[This post originally appeared on The Women of Mystery.]
Years ago, I began attending writers conferences. The first one I went to was while I was living in St. Louis, the second when I was living out in East Hampton. In both places I was fairly isolated, far from any other writers. And back in those days—the early 90s—the Internet didn’t exist the way it does now. I belonged to an online writer’s group on AOL and a writer’s community founded by Orson Scott Card, both of which were fun, but neither of which gave me what I really needed.
So I went to my first writer’s conference, which was RWA National in New Orleans. I was painfully shy at the time and didn’t meet many people, and without the whole Internet thing, I’m not sure how much the networking would have helped anyway. But what I did do at that conference was attend the sessions. And I learned. And learned. And learned.
I learned about copyright, about rights, about relationships with editors and agents, and about the business end of publishing. Because I was there, and listening, I heard the answers to questions I wouldn’t even have thought to ask. It didn’t matter that at the time I was writing epic fantasy and this was a romance conference…there weren’t any fantasy conferences I could get to. So I went to RWA and I soaked up all the knowledge.
It’s kind of my motto, and something I tell people a lot: “shut up and listen.” Go to every conference, every convention, every meeting, every critique group, every panel at the library, every professional development thing you can find. Go. And listen. Don’t talk about your book. Don’t talk about yourself. Don’t talk about your career. Just listen.
If people ask you about what you write, by all means answer. But don’t go because you think it’s a chance to promote your book. Go because it’s a chance for you to learn from people who are further along than you are. Go because you can take notes that will help you with your next book. Go because people don’t want to sit down and tell you the same thing they’ve told 100 other people already, so the best way for you to find it out is at the same time those 100 people find out—in a panel. We’re all busy and none of us want 8 million emails cluttering up our mailboxes, but I’ve belonged to crimescenewriter for three years—just so I can go back and search the archives later on when I need them or ask the occasional question. When I can answer a question (like on firefighters and extrication), I always feel a huge sense of triumph because everyone there has given me so much over the years without even knowing it!
This year’s RWA is in July in Atlanta. (I really wish they’d do cooler climates–one year it was in Orlando, and next year it’s in TX, blech.) I was talking to someone recently who said she’s not sure she’ll go because she’s self-pubbing her next book and she’s not on a panel. I told her I think that’s a mistake. True, traditional conferences don’t give you a lot of help for new publishing paths, but they do help you network, and they do help you with craft. And anyone who tells you they know all they need to know about craft is someone whose work I’m not interested in reading.
The other thing about conferences is that they get you excited about writing. Or they do me. Whenever I come home from a conference, I am full of energy. Energy not only for writing, but also for publicizing. All those things that seem to drag at me, to weigh me down, seem lighter and easier after a conference.
And then, there’s the bar.
The bar is where you meet people. It’s where you get to know them, where you laugh, and where—if you’re like me—you come up with ideas for future books. I kid you not. In the bar at the Orlando RWA conference, a short story and a novel were born. It’s where you meet agents and editors and where you make contacts who will help you and support you throughout your writing career. These are the people you will support, too, of course…it all goes both ways!
This is why I tell people to put their real picture as their AVI on Twitter…so that people recognize them in the bar. You never know who might have a project they want to discuss with you.
Remember, genre writing is a community. That’s probably the most important thing you need to remember when writing and promoting your book, and it’s the thing that becomes obvious at conferences. Readers are writers, writers are readers. Those of us who write crime fiction—or romance or sci-fi—we read it, too. We like it, and we’re happy enough to like you, if you give us a chance. But we want to know you and see that you share our love of the genre. We want to see that you’re helping other authors and trying to learn to better yourself, and we don’t want to be sold to.