By Amy Brown
Where we find inspiration as authors is the theme this month at The Author Lab. In the past six months I’ve found a huge source of inspiration in attending three writing conferences with a fourth coming up in Stockholm in April. There is strength in numbers, meeting other writers and getting the advice of agents, editors and other industry experts to get better at craft and to navigate the challenges of getting published.
These conferences are golden networking opportunities to find not only a community of writers who understand the same struggle, but also to find those valuable industry contacts. Each conference has not only provided me with essential information on publishing, both self-publishing and traditional but also insight into becoming a better writer. No matter how long you’ve been writing and working at your craft, there is more to be learned. I found myself at many sessions scribbling ideas in my notebook for the current manuscript I was working on. There is nothing like being surrounded by dozens, hundreds, even thousands of creative souls to get your own juices flowing. Here are some highlights of the conferences that have helped summon my muse:
October 2017: Through the annual Florida Writers Association conference in Orlando, FL, I’ve been able to form a community of writers where I live in Florida. This conference brings together published authors sharing craft tips, agents offering pitch opportunities and insights into the publishing world, and the camaraderie of a diverse community of writers. The FWA sponsors two annual competitions: a contest to write a 1,200-word themed piece for their annual collection (where my work has been published in the past two years) and the Royal Palm Literary Competition (where my unpublished middle grade novel won First Place in 2016). I’ve also served as judge for the RPLA. The organization’s motto is “writers helping writers” and I’ve enjoyed giving back for all I’ve received in recognition and publishing and pitch opportunities.
January 2018: The annual conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Regional chapter in Florida, /held in Miami in January was a smaller conference but attracted some top agents and editors (what New York agent isn’t enticed by the prospect of Miami in January?) I liked its small size for the opportunity to easily fall into conversation with other writers and I literally on the spot made an elevator pitch at an elevator, to an agent, when she asked what I was working on. “Send me the full manuscript,” she said, handing me her card. These are the kinds of magic moments that can happen at a conference. (I’d like to report she snapped me up as a client and the book has been sold, but alas, it’s not that fairytale ending). The inspiration came in the form of talks by brilliant children’s authors like Sara Pennypacker whose latest book Pax is a National Book Award Longlist recipient. She generously shared with us the “Top Ten Things I Learned From Being a Children’s Writer,” including “Creation is a river. We create the river; the river will take us and we will take others with us.”
March 2018: The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), is the biggest writer’s conference in North America. The 2018 event, attended by 7,000 people, was being held in nearby Tampa, FL so I grabbed the opportunity to find out what this event was all about. AWP is a huge convention with dozens of events led by prominent authors, editors and academics. There are panels, readings, workshops and networking opportunities. It was amazing how accessible famous authors were and how generous they were with their time. Some authors sat on panels and would answer questions both during and after the event. Others writers could be approached after their readings and most were happy to chat as well as sign their books. Man Book Prize winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo, keynote speaker, George Saunders, deserves a special mention for his wonderful talk and for his kindness in making everyone feel welcome and included.
AWP is all about networking, so if a friend of a friend knows someone who knows an agent, AWP is a great place to be introduced. There are also many informal and accidental opportunities to speak with agents. This is the place to literally try your elevator pitch in the elevator or while waiting in line at the concession stand.
As for finding a publisher, editors from some of the big New York publishing houses were in attendance, but they almost never speak with a writer directly. However, many small independent publishers, generally all looking for adult fiction, had tables at the book fair and were quite open to queries and submissions. My writer friend walked away with a number of good names in her pocket to contact if that New York agent doesn’t call.
AWP is a whirlwind. There were approximately twenty different events scheduled at one hour and fifteen-minute intervals from nine in the morning until ten o’clock at night. Thousands of writers scrambled between the Tampa Convention Center and the Marriott Waterfront Hotel to find the rooms they wanted. If they weren’t fast enough, they’d find themselves sitting on the floor or standing at the back of popular panels and events. There wasn’t even a break for meals. There were so many choices that whatever you did, you missed two other things you wanted to attend. Writers with enough stamina went on to the evening reception where they enjoyed a live band and free wine or read at the late night open mic.
It’s definitely a way to get a writer’s adrenalin fired up! I packed a lunch and pushed myself all day and night to pack in as much as I could, even those evening readings. I popped into the dance party with the open bar one night. As thousands of MFA students let off steam dancing (and imbibing) wildly, I made mental notes of a party scene in a future novel and took myself to bed to dream up new stories.
April 2018: From April 13-15 I will be attending the more intimate kind of conference I like best, the Stockholm Writers Festival, the Swedish capital’s first-ever writers’ conference in English. It was the brainchild of my friend Catherine Petterson, as she shares in this recent article, and the Stockholm Writers Group that I helped found many years ago. Realizing that there were many writers working in English in Sweden and Scandinavia, and elsewhere in Europe, Catherine thought the time was ripe to have a festival in Sweden, where there is a high degree of English fluency. Through persistence, luck and charm, Catherine and team have put together a fantastic three days of immersion in craft and opportunities to pitch to top agents, under the theme of “find your path to published.” I understand it’s not too late to book a ticket, although there are only a handful left. Haven’t you always wanted to visit Stockholm? And if that wasn’t enough allure, the keynote speaker is the exceptional New York Times acclaimed novelist Elinor Lipman. I’m looking forward to a stimulating few days in Stockholm next month.