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The Secret to Getting the Most Out of a Writers Conference

Knowing that in a seven short days I will leave Boston behind and return to Florida’s sticky heat, I breathe in and enjoy the cool morning air. In through my nose, out through my mouth. I have to soak it up while I can. This is my thought as I sit in the orientation of my first Solstice Writers’ Conference. I also feel oddly unencumbered, as if I have forgotten something. I didn’t have to wake anyone this morning, didn’t have to start a load of laundry or field breakfast requests. Instead, I rolled out of my lumpy dormitory bed—my home for the next week—and ate eggs and sausages prepared for me in the campus cafeteria. I sit back, flanked by two friends that I met at an earlier writers conference, and wait for the conference director to address the group.

Knowing that in a seven short days I will leave Boston behind and return to Florida’s sticky heat, I breathe in and enjoy the cool morning air. In through my nose, out through my mouth. I have to soak it up while I can. This is my thought as I sit in the orientation of my first Solstice Writers’ Conference.

(Check out this page if you're looking for a list of writers conferences.)

I also feel oddly unencumbered, as if I have forgotten something. I didn’t have to wake anyone this morning, didn’t have to start a load of laundry or field breakfast requests. Instead, I rolled out of my lumpy dormitory bed—my home for the next week—and ate eggs and sausages prepared for me in the campus cafeteria. I sit back, flanked by two friends that I met at an earlier writers conference, and wait for the conference director to address the group.

Lori is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week;
winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Lorrie won.)

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Guest column by Lori Roy, author of Bent Road
(March 2011, Dutton), a novel set in the 60s with
elements of midwestern gothic and noir. The book
was called "a remarkably assured debut novel" by
author Dennis Lehane (
Mystic River), while Publishers
Weekly gave it a starred review and called it "an
outstanding debut ... sure to make several 2011
must-read lists." See Lori's website here.

Writers conferences are a bit like wandering through a bar in a college town. What’s your major? … the college bar. Which class are you in? … (novel, short story, nonfiction) the conference. When do you graduate? … the college bar. Have you gone yet? … (meaning has your work been critiqued in class yet?) the conference. Where are you from? … the college bar. Where are you from?… the conference. And like in college, when attending a conference, a participant has an assignment. Each writer must submit 25 pages that will be read and critiqued by eleven or so classmates. For many attendees, this is why they have boarded a plane, hired a babysitter, purchased new luggage. They have hopes of finding a cure for their weary manuscript.

(Conferences are a great place to get novel or query edits.)

When a particular writer’s turn in class rolls around, she will sit quietly, barred from speaking during the discussion. The other writers will flip through her manuscript page by page and talk about and debate what is wrong with her work and what is right. But mostly what is wrong, or maybe it just feels that way. When it is over, usually lasts about 45 minutes, the writer takes a deep breath and says thank you for the flogging. Another thing I’ve learned along the way—if this process doesn’t sting, at least a little, it probably isn’t working. Later that night, while sipping wine following the nightly readings, people will ask, have you gone yet? The writer will say yes. How did it go? I learned a lot, the writer might say. And drink another glass of Cabernet.

The conference director arrives at precisely 9:30. She begins by announcing a room change and goes on to remind us that coffee cups are not to leave the cafeteria and that the library will close early on Sunday. Lastly, she welcomes and introduces the teaching staff. The morning lecture will begin shortly, the director says, but first she has a bit of advice. We students think we have come to the conference to share our work with our peers, to have our teachers comb through our pages and tell us how to fix our plot lines and round-out our characters.

(Conferences are a great place to meet fiction agents.)

But if you want to learn, if you really want to learn, the director says, fall in love with another writer’s work. Love it like you love your own. Make it your mission to lift up that person and ensure he or she leaves a better writer. Fall in love with someone else’s work and good things will happen. Fall in love with someone else’s work and you will leave a better writer.

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