I Went To A Writers Conference And I All Got Was A Tribe
Wednesday, May 30, 2012

When I first pulled out my laptop and started plugging away at a novel, I didn't know the first thing about getting a book published.

Wait? You're telling me word counts MATTER? Are you saying there won't be a frenzied bidding war over my 310K novel? 

But it's so good! All my sisters and friends and my UPS guy say so. 

Once I got a clue about the current market instead of the market of say, 1845, my google searches on writing started to surpass my other Googling passions: Bono and Web M.D or as I like to refer to it: Yes-You-Are-Going-To- Die-From-That-Seemingly-Harmless-Symptom-Dot-Com. 

And as I did my research on becoming a too-legit-to-quit writer, over and over again, there was one suggestion that kept popping out at me. 

If you're serious about writing, get thee to a writers' conference. 

And I thought to myself, "I could never do that."

Because, you see, I'm shy. 

Yes. I know you're sputtering and laughing in disbelief right now. 

But really, I am. 

I might get naked on the beach, even though I really didn't want to get naked on the beach.  

I might be known for stealing a tampon or 50. 

I might happen to go to U2 concerts with hot strangers I just met in a honky-tonk, hours before. 

And I might like to dance on bars and get Josh Duhamel to autograph my body.   

But . . . 

To attend a conference? To walk into a convention center filled with hundreds of total strangers? To EAT with those total strangers?


Way too far out of my comfort zone. 

But writing conferences were supposed to be a great way to hone your craft, glean sparkly jewels of writer wisdom from bestselling authors, network with other writers and the big one, pitch your novel to literary agents. 

And I'm not talking your best curveball. 

Pitches fall into two general categories. 

There's the elevator pitch, which is essentially a snappy, concise, (about 30 seconds) summation of your novel, something you could rattle off to an agent or anyone else who asks, "So, what's your book about?"

It's aptly named the elevator pitch because if you have the chance to pitch an agent on an elevator, you should go for it. 

Actually, if you have a chance to pitch to an agent at any time or place during a conference, you are encouraged to jump all over it. 

Except for the bathroom. 

Aspiring authors are told over and over again to never pitch an agent while they're taking care of their potty business. 

And I'm thinking: Really? Does that even need to be said out loud? It reminds me of the warning label on my stroller, back in my daughters' baby days, that read: ATTENTION: REMOVE INFANT BEFORE FOLDING UP STROLLER. 

Every time I used to pull one of my babies out of that stroller, I'd glance at that essential caution and have a little chuckle. And no, I never forgot to take the baby out before folding up the stroller. 

There was the time my husband forgot to take the baby out of the stroller when he parked in stroller parking at Disney and we all strolled into Country Bear Jamboree. But that's a story for another day. That baby is 17 now. And she's still not sitting in stroller parking at Country Bear Jamboree, just in case you were worried. We remembered her, thankfully. 

But I was talking about stating the obvious. 

Honestly, if you have to be told NOT to slide your pages under a bathroom stall, well then, maybe you shouldn't be at a writers' conference or, really, even in public, for that matter. 

But besides the bathroom, you can pretty much pitch an agent an elevator pitch any time you can trap one of them in a corner. 

Poor agents. 

Then there's the longer pitch, which is about 2-3 minutes, in my case. 

The longer pitch is for an actual pitch session where you have the opportunity to sit down, one on one, with an agent and try your hot-doggiest to convince said agent to take a look at your book. 

I remember the first time I read about pitches, I said out loud to my ever-present pack of horse-dogs, "There is no way I am EVER doing that."

I said the same thing about camping. Unfortunately, I've since camped twice in my life. Gross. 

And I vowed I would never color my hair, but now? I've discovered there is magic in platinum blonde. 

I also said I'd never eat sushi, drive a minivan, ride a mule up to the top of a scary-ass mountain, climb on top of a hissing camel, own a cat, wear sensible shoes, like any song by Rihanna, drink coffee, tell off a priest, (Sorry about that one, God), or wear baby blue eyeshadow. 

I also uttered those same words in the fourth grade when my best friend told me how babies were made. 

I probably should stop saying that. 

Two weeks ago, I attended the DFW Writers' Conference in Hurst, Texas. 

I have never been more elated in my life to walk the freak away from my comfort zone. 

From the moment I got there, it was just one fantastical writer's ride. 

I checked into my hotel right behind the keynote speaker and bestselling author James Rollins. 

James already had a booming career as a veterinarian, when he decided to start writing. He chalked up rejection after rejection, his no's climbing up into the 50's, with one heartless agent even sending him back a kick-in-the-gut note that said, "This is unpublishable." And yet, he kept writing until the day came when not one but two agents wanted to represent him. His story was inspirational—his message loud and clear—keep your head up and keep the words coming. And just as impressive as his writing story, is the fact that he can spay a cat in under 30 seconds. 

For the record, he did not demonstrate spaying a cat for me at check-in. He filled us in on that neat fact during his keynote speech. 

Directly after checking in, I headed to the elevator where a lovely woman waiting for the elevator asked me if I was there for the conference. She held out her hand and introduced herself. 

As an agent. As in an agent I was planning on pitching to that weekend.  

I immediately started speaking my second language, the language of Gibberish, as I introduced myself. I paired this with my trademark nervous flailing hand motions. And...

I think I might have spit on her a little bit. 

Odds are, I did, in fact, spit on her. I have an alarming amount of saliva according to my dentist. 

And also according to my children, who are embarrassed on a regular basis when I drool without warning. And not only do I drool, I always say, "Did you see that? I just drooled." Because, hey, no reason to ignore the obvious. 

By the time the elevator came I was surrounded by agents who all got on the elevator. With me. 

Hello, Elevator Pitch. 

Here I was standing on that elevator, sucking in saliva, surrounded by agents and I couldn't even remember my name, much less what my novel was about. 

In hindsight, I should have slapped the stop button and said, "Okay folks, let's do this. Right here. Right now. Listen up. And please disregard any streams flowing from my mouth as I speak. Hopefully you all know Gibberish?"

But I didn't. 

Thank Heaven. I probably would have been the talk of the agents that weekend. And not in a good way. 

The slobbering girl on the elevator who spastically mimed her pitch. 

And even though I missed a fantastic opportunity to mass pitch, from that moment on, the entire weekend was an intoxicating experience. 

I spent the weekend making fast friends out of fellow writers who understand, who really get it. Who spend most of their time in their own daze of a writer world, just like me, hammering out plots, characters, scenes in their head. Most likely while in their jammies, too. 

I was so enlightened, thrilled, motivated and plain out of my mind happy to be there. I walked into Texas all by my lonesome and I left there with an instant tribe. Every time I sat down or lingered for a half a second, whether it was in the main lobby of the conference center, over the giant array of cookies, in a class and yes, even at a meal, there was someone new next to me, extending a hand, flashing a smile. Love and acceptance everywhere and people so eager and willing to boost each other up. 

I could hear Michael Jackson with a chorus of angels above me, singing, "You are not alone . . . " Really, I could. 

One of my new fast friends and fellow Chicago Girl, the phenomenal Ms Birdy Jones. 

My new tribe and I practiced our pitches on each other. We shared our query journey highs and lows. We celebrated each other's pitch victories. And bolstered each other up when a pitch got a "not for me." 

I even rubbed a very nervous writer's shoulders, like a prize-fighter coach, getting her ready for the big one-two. 

And one of the best things of all, I got to spend a good part of that weekend, with my oh-so-fabulous, writing friend and partner, Ash. 

It was a true privilege to experience this extraordinary weekend with such a fine friend. 

We broke bread together. Slept together. (Calm down boys, in separate beds.) Talked until our eyelids were forcing themselves shut in fatigue. Flitted about the cocktail party.  

Took pictures in the bathroom.

Where we might have staged a silly photo shot in honor of the Slide-The-Manuscript-Under-The-Door Move. 

And took classes together. 

The classes. Oh. My. Goodness. 

I had so many light bulb moments. 

Jodi Thomas in her Writing Deeper class taught us to stop calling our character, characters. We need to refer to them as our people. And as any writer will tell you, those characters we've plucked out of thin air are, exactly that, our people. They live their lives inside our heads, 24/7, even infiltrating our dreams. That is, if we're lucky. 

Jody taught us that in order to keep a reader's attention, we needed to be there in the moment really feeling our story, before we can expect others to feel that same way. She told us to describe what's not there. Oh, how I loved that little nugget. She told us to describe what summertime tastes like. And to walk the land of our story. Walk in the shoes of our people. Oh, just repeating her fine, fine words gives me goose bumps and makes me aspire to be a better writer. 

During Candace Haven's Fast Draft class, I think my mouth just hung open the whole time as I furiously wrote trying to keep up with Candace and her game-changing style of writing. Her lessons have reshaped the way I write. 

For me, her methods keep the creative juices fired up, instead of what I had been doing, stifling my juice.  

She believes in writing your first draft, fast and furious, without looking back, without changing a word, so that you don't get caught in the Bermuda Triangle of Writing—going back and back and back again rewriting the same chapters. This is my biggest sin. My perfectionism pulls me back into those deadly waters every time. But by allowing yourself to make mistakes and to just write—that big, bad voice that resides in every writer, (Candace calls it your internal editor), the one constantly telling you your words aren't good enough, doesn't have time to keep up. 

Candace preaches a mighty talk, a belief that writing should be not something you do when all other obligations in your life are fulfilled, but a course of action that takes precedence over everything else, temporarily, while you hammer out a fast draft. 

She believes in a style of take-no-prisoners writing. Write and write hard. The harder you write, the more you fatigue your senses, the more your subconscious takes over, allowing that internal editor to fade away, bringing out a raw voice, the voice that all writers crave. 

Candace says to believe in the magic. And I do believe. Oh, how I believe. 

In fact, as she empowered me with her voodoo writing powers, I recalled writing one of the most pivotal scenes in my book. It's a good scene. In fact, a great scene. 

And it came to me on a day when I'd been writing for hours. My family was all home from their various school and work days, the household was alive with frenetic activity. But I couldn't stop. The words were pouring out of me and I needed to capture them. My hubs talking his booming talk on his cell phone, the girls, loud and bubbly making food messes in the kitchen, the TV blaring and my dogs barking furiously at the ever-present squirrels outside, were all big distractions. I couldn't find the quiet, until I went into my tiny water closet, turned on the fan, put the toilet seat lid down, sat cross-legged on the toilet and let that scene unfold. 

I was depleted from a big day of writing, annoyed by all the chaos around me and not that comfortable, sitting yoga style on a toilet. But the words that came to me on that day, on that toilet, are some of my best. Ever.

I wouldn't have even realized that until Candace showed me the way. 

Every single class I took from Inside Publishing, taught by the extraordinary and knowledgeable Jill Marsal, super- agent, to James Robbins' rock-star classes, where he shut the door and gave us some kick-ass advice for our little aspiring authors's ears only and every other lesson sandwiched in between was utterly fabulous.  

I walked around that two day event, feeling like every atom in my writerly soul was just humming in euphoria. 

And that was before I pitched. 

Writing my two different pitch versions was a mite agonizing and it took me about a week. 

When I finally got them down pat, I practiced them constantly for the next three weeks. My family started fleeing the room anytime I walked in, knowing that I would try to corral them for another pitch practice.

By the time my first pitch appointment came, strangely, I wasn't that nervous. My war cry had gone from, "I could never do that." To "Hell yeah, I am DOING this."

I signed up for several pitches. In fact, I got so addicted to pitching, I would have signed up for more, but I ran out of time.  

I'm not going to talk about the outcome of those pitches because I don't want to jinx any good writer juju I might have going on. 

But I'll tell you this: I decided I would reward myself with the conference center's crackalicious giant cookies every time I got a request for pages. 

I had myself some cookies. In fact, I ate a cookie every time I finished a pitching session. 

My ass is not thanking me. 

But my little writer's heart is. 

I even got to pitch to the agent I spit on. I introduced myself and she said she remembered me, as she discreetly wiped imaginary things off her face. 

I'm happy to say, I ate a cookie after talking to her. And more importantly, I didn't spit on her. Or on any other agent, for that matter. 

Now that, Internet, is what I call a smashing success. 

Even if I get a solid wall of rejections from these agents, attending the DFW Writers Conference was one of the most exhilarating things I've ever done for myself as a writer. It was like eating cake without ever gaining a pound, dancing onstage with Bono, (as God is my witness, I will make it happen one day), and having a lifetime of fabulous hair days all rolled into one. 

And I'm going back next year. Anyone care to join me? DFW Writers' Conference—here's the link. There's a Super Early Bird Special that's going on, I think, until tomorrow. Only $225.00, a deal. Because the knowledge, the empowerment, the agent connections, but most importantly, the tribe you'll walk away with—that, my friends, you can't buy for any price. 

Today's Definite Download: "Human" by the Killers, for all my DFW tribe and my writer friends everywhere. 

And sometimes I get nervous
When I see an open door
Close your eyes, clear your heart
Cut the cord. 

Write on, All Of You. 


TesoriTrovati said...

Wahoo and a big hearty congrats for facing your fears and DOING IT! You had me at "sparkly jewels of writer wisdom"... and you got me with that spit in the face funny. Don't stop believing. You are a writer. You are destined to make this happen. Dream it. Believe it. Live it. Now... where have I seen that before? ;-)

Enjoy the day, dear Joann!

P.S. I feel the exact same way about the Bead & Button show in Milwaukee each year. I am going on Sat to take a full day of classes with an enamel bead artist on Sun and then back down from Thu-Sun to hang with my bead peeps. It is like the mothership lands and there they all are, my bead-alien friends. We just get each other and it is impossible not to be inspired after an experience like that!

mdgtjulie said...

Wow, that sounds totally amazing, Joann. I'm so glad you enjoyed it and learned from it. Awesome!!

Anonymous said...

Love you. So PROUD of you. That is all. I have a deadline to meet.

XO - Ash

P.S. it's really me. I can't comment from my smartphone to your site. No idea why. Above my pay grade?

twelvedaysold said...

I'm so glad you had a good time!! That's fabulous.

And I HAVE to hear the story of you telling a priest off. Well, I guess I don't have to, but my brain is curious.

Kate Geisen said...

Oh, man, I love every word of this! Comfort zone, schmomfort zone! I love your writing, I love your go-ing for it, I LOVE the thought of buying your book in a store. Pure awesome, this post.

karen said...

Well, if you can write like you can tell a personal story, you've got it made. It's so great to go to a conference like that, be surrounded by your own kind, and come away with tons of treasure - that's awesome! I'll be waiting to hear great and exciting things. Getting outside your comfort zone is momentarily miserable, but it soon becomes nirvana. Good for you!

middle child said...

What a wonderful time you had! Sometimes you get past the anxiety and discover joy! And the ccokies? Best part.

Courtney K. said...

Sounds like you had a fantastic time! I've been etching out a novel for some time and was just talking with my husband the other day about attending a Writer's Workshop. It's always been the only real dream I've had to write and it sounds like this might be the push that I need to really get going. :)

Baby Sister said...

Sounds like you had a great time. I can't wait to read your book!!

Rebecca Grace said...

Wow -- that sounds like heaven. I wish I was a writer so I could go, too. And too funny that you're producing literary magic on the toilet. The midwife made me sit on a toilet to push during labor with one of my kids. I was terrified he would be born and fall in the crapper -- don't know why, but I remembered that when I read about you sitting on your toilet seat, writing away.

granny1947 said...

Lovely post...I felt as though I was there with you.

Rae said...

Very inspiring! Can't wait to buy your first novel! Glad you took the plunge and went to the conference.

Stephanie said...

I am so very happy for you!!

My inner Chick said...

~~~~first of all, I looooove your hair!

What a GREAT-Inpiring experience...rubbing shoulders w/all of those writers ( who understand )

I must do this one day...

This line stuck me:

""She believes in writing your first draft, fast and furious, without looking back""

This is how Natalie Goldberg teaches, too...she calls it "Monkey Mind."

Love love love. Xxxx

julie gardner said...

I am going next year.
I so am.

Because I like cookies.
And I LOVE you.


angela said...

This made me feel inspired. Just reading about the conferenece made me feel inspired. I can't imagine the cloud of excitement you floated back on. Thank you for sharing this.

Cupcake Murphy said...


Suniverse said...

Good for you. I'm so bummed I didn't get a chance to go.


Judie said...

And your wonderful book??? When can I buy a copy??

I think you may have Jekyll mixed up with another island, or another trip. There hasn't been a hurricane there for 114 years.

I'll wave when we drive through Florida, sister!!!

Alexandra said...

Joann. I am so tempted to go.

To find my tribe.

This, just sells me.

ALSO THIS: for no one else, can I read through text like this. I just can't...but you make it effortless, as easy as conversation.

A gift.

Alexandra said...

I had to read this again, Joann.

THIS CLOSE to going.

I should, right?

I think so...

Nicki said...

I am so glad you had such a wonderfully full experience at the conference!!! I have gone to conventions for various things and they really are inspiring.

You just KNOW that warning is there because some idiot has folded their kid up in the stroller in the past then tried to sue the company for not telling them otherwise!!

Lisa said...

It sounds like a fun, wonderful experience! I'm so glad you had fun and made new friends.

I'm so excited for you as you begin this chapter (ha!) of your career...and I can't wait to read this book!!

Meg at the Members Lounge said...

May I just second what Cupcake said! Rock on, girlfriend. You always make me feel inspired!

Debbie said...

wow - that is fabulous and makes me want to go to one. Can't wait to find out more about your pitches.

Galit Breen said...

I have chills I love this so much.

Go you!

(I need to get myself to one these more soon-ish than later. #Gulp)

Megan said...

That is SO amazing - both how the conference sounds and how brave you were to fight past all your fears and go! And what a fabulous reward. I hope all of those agents work out. Or, I guess, just one of them. Probably all of them would be a bit much!

Unknown said...

This is such timely advice because I am literally two-thirds of the way through my book. That part was frenzied writing of everything that happened until now (in my life) and it's the now part that's going to be hard, where I tell the internal editor to take a hike. Then I have to learn the hard way how to pitch because I'm not going to be able to go to a writer's conference any time soon.

I am, however, going to BlogHer - are you?

Memoirs of Me & Mine said...

Wow, how awesome and inspirational. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Chicken said...

You were right-there was some sputtering/slightly out-of-control laughter happening in RI when I read about this shyness of yours but then I decided I wasn't being very nice. If I drooled and spit on people, hell, I'd be shy too:-) Kidding. Congrats you, on doing the conference. Sounds like it is paying off in many different ways. Now. If only Bono had been the keynote speaker instead of the ball snatcher guy.

Unknown said...

Amaze. Balls. xo

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