"It's impossible to discourage the real writers; they don't give a damn what you say." Sinclair Lewis

Monday, April 11, 2011

Why You Should Not Just Stay Home and Write

Ernest Hemingway is reported to have told writers, “Go home and write.” This line is often repeated at various writers’ conferences. However, for the past two weeks I’ve explored upcoming writing conferences in spite of Hemingway’s advice. Why? Because I need to learn more about writing fiction for adults. Updating my skills in writing the pitch, query letter and synopsis might be helpful, too. I’ve been teaching teens for the past eight years and the book credits to my name are in the children’s category.

One reason I attend a conference is to meet writers and make friendships. Two weeks after I moved to Idaho Falls, I learned of an August conference sponsored by Blue Sage Writers. That is how I joined this monthly critique group. Writers usually understand other writers and the dilemmas they face. Should I submit my latest article to Fly Fishers Anonymous or Catch ‘Em While You Can? How should I introduce the hero in my romance set on Mars? I’ve written this great party scene at the White House, and I love it; that means I need to cut it, right? There’s nothing like discussing story crafting and marketing conundrums over a cup of coffee or a cool soda or something more for those who imbibe. A conference can offer the perfect venue.

Another reason I attend conferences is to learn the latest techniques in market strategy. I find out which editors are willing to read manuscripts and how materials should be delivered. No, blocking an agent’s entrance to the restroom until she takes your manuscript still isn’t in vogue. Yes, I’ve witnessed this scene years ago, developing empathy for agents and editors. I understand many read unsolicited query letters or manuscripts in bed trying to fall asleep. But, do they read them on their Blackberries, I-phones, or Kindles? Are some still reading paper? How do I learn their preferences? Most importantly, how do I keep them from falling asleep reading my manuscript? At a writers’ conference I learn these answers and more.

I gain insight into the writing and editing process. I’m using a plan to write my first romance that I learned in a workshop from Margaret Chittenden aka Rosalind Carson. No author crosses more markets or is more prolific than Jane Yolen and my ten day workshop with her still motivates me to keep writing and rewriting. I’ve laughed and cried and taken home a renewed sense of the dedication it takes to be a writer from listening to Stella Cameron, Debbie Macomber, Rita Dove, Leonard Robinson, William Stafford, Michael Curtis and many others. I’m name-dropping because excellent writers and editors find time to be part of workshops and conferences. Find the person to inspire you among this year’s presenters.

Finally, I’m looking at fall and winter conferences because by then I intend to have my romance novel completed. That means I will need an agent or an editor or both. My former agent, now retired, accepted me as her client on the recommendation of another agent I met at a conference. Sure, I do my marketing homework before a conference. For me that means reading the best-selling novels in the romance line that seems most like mine. I’ve read dedications and acknowledgments, making note of agents and editors mentioned. I’m scrutinizing lists of presenters at conferences before making my final choice. Then I’ll register, keep writing, and looking forward to my opportunities.

When you attend that conference, keep these seven tips in mind.

1. Research the conferences that meet your needs. You may need a conference that is nearby. Or, you may need a conference with workshops to hone your skills, or one that will accept you as a member on a panel, or offers a 10-20 minute appointment with an editor or agent. What is most important to you? If cost is a factor, some “festivals” are free and will offer benefits similar to those of large conferences, especially if you are new to the writing community. Check out conferences in the March/April issue of Poets&Writers magazine, or the April issue of The Writer, or online at the listings below.

2. Register early and arrive early at the conference. Appointments with editors and agents fill up fast. Some workshops offer critiques of sample chapters, if materials are sent weeks before the conference. Meet the deadlines. When you arrive at your conference check to be sure you have the selections you want. If there is a last minute change, make the best possible arrangement for you.

3. Volunteer to help with a conference, especially if it is local. Offer to serve as a host/hostess. Some conferences need drivers for guest editors and agents. Many welcome help preparing before the conference. You will make friends in the writing community, and may have more time with editors and agents, if you are willing to help.

4. Be prepared. Do your research before the conference, learning as much as you can about the visiting writers, editors and agents. Check out their articles, blogs, books, guidelines, submission policies, and websites. Know their preferences and pet peeves.

5. Write and practice your pitch. Like a hook, it’s the sentence or two that grabs your reader’s attention. One book* describes it as the “ooh factor.” Immediately the listener knows your idea and knows what to expect as far as genre, style and concept. If time allows, introduce the handle that includes theme, audience and a comparison to other best sellers. A pitch should be 30-60 seconds long. Write it! Practice until it’s perfect!

6. Be courteous. You can be assertive and civil. Take the time to silence your cell phone. No one wants to hear “The Charge of the Light Brigade” at maximum volume as an editor describes what he most wants in a book proposal. Listen to responses to your work; don’t waste time defending it or discussing past triumphs. Don’t make any comment you might regret. The publishing world is smaller than you think.

7. Finally, make time to meet your needs. You may want to skip one session and take a walk. Remember, most conferences allow time to “schmooze” with others at the conference. If you are exhausted, you won’t be at your best for early or late gatherings.

Check out the following resources. Surf the Internet for others. Make the most of the opportunities that open up for you at a writers’ conference.

* Your Novel Proposal: from Creation to Contract by Blythe Camenson and Marshall J. Cook,
Writer’s Digest Books, 1999.

Poets&Writers magazine at www.pw.org/conferences_and_residencies

Romance Writers of America at www.rwa.org/cs/conferences_and_events

Writer’s Market at www.writersmarket.com/PaidServices/MarketListings/Conferences/search/1955816397

Copyright 2011 Carol Curtis Stilz

--Carol Stilz

Carol Stilz lives with her two feline friends in Idaho Falls. She has co-chaired the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in Tacoma, Washington. Carol is the author of Kirsty’s Kite, published by Albatross Books of Australia, and Grandma Buffalo, May and Me published by Sasquatch Books of Seattle. Both books won awards at writers’ conferences. Her writing has appeared in textbooks for children, as well as Cricket, Montana Magazine, Fur-Fish-Game and The Flyfisher. She contributed to a weekly food column for five years, which appeared in The Olympian, a Gannet newspaper. Carol has served as a writing coach to children and taught workshops for adults at Flathead Valley Community College, St. Martin’s College and The Evergreen State College, while editing for a Fortune 50 author.


  1. Carol, you should send this to the RWR! This should be read by more people. It's a great post, and you zero in on what we can do to make the process easier.