Victor De Anda

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Storytellers Anonymous

Photo by Papaioannou Kostas on Unsplash

I’d been to industry trade shows before. Hotel ballrooms filled with crowds of people. The kind who steal a glance at your badge, wondering if you’re someone worth talking to. After realizing you’re just a guppy they move on, looking for the next big fish.

But a writing conference? I had heard of them, but never attended one. For a long time I wasn’t serious enough about my writing to justify the cost. That all changed a year ago when I renewed my commitment to creating stories. Then I heard about the 2018 Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City.

Others like you

The conference seemed like an opportunity to learn more about the craft and business of writing and to meet other authors. Since we moved to the east coast five years ago, I had been looking for others in the writing trenches with varying results. It was time to venture out.

I brought up the idea to my wife and she agreed it would be worthwhile. I signed up and she booked a hotel for our stay. We try to visit New York several times a year, so initially it felt like just another trip.

In the month leading up to the conference I was listening to Gabriele Pereira’s Writer’s Digest podcast as well as her DIYMFA podcast. Two weeks before the conference, she hosted a webinar on how best to prepare for the WDC18. It was great, she gave tips and tricks on the ins and outs of the show, particularly if you were doing the Pitch Slam.

Photo by Lukas Kloeppel from Pexels

The Conference

My wife and I drove up from Philadelphia on Friday, the first day of the conference. We checked in to our hotel, which was a 15 minute walk away from the Hilton Midtown.

Later as we walked up to the WDC18 registration table, I felt a bit nervous. I was about to enter a world of fellow writers, people who understood the problems and peculiarities of living inside our heads. I quickly warmed up to the idea.

My wife went on her way, having signed up for walking tours of Lincoln Center and Radio City Music Hall. I wished I was going with her, New York being the inspiring city that it is.

But I’d already invested in the conference and in myself. It was time to follow through and see what happened. Turns out, plenty did.

Some of the highlights for me:

Bad Advice Boogie, with Jeffrey Somers

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Jeff going in to the conference, but he immediately struck me as a kindred spirit. With his dry sense of humor and easygoing demeanor, his presentation resonated with me.

He went over a list of writing advice that we’ve all heard a million times, including such tidbits as “Write what you know,” “Show don’t tell” and “Kill your darlings.”

Jeff’s words hit me like a lightning bolt when he said (paraphrasing), “Always be critical of writing advice. Everything is a tool, use it how you choose.”

Such a great talk, I look forward to reading more of Jeff’s work.

Fearless Writing, with William Kenower

Another powerful presentation that felt like a gut punch, albeit a nice gut punch. Bill really touched upon the biggest fear we face while writing: “Is what I’m writing any good?” He called this the death question and instructed the room to never ask this question again.

Bill behaved like the kind of motivational speaker you like to watch, drawing stories from his personal life as well as pulling stories from the attendees. The big takeaways from his talk were two questions to ask yourself after writing any story: “What do I want to say?” and “Have I said it?”

Other great advice (paraphrasing): “You have to get inside the story and let the real world fade away. You must enter a zone where you don’t care if anyone’s going to like it.” What great words.

Sell Your Short Fiction and Personal Essays, with Windy Lynn Harris

The conference talks were a nice mix of craft, inspiration and the business of writing. Windy was on point with her practical advice for submitting short pieces for publication.

Her no-nonsense approach was so relaxed and assured that it was infectious. Her talk gave me the courage to submit my writing and let the chips fall where they may. “Press the send button with confidence,” she preached.

Windy’s experience in the industry was evident as she spoke about the ins and outs of publishing. I’d already bought her book on short fiction and heard her interview on the WD podcast. She did not disappoint.

Slush Pile Boot Camp, with Chantelle Aimeé Osman

Another nuts and bolts approach to understanding the publishing world and making your way in it. Chantelle was engaging and funny, pulling no punches on what it takes to get your work in print.

Her advice on working with publishers was invaluable. She gave tips and tricks for standing out from all the other writers submitting their stories.

“Always be asking questions about the process,” she said about working with publishers and agents. “Remember, they’re working for you.” Practical advice to take to heart.

The closing keynote from Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff was another author I had not read before attending the conference. But I had seen Annihilation, the movie adaptation of the first book in his Southern Reach trilogy.

His closing words were a perfect way to cap the event. Every scar has a story and Jeff had several now-hilarious ones of his early days in the publishing trenches. Cautionary tales, to say the least.

One of my favorite quotes from Jeff’s keynote: “When you’re swimming , don’t be a human swimming across a pool. Be a dolphin.” In other words, immerse yourself in the story. Good writing doesn’t come from being a bystander.

Meeting other writers

Before the conference began, I joined the WDC18 Facebook group and asked if there were other short story writers who wanted to meet up. I was pleased to get responses from several interested folks.

The first day, we all met for lunch and listened to each other’s origin stories. Some of us were published and had more experience than the others, but what mattered to me was the fact we all shared the same feeling: a true love of writing and reading.

Other writers I met during the conference were gracious and friendly. There were commonalities and differences with the people I spoke to, but nothing divisive. We were all there for the same thing, to learn, to be inspired and to meet others of our kind.

Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

The After-Conference Glow

After coasting for several weeks on my emotional high, reality is settling in. But there’s still a spark left in my imagination after attending the conference. It’s enough to renew my writing goals: finishing every piece I start, submitting pieces to contests and journals, and last but not least, putting in the work.

Since I started writing as a kid, I always felt that putting words together would be my salvation. Writing was my calling. Sounds corny, but now I realize I’m not the only one who feels this way.

For too long I’ve flirted with the idea of writing seriously and putting my work out there. Writing has been my fairweather friend: when the words flowed, I was so happy I could burst, but when the writing didn’t come and the ideas dried up, I could barely muster a smile.

Now I realize I have to trust the process of writing. Professionals come to work, whether they feel like it or not. What comes out may smell so bad you want to run away, but that’s part of  the process. Shitty first drafts, Anne Lamott calls them, and I’m not so afraid of them anymore.

All it took to convince me was a hotel ballroom full of writers who didn’t peek at my badge but looked me right in the eyes and said hello.

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