The “BEST” Writers’ Conference

Last week while I was traveling, someone in the writing world posted a question on Facebook asking, “If you could only go to ONE writers’ conference, which one would it be?” I was too busy and had minimal time online to answer, but I did read some of the responses, and I found that they rankled a little.

Many of the responses listed the “biggest” Christian conference of all, ACFW, which I have attended three times. Others, who like me write speculative fiction, mentioned Realm Makers, which I have also attended three times, and which has become pretty big and just about as expensive as ACFW. I doubt that I will ever attend either one of these again.

Here’s why these responses rankled: if I were a novice writer fresh out of college, with a depressingly large student debt and a desire to grow as a writer, and I read those responses, I would have looked up those big conferences, would have seen how much they cost (plus staying in a luxury hotel AND transportation), and I would have despaired, knowing that such experiences were completely out of my reach.

In writing circles, people are always saying that if you REALLY want to go to a certain conference, you will find a way to make it happen. I’m sorry, but this is not true. There are any number of reasons why you might have no hope at all of getting together $1000 or more for a weekend of writing classes. Telling people it is possible when it’s not just makes them feel like failures for not being able to do it.

However, my point is that all hope is not lost. The big conferences are not the only game in town. If you have limited means, then your best bet is to look close to home. Look for smaller conferences and conferences that are relatively new. There are so many advantages to this approach:

—Smaller conferences are likely to be much more affordable. Instead of $500, you may pay $150 or less for a weekend of classes, and you will still probably get to learn from some top tier bestselling authors.

—You won’t have high transportation or lodging costs. You may be able to commute from home, or stay with a friend like I did last weekend.

—You will meet other writers from your local area and learn about writers’ groups and other resources available to you locally.

Now, it’s true that these smaller conferences will not have the wide array of publishers and agents in attendance that the big conferences have. However, over the years I have realized that many, if not most, successful authors found their agents the old-fashioned way—by querying and letting their work speak for itself. This means you can go to a conference without being under pressure to pitch your work, and can choose which agents/publishers to query at home and at your leisure.

Because of our reduced circumstances, I had assumed that I would not be able to go to any conferences at all this year. Then in December, I found out about the LoneStar.Ink writers’ conference in Dallas, a brand-new conference debuting this year. By registering before the “early-bird” deadline, I ended up paying only $115 for two full days of classes—and that amount included two “add-on” expenses of a pitch session with a publisher and a two-hour master class.

They kept expenses low by holding the conference in the Dallas public library instead of a luxury hotel. The faculty was excellent. I took classes from David Farland (one of my favorites) and J. Scott Savage (a new favorite). Only one of the classes I took left me feeling less than satisfied, but even that one was fun because the presenter was hilarious. I will totally try to go again next year.

So what I guess I’m trying to say is that the best conference for YOU to go to, is the one you can afford. Don’t feel cheated if you can’t make it to a big name conference. I have been to several smaller, local conferences now, and I have become a huge fan. In my experience, you get a LOT more value for your hard-earned money.

PS: My pitch session resulted in a request for the full manuscript. Not expecting much, but reminding myself that each rejection is a step on the way to acceptance. One of the presenters at last weekend’s conference was rejected more than 400 times before receiving an acceptance!

Also, I test-drove one of the new “lap boards” I made and it worked beautifully! I am a convert to small-format notes.

 

The Rule of Three, Part V

I planned the series of posts for this week to distract me from the fact that my favorite writers’ conference is going on without me right now. But, as I prepared to write this post, I realized that I also have some deep-seated ambivalence toward this event.

First, some history. The last time I attended the big ACFW conference, it was in Dallas. I was going through a devastating crisis with one of my kids and almost didn’t go to the conference at all. Then, as it happens, there was a very polarizing incident which occurred during the fancy awards banquet. I had no idea anything had happened until I checked my email after getting home and saw that it had blown up with people weighing in on the incident.

Without rehashing that event in any way, I’ll just say the result was that many of us who write speculative fiction felt disrespected and/or marginalized by the group at large. One person decided to take action. She made the bold decision to start a whole new conference, a conference specifically for Christian writers of speculative fiction. (Note: NOT just writers of Christian speculative fiction.)

When I heard the news, I was thrilled. I was determined to go to that first Realm Makers conference. I knew it was going to grow into something amazing, and I wanted to be in on the ground floor. I loved their commitment to keeping expenses low. The conference was held at a university and we stayed in the dorms for $20 a night. That first year, my total cost for attending the conference was under $400, and that included paying for a room for my daughter Lina who drove me up there in her car.

There were about 80 of us that year, and the contrast with ACFW could not have been more stark. I felt welcomed with open arms. At mealtimes, I would cruise past the various tables before deciding where to sit. Did I want to join a conversation about superheroes, Star Trek, horror movies, or high fantasy? It was nerd heaven.

The next year, I was unable to attend Realm Makers as it was held much farther away and it conflicted with another event that was non-negotiable. However, I was determined to make it to year #3, when it would again be in St. Louis. That was my first lengthy solo road trip—in our non-air-conditioned Suburban, which passed the 300,000 mile mark that week!

To time my arrival correctly, I ended up paying for a night in a hotel on the way, but still my overall costs came to less than $500. A bargain! The conference had already grown to 150 people and now there were multiple classes offered in each time slot. There also was an impressive selection of editors and agents with whom you could schedule appointments.

A couple of my dear friends were there that year, which greatly added to my enjoyment of the conference. The classes were excellent. At long last, I had found “my people.” I thought for sure I’d be attending Realm Makers every year for the foreseeable future.

Then came last year. The cost of the conference increased, and it was held in Pennsylvania, 1500 miles away. Acting in faith, I registered early for the conference, hoping I’d have enough summer class students to pay for my transportation.

No one wanted to take my classes. Still, I had a backup plan which I mentioned in yesterday’s post. I was speaking at a local conference, and they paid me $300. If I stayed with relatives and friends on the way, and if I didn’t eat out at all, I could just cover my gas money with my conference pay. It took me three days to drive each way (I am so not a long-distance driver!).

Just a few weeks before I left for the conference, we received the devastating news that my husband was losing one of his regular contracts, which meant a serious loss of income for us—income that has not been replaced. So I knew even before I began my epic solo road trip that it might be my last trip to Realm Makers, or to any other conference for that matter.

It was a difficult few days for me. On the one hand, of course it was great to attend classes and to see some of my writer friends. On the other hand, I felt more strongly than ever that I was on the “outside” when it came to being published, and that I would never figure out how to get “in.” I came to realize that the path I’d been on for seven years was not leading to publication. In short, I gave up on the Christian publishing industry. I don’t believe I will ever write something that Christian publishers or agents can like.

At the banquet last year, they announced that this year’s conference would be held at a resort hotel in Reno, and I knew in that moment I would probably never be able to go to Realm Makers again. Still, a part of me hoped it would somehow work out, and I kept this weekend free “just in case.” Now, so many of my friends are in Reno enjoying the excitement of being together and learning together. Realm Makers is no longer the “scrappy little conference that could.” It’s now a full-blown top-notch professional conference with a big-name keynote speaker. I knew this would happen eventually, but I thought it would take a little longer! If I had gone this year, it would have cost me well in excess of $1000 for the conference, hotel, and airfare. That is now way out of my league. The Rule of Three seems to have stopped me in my tracks this time, even when I didn’t want it to.

But, I hear some of you asking, why did you make a cloak for the raffle then? Because I still believe in what Realm Makers is doing, that’s why. I want other aspiring writers to get the chance to go and soak in the all-encompassing nerdulence and take the classes and cosplay for the awards banquet. The raffle raises money for scholarships, and as long as I can still afford to make a cloak each year, I probably will.

Does that mean I have given up on pursuing publication? No. I only gave up on being published or represented by anyone in the Christian publishing industry. Since that approach did not work, I am casting a wider net. Over the next few weeks and months, I will be querying agents in the general market. I still believe there is an agent out there who will love my work and want to see it in print. I don’t believe that agent works for a Christian agency or works with Christian publishers. I have zero hopes or expectations in that direction.

Does that mean I wouldn’t attend Realm Makers again if it became financially feasible? Not at all. I would give my proverbial eyeteeth to be there right now. If I ever go again, though, it will be for the classes and the fellowship and the wall-to-wall nerdiness—and that would be worth it. I can’t imagine I’d even consider setting up any appointments, because I can’t imagine the outcome will ever change.

Tomorrow: a follow-up post wherein I try to answer some of the questions that I know my posts this week have raised.

The Rule of Three, Part I

Eight years ago, I made what was for me a momentous decision. I had been told, over and over, that the road to publication lay through writers’ conferences. I had two “finished” novels and I badly wanted to be published, so I saved up all year and that September I went to my first writers’ conference: ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers). ACFW is huge—the biggest Christian writers’ conference in the country. This is kind of like deciding you want to learn to swim and somehow getting into the Olympics.

It was (and is) very expensive. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have gone at all if I had realized at first that the conference fees did not include lodging at the fancy hotel. (I really was that clueless). By the time I paid the registration fees, paid for a hotel room, and bought my plane ticket to Denver, I was out close to $1000, which was a real hardship for us at the time or any time since.

I was so excited about going. I had talked it over with my husband and had told him I would plan on going to that conference a maximum of three times. If I didn’t feel I was benefiting from it by then, and if I hadn’t snagged an agent or editor, I would stop going.

That first time, though, I went in with very high hopes—not necessarily that I’d find an agent or editor, but that I’d make a bunch of new friends. Writer friends. I packed tea making supplies and my two favorite china mugs, so I could share tea with my new friends. I had been part of a “newbie” email group for a few weeks, and one other lady in the group had offered to meet up with me shortly after I arrived in Denver. I couldn’t wait.

I met up with my new acquaintance, and I could almost see her thoughts. She saw I was fat, and also old (compared to her) and she lost interest instantly. She never spoke to me again.

It turned out that was a portent of things to come. All the fabulous friends I was supposed to make already had friends and didn’t want more. As an introvert, I put forth massive amounts of effort to talk to people and get them to tell me about themselves. I was summarily brushed off over and over and over. If there was an agent or editor at the table, everyone focused on sucking up to him/her and I had no hope of even having a “hello” returned.

To make matters worse, my appointments went very, very badly, especially one with the YA editor who told me that I had not written a YA book and that in fact my story was unpublishable. “There is no market for this book!” she said in her perky little voice. That phrase reverberated through my head for weeks afterward.

The classes were excellent, and I learned a great many things that I needed to know. I learned them while feeling utterly rejected and lonely, but I did learn. Many, many tears were shed during that conference.

I did finally end up making one new friend—on the shuttle ride to the airport, but the reality was that weekend was one of the most emotionally devastating experiences of my life. When my husband asked if I’d had a good time, I had to say no. However, I was not sorry I went. An experience does not have to be enjoyable in order to be valuable, and that conference was very valuable. I learned many things about writing and publishing that it was crucial for me to know.

So, I went to ACFW two more times. By then I was much more experienced and I had an actual friend to room with and I kind of got included in her friend circle enough that I didn’t feel so much like an outcast. But during my third ACFW conference, I realized that three times was enough for me. Despite my efforts to fit in, these weren’t “my” people. Most of them were romance writers. Those of us who write speculative fiction were on the fringe, and it was difficult to find an agent or editor who would even be interested in my stories.

If you write mainstream Christian fiction or romances, you would probably love ACFW. After three tries, I realized it was not a good fit for me. It’s not as if that’s the only writing conference around, though . . .