What are conferences for?
I know what cons are for and I love them for it: fans of a medium exchange squees. Cons are also hugely important culturally — unironic enthusiasm is a joy to be shared, and the sheer glee of a good con is hard to resist.
I have usually attended cons as an aspiring author, though, and while cons often have craft tracks in their sessions providing resources to help creators to find their way, the majority of the programming is giving space for fans to appreciate the things they are there to appreciate.
Conferences, by contrast, are working spaces: peers talking to each other on technical topics, networking, and finding opportunities.
Cons can be enjoyed as a consumer only with little planning. Conferences work best with forward planning and effort.
Going into Willamette Writers this year, I didn’t really have a plan.
Last year I had specific goals around pitching, and following those goals (from the pitch workshop to the pitch sessions and the inevitable post mortems) was fruitful both in terms of pitch response and making contact with other similar-stage writers.
This year I went tired and a bit grumpy. I need to keep myself accountable when food is available and I wasn’t sure how supportive of my plan the catered meals were going to be, so I brought my breakfast with me along with my very necessary flask of tea. That was a good choice. I also finally learned that I need to bring a top-up thermos of tea to get me through the afternoon in better shape.
Despite all these intimations of disaster relating to this year’s proceedings, I ended up having a grand old time.
One serious error last year was that I didn’t know when the best times to hit the pitch sessions, and so I missed sessions I would have enjoyed. This year I wasn’t pitching which meant I only had to contend with interesting sessions being scheduled on top of each other!
I learnt a lot, though. Just on the first day I learned about maintaining momentum in a manuscript, crafting a plausible antagonist, and making credible characters in incredible situations (the last was from the marvellous Charlie Jane Anders). I also learned (as if I didn’t already know) that most of my craft is instinctual rather than conscious: I know what works, but I don’t necessarily know why.
My strategy this year was to stick to sessions which aligned with current interests. The off-beat sessions last year were interesting (and I wouldn’t have done any audio experimentation without them) but more tightly relevant sessions this year meant I learnt yet more about tension in manuscripts, for example, as well as ideas on platform building.
And I met more terrific people. The greatest strength of this conference, still, is its community. As one of my new friends said, by the end of the conference everybody knows everybody.
It’s a good place to be.
I am still processing the massive influx of new information but I do know I have a few things to follow up on, and some thinking to do about how to advance my writing career.
Until next year, then.