Image Credit: A very big thank you to Geoff Parkes for kind permission to use some of his photos from the recent Swanwick Writers’ Summer School.
Why should writers get to a good writing conference if they can and not just the once?
The obvious benefits are learning new skills, how to improve those you already have, or both, from a wide range of speakers. You literally tap their knowledge and experience and apply it to your own writing. If you need to know more about editing, you go and listen to top tips from an editor working widely in the industry etc.
There are less obvious benefits. One is boosting confidence. It may seem strange but writers, especially when starting out, have to almost be convinced by someone else they can call themselves a writer. Mixing with others at a conference like the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School or the Winchester Writers’ Festival can provide an invaluable boost to the way you see yourself and your writing.
You also get to practice pitching to a certain extent. What is the first question any writer asks of another? What are you writing? The great thing with this is you can learn from how your response goes down as to whether you are on to something with your pitch or whether it needs work. (If it’s any consolation, we all need to work on our pitches. It’s an ongoing thing). If you’re avoiding getting the “eyes glazed over” look, that is good! (Oh and you get better, by regular visits to conferences, at spotting when people are just being polite. You don’t need that. The eyes glazed over look is at least honest).
I guess there is also a need to be accepted by your peers, regardless of what your peer group may be. By becoming a regular at conferences, you will make friends and, trust me, when the latest rejection comes in, you will be glad of said chums as they will have had their own fair share of turn downs and will know exactly where you’re coming from when you need to “vent”. (Doing this over a glass of wine at a convivial event is very healing and good for you, I find!).
I’ve also found it useful to go to courses that are both directly relevant to what I’m working on/likely to be working on soon and to those which are outside of what I do. Why? You have your eyes opened to new writing possibilities for one thing. It’s then up to you whether you decide to have a go at those or not, but sometimes something I’ve learned from a course outside of my usual sphere has made me reassess what I write and come at it from a different angle.
For example, I went on a novel writing course at Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, which was great fun and is relevant to me as I am reworking a book I wrote many years ago and which I think now has more potential for all manner of reasons. The exercises set during this course have led me to spot how things could be improved directly on that book but also enabled me to draft something which will become a piece of flash fiction in due course. Double whammy as far as I’m concerned! I love those moments of “illumination” where good ideas come to you and you half wonder why they’d not occurred to you before but sometimes I think you need someone else to almost act as your conduit.
You also learn a great deal from what might seem like irrelevant topics and you never know when you might be glad of that knowledge later on. It is not uncommon for writers to either change direction with their writing or, even more frequently, decide to develop a second string to their creative bow. (This is when the pen names usually come into play. Literally, a writer will have one brand of stories for one name and a second for anything else, especially if it is wildly different from anything they have had published before). Secondly, all writers play with words and it is fascinating to find out how others do so in their chosen field. Again, there are likely to be tips to pick up that you can apply to your own work.
One of the best sources of information about news of competitions is at the lunch/dinner table as writers exchange news of ones they’ve gone in for, how they did, and so on. So it pays to make friends! The nice thing about Swanwick is that for one week, a group of writers live and breathe writing (which is fantastic in and of itself) but, in being prepared to engage with other writers in a friendly manner, you are likely to find some snippet of information useful to you. It’s also a great place to exchange words about publishers, agents, scams doing the rounds etc, so keep your ears open. The writing community is generally supportive of each other, which is one of the major things I love about it.
Most of the courses at Swanwick had exercises set within them, so these proved to be interactive sessions. Joining in with these helps you practice writing to order but also helps you relax as you read your work back and get used to doing so. When reading a piece out loud, you can literally hear if the audience response is what you intended and at the right place in the story etc. I found taking part in the Swanwick Prose Open Mic incredibly useful due to that. The thing to remember here is nobody is expecting perfection, which is just as well! The work on editing and polishing writing is what you do when you get back home again but you should also take home encouragement and tips on how you can improve things.
A good conference will have a mix of different topics, covering different writing genres, and have sessions aimed at a general level (so that writers of all levels will get something useful out of the talks and topics). Where there are guest speakers, nearly all of these share something of their road to publication and so much can be learned from that. It is also very encouraging to know you are not the only one where all that seems to come through the post are rejections.
It is even more encouraging to know that Writer X kept going and they ended up with a good publishing deal. Persistence pays. As does keeping an eye on the market and look to see how it changes. (Tastes come and go in fiction, but the emergence of the indie press gives more places for a writer to submit work to and, given the indie press tend to specialise in their niche, targeting the right one is easier than it once might have been).
A good conference will enable you to share the frustrations, as well as the joys of writing, and help you know you are definitely not alone. And talking things over a drink or two with people who will understand where you’re coming from is wonderful. Am I going back to Swanwick next year? You just try keeping me off the phone when the bookings open again…
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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