10 Tips From My First Writers Conference
November 29, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Marilyn Kriete
I’m still coming down from When Words Collide—a three day affair held in Calgary each summer. This year, over 800 literary souls converged to share their love of writing, books, and storytelling. I crawled out of my BC writing cave and flew to Alberta to meet my tribe
An electric buzz awaited me: these were my people! Knowing I could approach any of these 800 strangers and dive into a conversation about writing—without preamble or small talk —was mindboggling. This alone was worth the admission price, already ridiculously low. The founder’s decision to run a yearly conference where everyone donates their time, including the top presenters, keeps fees affordable for even the poorest scribbler. And the universal spirit of volunteerism adds another layer of magic to this electric event.
I dived in, moving without breaks from class to conversation to coffee grabs to private sessions. Every hour featured a difficult choice between ten diverse classes; dinner breaks were swallowed up in spontaneous connections with newfound sympaticos. The buzz kept me awake each night, thrilled by the creative energy I’d absorbed. How I needed to swim in this sea of like-minded fish!
Less than 30 of us made it to the final event, the “Dead Dog Social,” on Sunday night. Near midnight, at the hotel’s urging, we reluctantly said goodbye. The next day I boarded a plane and wrote a list of tips (and notes to self) for newbie conference attenders.
Here it is:
- Read the Program. Caffeine was in high demand, but I didn’t learn till the Dead Dog Social that free coffee and snacks were available throughout in the building I’d dubbed the “No coffee” tower—a five-minute sprint away. This info was included in the 75-page handout we received at registration… but I hadn’t read through most of it. I’d been needlessly running back to the “Coffee Tower” for refills and spending four dollars a cup.
- Plan Ahead. I perused the presenters and classes posted on the website weeks before the conference. I’d even written my choices down… somewhere. But once the whirlwind started, I was a pantser, choosing sessions based on proximity, titles, and random suggestions by strangers. This wasn’t terrible; most classes were good, and I regretted only two. But when I read the program later, I saw more relevant choices I’d missed by poor planning. We didn’t get complete maps and schedules till the conference started. But I could’ve planned better, perhaps by skipping a session to read the program and get oriented before diving in.
- Mark your special appointments in red. The conference offered pre-booked sessions with editors and agents to pitch and analyse first pages, manuscripts, and query letters. I booked four sessions and came prepared…but made a huge gaffe. In my nervousness over my first pitch session, I spaced on my second appointment that day. Fortunately, I was able to track down the editor I’d missed and reschedule a ten-minute session in the lobby. Not all editors would be so kind. I’m still cringing.
- Carry a big bag and wear a big smile. I did both. You’ll be picking up stuff as you move from class to class—books and handouts. You’ll want snacks to cover skipped lunches, and probably a sweater. A smile connects you with more people, much faster. I noticed lots of sad-faced writers sitting near the back with closed body posture. Open up! I had great fun engaging with others and making new friends.
- Attend at least one slush-pile session. Slush pile sessions are like Gong Shows, as writers anonymously submit the first page of their manuscripts for a panel critique. Even if you aren’t ready to submit, you’ll learn a lot: what agents look for, why they stop reading, and why your first page is so critical. Plus, these sessions are wildly entertaining!
- Sit near the front. Grab the best seat you can, and come ready to ask questions, comment, and encourage the presenters. If you have a question, it’s likely others have the same one: speak up! I got to meet lots of the guest authors and agents this way, and to chat with them throughout the conference by showing appreciation and making an impression.
- Don’t judge a class by its size. Some classes were standing room only, while others were sparse. But the packed classes weren’t always the best—for me. One of my favorite sessions had one presenter and less than ten participants. Her class was intimate, interactive, hilarious, and calming. She read us a brilliant short story and shared her writing journey. That class, at this point in the hectic schedule, was exactly what I needed. It felt like a lullaby.
- Initiate, initiate. Talk to the person next to you. Set up lunch or coffee dates. Exchange cards and tips. You never know when you’ll meet your next new friend or valuable writing connection.
- Pray to meet the right people. Lots of writers go to conferences to find an agent, editor, or publisher. I thought I was seeking an agent (for my two completed manuscripts); turns out what I need first is a brilliant structural editor. And I found her! I gleaned this insight from a discussion where all five panelists— extremely experienced writers and journalists—mentioned they’d sent their polished, mature work for a professional edit before Be open to fresh direction.
- Pace yourself. Or not. Some participants skipped classes and withdrew a while to re-energize (as writers, we’re mostly introverts). I did the opposite and filled each hour. Everyone got their time and money’s worth. My recovery probably took longer, but I don’t regret diving in and swimming hard till the end.
When I got home, I immediately signed up for next year’s conference, plus a smaller, more intimate conference in Kamloops, just two hours away. What joy to be with other writers! Find yourself a conference, and go.
After an unpredictable life in four continents and 16 cities, Marilyn Kriete now lives sedately in Kelowna, British Columbia, where she fights for writing space with three cats who own her office. She has two completed memoirs (seeking publication), a third on the way, and several published poems and articles (The Lyric, Storyteller, The Eastern Iowa Review). Check out her blog at purplesplashofglory.com.