and ummm their library system is STELLAR.) I learned from Deborah how important it is to have a media page on your website including a photo of the correct, print-ready quality (300 dpi). I also got a TON of ideas of how to better promote future books from the authors who'd tried them, so I'm extra excited to finish the WIP and sell it.

Talking about The Market/The Industry is a scary thing. It can be overwhelming for many writers, myself included. I've never written for it, but I've learned the importance of paying attention to it. Publicity-wise different things work for different people and I've founded that chatting at conferences is an excellent way to learn new tricks. Also though I find speed-dating with librarians, booksellers, and readers to chat up my books completely TERRIFYING, it is a great way for me to spread the word. (Plus those folks love books like me, they aren't really scary.) Part of publishing is promoting your book. Like it or not, that's the way things are, so taking those opportunities to do promo, or if you aren't published yet, to practice by talking to other writers or pitching to agents and editors is essential. Again, a very important part of going to a conference. (But just a part. The reason I talked about skill improvement first is because I think that fun as it may be, you aren't getting the most valuable experience if you are just sitting at the bar "networking.")

3. Sanity

Only fellow writers really truly understand the fact that basically YOU HEAR VOICES AND WRITE THEM DOWN AND THAT IS YOUR JOB. My other friends and husband listen patiently to me, but I know they probably think I'm neurotic. (And I am a little bit. Kind of goes with the territory.) In addition to having practical advice to offer me about developing my plot, my editing skills, and promoting my books, my author friends provide emotional support that I would be lost without. They get my worries, my fear of failure, my struggles with balancing the various activities of being a writer with having an actual life. I have people like Mari Mancusi, who I set goals with daily on Twitter and Jeri Smith-Ready who I Skype with regularly to talk writing neuroses among other things, but at RT I got to see them in person. I had dinner with Jeri and drinks with Mari (and went to a pseudo-wedding with champagne, cake, and hunky Fabio-type cover models--the sort of bizarre, totally amusing thing you do not see at the academic conferences I'm used to. Seriously they could learn a thing or two about a good time from the romance world.) We talked shop, but also got to relax and have a good time. I finally met Zoraida Cordova (whose book, The Vicious Deep, is out in less than two weeks and sounds AMAZING), an agency sister who I've only gotten to chat with online. Oh and ditto with Stephanie Perkins (who Rachel Vincent took this great picture of me with, two Stephs with brightly colored hair who write YA contemp, crazy, huh!) I had dinner with her and Beth Revis (who I've had the joy of hanging out with at a retreat before and it was lovely to see her again) one night and it was non-stop laughs and smiles--except when Steph and Beth nearly came to blows over a difference in opinion about Harry Potter, haha, but it was quickly resolved when we started talking about Firefly. That is the kind of nerdiness I love and crave. Also we got into plot talk and I was describing a particularly gruesome part of my WIP when the waitress came up. Suddenly realizing we were in public, I blurted, "I'm talking about a book! We're writers!" Because like I said, around each other, we can drop our guard, talk about our characters like they are real (because in our heads, they are) and be the person we are when we are tucked away at our desks all alone with unwashed hair.... I'm not sure how good it is to bring that into the world, but it is good for us, so the world is just going to have to deal.

Basically my favorite part of RT was that from when I walked in the door and found Kim Derting (and here's a cute pic of us that Amy Plum took) to my last dinner with Jeri and her fabulous Team Kilt blogger/book lover crew, I was surrounded by friends. I got to catch up with people I rarely see in person. I received advice, encouragement and loads of big hugs. It reminded me of how wonderful the YA community is, how filled to the brim with sweet, talented people, and how lucky I am to be a part of it.

And the YA community can throw a great party too. Teen Day on Saturday was an incredible day-long affair (and thank you, Melissa Marr, for all your hard work that went into it!) where YA writers got their own special place in the giant book fair, we had panels, speed-reading, and speed-dating with teen readers (meeting readers is always a huge highlight for me) and we had a big bash where we got to talk to the readers and mingle with our idols. I nearly wept when I met Francine Pascal, creator of the Sweet Valley High/Sweet Valley Twins series that I was addicted to as a kid. But I pulled it together. managed to thank her for inspiring me to write and got this picture of us taken:

Again, aside from that, I was remiss at taking good Teen Day photos, but Vania Stoyanova who is a way better photographer than I could ever be captured it really well and you can see it on her tumblr.

Between mad deadline dashes, crazy juggling of all the writing jobs and writing-related tasks, worries, anxieties, and writer's block or slumps, all of which I've experience lately, this writing thang can be draining. But I refilled the well at RT. I reminded myself of why I write, who is out there doing it with me and cheering me on, and got a slew of ideas for new ways to challenge myself. So I'm revved and ready to get back to work.

Thank you RT and everyone I saw there. I will definitely being seeing you next year in Kansas City.

What about you? How do you connect with other writers to refill the well? What conferences or conventions have you gone to and loved?


PKJ said...

Wow, that sounds amazing! I'm so glad you got to go and spend time with such a great community.

Adrianne Russell said...

I'm sooo excited that conference will be in my hometown next year! It sounds like you had an amazing experience. And I am stunned that you were able to pull it together to meet Francine Pascal. I would've totally lost it. :)

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

It really was amazing, Polly! And Adrienne, I almost did lose it. And if you go next year, we'll have to meet up :)