Top 10 Things to Do at a Writers’ Conference

Within a couple of hours of this post going up, I’ll be driving up to Dallas to attend the DFW Writers’ Conference. Talk about a Deep-Fried Friday for me. I expect this weekend to be better than a plate of beer-battered shrimp!

I attended last year and got my feet nice and wet at that conference. However, being the introvert I am, I approached the event as an information-gatherer and only talked to a few people. When I returned, I sent in my synopsis and chapters to the agent who requested them and received a lovely rejection letter.

But then I started this blog, began reading craft books, and connected with some fabulous writers. So this go-around, I am approaching the conference a little differently. Here are my Top 10 Things to Do at a Writers’ Conference (in no particular order):

1. Turn cyberfriends into real-life friends. You know that person you’ve traded tweets and blog comments and even emails with — dishing about the writer’s life and life in general? You might actually get to meet them! Thus far, you’ve imagined your friend as the 1×2-inch profile photo on their Twitter account. But your friend is not Flat Stanley: She is three-dimensional with a real-live voice! I for one am eager to finally meet in person great writer friends like Jenny Hansen, Tiffany A. White, Roni Loren, and many, many more.

2. Hang out with agents. Note that I didn’t say, “Convince an agent to rep my book.” Since my rookie experience, I have discovered that agents are real people. Of course I knew that before, but I care less this year whether they want my book. I simply want to get to know them. They are an interesting bunch of people who get to read for living, have their fingers on the pulse of book sales, and come to conferences to hang out with us writers. Why not make a few friends of agents? If we get along great and they like my book idea, oh yeah, I’ll send them a manuscript, pronto. But if they don’t, we can still have a drink and chat.

3. Hand out business cards. You’ve got 250 cards in that box, and there are only so many restaurants with that fish bowl where you leave your business card and they draw for a free lunch. You have to hand them out somewhere! What better place than a writers’ conference, where people might look at your card later and connect with you?

4. Be an author groupie. Last year, Sandra Brown was the keynote speaker at the DFW Writers’ Conference. This year, it’s James Rollins. Um, hello! These authors have a string of bestsellers and a truckload of wisdom about writing. Instead of spending their Saturday working on their next brilliant novel, bestselling authors often come to conferences to tell us what they’ve learned, sign books, pose for pictures, and converse with us future bestsellers. While we must remember not to stalk them, it’s okay to be a groupie of a great author. Squeee a bit when you see them, get your book autographed, and have your friend snap a picture of you leaning in close like you and James are best friends.

5. Trade pitches. Of course, you may be pitching your book to agents, and that’s wonderful. However, this is also an opportunity to bounce story ideas off people who love to hear them — other writers. Ask “What’s your book about?” and then listen. You’ll hear some amazing tales and get excited about what’s being written out there. You can also gauge interest in your own novel or in the way you’re pitching it based on others’ reactions, which can help you hone your story or presentation of it.

6. Get book recommendations. What to know what to read next? Ask writers what they loved. Peruse the book tables. Check out the titles from the authors who teach a class. After last year’s conference, I concluded that the much-touted Save the Cat by Blake Snyder had to be on my reading list, began reading Rosemary Clement-Moore’s Maggie Quinn, Girl vs. Evil series, and downloaded Kristen Lamb’s We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media.

7. Show off your fashion sense. One of the most-often asked questions of conference planners is “What do I wear?” The answer is essentially “Whatever you want.” From my limited experience, it seems that writers run the gamut regarding personal presentation. You’ll find the business man in a suit; the pierced, tattooed biker girl with blue hair; and everything in between. Whatever brand is you, comb your closet and put together something that shows off your fashion sense. Then again, you might simply grab whatever’s comfortable and go with that.

8. Shop the tables. There will likely be product booths at the conference. See what goodies you can find. It might be a book, a t-shirt, a writing resource, or a trinket, but you might discover a treasure. Last year, I entered a contest to get a slogan put on a t-shirt. I was one of three winners, and my t-shirt idea was sold at the Penguin Promo table. That was kind of cool.

9. Make new friends. I started to write “make new connections,” but if you approach the conference as an opportunity to make friends, you will have more fun and be more fun. Of course, your friends are connections, so if you focus on engaging with people personally, they are likely to want to help you professionally. That said, even if they never recommend you to their publisher or agent, this is a chance to make friends. Much of our writing lives are spent alone with our notebooks or laptops, and conference time is an opportunity to hob-nob with people who “get” us.

10. Fill in your knowledge gaps. Wherever you are in your writing career, there is more to know. Last year, I focused on querying and synopsis writing, since I knew how to write and just wanted some help landing my book deal. (Stop giggling.) This year, I have a broader focus because I know where my knowledge gaps truly are and plan to fill them by taking workshops that address those areas. You are at this conference to learn something! Go forth and learn it.

So are you planning to attend any writing conferences this year? What are your reasons for going? What goals do you have in mind as you attend?

And will you be at DFW Con? Be sure to look for me there! I look exactly like my 1×2-inch profile photo. 😉

A (Mostly) Pantser Tries Plotting

Sometimes, it feels like a scene from West Side Story where two rival gangs meet in the dark alley and – after dancing around for a little while – square off for the fight. Who is the better gang? The bigger gang? The victorious gang?

Jets vs. Sharks, West Side Story

Instead of Sharks vs. Jets, however, I’m talking Plotters vs. Pantsers. Plotters consider themselves superior with their colored post-it notes on the wall or their beat sheets filled out to perfection before a word of the novel reaches the page. Whereas Pantsers believe themselves to be better because they follow their muse wherever it guides as words glide freely across the page.

Which gang do I belong to?

Well, once I learned these terms, I decided I was more of a pantser (writing by the seat-of-my-pants) than a plotter. Something like this:

Plotter <——————————————-X———> Pantser

I definitely had an overview of my mystery novel and a basic plot, but it was maybe a page long. Moreover, as I wrote, plans changed. The whodunnit had no longer done it, and the main protagonist had a different romantic ending than originally intended. Then I wrote a second manuscript (a middle grade novel) and pantsed my way through that one with a general theme and plot in my head.

After my total pantsing experience made me want to slam my head repeatedly against the tile floor, I decided I’d better learn more about this elusive concept of plotting. I read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. These authors outlined logline, category, characterization, beat sheet, and much more. Now I had a better sense of the underlying structure of a storyline.

Yet I was having a hard time translating Brooks’s story structure to my novel, so I put together a flow chart for myself. In case it helps anyone else, here’s what I drafted:

Of course, this doesn’t make sense unless you read the book! You can also find more information from these writing gurus at their blogs: Blake Snyder and Larry Brooks.

Getting closer now . . . but I didn’t have tools to apply what I had learned and found my word processing software lacking and the idea of writing stuff down on note cards brain-numbing. Then I downloaded Scrivener for Windows. I started plugging my middle grade manuscript into the software, scene by scene. I wrote synopses for those scenes. A virtual cork board helped me to see how I had laid everything out and where plot gaps occur.

Tony & Maria

With my new found perspective and better tools at hand, I am shifting on that Plotter vs. Pantser continuum. I likely won’t end up on the extreme side of plotting, but I might be in the middle somewhere. In fact, I feel an affinity for both gangs – pantsers and plotters. Why not? If Maria and Tony can find love, why can’t the disparate sides of our own writing selves get along?

Not a happy ending for West Side Story, but a happy ending for this writer!

Writers: Where are you on the plotting/pantsing continuum? Have you shifted? Which tool has been the most helpful to your writing?

All: Are you a planner or an ad-libber? Do you like the Jets or the Sharks? What’s your favorite West Side Story song?