The folks over at Writer Unboxed recently put up a pretty good post about what going to a writers conference really buys you. As someone whose in the thick of organising a major writers conference myself, it’s always good to see these things discussed and get some idea of how other people are placing value on the conference experience.
It’s also a useful reminder of something that’s been true ever since I first started working with writers: writers will map their future success onto some pretty weird-ass things. Which means there’s a big difference between the things that will have the most benefit for attendees, versus the things you actually have to sell in the marketing to get them at the conference.
I make very little secret about my personal belief that networking and discussion between writers is the most valuable thing an event like GenreCon can offer the writers who attend. Attending a course or panel where you learn something important is great, but the long term benefit of having a broad pool of other writers who are aware of your ambitions and your work is significantly greater.
Your network is a source of advice and support, and it can be an incredible source of work if you’re engaged and active in the community you’ve built up. I’ve sold a novella because of my network, and first got my gig at the writers centre because of it. I’ve had blog posts turn into paid work, taught workshops, and landed freelance gigs. And I’ve learned far more talking to other writers over lunch or drinks than I have in the vast majority of the workshops I’ve attended, because workshops trend towards the general out of necessity and your friends can be very specific in their advice
But the thing about networking you keep in mind as an organiser is this: it’s not sexy. It appeals to no-one, particularly among a community with more than it’s fare share of reclusive introverts who prefer not to talk to people. It doesn’t have the immediate appeal of, say, pitching your work to publishers or doing workshops. You spend a lot of time focusing on those things when selling the experience, knowing that they’re thing that will get people through the door.
And every time someone contacts me, stressed out about the details of pitching or workshops, I find myself having to hold my tongue. They’re often freaking out because they see these as the big opportunity, a chance to get discovered and have their work launched into the big time. I just want to sit them down with a cup tea and say, stop stressing about the pitching, just focus on talking to people about things that aren’t your work all weekend.
The idea of having your work discovered is strong, particularly when the wall between you and editors feels impossible to breach, and no-one likes the idea of networking. It feels too much like business cards and cynical interactions, nothing at all to do with art.
Networking, done right, is none of that. It’s just taking a deep breath and forgetting what you want for a while, focusing on finding out about others. Spending fifteen minutes talking to an editor about the books they love will do far more for your career than a short, five-minute pitch. They’re going to hear a lot of pitches over the weekend. They’re going to have significantly fewer conversations about how awesome Georgette Heyer is, and it’s not like they’re going to be unaware of the fact that you’re a writer when you meet at a writer’s conference.