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  • Writer's picturePaige

What I Learned at My First Writing Conferences

Much to my own surprise, travel nursing brought me to Salt Lake City in the middle of winter. It’s been snowy and cold, but being in Utah has also afforded me the opportunity to learn from popular authors like Holly Black, Dan Wells, Neal Shusterman, and Jessica Day George.

In February, I got the chance to attend Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUE), a conference for all things sci-fi and fantasy. The event consisted of three days of panels, workshops, and discussions about everything from Dungeons and Dragons to futuristic technologies to how to write a first draft of a novel.

Then, in March, I was able to volunteer for the Teen Author Boot Camp (TABC), where hundreds of middle and high school students attended similar talks, workshops and book signings.

These two events not only put me into the same room with hundreds of like-minded individuals – most of whom were dressed up in cosplay or wearing other bookish outfits that made me say “I understood that reference”– but the experience also helped me learn a lot about the writing process. I wanted to share some of those nuggets of wisdom with the Inkwells & Anvils community, so without further ado, here’s what I learned at my first writing conferences.

Writing time is sacred

As much as I hate having to be the one to tell you (and myself) this, you have to write in order to be a writer. That looks different for everyone. Some people can write consistently every day, others have full time jobs and families and obligations that demand their time. The important thing is to set aside some time to write, whether that’s daily or monthly or somewhere in between, and keep that time blocked off ONLY for writing. Even if it’s only one or two sentences, progress is still progress, and you can’t edit a book that you haven’t written yet!

It’s safe to say that everyone in attendance at these writing conferences took their writing time seriously. Why else would we spend hundreds of dollars to listen to authors tell us how to improve? Many of the people I met at LTUE had been writing for most of their lives, even if it was only intermittent. If that sounds like you, I challenge you to take the next step. Prioritize your writing time, even if it’s on your lunch break once per week, and you will begin to see changes in your skill, your inspiration, and your progress.

Writing is an experiment, not an exam

There is no right or wrong way to draft – any words that you put on the paper are great practice. Your first draft will look nothing like your final draft, and that’s okay. The first iteration(s) of your story is how you figure out what you want to say. It’s not going to be perfect the first time. I need someone to tattoo this on my forehead to remind me, too.

Some people are world builders, and others start with a single character. Some are die hard plotters, and others can only write the words as they come. Whatever your preferred style, there’s always something to learn from other writers. If there’s something in particular you are struggling with, read books from an author who does that skill well.

The great thing about writing conferences is that there’s never a shortage of minds who know how writers think, and who can help you workshop something that isn’t quite working. Ask questions! Ask your peers, ask the presenters, email your favorite authors. One thing I’ve learned is that writers love to help out their writer friends. It’s often much easier to fix someone else’s plot problem than it is to see the glaring issues in our own works.

Try out various techniques and suggestions, see what works for your story, and mix and match the skills to create your perfect writer toolbox. Whether you’re working on a short story or an epic series, the most important thing is to finish what you start so you have some results to show for all of your hard work.

Creativity begets creativity

As soon as you start writing, the shiny new ideas will begin to attack from every direction – don’t take the bait. Write down whatever snippet has entered your mind, but don’t get fixated on it. There’s nothing worse than having hundreds of “Chapter One”s and not a single “The End”.

Your brain does a funny thing where, as soon as the creativity starts flowing, bigger and better ideas start to come along. The very act of being creative inspires us to seek inspiration from everything we encounter. At a writing conference, there’s no shortage of bright shiny ideas to grab your attention. Hearing about other people’s work in progress, you might start to second guess your original idea. Don’t fall for the dopamine rush. Instead, write down what inspires you about the idea, and move along.

Surrounding yourself with other writers, whether that’s at a conference or your local library, lets you bounce ideas off one another. Often while brainstorming a solution to someone else’s problem, you will find a way to navigate forward in your own draft.

At a conference, you will have plenty of good ideas coming your way, but if you ever want to finish a project, you’ll have to stick with just one. Save the rest for later, and you’ll have an abundance of projects to work on in the future.

Writing groups are everything

There’s not too much I have to add to this point outside of what has already been said on our various blog posts. Little puts it perfectly in her article: “Find your people, and don’t let them go.”

Having a writer’s group has done more for me as a person than just supplying me with victims to torture with my latest plot holes and chaos drafting. Joining the Wordsmiths has brought me some of my closest friends, prayer warriors, fellow Disney adults, and people who will listen to me rant about long-dead Nickelodeon shows for days on end. They help me solve dialogue issues, inspire me to reach my goals, and occasionally smack me with the content-whacking-stick when they want more chapters to read.

There are people out there in the world, on the internet, who are excited to read my work, who love my characters as much as I do, and who want to help each other become better writers, better Catholics, and better humans. Knowing this has brought me more joy and productivity than I could have dreamed of having as a solitary writer.

As one of the conference presenters said, “If you’re not in a writing group, you’re not a writer – you’re just a typist.” I beg you, find writer friends. Find them at the library, find them on Twitter, or find them here, in our very own Discord server. Bonus points if you find a group with all the same nerdy interests as yours.

If you truly don’t know where to begin, most writing conferences have author meetups where you can meet other writers working in your specific genre. There are also tables full of business cards, brochures, and other freebies that can connect you with dozens of resources like writing groups, webinars, even editors. If you need any more reasons to find writer friends, this post is worth a reread.

Don’t kill the dog

Just don’t.

This advice could probably be a morbid little metaphor for something, but in this case I am being completely literal. If you have a dog in the narrative, for however brief of time, you absolutely positively must not kill it. Your readers will never forgive you. Don’t kill the dog.

You may be thinking, Paige, you are exaggerating. But no. One of the LTUE panelists actually had this happen to them, and they continue to receive hate mail about it to this day. It might sound silly, but it seemed a sentiment worth sharing. I know that writers are always told to “murder your darlings”, but please promise me you’ll leave Fido alone.

To write a heroic story, you must live a heroic life

The most impactful, and perhaps the most profound piece of advice I heard at my first writing conference was this: To write a heroic story, you must live a heroic life.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you’re going out and slaying a dragon or toppling a dystopian government, but that you must take charge of your life and your situation to set yourself up for success. Onyie Onyeabor, who gave a talk about overcoming adversity and becoming the author of your dreams, said: “Your premise and setting does not dictate your character.”

Whatever your circumstances in life, whatever hand you’ve been dealt, wherever you’re at, you must be authentically yourself. Do not let the world tell you who to be, what to write, or how to live. If writing is something you are passionate about, follow your best (and worst) ideas through to the end. It is difficult, and some days it feels nearly impossible, but if you don’t start somewhere, you will surely never hit the finish line.

Writing is a heroic and intimidating endeavor, but it is also a worthwhile pursuit into the depths of the human experience that can help you understand both yourself and the world around you. If you set out to tell an amazing story, be sure to also fill your life with inspirational experiences and meaningful relationships.

The application of this advice will look different for everyone, but I highly recommend attending a writing conference at some point. Not only will you encounter hundreds of people who share the same enthusiasm for storytelling, but you will also improve your craft and learn from the people who have been exactly where you are. After all, who better to teach you than the authors who have accomplished what you’re currently dreaming about?

“No one asked us to write these stories, but here we are, suffering together.”

- Jess Smart Smiley, LTUE 41

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