This weekend I’ll be attending the Writers’ League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference here in Austin. I’m excited because WLT always puts together a spectacular schedule for writers and invites a bunch of top-notch people from the publishing industry. But I haven’t been to a conference in a while, so I’m taking a moment to review my 10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Conference Experience. Maybe you should too!
If you’re also coming to the conference this weekend, let me know, and if you’re a first timer, hit me up with any questions you have. I’ve been to this event before and used to volunteer at it, so I know my way around pretty well. I’d be happy to help you navigate it. ☺
A couple of years ago, during my week of 10 Writing Tips in 5 Days, I wrote a post called “Join the Club” about becoming a member of writing organizations and attending events and going to conferences. At the time, I was talking to myself as much as anyone else, because I was still a newbie at the whole networking thing and I needed that push to get involved.
Luckily, I took my own advice and got out there, and I’m so glad I did. I’ve grown more as a writer, learned more about the publishing business, and met so many more people than I ever could have by staying in front of my computer. Now that I have a few conferences under my belt, I want to share my…
Ten Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Conference Experience
I love my home. I love my husband. I love my life. But two days ago, I took my dog and left it all behind.
Let me explain.
Teaching takes a lot out of you. Not only is it a lot of work, but it’s a lot of extroversion. You have to be ON all day, summoning patience and smiles and enthusiasm even when they don’t come naturally. On a good day, you get a conference period or two, during which you can bask in forty-six minutes of alone time (mostly spent checking emails or grading papers). But sometimes (like the past two weeks, for instance) practically every second of your conference time is taken up with meetings, which means you have to keep that patient, enthusiastic smile plastered on your face all day.
I love my job, but there are many days where I go home after work and just sit in a quiet room, alone, for half an hour. And often fall asleep. So, when spring break arrives, I’m not screaming, “LET’S PARTY!” and calling all the friends I haven’t seen in ages. Instead, I’m craving comfy clothes, quiet spaces, books, blankets, and tea.
All of which I have at home, which begs the question: Why did I run away?
Let me explain some more.
Writing puts a lot into you. Not only is it mental and emotional work, but it also opens the floodgates of creativity. I’m not good at compartmentalizing my writing. I’m not one of those writers who writes a chapter on her lunch break or gets to the doctor’s office a few minutes early and whips up a couple hundred words of a short story. I wish I could work that way, but I can’t. For me, it’s all or nothing. When I’m writing, I’m not doing anything else, and when I truly open my mind to the creative process, the ideas and inspirations start flowing in. While writing a chapter of my novel, I might also jot down notes for a story, or quickly pen a poem, or doodle a cartoon for my next blog post. My brain is everywhere all at once, and it can be very rewarding to get in to that zone, but there’s no room for laundry or alarm clocks or needy pets or schedules. I need time and lots of it, with no responsibilities except to the process. So, when holidays arrive, I often tell myself I’m going to finish those writing projects, but secretly I know that unread emails and unpaid bills and well-meaning friends and family will likely keep me from truly taking the dive.
And that’s why I ran away from home for spring break. To write and relax and be among people I don’t have to smile at or talk to. It’s temporary, but much needed.
Originally, I was going to take a solo journey, but then I remembered what happened at the Books With Bite Workshop. There, I was in a cabin by myself, but friendly faces were just a few yards away, and I knew the following morning we’d all have breakfast together, my absence noted if some dark thing dragged me away in the night. Since I generally prefer for dark things not to drag me away in the night, I decided to bring one responsibility with me—my faithful guard dog.
So here we are, at a cabin in an undisclosed location in the Hill Country. I’m reading and writing and walking and napping and basking in the sounds of nature (and the sounds of teenagers whose behavior I do not have to monitor). So far, I’ve finished two books, drafted one and a half blog posts, written two poems, added 1,000 words to a promising short story, and snuck up on my novel-in-progress to spy on it. (I’m planning my attack.) Uno’s stats are not quite as inspiring, although he has peed on an impressive number of trees and chewed on some fairly large sticks.
I think my favorite moment so far was the first evening of my stay, when Uno had finally stopped growling at every tiny noise, and I sat down to do a Tarot reading (as you do on the first night of an adventure). I was itching to get to writing, so I decided to do a simple three-card spread about my retreat, symbolizing what led me here, what will happen here, and how it will affect me. My Halloween cards never let me down, and they came through once again. The first card couldn’t have been more perfect.
According to The Halloween Tarot by Karin Lee, the Two of Pumpkins (Two of Pentacles in the traditional deck) “signifies duality, or a struggle for balance. The masked jester balances on her tip-toes, weighing two jack-o-lanterns (lit and happy on one side, dark and sinister on the other) in her hands.” Yep. A balancing act, indeed. These three days away are all about me holding on to just one pumpkin for a change.
The rest of the reading was spot-on too, but I’m going to keep that bit of magic to myself.
Tomorrow Uno and I will go back home. A few days from now, I’ll go back to work for the last long stretch before the end of the school year. I’ll pack my patience and enthusiasm and extrovert self to take with me. And my smile? Well… I never truly put that away. 🙂
When most people hear Highlights, they think of colorful magazines strewn across end tables at doctors’ offices. They think of “Find It” pictures and Goofus & Gallant. They think of stories for children. But there is much more to the Highlights Foundation than just their seventy-year literary legacy, and I got a small taste of it last weekend at the Books with Bite workshop.
My trip began with a tour of Highlights and Boyds Mills Press in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, just a few miles away from the retreat center. It was interesting to learn that the magazine, which was started in 1946, is still a family business. The current CEO (only the third the company has had) is the great-grandson of the founders. I met him later at the “barn,” the large meeting house which serves as dining hall, living room, and workshop space. He wore suspenders and told jokes over breakfast. He and the other Highlights staff were always around, sharing meals with us and asking if there was anything they could do to make our stay better.
But what could we ask for? The retreat center—composed of the “barn,” the farmhouse, the lodge, and over a dozen cabins, all perched on the edge of beautiful woods with hiking trails—is quiet and serene. Writers have the space they need to think or work independently, while also having plenty of opportunity to converse with other attendees about ideas, craft, industry, or just chat about the weather, which was pretty perfect in early October. The place is large enough to house multiple groups at a time, and some workshops overlap, which means there are always new faces to meet at lunch or by the fireplace after dinner. During my five-day stay, I met picture book authors, illustrators, and nature writers. My friends and I were the only horror writers in the bunch, which automatically made us the “creepy kids.” It didn’t help that we accidentally left our brainstorming board up during dinner. Oops.
Speaking of dinner, you would not believe how good the food is at this place. Seriously. Writers (and teachers for that matter) are not people used to being pampered, so when the website said all meals were included, I expected a Days Inn-style breakfast, a ten-foot sub for lunch, and pizza for dinner. I was wrong. The Highlights retreat center has amazing and accommodating chefs who prepare spreads of fresh, creative, delicious food three times a day. Four if you count the appetizers before dinner. (And why wouldn’t you? They were scrumptious.) I have no photos of the food because I was too busy eating to take pictures, but trust me, it was phenomenal. All of it. Every meal. I still have the three extra pounds I came home with to prove it. SO. GOOD.
Having never been to any other Highlights workshops (yet) I can’t say what each one is like, but the Books with Bite workshop, led by Nova Ren Suma and Micol Ostow, provided a nice balance of critiquing, discussion, and down time (for writing, hiking, or napping—I did some of each). Most of us arrived Wednesday afternoon, got a tour, settled in, and then met for dinner. Sunday was breakfast, a final meeting, and departures. But the three days in between all followed the same schedule. Here’s how it went:
A Day In the Life of a Horror Writer
8:00-9:00AM – Walk from cabin to barn to drink coffee, eat delicious food, and chat with other attendees
9:30-Noon – Workshop (Our group had nine participants, so we discussed three writers’ pages per day.)
Noon -1:00PM – Eat delicious food and chat with other attendees
1:00-5:30PM – Free time to write, read, hike, nap, or talk to other writers (There was an optional writing prompt session for an hour during this time. This was also when one-on-one conferences took place between attendees and their mentors.)
5:30-6:00PM – Appetizers and drinks on the patio
6:00-7:00PM – Eat delicious food and chat with other attendees (On the first day, I also had the pleasure of meeting Denise Fleming, whose picture book workshop was ending. The Highlights staff made a beautiful speech about her and named a scholarship in her honor. Then they gave all guests copies of one of her books, which she signed.)
7:30-9:00PM(ish) – Meet for discussion topics/readings/ghost stories (The ghost stories night was particularly interesting and inspired a strange nightmare/spooky experience which I’ll write about later.)
9:00PM-morning – Free time to sit by the fire, write, sleep, or read horror stories on the porch while listening to the coyotes howl (Can you guess which ones I usually chose?)
As I said before, I don’t know how Books with Bite compares to other workshops, but I was impressed by how present and approachable our mentors were. Nova and Micol not only critiqued our pages, led our workshops, and facilitated our discussions, they also ate every meal with us, joined us for writing prompts and sharing, and offered feedback and advice about everything related to writing. It was wonderful being in such capable, creative, kind hands.
Nova and Micol were incredible, and their expertise and insight were invaluable. However, I found out you can also plan your own retreat at Highlights, where you work at your own pace without the aid of a mentor. It’s called an “unworkshop,” and I met several writers and illustrators who were there for that purpose. They were spending a few days in the lodge or the cabins, either individually or as a group, working on projects while soaking up the Highlights ambience. Hmm… sounds nice.
What Did I Get Out of My Highlights Experience?
Great feedback on my manuscript
A new vision for the end of my novel
20 pages of notes
15 books to add to my reading list
10 new friends
Connections with writers from around the country
Rest and relaxation
A boost of energy and inspiration
One spooky experience
So the only question I have is… who wants to plan an unworkshop with me???
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Don’t forget– If you comment on this month’s posts or share them on social media (and tag me), you’ll be entered in my OCTOBER GIVEAWAY!