Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Writing Wednesdays: Are Conferences Worth It?

This past Saturday I attended my first SCBWI conference. It was held in Buckeystown, MD, and it was a simple one-day workshop with a few guest speakers and plenty of time to mingle with fellow writers. I'll admit, I was a little worried when my GPS took me off the main highway and onto a single-lane country road. The sign for the conference center looked a thousand years old and you had to drive another mile past it to get to the parking lot, which literally faced a barn. But the facility was actually quite nice, and once I met up with fellow NaNoReviMo-er Janet (hi Janet!), I felt much better.

I haven't been to a writer's conference since 2005, when I went to a large conference in San Diego after writing my first novel. I was totally out of my league, completely intimidated, and utterly clueless. But I did walk away from that conference with an internship at a literary agency, and the things I learned from that experience were certainly worth it. My goals this time around were very different. It was a small conference, with only one editor and one agent in attendance, so I certainly wasn't looking to snag an agent. Do writers find agents at conferences? Of course. But if you go to the conference with that as your only goal, you're probably going to be disappointed. This time, I wanted to meet some new people, hopefully learn a few things, and most importantly spend a day devoted to the thing I love, something I haven't done in a very long time.

The morning discussion was led by children's book writer Esther Hershenhorn, who was totally hilarious and had a very uplifting story - it took her 19 years to get her first book published, and now she's a successful author and teacher. I'm not sure I have it in me to go 19 years without getting published, but it was certainly a lesson in persistence. Esther also gave us some great exercises to try to get to know our characters better. HarperCollins children's book editor Sarah Dotts Barley spoke about common mistakes and how to avoid them, and agent Rachel Orr gave us some great examples of how to bring your character's voice to life. Finally, a group of regional members who have been published answered a few questions about their journey.

At the end of the day, I'd say I met my goals. I didn't come away with any major "aha!" moments, but then, what is there to know, really? I suppose the theme of the day was persistence, and that is certainly something I struggle with. Then again, I've kept at it for 8 years so far. I'm probably not going to give up any time soon.

When I got home from the conference (it was an hour away, so I left at 7 a.m. and got back at 6 p.m.), Sarah asked me if it was worth it. It's hard to answer that question. Was it worth the $90 I spent, the extra driving I had to do to get Sarah to my house so she could watch Jack since John was out of town, or the anxiety I always cause myself over these sorts of things? I think so. I think it's always worth it to devote time to your passion, and to spend it with other people who share that passion, even if you don't walk away with anything tangible. Sure, a big New York conference might have provided more opportunities, but it also would have cost a lot more money, time, effort, and anxiety. That's not to say I wouldn't love to go to one of those conferences one day, but for now, I think this was a step in the right direction.

Plus, I finally got Sarah to change Jack's diaper. And that's certainly worth something.


Janet Johnson said...

It was so great to meet you in person! I think we very much had the same experience. No 'aha's' here either, but it's encouraging to spend time with other passionate writers. Thanks again for meeting me there! :)

Mara Rae said...

So glad we got to meet! I was so grateful to have someone to sit with, too :) It would have been a lot scarier without you!