Writers’ conferences: Are they the only short cut left?

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If you’ve heard me speak about writing and publishing—and chances are, if you’re following this blog, you have—you’ll have heard me say that conferences are the only short cut left if you want to get published (i.e. by someone else). So, half way through my 2014 conference season (two down; two to go), I thought I should put my oft-made assertion to the test.

Well, mea culpa, for a start, we have to get rid of the word “only.” If you are a celebrity—a movie star; a sports icon; English royalty; any household name—you have a short cut. If not everybody knows you, but several thousand people follow you, BING! BING! BING! you have a short cut again. If a publisher thinks they won’t have to work very hard to sell your book because you bring a crowd—or perhaps more accurately, a cloud—chances are they’ll publish your book.

What about the rest of us? For us, my assertion seems to prove true. And here are some concrete examples, culled from just two conferences within the past two weeks.

Conferences are the fastest way you can improve your craft.
I gave a workshop at the Book Passage Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference a couple of weeks ago, on writing middle-grade fiction. It was part of a three-workshop, middle-grade stream, all of which shared more or less the same title: writing for middle-grade readers. Each of the presenters sat in on the other two presentations.

Why were we there? You would think that faculty teaching the exact same thing would have the least to learn, right? But I learned a ton. I learned new ways to think about middle-grade fiction—Susan Lyn McComb’s must-haves in an opening paragraph; Amanda Conran’s what made a middle-grade hook. I learned new ways to edit the stuff. I learned new ways to teach it—both ladies went back to the books, read out relevant passages, taught by example. Oops! How had I missed the power of that?

I’m a better writer, editor, and teacher now. I guarantee it.

Conferences are the easiest way to find the best editor for you.
First, let me state something for the record. The second-best thing you can do for your career as a writer behind investing in conferences is finding the right developmental editor. (Okay, the two are so neck-and-neck that if I were writing a blog about the importance of editors, I’d probably flip this around.) Going out there unedited is like going to a job interview naked. In both cases, probably only Jamie Lee Curtis can get away with it.

But how do you find these fairy godmothers? You find them at conferences.

I’m going to change my metaphor: forget the fairy godmothers who are only needed during crises. A good developmental editor is to an author what a structural engineer is to an architect. Unlike the fairy godmothers, they are mandatory.

An architect’s need for an engineer has nothing to do with the architect’s ability or talent. No architect thinks “I’m so good, I don’t need one of those.” A structural engineer can see what even the best architect cannot see, and if s/he believes in the architect’s vision, s/he can help that vision get realized when without her/him, it would fall in a heap.

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But notice how I said “if s/he believes in the architect’s vision.” You don’t want to collaborate with someone who doesn’t get your work. And how will you know whether they do or don’t if you’re finding your editor through the Web and going only by how much they charge—which is the same no matter whether they love your work or think they’re only polishing it for the bin?

At a conference, you can meet not only one developmental editor, but many. You can gauge who sincerely likes your work, whose comments resonate most with you, and whom you like. I watched a student of mine interact with several dev editors at the Book Passage conference. I wondered whom he’d end up picking. I knew that with all of them he’d be in good hands—but which hands would he find most suitable? To have the power and information to make that choice is a rare short cut afforded by conferences.

Conferences will get your work in front of an agent or publisher, leap-frogging the slush pile.
My editor at HarperCollins/Greenwillow once told me how many manuscripts he received in a month. The number was so staggering I made a mental note of it, and gave this bit of information to any number of classes. The problem is that with each retelling, it seems more unbelievable. The further removed I am from that number falling from his lips, the more I think, did I make that up?

All my editor friends say “no.” They have stories to tell about the enormity of their own slush piles. Goosebottom Books is a tiny publisher of fun middle-grade non-fiction with a bias toward girls. Can you get any more niche than that? And yet I have a slush pile that is hard for me to take care of.

That slush pile can take years to emerge from, if you manage it at all. When the slush is finally sorted, it’s often by an intern whose primary job is to reject as much of the contents as possible. To avoid the slush pile, you need an agent, which can take years to find (and the best way of finding one is meeting one at a conference—read the paragraphs on dev editors and substitute the word “agent.”)

However, you can save yourself all this time and angst by buying yourself a consult—with a publisher, editor, or agent. It usually costs just under a hundred dollars and guarantees you’ll have their eyes and mind for a precious sliver of time.

Conferences can help you in the parallel job of being human.
I’ve mentioned the Book Passage conference a few times now, so let us shift our focus to DigiLit last weekend.

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I don’t know about you, but one of the things I find toughest about being a writer is that it takes so much time. Writing takes time. Researching takes time. As an aging publisher, all my “good eye” time (that finite number of hours before everything gets blurry) is completely consumed with things I have to read in order to do my job.

Well, surprise, surpise! At this conference I learned ways to make striking a balance easier. I learned about the new way of following news, for example, through Circa. This app not only lets you flag the stories you’re interested in, it keeps track of what you’ve read and what you have not, so no matter how long between drinks, it catches you up on what you’ve missed without making you wade through all that repetitive information other news outlets keep in there for people who’re only just getting onboard. Conversely, come to a story two weeks late, as I often do, and the app knows you’re a newbie and serves up all the information that the other channels are by now leaving out.

I learned that there are ways to streamline everything I do out there—err, here—to create a digital footprint. A more streamlined footprint = more time to be human. In fact, a more streamlined anything = more time to be human. So imagine my excitement at finding Quip, a way I can streamline our editing process! As their tagline says, “messaging and documents combined in one place.”

And most wonderful of all, I learned that the A List are also human. At a conference about publishing in the digital world, there can be no greater A-Lister in my book than Jane Friedman. I saw her washing her hands in the ladies’ room. In the mirror I could see not only her reflection but mine, and I noticed with consternation that I was bouncing up and down on my toes. How many times have I told my students not to stalk the faculty into the loo (oops, bathroom)! But if I let her go without professing my admiration, would I ever have the chance to speak to her again?!

YES. That is the beauty of conferences. For once in my life I listened to my own advice and let Jane wash her hands in peace. Later, I found her sitting in the exhibits area and went up to introduce myself. I told her the story I’ve just told you, and she laughed and blushed a little. Jane Friedman is shy.

And why is that the ultimate plug for conferences? Because at a conference you realize, first-hand, that we’re all human. And if a human can be an A-lister/on the faculty/published, then by golly
SO CAN  YOU!