By Tim Gwyn
The clearest benefit of my attending writing conventions is that I got a publishing contract through one. But that’s not the whole story, and it certainly isn’t why I started going.
When I first wrote fiction, in my tweens and twenties, I didn’t have a lot of training, just a desire to create stories. When I came back to it later, I realized I needed more skills.
I live in Kenora where there isn’t as much for writers as there is in Thunder Bay or Winnipeg. I found out about a small convention in Kenora called Word on the Water. That was my first exposure to a Blue Pencil Café, a quick critique of a few pages of my writing by an established author. The 15-minute time frame forces the focus onto problems that jump out at the first reading, and often results in bite-size suggestions that are easy to digest. I signed up for a workshop, too.
After that, I went to the C4 LitFest in Winnipeg. This was a small writing convention that spun off from the much larger Central Canada Comic-Con. I went because I had finished my first novel, or at least written it through to the end, and didn’t know what came next. I went in thinking writing the book was the hard part. I attended panels on editing, querying agents, pitching publishers, and self-publishing. I came out stunned and demoralized, but wiser and ready to brace myself for the long haul.
Many conventions offer longer workshops or seminars, in addition to the one-hour panels and presentations. I’ve learned all sorts of stuff, from how to create a story by starting with random characters, to writing for the five senses. Don’t forget the Blue Pencil sessions. They’ve been a powerful tool for me, and it’s fun to get input from famous authors.
I said earlier that I started going to conventions to learn about writing, and I still do. But I have another reason. To meet people. It feels good to have friends and acquaintances in writing circles, and it’s also helpful, often in unexpected ways.
At every stage of my writing, I’ve found help at conventions. People I’ve met have helped me as beta readers, exchanged novels with me for critiquing, offered me a venue for a public reading, invited me to join a critique group, provided a reference so I could take an Odyssey online course, helped me write query letters, given me contact info for agents, offered me tips on reducing word count, explained why my opening pages were not winning over agents or publishers, offered me a publishing contract, and contributed a back-cover blurb to help promote my novel.
I met my freelance editor at a con. You can find one online, but I felt better approaching an editor I had seen speak on a panel. The clean manuscript that came out of our work was much more marketable.
After that, I went to conventions to pitch my novel to publishers. That’s another thing I prefer to do in person. My successful pitch was actually made at a party.
It’s not all business, of course. Sometimes socializing is just being sociable. When I was trying to interest publishers in my novel, my motto was: “I’m going to pitch everybody before I quit, and I still want to have friends when I’m done.” I enjoy having lunch or a drink, even with people who turned me down, because they were willing to take a look at my work. They were on my side, and they still are.
Some of the larger conventions contact me now, instead of the other way around, and I sit on some of the panels or moderate them. I do a slide show on Alternative Aviation in SF, and I try to help people write better aviation scenes, because that’s my specialty. More generally, I advocate joining a critique group and getting an editor.
This winter, I heard that an old friend was setting up an afternoon of writing panels at the library in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. I haven’t forgotten the people who came to my small town to help writers, so I felt it was worth the drive to give something back.
I’m a regular at Keycon in Winnipeg and Can*Con in Ottawa. The cons I go to lean towards speculative fiction, because that’s my field, but you can find one closer to your own interests, or attend a con that offers thirty-one flavours like Calgary’s When Words Collide, and peruse the programming for your kind of thing.
All the conventions have websites, so you can find them online and see what they offer. I recommend joining a mailing list if you’d like to keep an eye on a convention without signing up right away. That way, you’ll be able to see how the programming is shaping up, and you’ll get advance warning as they start to sell out.
If you joined NOWW to meet people and gain skills, those might also be good reasons to consider attending a convention or two. Expenses are tax deductible if you have a business, by the way. Yes, you can learn about that at a convention, too.
Good luck, and have fun!
Timothy Gwyn is the pen name of Tim Armstrong, a professional pilot in Kenora. His speculative short story, “The Emperor’s Dragon” will be in the June issue of NewMyths.com, and Avians, his young adult science fiction novel, is being released by Five Rivers Publishing on August 1st. His website is at timothygwyn.com and on Twitter he is @timothygwyn.