This past weekend, I traveled to Portland, Oregon and attended the Willamette Writer’s Conference. I learned enough to fill twenty blog posts, so I decided to try to condense the experience into a single list of major lessons.
1) I learned that you can pitch an incomplete novel. No agent will buy it, but they’ll give you great feedback. I signed up for this conference last spring having only written a small portion of my novel. I even signed up for pitch sessions, not realizing that I was supposed to be completely done with the book before I pitched it. Oops. Prior to getting to Oregon, I realized my error, called the conference people, and asked if I should cancel those sessions. I didn’t want to waste the agents’ time. They said, “No way. Go for it. You’ll learn something.” They were right. I spoke with two agents and one editor, each of whom were kind and not even a little bit scary. They happily answered my questions, gave me helpful feedback, and asked questions about areas they found confusing or unclear, letting me know that these are areas I need to address.
2) I learned that it’s a really bad idea to argue or get defensive with an agent during practice and real pitch sessions. You come across as arrogant and difficult. I watched this happen several times when agents asked writers who were pitching to them to clarify a point, or the agents offered suggestions for improvement. People got angry and argumentative. You could watch the agent’s body language as they wrote these difficult people off as potential clients. With that said . . .
3) I learned that pitching a novel well is really hard.
4) I learned that lots of elderly people write. In fact, the demographic of conference attendees shocked me. So many attendees were old, as in “needing a walker to get around” old. At first that made me a little sad for them. Were they just now able to find time in their lives to write? Had they worked at some soul-sucking job their whole lives just waiting for the day they would finally have time to tell their story? This seemed like such a tragedy. Then I realized (actually my brilliant sister pointed out) that these people still hadn’t given up on their dream of writing. They were still out their learning, writing, sharing, dreaming even if they have never gotten on Facebook, written a tweet, or read a blog. That’s a good thing. It’s never too late to follow a dream. Hopefully, I’ll be published before I need a walker, but if not, there’s still room for me at writing conferences. Good to know.
5) I learned there is no such thing as “The Writing Process.” The sign the school district requires me to post in my classroom outlining this process is a bit of a farce. After talking with and listening to a huge variety of writers, I know, without a doubt, that every single one of them has their own writing process. Trying to teach the writing process seems somewhat silly. I’ve known this for a while with my students and have tried to encourage kids to find their process, but actually talking to “real writers” about made it finally sink in that this is a crucial lesson.
6) I learned that there are lots of passionate writers out there and some really fabulous unpublished novels. As writers shared their stories, I kept wanting to read them, not just hear about them. They sound great! On the one hand, the writer in me realized how much competition there is out there, but on the other hand, the reader in me is excited to get my hands on these stories someday.
7) I learned that it is possible to go to a workshop on virtually any aspect of writing but sometimes just writing is as helpful to my learning as anything. A conference lasting for three weeks, broken into round the clock hour and a half long sessions, wouldn’t be long enough to cover all the aspects of fiction, creative non-fiction, non-fiction, and screenplays that could possibly be taught. There is so much information out there, so much to learn. I spent yesterday sifting through all the handouts and notes, trying to organize them, but then I stopped sorting and just started to write. I can read and study all day, but I’ll learn the most when I’m actually writing, practicing my craft, and applying the lessons.
8) Finally, I learned that even though there is so much that I don’t know, there is a lot that I do know. I need to honor that. I’m an English teacher. I have an MA in literature. I read constantly and love good books. I teach them and conference with my students about them every single day of the school year. This is all helpful in my new life as a writer. There is obviously a ton I still need to learn, but I think I have a pretty good foundation.
I’ll let you know if that’s true after I actually pitch a completed novel.