Final Thoughts On Conferences

Today I’d like to wrap up my discussion of writing conferences by responding to a couple of comments that my loyal blog readers posted.

Ben asked:

My current novel is still in the early stages (I have almost 100 pages of a rough draft and a skeletal outline of the rest of the story). What should I focus on getting done if I do end up going to the conference? Should I try to polish the first twenty pages for critique? Pull a proposal/summary sentences together (not to pitch to editors, but as a way of having the elements of the story in a concise, easily discussable form)?

Any recommendations? I have limited time to work on it due to a full-time college schedule, but I set aside a little time each day to write.

Randy sez: I think your best bet is to try to polish the first ten pages. Make it as good as you’re capable of making it, and then stop. DO NOT obsess on it for the next three months. After a few rounds of editing, most writers hit their peak and then they start disimproving their work.

When it’s as good as it’s going to get, take it to the conference of your choice and sign up for a critique with a published writer. Most conferences allow you to do this instead of showing it to an editor or agent (who is likely to give you a yes or a no, and maybe a few comments. Editors and agents are overworked, so they basically triage the manuscripts they see, sorting them into the very few that are really good, the larger number that have potential, and the majority that are not close.)

I have seen editors at conferences get 60 manuscripts. Let’s face it — an editor who gets that many has to fly through them.

Whereas real authors generally get far fewer. I think I’ve never gotten more than 9 at any conference. So authors have a bit more time to do a decent critique, and they may even have time to meet with you in person. At some conferences, you can get a paid critique of 15 minutes for $25. This may be the best $25 you ever spent. At other conferences, you can get a critique for free.

One of the most valuable critiques I ever had was a paid critique of my public speaking skills at a writing conference in Colorado where I was teaching. I spent half an hour with a speaking coach who gave me some tremendous insights and also reassured me that I’m not nearly as bad as I had feared.

At the Mount Hermon conference, there is a walk-by critique table that is free. I’ve often seen as many as 10 authors there simultaneously, some of them best-selling authors, others winners of major awards, all working over manuscripts with a red pen. This is, in my view, the biggest bargain in all of publishing.

Morgan wrote quite a long comment on going to a couple of conferences where I taught. I’ll quote just a bit of her comments here:

After listening to Randy, I went to his site afterward and learned loads more about writing. At that point, I had been writing for 3 years and wanted to see just how far I had come in my writing, along with wanting to learn more about the publishing world.

So with added encouragement from my husband, I signed up for Mt Hermon last year and specifically for Randy’s mentoring track. And my writing life has changed ever since.

Randy sez: Wow, I didn’t realize, Morgan, that you’d heard me speak before signing up for my mentoring track. I have to say that running a mentoring track is one of the most delightful things I’ve done at any conference. Last year, the group I worked with had tremendous chemistry. I could have sat there and said nothing, and the group would have critiqued each other very effectively.

I had 10 writers in my group, with a wide range of experience. Morgan brought her fantasy novel and we had a wonderful time working through her first chapter. I expect to see several of the novels we worked on last year get published in coming years. One of the guys in the group was working on his Master of Fine Arts in writing and brought the novel that will be his thesis project.

I always make individual appointments with each of my mentees for about half an hour outside the main class. The reason is that some of the writers need career guidance, and in some cases I want to talk about things that we missed in the group session or say things that need to be said without an audience. And sometimes it’s good just to brainstorm new ideas.

One of the things that made me happy with last year’s group was that they asked me to set up a Yahoo group after the conference, and they continue to keep in touch with each other and give advice and critiques to each other.

This is part of the magic of a conference — forming those connections with other writers that you click with. You will meet many writers, editors, and agents in your career, but the ones who will be most important to you are those writers in your “cohort.” These are the writers you’ll “grow up” with. These are the writers you’ll cheer on when they get published. You’ll fight to stifle your envy when they break in ahead of you. And they’ll be there to cheer you on and stifle their own envy when you break in.

My own “cohort” includes people like John Olson, Rene Gutteridge, Marlo Schalesky, Cindy Martinusen, Brandilyn Collins, and many others. Our career paths have varied widely, but we keep in touch. When you have survived years of uncertainty and self-doubt together, there is a special closeness that can’t be faked and can’t be destroyed, ever.

I hope all my loyal blog readers find a “cohort” of like-minded writers to break in with.

In my next blog entry, I’d like to return to our ongoing analysis of STAR WARS to see what more we learn about the structure of this story.

13 Comments

  1. Daniel Smith February 2, 2009 at 8:13 pm #

    Great advice, Randy! I never thought about attending a conference prior to reading your posts here, but you continue to show me what a great opportunity it is. I wonder if there is some place that lists them by genre and geographic area. If you know of something please share.

  2. Richard Mabry February 3, 2009 at 6:08 am #

    Randy,
    One additional comment about your suggestion to polish the first ten pages. At Mount Hermon, I recall submitting my first thirty pages to you for critique. You returned them with your suggestions marked on the first ten pages–then, nothing. At first, I fumed. I’d paid for a critique of thirty pages and just got ten. Then it became clear. If you’d gone further, you’d have marked the same errors. I had to get past those first. I worked at it and eventually did.

    I think writing is a lot like some sports. Work until the fundamentals become ingrained, then depend on mental muscle memory for those basics and concentrate on honing execution.

    Randy sez: Yes, most writers display all their weaknesses in the first ten pages. Of course there can be high-level structural issues that don’t show up in the first ten pages, but those won’t be visible until at least halfway through the book. So my philosophy is to go deep in the first pages, rather than try to be broad and shallow. It’s a tradeoff, because there’s only so much time. I remember how much I valued a critique by New York Times best-selling novelist Kathy Tyers. She marked up about three chapters and that was enough to show me some mistakes I was repeating over and over. After reading her comments, I edited my entire novel. Then I sold it.

  3. Kim Miller February 3, 2009 at 6:28 am #

    Richard’s comment struck a chord with me.

    I like it when a seasoned editor rips into my pages and they come back covered in notes. But such a return has a hidden agenda. First, it means, ‘Fix up what I’ve marked’. The unspoken message is, ‘Learn your stuff, because there is a lot of repeats that I have marked.’

    My most recent editor had several, ‘Stonger without..’ notes in the margin. I wonder if I had received a critique of the first ten pages at a conference whether I would have seen the need to carry the learning from those ten pages of notes into the rest of the MS.

    It takes a bit of wisdom to put good advice to best use.

  4. Andra M. February 3, 2009 at 7:55 am #

    I really enjoyed this mini-series on conferences. Thanks.

    To answer Daniel’s question (if you don’t mind me adding the links, Randy), I found two websites that might work for you:

    http://writing.shawguides.com/
    http://www.writersconf.org/

  5. Marcus Goodyear February 3, 2009 at 8:21 am #

    Since I was part of your group last year at Mt. Hermon, I experienced the chemistry you talked about. It was a special time.

    I wish I were coming back this year! (Alas…)

    You’re comment about limiting the rounds of editing gave me pause. I’m in the process of a complete rewrite, restructure. I wish I had understood snowflake the first time around… Oh well, there’s always next time.

  6. Bob Kaku February 3, 2009 at 10:22 am #

    Hi Randy. I’m joining Morgan and Marcus in praising the fiction mentoring track that you led last year. It not only provided me with invaluable writing skills and techniques, but it helped me see a totally new direction for my manuscript that I’ve been busy re-writing. You’re right about the relationships with other writers. I’ve been continuing mutual critiques with Loralee Kodzo, Lynda Quinn, and Richie Wines. Sometimes I think I’ve written something really good and send it to them. But then I get their comments back. They really make me think and help me to improve.

  7. Morgan February 3, 2009 at 10:55 am #

    To emphasize what Randy just said, the connections I made last year at Mt Hermon with my critique group are great! They become your cheerleaders, your comrades, and good friends. Even if you’re a beginning writer, these connections you can make at a conference can carry you through the ups and downs of writing and publishing.

  8. Stephenie February 3, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    Daniel,

    Check out http://writing.shawguides.com/

    Make sure you follow up on the information. Sometimes it’s outdated.

  9. Camille Eide February 3, 2009 at 10:07 pm #

    Thanks to Mt Hermon, some very pushy critique partners, and Randy’s encouragement, I met with editors, sought out an agent, finished a manuscript and qualified to enter a publishing contest with a major publisher. A contest in which I was just told today that I am one of the 3 finalists for the winning prize of publishing contract.

    Don’t knock conferences. Listen to Randy. Finish the manuscript. Take a shot when it comes your way. Thank God for every open door and don’t question him. 🙂

  10. Jenny Carlisle February 4, 2009 at 5:52 am #

    I’ve been to one ACFW, but this year, I’m going to the Called to Write conference in Girard, Kansas. Kim Vogel Sawyer will be the featured fiction writer, and her style is very much what I aspire to. Though small, I think this conference will be exactly what you are talking about, a place to establish connections that will last. Thanks for your thoughts and your encouragement.

  11. Leigh February 4, 2009 at 11:14 am #

    Just another thought to add to your conference chatter — I’m a card-carrying conference junky and don’t go to nearly as many of them as I’d like, but I often resort to the next best thing — ordering CDs afterwards. I’ve gotten workshop CDs from Florida, Write to Publish, Philly and ACFW. Although nothing beats the face-to-face experence of a conference, I’ve been happy with the CDs as a back-up plan.

  12. Daniel Smith February 4, 2009 at 6:03 pm #

    Thanks for the links Andra and Stephenie!

    I’m in NC so finding something local is a little more challenging for me, but I found the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference at http://blueridgeconference.com/. It’s coming up in May and is literally 20 minutes from my house. Thanks all and thank you Randy for your informative posts!

  13. Leigh February 5, 2009 at 10:58 am #

    Daniel — I signed up for the Blue Ridge conference yesterday. I had hoped to maybe go to Florida this year but that didn’t work out (guess I’ll just have to order recordings of Randy’s marketing sessions LOL). I went to Blue Ridge in ’07 and it’s a good conference — and you can’t beat having it only 20 minutes from home. Maybe our paths will cross while we’re hiking up and down that mountain to classes. 🙂

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