I’m thinking about writing conferences today. This is a good time of the year for it, since there are a ton of great conferences coming up in the spring.
Let me tell you a story about why I believe so strongly in writing conferences.
Back in 1996, I was feeling pretty frustrated with the whole cursed writing game. I had been writing fiction at that time for eight years. I thought I was writing pretty well.
But I hadn’t sold a thing. Not one blasted word. Hadn’t even had a nibble. I had an agent, but he hadn’t sold anything for me.
I decided something had to change. Since I couldn’t change what the publishers or my agent were doing, I decided to change what I was doing.
I decided to go to the biggest writing conference in my niche market. I decided I was just going to spend the money and see what happened. I decided I was going to keep going every year until I sold a novel or until I died. I figured I still had about 50 years of life expectancy, and there was no way the publishers could hold out on me for 50 years.
So I signed up for the Big Enchilada in my niche (which happens to be Christian publishing. If I was writing for another niche, I’d have chosen the Big Enchilada in that niche).
I signed up for the Mount Hermon Christian Writing Conference in the spring of 1996. Mount Hermon has long been the best conference in Christian publishing (plus I heard they had great food, which is always important).
I flew up to San Jose that year, got on the shuttle van, and immediately found myself immersed in a world of other writers. And I knew I was home.
That was one of the best weekends of my life. I had been to writing conferences before, but never with so many big-shot editors and never with so many opportunities to get my work in front of their eyes.
But the best thing that happened to me that weekend had nothing to do with impressing any editors.
The best thing that happened to me was meeting John Olson. John is a Ph.D. biochemist and I’m a Ph.D. physicist. We both had a similar vision of what we wanted to do with our fiction. We were both weird. The nerd-herding instinct runs deep. We became instant friends.
We kept in touch over the following year, and spurred each other on to get some real writing done. That was the year I began work on a novel I called “Avatar.” I sent the first chapter to John and he gave it two thumbs up.
The following year, in 1997, John and I went back to Mount Hermon loaded for bear. We both came with several proposals and submitted them to editors who we just knew would love them. John got quite a bit of interest in his work, especially from a big-shot editor who was quite sure he wanted to buy John’s idea for a young-adult novel.
I spent the conference in John’s shadow, wondering if I’d ever find anyone interested in my work. None of the editors showed much interest in “Avatar.” So I submitted it for a critique to a professional writer, Lauraine Snelling. At the end of the conference, I ran into her and her first words were, “YOU’RE Randy Ingermanson? Wow! Your manuscript is good!” I only wished some editor would say that, but those words gave me the confidence I needed that someday, I was gonna break in. After the conference, John’s big-shot editor lost interest in his book. We commiserated together, and then vowed to do better next time.
The following year, 1998, John and I went to Mount Hermon with high hopes. I had both a nonfiction proposal (for a book analyzing the alleged “Bible code”) and a fiction proposal (for “Avatar.”) I attended a major track on writing nonfiction, taught by David and Heather Kopp.
Once again, I was in John’s shadow for most of the conference. He had brought along a proposal for a vampire novel and submitted it to editor Steve Laube, who returned it with the words, “I wouldn’t touch this with a sixty foot pole.” John instantly became famous as “the vampire novel guy” and he was sure he’d blown his chances of ever getting published. But I told him that this was brilliant publicity. His notoriety would be gold someday.
One of the editors, Karen Ball, heard about John’s novel and got very excited. She met with John and told him she loved his story. She couldn’t buy it, but she loved it. And John won an award as “Most Promising New Writer.”
My novel proposal didn’t get much action, but my nonfiction proposal did. I came away from the conference with a fistful of business cards of editors who wanted me to send them the proposal. And my nonfiction teacher, Dave Kopp, liked my proposal so much, he asked me for permission to photocopy it for his entire class. And after the conference, he offered to show it around to a few people he knew. (This is something you should NEVER ask faculty to do; but if they offer, then you should definitely take them up on it.)
John and I left Mount Hermon after the 1998 conference wondering if it was ever going to happen. We were close, but neither of us had won that pesky cigar yet. What was wrong with us?
As it turned out, the only thing wrong with us was that we should have started sooner. It just takes time to break in to the industry.
In the year that followed, I sold my nonfiction book to WaterBrook Press (thanks to a good word from Dave Kopp). And I sold “Avatar” to Harvest House (to an editor who turned down the nonfiction book but liked my writing).
When John and I returned the following year, I was working on TWO contracts, one for a nonfiction book and one for a novel. In the meantime, John had come up with an absolutely killer idea for a novel about some astronauts on the way to Mars who survive an explosion but are left with only enough oxygen for one of them to survive to the Red Planet. Just before the conference, John asked me if I wanted to coauthor the book with him. Who wouldn’t? I said yes, and we spent the conference brainstorming.
On the last night of the conference, we pitched the idea to the perfect editor for the project, Steve Laube. (Mr. Sixty Foot Pole from the previous year.) Steve hadn’t forgotten John’s vampire book, but he didn’t care. (We had to assure him no vampires would go to Mars.) Steve told us to send him a great proposal and he’d see what he could do. And I even won an award at the conference, “Writer of the Year.”
After the 1999 conference, John and I realized that we had turned the corner. There were still years of struggle ahead of us, but we were on our way.
That was eleven years ago. My book on the alleged “Bible code” was published and did well. My time-travel novel “Avatar” was published under the title “Transgression” and won me a major award. The following year, Steve Laube published our Mars novel “Oxygen” and we won a major award for it. John and I wound up writing two books together, and several others independently. I was invited to teach at Mount Hermon, and a few years later, John was too. John’s vampire novel eventually got published (by editor Karen Ball, who liked it from the very beginning, and who switched employers twice before she finally found a publisher willing to let her buy it–from John’s agent, Steve Laube. Yes, really, Steve “Sixty Foot Pole” Laube.)
This coming year will be my 14th time at Mount Hermon, and my 7th time teaching. I’ll be doing a mentoring track in fiction. John will be teaching a major track for teens. And we’ll be rooming together again, so there will be Geek Humor Alert out for the weekend. (Google “Shaving Babbitt” for a horrific example of what can go terribly wrong when geeks are allowed out of their cages.)
I’m convinced that every year gets better. There are more editors, more agents, more talented writers, more fun.
Looking back, it seems almost absurd to remember how much I sweated going to the first conference. I was scared to death of meeting people, talking to big-shot editors, and possibly looking foolish. I worried about spending so much money.
Yes, it was a big chunk of change. But Mount Hermon turned me from a wannabe writer into a gonnabe. And it was the place where I’ve become friends with hundreds of writers and dozens of editors and agents.
Sometimes I ask myself what would have happened if I hadn’t decided to start going to Mount Hermon. I don’t even want to think about that. That’s an alternate universe that I don’t want to visit.
A writing conference is not a magic carpet to publishing stardom. A writing conference is a place you go to learn the business, and then to do business. I believe a conference is the best possible place to do both of those.
That’s why I consider conferences almost essential for writers. I know a few authors who sold their first book without ever attending a conference. But most of my author friends broke in the same way I did–by going to conferences, year after year.
Is this your year to go to a conference? Now is a good time to think about it. Now, when you have the whole year ahead of you.
If you’re going to a conference this year leave a comment to tell us all which one you’re going to and why. I’d love to hear about it.