Going to a conference, especially when it’s your first one, is always scary. Though I’ve been writing for years and heard about countless opportunities in my local area, I never made the leap to attend. My writer self wanted to go, but the introvert part of me wondered if I’d have anyone to talk to, if I’d be too intimidated to approach the faculty, and if I’d end up feeling more discouraged about writing at the end of the weekend than when I arrived.
When I was graciously awarded one of the scholarships to attend the 2016 Pocono Retreat, I no longer had a choice! I was going to my first conference, despite being afraid. All those frightening thoughts popped up again, making me question if this was the right thing, and if I was “conference material.” Maybe I wasn’t. Maybe I could continue to write in solitude. Now that it’s over, I can say this:
WOW, was I wrong. So wrong. Probably the most wrong I’ve ever been in my life!
Not only did I talk to tons of people, including agents (!), but I also learned the answer to worrying questions I had about my current manuscript, and met some new writing buddies. In addition to the great sessions (and food), I came away with momentum and a new outlook on the value of conferences.
While I could write pages about my experience, I’ve condensed it down to five lessons I learned:
1. Agents and editors are human. In my overactive imagination, I expected the faculty to arrive on chariots trailing fire. After all, these are the experts! The people who grant entrance into the publishing industry. But, after ten minutes of being surrounded by these amazing people, I learned they’re surprisingly human—just regular people who are not only nice and funny, but willing to help. They are there to answer your burning questions and give you their honest opinion about your work. So, if you’re petrified by the idea of speaking with agents or editors, then I would urge you to attend a small event where you can get to know them casually. That’s why the Pocono Retreat is such a great opportunity; I highly recommend it to all first-timers entering the conference circuit.
2. Critique groups! The most frequent question I was asked throughout the weekend was, “Are you in a critique group?” And my answer, sadly, was no. Joining a critique group is something I’ve avoided for years, but this was the kick in the pants I needed to finally see the light. I met so many amazing people that I began to understand how each opinion can help me see my story in a new way and open the door to new possibilities. We all want our work to be the best it can be, and writing without feedback is a sure way to never grow as a storyteller. At the Eastern PA SCBWI, we are lucky to have Virginia Law Manning, our Critique Group Coordinator/Guru, to organize our local critique groups page (http://epa.scbwi.org/local-critique-groups/). I’ll definitely be checking it out!
3. Scholarships are worth the effort, and they’re available. Conferences can be expensive. Between travel, lodging, meals, and extra pitch sessions, you can end up questioning if the money is worth it. As I previously mentioned, I was awarded one of the scholarships to attend the 2016 Pocono Retreat—an opportunity I couldn’t have otherwise afforded. If this is your situation as well, I urge you to apply next year because the value you’ll receive is ten-fold to the effort you’ll put into the cover letter and polishing your manuscript sample. In addition to the Pocono Retreat, there are other scholarships out there for conference attendance; I found a slew of results when I did an online search using the term “scholarships for writing conferences.” The first step is research, and then committing to finding something that’s right for you.
4. Meeting writers is just as important as writing. This should be a no-brainer, but it’s still worth saying that meeting other writers is an opportunity to learn and be encouraged. The ability to talk about your passion and get into the specifics of your own work is invaluable. Knowing others are striving for a common goal can provide you with an added push to finish what you started, or tackle something you’ve been avoiding, such as social media or joining a critique group (see above.) At any moment, you might meet someone who will take your writing career to the next level just by making a suggestion. As someone who didn’t previously have any writing friends, I came away from the Pocono Retreat feeling embraced by my community and excited to support my peers.
5. Don’t be intimidated by going alone. The thought of going alone to the Pocono Retreat was terrifying, but the truth is this: we’re all scared. No matter how outgoing your personality is or isn’t, it’s always going to feel weird to approach strangers and introduce yourself. While I found the vibe of this conference to be really friendly and accepting, I still prepared by following some of my fellow SCBWI EPA members on Twitter, which gave me an opportunity to break the ice with people I’d “met” online. Those first introductions gave way to discussions about books and writing, about our experiences with querying or what flaws we saw in our own work. All it took to feel comfortable was reaching out online, or being willing to ask a question, or issue a compliment, and I was on my way. Now that I’ve done it once, I know I can do it again. Practice makes perfect!
If you attended the recent 2016 Pocono Retreat, then you hopefully returned with a good dose of inspiration, things to work on, and some new friends! I’d love to hear about the valuable lessons you learned. Share in the comments!