(Blogger’s note: Summer is on its way — which means, for many, the season of writer’s conferences and retreats. In this three-part series, I share the many things I’ve learned during 20 years of attending writer’s conferences and 10 years of teaching and presenting at them.)
Part Two: Attending Presentations and Workshops
The staples of any good writer’s conference are dynamic presentations, or mini-workshops. Conference organizers spend months planning topics that cover the art, craft and business of writing. They negotiate with dozens of potential presenters to find the 40 or so that will not only offer informative presentations, but mesh well with other conference faculty and attendees.
The most important quality of a presenter, which astute organizers seek, is an intangible: the ability to motivate and inspire participants. It doesn’t matter how esteemed the presenter is if he or she isn’t willing to (or cannot) light fires within writers and to impart everything they can squeeze into a one-hour presentation. One can be realistic about the difficulty of getting published—it is difficult—without flatly stating, “You’re not going to make it.” Which, believe it or not, I’ve heard presenters say to roomfuls of open-mouthed writers who thought they were spending $300 or more to receive tutelage and encouragement.
Presenters have two jobs at writers’ conferences: to share their direct experience with a particular subject; and to inspire and motivate writers who carry a dream, are willing to work for it, and are seeking tips and inspiration along the way.
When you attend a presentation, prepare to listen intently and jot notes at the same time. Many presenters will offer handouts; others will shoot straight from their wellspring of experience. I work it both ways, providing handouts for background but then breaking into an extemporaneous discussion, often spurred by comments or questions from participants. I stand before you for one reason above all: to give you an hour-long experience that fulfills as many of your writing needs and answers as many questions as possible.
When you select presentations, determine what you need most from the conference. Is it a creative burst? Information on writing proposals or pitch letters? Marketing and publicity tips? Background on a genre in which you haven’t written before? Editing secrets? Tips on writing fiction, memoir or essays? Make those presentations your first choices. Follow up with a presentation taught by someone whose work or personality you admire; that’s always inspiring. Finally, if your plate isn’t already full, pick a subject—any subject—that interests or tugs at you for an (as yet) unknown reason. That might be the dawn of your next calling as a writer.
How many presentations should you attend? In a two-day conference, you can attend as many as 10 to 12. The “right” number is up to each person. If you miss a presentation because it conflicted with another desired presentation, ask the presenter for a handout and provide your e-mail address. Also, some conferences tape presenters and make those cassettes available for sale.
In any event, don’t oversaturate yourself. Create breaks in each day.
At the presentation, listen intently. Take notes, but not as you did in college. When you write the note, think of how the point works for your material or marketing needs. Brainstorm your next thought while in the enriched environment of the presentation. Or, write tickler comments—and get back to them the minute you leave the room. I can’t tell you how many essays, articles, marketing ideas, sales letter points or pieces of dialogue started in my notebooks during and immediately after presentations. You’re there to be studious, but you’re not a student. You’re a working writer, looking for specific information that will assist you. Begin integrating it during the presentation.
Ask specific questions. Most presenters offer room for questions; I make it a point to offer 10 to 15 minutes per hour for question-and-answer. You’re at the presentation for a reason; I want to make my entire experience available to give you what you’re seeking, if I can. The best presenters know that Q&A sessions with thoughtful questions turn into rich discussions that, sometimes, help the presenter as much as the participant. A lively forum is a valuable forum for everyone, for two reasons: a) the knowledge imparted from direct experience; and b) the energy moving in the room.
When the presentation ends, take another 15 to 30 minutes to dump all of what you immediately remember into your notebook or journal—if you’re not racing to an agent/editor interview or another presentation. If you have a burning question you didn’t ask, find the presenter and ask it. Don’t let the opportunity slide by. When you go home, spend a little more time with it. If you came up with a first line, or a story idea, write it out for an hour or two. If a book publicist rattled off five techniques that resonated with you, map out the ways you can apply those techniques to your book, in your marketplace, with your target media. Act while it’s fresh and your fires are burning.
Expand the ten-hour, two-day format of the conference into a 24/7 weekend. The benefits you receive make the temporary lack of sleep well worth it.