Friday Favorite: Writer’s Conferences Roundup

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I’d like to conclude our theme of Writer’s Conferences by providing some places to hunt for the conference of your dreams.

Of course, if you write for a specific genre, you will want to attend one specific to that genre, such as:

Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop
Romance Writers of America
Crimebake (sponsored by Mystery Writers of America)
SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (other ones specifically for children’s writers include the Oregon Coast Children’s Book Writers Workshop and the Andrea Brown Agency Big Sur Writing Workshops)
And so on. If there’s a professional association or conference for your genre, you’ll want to join it, for networking, news, and professional development. Of course, many writer’s conferences include sessions for different ages and genres, but it’s good to check).

Rather than give an exhaustive list of conferences, I’ll link you to places that have compiled exhaustive lists themselves:
Shaw Guides – Searchable by date and location
Poets & Writers – Also has a link to a discussion of conferences on their Speakeasy Forum
AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs): – Has not only a directory, but section on “Hallmarks of a successful writer’s conference.”

Yes, it’s a bewildering array or possibilities. That’s why it pays to do your research, to plan ahead, and to get organized so you get the most out of any conference you choose.

What conferences are your favorites? Let us know in the comments!

Getting the Most Out of a Writer’s Conference

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action plan

Now that you’ve found the right conference for you, how do you maximize your time there? Part of it is your preparation.

Read all available information on the schedule, and the presenters, especially, of course, ones you might be pitching to.

Plan ahead so you know the sessions you especially want to attend. Know your priorities, and mark them so you don’t miss them. There may be some blocks with multiple sessions you’d like to go to, and others that don’t have anything that seems to jump out at you. At many conferences, it’s okay to go to more than one in the same time block (as long as you’re quiet) but at others you’ll be expected to stay for the entire session. Try to pick up handouts, if any, from the sessions you couldn’t attend.

And don’t worry if you need to take a break! If your brain is full, or you’re just tired of sitting in a chair, it’s okay to skip a session and take a walk outside for some fresh air, or peruse the bookstore/exhibit area, or get a cup of coffee… it’s good to get all you can from a conference, but you don’t want to get so frazzled trying to run to everything that you don’t actually learn anything.

You’ll want to take this opportunity to meet people, so say hello! Most people attend conferences on their own, and are happy if someone breaks the ice. There’s always lots to talk about – the speakers, sessions you went to, what you write, books you’ve read recently, etc. – so it’s easy to make small talk. Even if you hate small talk, it’s a lot of fun to “talk shop” with other writers, and you might get some good information. Speak to people at meals, in sessions, and in the exhibitor area. If you’re nervous about this whole “networking” think, set a goal to speak with a certain number of people per day – 5, or 10, or 3, whatever feels doable for you.

If there’s a workshop component, you’ll need to prepare your manuscript carefully, according to whatever instructions are given. If they ask for 10 pages, make it double-spaced, in a 12-point, easy to read font. Number your pages, and also put your name and the working title in the header or footer. It’s rarely necessary to bring a whole copy of your book, unless it’s specifically requested. If you meet with an agent or editor and they do ask for a full manuscript, they will most likely prefer not to haul it with them, but ask you to send it later.

If you’re pitching, don’t just think you can show up and wing it. Some conferences offer “pitch practice” sessions you can take advantage of, to throw your pitch out to someone and get their feedback. But you’ll want to prepare ahead of time what some call your “elevator speech” where you have to distill your project down to one sentence. The formula is simple: Who the protagonist is, What h/she wants, and Why s/she wants it (what are the stakes?). Be specific. Pitching is an art – one which I’ll go over in more depth in a later article.

Think about bringing some simple business cards. You can print them at Kinko’s or online at a site like This isn’t crucial – many people don’t have them – but they can be useful, especially if you’re a freelancer looking to pitch articles.

Finally, I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before: make a post-conference plan. This might entail making a list of specific agents or editors to query, or organizing your notes and handouts and figuring out how you’re going to apply what you learned in the sessions to a work in progress, or going over notes you received in workshop and making a plan for revision. It’s easy to just throw all your conference materials in a drawer when you get home, but making the most of it includes actually putting what you learned into practice. Without a plan, good intentions can evaporate in the chaos of real life. After all, you want to good energy and motivation from the conference to last as long as possible, right?

(And yes, the image above contains coffee and cookies. Because high-level action planning requires caffeine and sugar. And, increasingly, my glasses.)

Thoughts From the Muse

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This weekend, I attended the Muse and the Marketplace conference, put on by Grub Street, a Boston-area hive for all things literary. I’ve never had the chance to go before (I’m usually at the New England SCBWI conference) so I was interested in checking it out.

I didn’t do any of the Manuscript Mart sessions, where you pitch to an agent or editor. (That could be a whole post in itself.) For this conference, I just focused on the sessions and events. I was impressed by the sessions – both the variety and quality. They were a mix of craft talks and inspirational sessions, with offerings for beginners, intermediate writers, and people who had published books and needed to focus on the business end of things. A few take-aways I had:

Attend a mix of sessions. This keeps things fresh. For example, you might need help on plot, but attending nothing but plot and structure sessions is a recipe for boredom and/or confusion. I attended sessions on character development, cinematic structure, boosting creativity, crossover fiction, pitching, editing, and more.

Grab as many handouts as you can. I went around and picked up ones from the sessions I couldn’t get to – you can never go to all the sessions you’d like to at a conference.

Take a break. It’s important to acknowledge when your brain is full, and you need to take a walk, get a coffee, browse the bookstore and the exhibit area… yes, I bought too many books (from the wonderful indie Porter Square Books), and I also pitched a couple of article ideas that were well-received, so I’m glad I took that time.

Practice, practice. Almost all the sessions had a short lecture followed by (or interspersed with) periods to put what we were learning into practice. I’m not always a fan of writing at a conference, since my mind is usually focused outward, not inward, but getting a taste of the process cemented my learning and made it applicable to my current project. When you go to 4 or more sessions in a day, they can begin to blur together, but I feel like I retained a lot more from the sessions that did this.

Make a post-conference plan. While I was listening to final speeches, I put a plan together of what I was going to work on when I got home, based on things I’d learned at the conference. This is good to do before you leave, if possible, since once you get home it’s easy to shove all the stuff you got at the conference in a folder somewhere and never look at it again. Not that the general inspiration from conference-going isn’t great, but making a plan for implementing the tools and ideas you’ve learned helps you get far more out of it.

The closing “Discover Me!” event seemed geared more toward people with books imminent, but interesting to see what the various fiction and nonfiction writers were doing and the advice experts (bookseller, social media advisor, editor, etc.) gave around gaining an audience and promoting your book. After three days, my attention was waning, and if it didn’t seem immediately relevant I found it hard to pay attention. They did have some awesome cake, though.

How To Choose a Writer’s Conference, Part I

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This weekend, I’m attending the Grub St. Muse & the Marketplace conference in Boston. It will be my first time at this particular conference, and I’m eager to check it out and see what it’s like. I’ll have a full report on Monday.

One of the best ways to gain motivation and inspiration for your work can be to attend a writer’s conference. But with the plethora of conferences out there, how do you determine the best one for you? It can be tempting to just go to the one closest to you, or the one with the biggest “name” faculty, but there are a number of things to consider if you want to make the time and money you spend worthwhile.

First, there are several types of conferences:
Craft conferences, in which you attend seminars or panels on developing aspect of the writer’s craft
Workshops, where you submit work and have it critiqued by faculty and other students
Pitch conferences, where your primary reason for being there is to pitch your work to agents and editors

Some conferences are a combination of two or three types. It’s important to know what is offered at the conference you choose to attend.

Also, you need to know whether it’s a conference geared toward literary writing, or a specific type of writing (poetry, nonfiction, screenplays, writing for children, etc.) or a specific genre (science fiction, mystery, romance, thriller, etc.).

The main question you need to ask is Why do you want to attend? Of course, many writers attend conferences for the sense of community, or to get inspiration, or to network with fellow writers, agents, or editors. But it pays to get specific about your goals in attending, which may depend on where you are in your writing career:

• Do you want to learn more about developing your craft?
• Do you want to get critique on your work in progress?
• Do you want to generate new work?
• Do you want to pitch your project to agents and editors?
• Do you want to get updates on the publishing world and the marketplace?
• Do you want more of a retreat, that involves some writing but also traveling, sightseeing, relaxing, and so on?

Other questions to consider:

• Are you writing for personal reasons, or for publication?
• Are you a relative beginner or a seasoned writer? Some conferences require an application, and some are open; some have different levels of seminars geared toward writers at different stages of their careers. Look at past conference schedules, if possible, to make sure what’s offered is going to be relevant to you.
• The size of the conference – are you happy being in a herd, and attending large panels or seminars? Or do you want a smaller, more personalized experience? Are there opportunities to socialize outside of formal presentations? Are there opportunities to meet with agents and editors outside of formal pitch sessions (these often cost extra)?
• The faculty – are they teachers? Writers? Editors? Agents?
• Where will the conference be held? Close to home? An exotic locale? Online?
• Time commitment – how long is the conference? Is there preparation needed beforehand (i.e. do you have to prepare manuscripts for workshop, or do you have to have a pitch ready)?
• Of course, cost is a factor for most of us. Is there one flat conference fee? Do things like pitching, manuscript critique, or other events cost extra? Are any meals included? If you have to travel to the conference, you’ll have to factor in transportation and accommodation as well.

It pays to be clear on these questions, and to do your homework on the conference that is right for you at this time. I’ll continue with a series of articles on this, because I think being thoughtful about the conferences you attend is important. Next time, I’ll talk about how to get the most out of a conference, even if you’re an introvert who would rather be home reading a book.

Try This: Freewriting

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I also coach students in grant writing, and I sometimes think they must hate me because when I review their work, I correct everything, including spelling and punctuation. I’m looking with an editor’s eye, as well as a proofreader’s.

If they could see my freewriting material, they’d laugh. If in pen, it’s a nearly-illegible scrawl, with spellings only I could untangle. If on the computer, it’s a sea of red and green underlining – Microsoft Word helpfully pointing out all the things I’ll have to go back and fix. But that’s okay. Freewriting is a time to let loose on the page. In fact, I sometimes write with my eyes closed, just so I don’t let myself get distracted. We need time to write whatever comes to mind, without the censoring, editing mind leaping in, trying to structure everything. It’s like a helicopter parent – trying to be helpful but really inhibiting the growth process.

So today, try Natalie Goldberg’s Rules of Writing Practice: 1. Keep Your Hand Moving. 2. Be Specific. 3. Lose Control. 4. Don’t Think. Set a timer and just write. Longhand is best for this, I find – it helps you connect your brain to your hand in a way typing doesn’t – so I encourage you to try it. It can be tremendously helpful as a regular practice to prime the pump before a “real” writing session. It can be “writing practice” on the days when you just can’t get motivated or feel like you don’t have anything to say. You can freewrite on a stuck place in your novel, or simply describe the room around you. Just pick something, and write. What comes out may be crap, or it may surprise you. It’s writing as Zen practice – no expectations, just writing.

Friday Favorite: Writing Down the Bones

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Each Friday, I’ll be writing about one of my favorite resources for writing or creativity. If you have any to share, feel free to email me at jana(dot)vanderveer(at)gmail(dot)com or leave a comment.

Today’s pick is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, an inspirational classic. My copy is bound together with her next book, Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life. The chapters of both books are short, and talk about the simple things: going deep, attending to detail, being honest. Sometimes there are stories of her life related to her practice of Zen Buddhism, and she popularized two things: the idea of writing as practice, much in the way sitting meditation is a practice; and the idea of timed freewriting, where you set a timer and keep writing, never lifting your hand from the page, until the timer goes off.

These are powerful because they invoke the first rule of writing: Just Show Up. We show up, we write for the required time, and we see what comes up, not censoring or editing or judging as we go.

If you’re stuck, there are many exercises in both books that are wonderful ways to jumpstart your imagination. Sometimes we’re in a period where we’re not working on a particular project and we just want to keep our creativity flowing. Sometimes we’re stuck in the middle of a project and can’t imagine what’s next. Either way, I dare you to read more than a few pages without the urge to pull out a pen and notebook (or hop on to your computer) and just write. It’s writing as play, reminding us of the joy we can take in our creation when we’re not flogging ourselves to create perfect sentences. Wonderful.

Have you read either of these books? What do you think of them?

Kicking Things Up a Notch

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I’ve been posting and Tweeting the idea of No Zero Days for a little while now, and in the spirit of that, and to kick up the activity at Set Your Muse on Fire a bit, I’m going to propose an increased weekly schedule that will help jump-start your inspiration (and mine). I’ll be posting roughly three times per week, on the following schedule:

Monday – Writing Prompt of the Week: Something to get the creative juices flowing.

Wednesday – Article of the week, on craft or creativity.

Friday – Book, article or other “share” of the week. Feel free to chime in with your favorites.

Some weeks I’ll mix it up, do something different… I happen to believe that the best creative work comes from a mixture of structure and serendipity. Having a writing habit (and a deadline) can work wonders when it comes time to call on the Muse to do her stuff. They allow us to be present for any creative flashes that may occur. It’s rare to have the lightning bolt of inspiration strike – when it does, you want to have a “bottle” to keep it in. If you’re out and about, your “bottle” might be a notebook, or your Evernote app, or a voice memo. When you’re in the middle of a project, the piece itself is your bottle, the container that holds the surprising spark that gives your novel/story/poem/whatever its mojo. Get in the habit of preparing the bottle so you have a place to put the lightning. Otherwise it will be gone, and you’ll have nothing to show for it but a hazy afterimage. The good news is, the more you pay attention, and create a place for it, the more often the lightning strikes. Which in writing, unlike life, is a good thing.

No Zero Days

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Recently, I was at my mother’s for her 8oth birthday. We had a lovely dinner out for her (despite the snow) and I stayed an extra few days to spend time with her and also get some stuff done there. I enjoy spending time with her, and our time is more precious because of her advancing years and failing health. However, when I go there, it often means everything else come to a screeching halt. It’s really hard to focus on anything else, especially writing. This time, I came committed to the concept of No Zero Days. I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have at home, but it wasn’t a week off, either. Some days, I wrote. Some days, I meditated on character and scene development. I reminded myself how excited I was to continue the scene I’d started before I left.

The idea of No Zero Days is that you do something toward your goal each day, no matter how small. Something is infinitely better than nothing, especially where maintaining creative motivation is concerned. Can’t write for an hour? How about fifteen minutes of freewriting? How about re-reading what you wrote yesterday? How about 5 minutes meditating or mind-mapping on what might happen in the next scene? In other words, you never have a day when you do nothing.

Steven King might advocate for 2,000 words per day, but for most of us who are not full-time writers, and who don’t have people in our lives to handle all the other life “stuff,” that isn’t always realistic on a 365-days-per-year basis. But if we have too many Zero Days, it’s easy to get into the habit of not writing, and the longer we go without it, the harder it is to overcome that inertia and begin again. We have to find our way back into the story we’re telling. We have to find our way back into the creative space in our heads. It takes time and energy and intention, and if there are no externally-motivated deadlines, it can be easy to just let it slide another day. Soon we lack motivation, and become depressed. We’re not exercising our creativity, and we’re not making progress on our goals. Whereas if we keep connected in however small a way, we keep the flame alive.

When I returned home, I was able to pick up again with my regular writing schedule, and keep moving with little time wasted. A smooth transition!

I’m not sure exactly where this concept started – some people say it was on Reddit, and people can view the threads here: There’s also a website here: Maybe you can create your own system. Whatever it takes, try committing to No Zero Days for a week, or a month. See how much more you get done, and how much more motivation you magically have. Action=Motivation!

Have you tried No Zero Days? How was it for you?

Do Not Break the Chain

janav Productivity, Time Management, Writing

I’ve become a big promoter of the advantages of getting up early to write – I’m a reformed writing night owl, if you will, although just last night I woke up at 3:45 a.m. with an Awesome Idea I just had to get down…

But it can be difficult to change. I’ve worked on different strategies to build the morning writing habit over the years, and I’ve come up with a few ideas that might help if you’re struggling:

Review what you wrote that day before you go to bed, and maybe make some short notes about the next scene. Then your unconscious can percolate over that while you sleep, and in any case, you’ll wake up the next morning without the dread of the blank page, because you have an idea of what you’re going to write.

Or, start your day with the re-reading and note-taking, rather than plunging straight into writing. This allows your brain to ease into the work again. It can also help to write down your intention for the day: “I will write 1000 words today.” “I will revise the first scene in chapter ten.” “I will spend an hour working on character sketches.”

Set a trigger to inform your brain that it’s time to write. For me, it’s the smell of coffee wafting from my kitchen. (The programmable coffee pot is the best investment I’ve made in my writing since my M.F.A.). You might set your notebook and pen on the bedside table so they are the last things you see before you sleep and the first things you see when you wake up. (That way, they’re also handy if you do get that middle of the night can’t-miss-it idea.)

Make sure you give yourself a reward after you write. This is especially important in the beginning, when you need a little extra motivation. It doesn’t have to be anything big – it might be depositing a dollar in a “special treats” jar to save up for something you really want. It might be unblocking your internet so you can check your email or play a quick game.

You will have to train your brain to orient in the direction of writing first thing, and like any habit, it will take a while to acquire. You are literally forming a new neural pathway in your brain. Like all construction projects, it’s susceptible to delays, blocks, and unexpected backsliding, but once you know how good it feels to do it, you will do it often enough that it becomes automatic. The more you do it, the more likely you are to continue.

Another way to encourage your new habit is what’s become known as the “Seinfeld method”: Do Not Break the Chain. Take a calendar and mark a big red X on every day you write, and soon you will have a visible record that you do not want to break. Make sure it is visible, and not just on your phone or somewhere you can’t see the whole chain easily. Commit to every day, or 5 days a week, or whatever feels do-able to you (you can always ramp up later, but better to start with something that seems manageable).

Let me know how it goes in the comments below!

The Best Decision You’ll Ever Make

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I am not a morning person. At least, that’s what I always told myself, and my proclivity to staying up late and getting up as late as possible has borne that out. I resisted the thought of getting up earlier than I had to as a form of unreasonable torture I could not possibly put myself through.

But the single best thing I did for myself to increase my overall happiness and creative productivity was to become a morning person.

I had to change my identity, from “night owl” to “morning person.” It was hard. I had a lot of positive associations with being a night owl, including the feeling of being a creative person who worked on her own time, unconstrained by schedules outside of the ones imposed by the workplace. Freedom, independence, the illusion of being “a real artist…” all came into play. This, and my personal history of being, since childhood, so reluctant to get out of bed in the morning my mother constantly joked it would be easier to just put wheels on my bed and roll me to school.

But when I started to get up early consistently, a number of remarkable changes happened:

• Now that I get my creative work done first thing, I no longer need to tell myself all day, “I’ll get to it later,” only to find, at midnight, that I’m just sitting down to write, and I am tired, and cranky, and oh well, I should go to bed and try again tomorrow…

• I get a great surge of energy and self-esteem from doing it. Even if I know I have a busy day coming up at work, I can go with a smile on my face because I’ve indulged my creative self, and accomplished my goal. I’ve kept my promise to myself, and that feels good.

• It comes with a built-in time boundary. I have to stop writing at a particular time in order to get ready for work. This helps me focus faster, and eliminate distractions. If I only have an hour, I’m not going to be as tempted to waste it on email. Whereas if I have all day, I can easily say, “just this one more thing…” and spend three hours surfing the net.

• It makes it easier to accomplish other tasks. Once I had the identity of someone who got up early, honored her creative self, and got things done, it spread to other areas, like exercising, building my business, etc. For me, it was a “keystone” habit, which habit-building experts say is a habit that, once set, makes it easier to develop other good habits in other areas of your life.

I also start with a routine that makes it easier to slip into the habit. The thought of facing the blank page first thing in the morning was previously enough for me to stay in bed and vow to tackle it tomorrow. Now I have a ritual of meditating for a few minutes (on weekdays it’s maybe only 10-15), getting my coffee (the smell of coffee being the trigger to entice me to get out of bed), then going to my journal and writing a few notes about what I’m going to do that day. Sometimes it’s a word goal, sometimes it’s a revision goal, but making some notes about that is a way to ease my mind into writing mode, to get back into the story, and get me excited to proceed. I used to do Julia Cameron’s recommended full 3 pages of Morning Pages (and I still recommend it if you’re facing a stubborn block). It’s all about what works best for you. Starting with something small and not-scary and manageable is a lot easier than sitting down cold and expecting the words to flow.

Once I started experiencing the benefits of it, I used that to help me keep the good habit – I think about how good it would feel having done it. The trick to keeping any habit going is to be consistent. Now, even if I can’t get the full amount of time in, I still get up and put in as much as I can. Can’t do an hour? How about 15 minutes? How about 5? Anything that keeps me on track is better than nothing. It took a while to be consistent, though, and it didn’t just happen. I still struggle from time to time, and there are some days where I legitimately need more sleep. On those days, I make the conscious decision to let myself sleep, because that is what my body and mind need at that time. If I don’t beat myself up about it, it makes it easier to come back with a better frame of mind the next day, rather than feeling like I’m pushing a boulder up a hill.

If you’re not writing as consistently as you’d like, try being a Morning Person. Commit to just one week. See how it feels. If necessary, make some adjustments so it works for you. Remember that action leads to motivation, not the other way around, so commit to taking the action, and the energy and motivation to write will follow. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!