Last weekend I hit the road—and the water—for the Whidbey Island Writer’s Conference. I have been to a bazillion conferences in my day: they were events for teachers, or direct mail copywriters, or bloggers or marketers, depending on what field I was in at the moment.
They all blur together in my mind. The thought leaders, the consultant/speakers, the trade shows, the sturdy little conference bags with the cool gifts inside. The tickets for free drinks at the end-of-day happy hours.
But, somehow, this event had a totally different feel.
Whidbey is the largest of the 55 islands that dot the coast of Washington state. It was a boat-car-boat adventure to get there, from my island, to the mainland, and on to Whidbey. Bob, Mr. WordPress, was presenting three workshops. If you missed the boat (ha! a little island humor), here is a nice recap of one of his blogging workshops.
I was there for the educational sessions—and to meet with an agent to pitch my book idea. For people who don’t know what in the heck a pitch is, it’s that book idea you throw at an agent, hoping she will take a swing at it (or at least agree to look at a few of your chapters).
I couldn’t help thinking what a unique experience people are in for at a writers’ conference.
5 Ways to Know You’re at a Writers’ Conference
1. You bump into a lot of people who used to be teachers.
For some strange reason, a lot of people I met at this conference had, like me, been teachers in their former lives. In fact, a good number of famous authors were teachers first: J.R.R. Tolkien, Alduous Huxley, J.K. Rowling, Frank McCourt, James Joyce and Stephen King, to name a few.
The conference was held at Langley Middle School. The session speakers had ‘handouts,’ teacher lingo for the printed sheets with an overview of their content.
And some of us even felt the urge to stay after a workshop was over to line the desks back up in neat rows because we remembered the times when community groups had used our classrooms after hours and left them a mess.
We ate lunch on long cafeteria benches while the conference organizer walked back and forth with her microphone, just like a principal who has important things to say to her students would do. We squeezed into too-small stalls in the bathroom and stooped down to reach the drinking fountains. So we teacher types felt right at home.
2. You meet other people who geek out over words.
Where else but at a writing conference would the young women at the registration table thumb through the badges, discussing which last names would make great characters in a novel?
The Saturday night fun events were not happy hours, nightclubs and karaoke. Here, our choices were a poetry slam, original ‘bedtime stories’ (written by attendees and performed at the local funeral home), word games like Scrabble and Boggle, and coffeehouse chats with editors and publishers.
3. Every observation turns into a scene, a character or a piece of dialogue.
Between sessions, we heard a loud rumble coming from above us. Middle school kids were playing a Saturday basketball game in the gym. A quick-witted conference organizer cocked his ear toward the ceiling and said, “Listen. The sound of writers chasing agents.”
This got spontaneous laughter because we were all on high alert, antennas out, waiting to pounce on an agent in the hallway, before a session, after a talk, to pitch our book idea.
“If I can just snag that agent who handles women’s fiction, get her alone for one minute, I know she will love my book and sign me up on the spot.”
And because this same thought occupies all of our brains, sometimes agents are afraid to go to the bathroom because someone might try to slide their manuscript to them through the stall.
4. Pen and paper and other low-tech solutions still rule.
Writers are a decidedly low-tech bunch. In the keynote address I spotted just one person in the audience with a laptop. But for most of the rest of us, just give us a notebook with a bright cover and a pen to chew on when we are deep in thought, and we are happy.
On Saturday afternoon, I saw someone looking through the conference schedule, pondering her next class choice. She squinted her eyes and said to the friend sitting beside her, “Oh, God. This one is about technology.”
In the marketing panel session, the issue of digital books came up. A woman in the audience raised her hand. “Kindle will never replace the smell of paper and ink and the feel of the pages,” she declared. “People will still want print books.”
And if you listened carefully, you might have even heard someone say, “The worldwide web. Now that’s one with the email, right?”
Okay. Now I exaggerate.
5. Even the introverted ones (which is mostly all of us) can talk for an hour if you make the mistake of asking, “So, what’s your book about?”
We are quiet, staying inside our own minds, thinking, weighing ideas. Unless some unfortunate soul asks us what project we are working on. Expecting one to three sentences, they are instead bombarded with a passionate description of the story setting, character profiles, the major and minor plot points and a dozen reasons why they decided to write this book.
But it was fun. It was inspiring. And it made me realize just how much I miss hanging around with other writers.
Because we get each other.
In honor of all the amazingly talented writers I met at the Whidbey conference, I am closing this post with an offer. Everyone who subscribes to the Cat’s Eye blog in the next week (until March 12), gets a free copy of my “10 Ways to Attract More Readers to Your Blog.”
After you subscribe (see the big signup box in the upper right-hand corner of this blog), simply send me an email at news (at) catseyewriter (dot) com with “I SUBSCRIBED” in the subject line and I’ll send your tip sheet along.
What about you?
Have you been to a conference this year?
What do you find most inspiring about them?