Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Volunteering Pays Off: Lesson #1 from the 2019 RMFW Colorado Gold Conference

View from my hotel room at Colorado Gold

My first Colorado Gold conference, in 2014, was powerful. Although I’ve attended every year since then, subsequent conferences have been less impactful as I struggled to connect with the writers who had made such great impressions on me.

This year was my sixth conference, and since I don’t feel the need to absorb every morsel of content anymore, I volunteered to sit behind the registration desk. I was hoping to meet attendees and get to know the dedicated folks who run the conference. I purposely signed up to share the shift with Nathan Lowell, a successful author who I had heard interviewed years ago on an RMFW podcast. His independently-published series of space opera and fantasy are so successful that traditional publishers can’t tempt him to sell through them.  I didn’t have high expectations for our meeting but it turned out he was friendly and brimming with advice (in a good way). He offered that I could reach out to him in the future, but I figured he probably wouldn’t remember me. 

Then, at the Saturday banquet, when I was feeling deflated about reaching but not placing in the contest finals for the second year in a row, Nathan sought me out to tell me he had judged my contest entry two years in a row. He liked my story and thought it had improved a lot. We ended up chatting extensively about our projects, processes, and experiences. I felt honored to be granted so much of his time and enriched by all that he could share. Days later, I’m still glowing* with the validation that comes from a successful author liking my work and with the potential offered by an influential mentor in the business.  

I’m not sure if any conference will ever beat that first experience of finding my tribe but this year came close.

*Note for writers: This emotion manifests physically as warmth spreading through the crooks of my elbows and knees, and it literally makes me smile to myself a full week later.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Throw-back: My First Writing Conference

I just returned from the RMFW Colorado Gold Conference and am composing a post about my experience this year.  In it, I want to link to a newsletter article I wrote after returning from my first, glorious conference in 2014 but I have so far failed to access the newsletter archives. So here is the email that I sent to the organizers when the conference finished that year (and which they turned into a newsletter article). It's as gushing as I had feared, and not different from others I've seen in subsequent years, but nevertheless solidly true.

A Writer is Someone Who Puts Words on a Page

Despite a life-long interest in writing and the near completion of my first novel, the Gold Conference seemed like an irresponsible expense and enormous swath of time to take away from my family for a mere hobby.  But I signed up anyway, arranging childcare with my spouse and parents and reading the schedule repeatedly to choose the sessions I wanted to attend.  On Friday afternoon, I showed up wondering why I had been too excited to sleep the night before and if the conference would be worth my money and time.

I expected to learn about craft; I did. I expected to learn about the traditional publishing business; I did. I expected to learn some insider information and I did: smashwords, nanowrimo, mass-market, cli-fi.  I expected to learn how to improve my writing; I did—the importance of critique groups and wide reading in my genre were emphasized. I expected to directly improve my novel and I did: I identified a theme, realized some of my plot devices are jarring, decided the antagonist should return at the end of the story, struggled to write a tagline and learned that metaphors can provide a consistent tone.  I expected to meet writers, both aspiring and professional. And I did.

I did not expect to feel such a profound sense of belonging.  The other attendees were as eager as I to soak up the advice and information. Even established writers, whether they were stressed about canceled book deals or celebrating a new publication, still had to deal with the same challenges I was facing: structuring sentences, developing characters, devising plots.  In my first hour, I learned there was no need for small talk; you simply asked, “What do you write?” 

I did not expect the effect it would have on me to meet three writers the first night who had made their first sales in the last year. Or to hear the Writer of the Year say she had started writing when her kids were small. Or to hear that a group of people had started attending the conference thirty years ago and were not only still great friends but all still present this year at this conference.  All I could think was: that could be me.

Dramatic? Optimistic? Yes.  But the people were there: real people who had stood in my shoes in the recent or not-so-recent past. Their first manuscripts were tossed out, their clich├ęd stories laughed at, but they kept writing and they kept learning. Even better, they had progressed along their paths using the tools available through RMFW: the classes, critique groups, access to agents and editors, and networking among members.

For the first time, I saw a path that could transform my fledgling story into a real book available to a wide audience.  For the first time, I met people who had done exactly that—thirty years ago and last year and last month. These people seemed just like me.  Although I know there are no guarantees, for the first time I believed it was a possibility.

When I started writing my novel, I didn’t tell my closest friends or my twin sister. I didn’t even call it a novel for the first year. As I scribbled one day on the bus, a student asked if I was a writer and I swiftly denied it.  I’ve been writing since I can remember: kindergarten picture books, teenage poetry, short stories in my twenties, mommy blogging now. 

Today, I understand that a writer isn’t only someone who has finished a novel, been paid for their writing, has ten thousand social media followers or has achieved financial independence through book sales. A writer is someone who puts words on a page. Today--even if I never stand on stage with the award winners, even if my words never earn me a nickel-- I believe that I am a writer.

I cannot thank you enough for that.