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, Addendum

Yesterday got off to a depressing start when I saw that the short story I submitted two days ago has already been rejected. However, a quick rejection is much better than a slow one, and the editor took the time to tell me what he liked about the story and what he thought I could do to improve it. So at least I have some guidance when I put it through another round of revisions. In other words, this was a “good” rejection, as rejections go.

I have some general remarks to make about writers’ conferences, and this seems to be the best place to make them. I have tried to anticipate questions you might ask, and here I will give you my answers, based on the fourteen conferences I have attended.

~If you are an aspiring novelist, should you go to a writer’s conference even if you don’t have a finished novel?  Absolutely. Go to learn and meet some fellow writers. Pick a local conference where you might meet others from your “neighborhood.” You’ll enjoy it so much more without the stress of pitching something at your first conference.

~If you do have a finished novel, should you be ready to pitch it at your first conference? No. Let me say that again. No. I was given this advice over and over before I went to that first big ACFW conference. I ignored it, because I figured I was only going to get to go three times, so I needed to make the most of it, right? That was a huge mistake. It would have been so much better and so much less traumatic if I had just gone to learn and figure out how the system works. All those people who said I shouldn’t pitch at my first conference were right.

~What if “mentoring” or “critique” appointments are offered? I say jump on them, but only if you’ve read a large enough sample of the mentor’s writing to know you’re on the same page when it comes to style and tone. These types of appointments can be very helpful. Or devastating. Or both.

~Are the big expensive conferences worth the extra expense? I can’t answer that for you. If you want access to a bigger choice of agents and editors, then you’ll have to go to big conferences. Generally the quality of the classes is high. If you can afford to spend thousands of dollars a year going to conferences—and many people can—why not go for it and learn as much as you can? It may speed up your journey to publication.

~What if I’m just a terrible writer and that’s why no one has ever wanted to represent or publish my novels? What if I’m truly that bad and can’t see it or don’t want to admit it? Valid question. Sometimes I think maybe I really am that bad. As a writer, I may not be Nobel Prize material—but I’m certainly not terrible either. I have read many books, including some that sold very well, that were crappily written compared to mine. As an avid reader for over 50 years, as an English degree holder and English teacher, I think I have enough experience to know true garbage when I see it, and my stories do not fall into that category. People who have read them seem to love them. So, logically, I have to assume I have been begging at the wrong door all these years. My writing has improved tremendously during that time, but the response from the “gatekeepers” has not. I believe I’ve been knocking on the wrong gates, and it would be stupid to continue doing so.

~Why didn’t I apply for a scholarship to Realm Makers this year? I had several reasons, actually. I feel that asking for a scholarship would be like canceling out my donation of a cloak for the raffle. I feel that there are bound to be young writers who might actually have a chance of making it in the Christian publishing world, whereas I do not. I want them to have that chance. And I also believe I would not qualify for a scholarship. We always seem to fall into that limbo where we can’t afford stuff (like medical care) but are still too “rich” to qualify for assistance. I hope I make it back to Realm Makers someday, but I hate to think that the only way to do it is to be a charity case.

So, I’m still feeling a little sorry for myself, especially as all the photos are pouring into Facebook showing everyone having the time of their lives—but I’ve accepted the fact that it would not have been helpful for me to go this year. I would have loved the classes, but I know I would have struggled with the emotional impact of not being able to pitch my six novels to anyone who might have the remotest interest in them.

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.

WIPJoy #1

There is a project known as WIPJoy, wherein an author posts about his/her work in progress every day for the month of September. I have decided to participate this year for as long as I find it amusing. Today’s assignment: to tell you about my WIP in an introductory way.

My current work in progress is a young adult novel tentatively titled Sohalie’s Search. It is a fantasy novel set in the world of Chella, a story world that I have already written two novels in. This story, however, takes place in a different country and about fifty years before the events of the other two novels, so there is no overlap in terms of characters or setting, other than that they take place on the same planet.

I actually got the idea for this story during the early bird workshop at Realm Makers 2015, which was led by Jeff Gerke. The main character, Sohalie (pronounced SO-hah-lee), is the elder of two sisters who are daughters of a nobleman. Trouble erupts when a young man from overseas arrives at their estate to foster with their family for a year. Sohalie claims first dibs on him, and her sister Sitara agrees, but the young man soon shows a clear preference for Sitara. Sohalie takes drastic action which changes all of their lives forever.

Realm Makers 2016

Last weekend,  I was at the Realm Makers conference in Philadelphia. I drove 1500 miles to get there, which took me three days. Of all the various writers’ conferences I’ve been to, this one is my favorite. It’s my favorite because it’s specific to the kind of writing I do, which means that no one thinks  I’m weird. Everybody else at this conference is just as weird as me, and some are considerably weirder. I went to this conference in its very first year, and have only missed it once. This year was the fourth Realm Makers.

This time, though, I went with mixed emotions because I knew it was likely to be my last writers’ conference for the foreseeable future. We have lost a big chunk of our income and there will no longer be any “discretionary” funds available. So in a way, it was hard to enjoy it fully because I knew there was no future to look forward to.

On the surface, it was a great conference for me. I had three appointments instead of only two. Both publishers and the agent requested material from me, and I have been busy sending it out since arriving home. No one had any interest in my time travel story set in Africa—but I expected that. I have always assumed that at some point I will have to publish that myself.

I enjoyed the classes I took and I really enjoyed getting to know my roommates, who included an editor, a very successful author, and a “wanna be” like me. They are all wonderful ladies.

I had a plan to help me meet new people at this conference, because when you’re an extreme introvert, you really have to have a plan. My plan was to offer tea to anyone who wanted some, as coffee is more the focus of the caffeinated offerings at the conference. I announced my intention ahead of time and received an enthusiastic response. However, despite the fact that I skipped breakfast both mornings in order to make myself available for tea lovers, only one person came. My clever plan was an abysmal failure and my assortment of tea-making supplies remained unused by anyone but me. *sigh*

My bookmarks were also not a hit at all. I guess I’m the only one who loves them!

It’s not that I didn’t socialize; I did. I greatly enjoyed the conversations I had at mealtimes and during classes. I love hearing about other people’s stories and discussing nerdy stuff with them. I enjoyed the costume dinner even though I didn’t have much of a costume, having put all my effort into making the Desert Assassin Cloak for the raffle. I was so tickled when my friend Lelia won the raffle. She is such a sweet lady and was so excited about her new cloak!

So, as I said, on the surface it was a great conference. Tomorrow I’ll talk about why I am still struggling to come to terms with my experience.

Meanwhile, I can share with you something positive that came out of last year’s Realm Makers. Last year there was a story contest and my story was a finalist, which means that it was included in the anthology which has just been released this week! All of the stories are excellent. Here’s the link:

https://www.amazon.com/RealmScapes-Science-Fiction-Fantasy-Anthology/dp/1938499174/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470320821&sr=1-1&keywords=realmscapes+anthology

The Game is Afoot!

Well, it’s time to kick this blog into gear! I’ve got that class to teach at the writers’ conference this weekend, and I, uh, signed up for NaNoWriMo this year. If you’re not sure what NaNo is, it’s short for National Novel Writing Month, and it is always held during the month of November, because the organizers are heartless and sadistic trolls.

I mean, seriously, November? With Thanksgiving and trying to wrap up the fall semester and start planning for the holidays? Somehow I’m supposed to also write 50,000 words? I’ve done it once before, but on that occasion I don’t think I signed up for it officially on the website. This time I did. I have also in the past written up to 80,000 words in the month of July, so I know I can do it.

I’ve had a bunch of stuff in my idea file for some time, but none of it screamed “write me!” until this August, when a writing exercise at Realm Makers yielded a story idea that I really want to get going on. I can’t start until Sunday, obviously, but that’s a good thing because right now I need to devote my full attention to preparing for the writers’ conference!