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Why You Should Attend
A Literary Conference

2009 Lynne Pierce

Lynne Pierce avatar


Let's begin by turning the title around: Why should you attend a literary conference? That is a question I often asked myself as conferences came and went and people encouraged me to attend one. As neither an author nor a publisher, I didn't see what the relevance could be for me, but then I was presented with the opportunity to attend the Golden Crown Literary Society's gathering this past July. Based on that experience, I think I can suggest some reasons why you might want to consider attending a conference yourself.

The atmosphere at a conference is one of a community coming together. Those who have attended the meetings before consider it very much a reunion of friends and new attendees are quickly drawn into the group. It's very reaffirming to be among people who have the same interests you have and to be able to discuss books that you have read. This is especially important for lesbians. Many of them live in communities where they have to keep low profiles or perhaps no profiles. To be able to walk among a group and express yourself without any constraints is very freeing. I've never attended other gatherings like Saints and Sinners or Women's Week in Provincetown, but they must create much the same environment.

The attraction of these events for writers and publishers is apparent. Writers tend to work in isolation. The act of creating requires them to spend long hours at a computer or with a note pad as they pull together the bits and pieces of stories that float around in their heads. The conferences give them a chance to interact, share ideas about writing, talk about techniques, and, if they're lucky, meet readers who want to tell them how wonderful their writings are. Publishers have a chance to share the same interactions, but also may meet new writers with books they want to consider. A conference is also a good time for publishers to mingle with readers and learn what they expect in the books and what types of stories they want to read, so that they can stay ahead of the trends with their future books. Some conferences offer publishers a chance to publicize their writers and sell books, so, from a business standpoint, attending these meetings just makes good sense. No book can have too much promotion.

The person who seems most out of sync with a literary conference is the reader or fan. Sessions on how to write various types of stories wouldn't appear to have any interest for them, but that is going to depend on how they approach the meetings. The value of these gatherings comes from what you decide to learn from them. A workshop can have relevance to your reading if you're willing to look for it.

Author readings are a popular activity at literary meetings and they can be very enlightening. Readers tend to create voices that they feel suit the characters in a story and they give their own inflection to dialogue. It's very interesting to hear an author voice her characters the way she heard them in her head and place emphasis on what she felt was important in a scene. At the Golden Crown conference, I had a chance to see this happen with a number of people, including watching Karin Kallmaker be flirty with one of the characters from her new book; Jane Vollbrecht set up the conflict at the heart of her novel Detours; and Cheri Crystal give a very New York twang to her words. If an opportunity is given, this can lead to an enriching discussion about the differences between the author's and reader's interpretations. If nothing else, I'll hear those books differently in my mind. The reader can also be exposed to books that she hasn't encountered yet and be encouraged to purchase them. A number of authors introduced their upcoming novels and this is definitely the time for an author to capture a fan's interest. I hadn't read work by some of the writers, but became interested enough that I've now purchased some of their books. There is a caution in this for authors however. There is a knack to picking just the right excerpt to read from a book or story and presenting it in an entertaining manner to draw the readers in. Some authors haven't developed that skill well and might want to consult with other authors about how to do this. Of course, a conference bringing writers together provides an excellent opportunity for this.

For someone who frequently reviews books, the sessions about how to write particular genres are very helpful. Fans of romance, mystery, adventure and other forms have very definite expectations as to what should be in those books. At a session on romances at the Golden Crown meeting, for example, it was very clear that readers want a happy ending. The story may contain twists and turns, but the bottom line is that the characters should end up together. Discussion about the value of a story that reflects reality or ends with the lovers parting concluded with the general observation that all of that is nice, but that isn't what most people want to read.

The session on mysteries revealed that those fans aren't as interested in the story including a romance as they are in it having the elements associated with mysteries. Information like this is important because it impacts the way a review might be written. The reviewer might have preferences for stories, but those don't necessarily determine if a book is well written according to a genre. From now on I will consider not just if a book meets my own tastes and expectations, but does it accomplish what is expected of that particular type of story?

Round table discussions, coffee chats and other groups can be very enriching for understanding the craft of and process for writing books. Authors have as many different approaches to writing as there are of them. Some plan the story out ahead of time completely and others write as the story comes into their heads. Some use figures to act out the stories for them, others see movies in their heads and some wait for characters they aren't expecting to pop up or for the story to take an unanticipated turn. To listen to these people exchange views about the best way to be creative is very enlightening.

On a more practical note, critical discussions also take place about the future of publishing and how to incorporate the new types of media into an author's portfolio. Authors are as concerned as musicians about people being able to download their work and losing what little profit they make from the books. There is a raging debate going on now about the role of e-Books and why they aren't accepted for nominations by some awards groups. Should an author create a video to promote her work and, if she does, where is the best place to post it? What works better for an author to promote her work, a web site, a blog or a page on Facebook or My Space? While many online groups exist to discuss a particular author's work or the work in general, there aren't as many that offer good practical advice or information about the mechanics of writing, publishing and promotion. Coming together at these meetings can be a real bonus in these areas.

Inspiration lurks in these meetings and not just for the writing of stories. Jean Redmann wasgave a moving talk at Golden Crown as she discussed the process she uses for writing and the impact that has been made on her work by the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina has made on her work. She blended an excellent assessment of what lesbian literature can be with the reality of where it is and gave everyone much to think about by sharing the perspectives of writers who have influenced her. I have heard people say the same thing about addresses made by other authors at various conferences, but Redmann struck an especially stirring chord when she pointed out that all of us, writers, publishers and readers, have created a revolution because there are so many books out there now that they can't all be burned. That is a powerful concept that can only be fully appreciated in the company of other "revolutionaries."

The final reason to consider a literary conference is that they can be just plain fun. Readers seem to enjoy sharing with authors the parts of their books that they particularly enjoyed and this is an excellent setting for that. By bringing writers together, fans can speak to a number of their favorites at one time. Then there are the events that are offered just for amusement, author auctions, games or dances. At the Golden Crown conference, Kate Sweeney had people engaged in a game of Jeopardy that had the place rocking. These meetings are not only for sitting around and being serious. There is good discussion, serious discussion and then just some plain laughs.

So, if you've always thought there is nothing in a literary conference for you, consider the idea again. Check out the one you're interested in to see who is attending and what is being offered, then make up your mind that there is something valuable that you can get from the experience. I'll suggest strongly that you won't be disappointed. If nothing else, you'll certainly meet a lot of interesting new people and come away with some different perspectives that may impact on your reading and/or writing. These meetings can be expensive to attend, but this is one of those times when the cost is worth it.
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