When I say “writers festival” or “writers conference”, what do you think of?
Some people love ’em, some don’t know what the fuss is about, some wish they could go and can’t afford the time or money, some people went to one once and it was disappointing.
But the response that bothers me the most is this one: “I’m not really a Proper Writer yet, so I can’t go.”
I’ll give you a hot tip: writers conferences and festivals are packed with hopeful emerging writers. If you are still getting started as a writer, you will NOT be out of place.
Last month, I went to the Brisbane Writers Festival, my local festival, which is a doozy: 5 days, 20 venues, 35,000 people.
It’s not a “writers conference“, because a lot of readers go too. But there are a whole swag of events that help train, equip and motivate writers, ranging in price from fr*ee to $80 for a 3-hour workshop.
This year, I got more out of the festival than I ever have before. I’ve been thinking about what I did differently, so that I can try to do it again next year!
And I thought some of my experiences might also be helpful for you.
1. I made an investment in myself and planned ahead
Usually I think, “Gee I hope I get to go to some events this year. I hope I’m not too busy to go.” September rolls around (following on from August, as it seems to do every year so far), and my hair is on fire with deadlines, and I either get to only a couple of events, or none at all. And the ones I really wanted are booked out anyway. Dang.
This year I decided: This is important to my career as a writer, and it also helps me get a handle on where publishing is up to, which helps me both as a writer and a publishing consultant. Plus I can use it to come up with some blog posts. I’M GOING TO THE FESTIVAL.
- I checked what day the program would be coming out, and set a reminder in my calendar.
- That day, I went straight to the website and studied it.
- Two days contained the bulk of the workshops and events I wanted to attend, so I made a simple spreadsheet and worked out how they fitted together on those days.
- Some of my desired workshops were clashing or overlapping, so I talked it through with a friend so the discussion process could help me work out which one to choose – which ones would best suit my current needs for training or inspiration vs which content I could get some other way.
- I booked into a total of 7 events on 2 days. I paid. I blocked it out as a commitment in my calendar.
- When September came around, my hair was on fire with deadlines as usual, but one of those deadlines was Go To The Writers Festival!! SO I WENT.
The takehome for you?
- If you want to go to a writers conference or festival, plan ahead and commit to invest in yourself. It’s professional development. It’s valuable, and it’s a project like any other you might plan.
- Apply for the day/s off work, if needed. Arrange childcare in advance. We would do so for anything else that was important!
- Some of us truly can’t afford it, because we’re struggling to provide food and shelter for our families, so that’s obviously a different category. But for many of us, it’s just that we’re afraid to prioritise our writing over something we think our family might prefer… am I right??
- There might be some creative ways to put aside money from the family budget. For example, if you pay for an exercise class, maybe you could replace that with an unpaid form of exercise like walking, just for a couple of months. If you go to the movies each week, maybe you could replace that with a Scrabble night, for as long as it takes to save. They’re just examples – you’ll be able to think of something that suits you.
- Don’t forget that it might be possible to get a grant to attend. My state government has arts grants which enable people to gain professional development. You’d need to do some research to see what’s available where you live, and your local writers council or centre could be a good place to start asking.
2. I made targeted choices
These are the events I booked, and why:
- A workshop on developing your novel, because I am starting Book 2 in my fiction series. It took me several millennia to write Book 1 and, because I’m a Pantser, it got very messy near the end resolving all the problems I’d created for myself. 😉 I was hoping there might be a better way to do it next time, and this workshop looked like it might help me approach from a Plotter’s point of view.
- A session on writing true stories, because I’m also working on a memoir.
- A self-publishing panel, because I was curious to see what others operating in that space would be saying, at a festival-level event.
- An interview with a man who wrote an award-winning book on the history of the Great Barrier Reef. My next novel is set on the Great Barrier Reef. I wasn’t sure how much his content would be relevant to my actual needs, since it was focused on history rather than science or tourism, but I figured it would at least be interesting and also might be inspiring.
- A panel of former detectives, writers and criminologists on writing about murder, criminal motivation, and what crime scenes are really like. (My novels have crime/mystery elements.)
- A session on the way digital books are developing, to give me some inspiration for where we’re headed as an industry.
- A session with a man who wrote a book about rescuing his brain from a stroke he suffered at a young age. Just because it looked interesting. 🙂
The takehome for you?
- Think specifically about what might be helpful for you and your writing career. Analyse it. Don’t just choose the events that everyone else thinks are most important.
- Think laterally. What might be inspiring, even if it’s not absolutely, directly relevant to your project?
- Last year, I booked an expensive session with a literary agent who would read my first 20 pages. It was pretty disappointing, partly because I was too nervous to make the most of it. If I did it again, I’d go in with a set of questions, and suction all the feedback and inspiration I could out of that person’s brain, in the short time allocated. Almost no one gets representation from one of those events, so I wouldn’t even think about that possibility — just use it as a “feedback from a pro” opportunity. Your mileage may vary, of course. 😉
3. I was open to absorbing inspiration from unlikely places
- The self-publishing panel didn’t offer much that was new, but I got a picture of which questions were at the top of the audience’s mind. That can help me plan blog posts that might answer some of those questions, as it’s likely other people have those questions too.
- The session on digital books didn’t turn out to be what I was hoping for, and one of the panellists kept dropping f-bombs even though there was a young child sitting in the front row. *Sigh* 😉 However, I hung in there, and afterwards I met the guy who’s a representative for Kobo for Australia and got some useful ideas and a business card.
- However, I did actually sneak out of one session (don’t tell anyone)… NOT because it was uninteresting, just because it didn’t contain what I’d been looking for, and I knew I had a very big day to get through. So I made an executive decision that sitting with a chai latte and a sandwich was going to be a better use of the remaining half hour. 😉
The takehome for you? You’ll likely get some sessions that aren’t exactly what you expected, but that’s OK. Think creatively, and there’ll be ways to use the experience.
4. I made connections
An added reason I chose the events I did was because I could see that the presenter could be a good subject for a blog interview – someone my blog readers would like to hear from.
So I gathered up my courage and asked them for interviews at the end of the session. I got a nice collection of email addresses, so that I could do email interviews with them – and it’s always much easier to do that when you’ve previously met someone face to face.
Most presenters are writers, and they’re promoting a current book as well as presenting on a useful topic, so it’s a win/win. They get their book promoted to my blog readership, and my readers get some fantastic insights into a part of the writing or publishing process, from someone who’s been there, and done it well enough to be asked to present at a major festival.
I also connected with people who could help me with my projects.
I heard a fellow participant in a 3-hour workshop say he’d been a police detective. My antennae went up. For several of my upcoming novels, I’ll need some help with the police procedures. When I saw him later that day, I told him my plans and asked if he’d be willing to help me. He said yes! And we’ll be able to exchange skills and help each other with our writing projects.
AND I got this one… I’m still so excited about it I’m jumping around in my chair weeks later.
That history professor who wrote the book on the Great Barrier Reef? After his session, I bought his book, and followed him down to the book signing table. (No stalking; only following. 😉 )
My problem I needed to solve was this: my novel set on the reef has a major plot flaw that’s been blocking me. I needed a solid, plausible motivation for the mayhem that’s about to unfold for my hapless characters.
So I placed my copy of his book in front of him to sign, and then… screwed up my courage and said, “This will probably sound odd, but I’m writing a novel set on the reef, and I’m having a problem. I’ve been doing a lot of research but I can’t decide what’s on the reef that’s worth killing for.”
He said — wait for it — “Ooh, I’d been hoping I’d get one of these!” I can’t stop smiling, even thinking of it weeks later! He wasn’t just an academic, he was a writer too. How easily we forget that…
And then he said ONE WORD. And it was the answer. Synapses fired, I saw connections and possibilities. And all my plot roadblocks came tumbling down. I think I may actually have done a happy dance, right there in the signing line.
You’re thinking, “Well, what’s the one word?? Tell us, Belinda!” Ha. You’ll have to read the book. 😉 😀
But suffice to say, it solves my plot problem, and the professor even gave me the name of a researcher I can contact about it, and his own email address in case I have any more questions.
Oh, how I love writers festivals. 🙂
The takehome for you?
- Think ahead about who you might like to meet and talk to. Keep your ears open. Think about specific aspects of your writing, your project, or perhaps something you could blog about.
- Approach people. You might be nervous, but they probably are too. And so often, they’ll actually be pleased to make contact with you.
- Look for the win/win opportunities. Don’t just ask for things for you — look for ways you could help them in return.
- Go to the conference or festival by yourself, if you can. Yes, I know that might sound intimidating, but I’ve noticed that when people go with friends, they often just talk to those friends and miss the chance to meet other writers. If they go alone, they’re more alert to the possibilities. Your mileage may vary, as always.
So, what’s your take on writers conferences and festivals? Have you been to one? Are you going? Have you learnt some things that you can share with us, about how to make the most of the opportunities?
Wendy Smith says
What a detailed blog and some fantastic advice – thanks Belinda!
I must admit that the very first couple of Brisbane Writer’s Festivals I attended, I walked away excited and inspired and motivated – just like you appeared to be. But then the next couple just didn’t hit the mark for me (yes, it could have been something to do with the sessions I chose to attend… and yes, I did walk out of a couple too) and I was probably “too busy” to take them in properly – running back and forth from work to a few of the sessions. And I didn’t make it to the last couple of festivals at all.
Hmm, it’s February now, will I get myself organised and get to the writers festival this year…? With a new attitude to go!?
Belinda Pollard says
Wendy, I found BWF 2015 a bit flat for me, and I couldn’t quite figure out if it was the festival, or just me. (This article was about the 2014 festival.) One workshop I went to was supposed to be tips from a famous editor, but it was far too simplistic to be any use. So yes, it’s aways up and down. But then I went to GenreCon in Brisbane in October 2015, for the first time, not expecting much at all… and it was fabulous. Can’t wait for the next one, but they only happen every 2 years. So I’ll persevere with conferences and festivals, because although there’s some dross, there are also those moments of pure gold. Hope you have success with the next one!
D.G. Kaye says
Hi Belinda. Great article! As Toronto is having its first annual bookfair next month, this was very helpful. 🙂
Belinda Pollard says
Ooh, how exciting, Debby. I hope it’s a great adventure. 🙂