Five Reasons to Attend Writing Conferences, Conventions and Festivals

If you’ve been reading my blog recently, you’ll know that I recently went to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. (I wrote about it here, here and here.) So it probably comes as no surprise that I think Festivals like these are a great investment for writers of all levels: from the beginner who has just decided they’d like to find out how to put a creative pen to paper for the first time through to the seasoned professional with a couple of books under their belt, and everyone in between.

So, with no ado whatsoever, I give you my top five reasons to attend.

1. I’m an Individual, Just Like You and You and You

Writers, and artists in general, aren’t like everyone else. We’ve often grown up being told we’re dreamers, or we’ve got our heads in the clouds, or we need to start living in the real world. We think differently. We look at the world differently.We overhear a conversation on the bus about two girls visiting their sick grandfather and our first thought isn’t “Oh, how sad…” it’s “I wonder which one of them is poisoning him for his money. Maybe she’s not even his real granddaughter. Maybe she’s a fairy or a shape-shifter or a demon and she’s taken the form of his granddaughter because he owns an old building that was built on top of a portal to another world and— damn it, where’s my notebook?”

Writing can feel very isolating. Not just physically (although being trapped in a room with a recalcitrant WIP is an exhausting prospect), but also mentally. It’s very easy to start to feel like we’re all alone in our difference. Self-doubt creeps on to our shoulders and whispers its heady sweet nothings in our ear: “You’ll never be a real writer. Your writing sucks. No one likes you. And your clothes are at least ten years out of date.”

And then you go to a writing event, and suddenly you’re not alone. You’re surrounded by tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people who go through all the same stuff that you do. Every day. It feels exciting and heady and like you’ve finally found a place where you can be yourself and say the weird things in your head out loud and everyone accepts everyone else. Because they’re just as odd as you are. And some of their clothes are at least twenty years out of date. Because who cares about clothes when you can sit down over a selection of food and drink and talk about the real issues. Like: Is the sick grandfather really as helpless as he appears? 

2. It’s Dark and We’re Wearing Sunglasses

If you’ve got a day job (or small children) in addition to your writing, it’s almost guaranteed that your writing comes second on a daily basis. If writing is your day job, it’s almost guaranteed that you’re so busy churning out the words, you don’t have a lot of time to sit back and think about the hows and the whys and the wherefores of what you’re doing on a daily basis. But sometimes, that’s what you really need.

When you’re at a festival, you have the opportunity to put on your blinkers, lower the shades, and concentrate one hundred percent on the art, craft and business of writing. You don’t have to keep stopping and starting so you can prepare meals. You don’t need to limit yourself to an hour a day so you can maintain a relationship. You don’t have to focus on your daily word count or your deadline. You have permission to sit back, take a deep breath, and fully immerse yourself in the joy of writing. And isn’t that worth the price of admission alone?

3. Old News in a New Way

I’m going to be honest — I rarely learn anything entirely new at the BWF. That’s probably true for most people once they reach a certain level of understanding and knowledge of the craft. I’ve read enough “how to write” books and blogs to know the terminology and the current trends. I’ve read enough fiction to understand the way narrative flows, and what does and doesn’t work. I’ve written enough stories to recognise my own writing style and be comfortable in expressing my thoughts with squiggles on a page. I don’t go looking for brand new information — I go looking for old information expressed in a new way.

An example of that would be my sudden epiphany about Inciting Incidents last week. I’ve read about Inciting Incidents over and over and over (and, possibly, over). The fact that you need one as close to the beginning of a story as possible is not new. But hearing the same information delivered by a new person, in a new environment, with different words, at the right time… BANG! Instant epiphany about my WIP.  

And until you get there, you don’t know what old news is going to hit you in a new way and totally change the way you think about your writing.

4. Answer Me These Questions Three

In one of my posts about the recent Festival, I said:

Even if I did type out all 3000 words (roughly) of my notes, it still wouldn’t be” everything”. If it worked that way, we’d all just buy the book of the workshop rather than attend workshops at all. It’s as much the interaction between the participants and the teacher that makes a workshop great as it is the information presented.

One of the things you don’t get when you’re reading a book or blog about the craft of writing, is the chance to ask questions. Not just the “what does that mean” type questions (which, let’s face it, you can probably ask Google) but the “how does this apply to me” type questions.  In a class or workshop, you can ask questions. You can ask about using modern slang in YA (try to avoid it), or about changing from past to present tense in the middle of the book (make sure there’s a good reason), or about how much bad language is too much (depends on your genre/market). You can ask for clarification or examples. You can interact — not just with the presenter, but also with the other participants. And you’d be amazed what you can learn.

5. It’s Not What You Know…

We all know the old quip. And we also all know that there’s a certain amount of truth in it. A writing festival, convention, conference, etc is a great place to connect with people at your own level as well as meet people more advanced in their careers. Plus, of course, there are plenty of stories of people meeting their agents, publishers, editors, etc at writing events. So take your business cards, talk to the people sitting next to you if you’re too shy to approach random strangers, and give yourself the opportunity to meet like-minded people.

Have you been to a Writing Event? Did you enjoy it? What reasons did I miss?

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Five Reasons to Attend Writing Conferences, Conventions and Festivals

  1. Jo

    Hi Jo, Your five points rang so true to me! I attended the Sisters in Crime Shekilda convention last year, and it was the first time I’d ventured away for a weekend without my young family. It was brilliant!!! I had so much fun, even though most of the time I was fighting off the urge to find out what my family was doing and to talk to my kids, and I made a stack of friends and contacts who have remained so since! You’re exactly right, just being able to immerse yourself in it all, without interruption, for a whole weekend – it’s like having that precious long hot bath behind a locked door while the family carries on on the other side of the door! Therapeutic, enjoyable and essential. That reminds me – I should book in for another conference! Jo.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Jo!

      That convention sounds like it would amazing. I’d love to go to a more specialised convention. Although I write Urban Fantasy, I often have a crime or mystery flavour to my stories. Congrats on resisting the urge to talk to your kids (I know how hard that is!) and really taking the opportunity to immerse yourself in the experience. I LOVE the analogy of a long, hot bath. 🙂

      Enjoy your next conference!

  2. I’ve enjoyed your posts about the BWF–sounds like a great conference. I had a wonderful time at the RWA Conference in July, but by the time I got home it was all running together in my tired brain. Most of the workshops were about 50 minutes long, and there were so many of them! This year I ordered the recording (nearly all the sessions were professionally taped), and the DVD arrived this week. Now I just need time to sit down and listen, starting with the ones I actually attended.

    • It’s interesting you say that, about the workshops all running together in your brain. Last year I went to 9 or 10 one hour sessions, and I found the same thing. That’s one of the reasons why I opted for the longer, more intensive workshops this time around. Although I went to fewer of them, I feel like I got a lot more from the experience. And everything’s a lot clearer in my mind.

      Lucky you to have access to recordings, though! How amazing is that, to be able to listen again and again when you need it, while I’m trying to decipher my notes! 🙂

      • RWA has a long standing relationship with Bill Stephens Productions to tape the conference workshops (presenters permitting, and a few don’t), but this is the first year I’ve bought a set. (Individual sessions can be bought and downloaded from their site, billspro.com.) On the back of the pacakge are listed several things to ask yourself if you have trouble setting up the DVD on your computer. Number 4 is “Is there a teenager around?” I often wish I had one handy. Is Big Brother using your computer yet?

      • Hahaha. I love it. You can’t beat instructions with a sense of humour. 🙂

  3. geminye

    Jo, I have been to my area’s largest writing conference for the past five years, three years as an intern, and two years as the group’s Secretary. I never really attend any of the workshops, as I’m usually manning the registration table, or helping a presenter, but I totally agree with your points.

    One of the things I love the most is the people. Young, old, professional, amateur. It doesn’t matter. They all have such wonderful stories. Then, after the lights go down, we gather around the bonfire for stories, live music, and some moonshine. I look forward to it every year.

    If anyone reading this has never gone to a conference, please do so. If you can’t afford to go to the workshops, get in touch with someone that is behind the scenes and see if you can get involved with helping. I started as an intern, and after two years, was elected to be Secretary. It has been a great experience, and I’ve learned more by doing that than by reading books about writing. Sitting down with great writers will do more for you than anything other than just writing like hell. Take our word for it!

    • Thanks so much for your comment. You raise an interesting point, actually. For people who say they can’t afford to go, there’s always the option of helping out at the event. Over here in Australia, they put out a call for Volunteers a few weeks before the event. The volunteers get to mingle with the authors, and are assigned to specific rooms and events to help the presenters with anything they need — which means they get to listen to those panels and workshops for free. So don’t under-estimate the potential value of voluteering or working as an intern!

      And I totally agree about the people. One of the most interesting people I met at this conference was a man in his 60s or 70s who has only recently decided to become a writer. He’s plotted out a trilogy of books designed to tell the history of his local area through the use of fictional and historical characters over a period of 80 years. Over the last year, he sat and wrote the first book in the trilogy, which comes in at 280,000 words. And listening to him talk about his project with passion and excitement, while simultaneously taking all feedback on board and making copious notes about how to improve his writing, was amazing and inspiring.

  4. Pingback: Five Reasons not to do NaNoWriMo | The Happy Logophile

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