Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Conference Strategies by Andy Scheer

I've been attending writers conferences since the late 1980s--teaching classes, taking appointments, and advising people how to get the most from attending. But this past weekend I attended a conference as a civilian—and I've pleased to report the advice I've been giving writers still applies.

My event was not a writers conference. But the Evergreen (Colorado) Jazz Festival attracted several hundred people, and from morning until late at night the schedule was packed with top-notch professional musicians performing in five venues. Change the names from “concert” to “workshop” and from “musician” to “writer/editor” and the experience is much the same.

When I first attended the Evergreen Festival a few years ago, I never suspected it was one of dozens of such events across the country. Much like Christian writers conferences, they vary greatly in duration, facilities, and cost. In assessing writers conferences, I refer to the annual Christian Writers' Market Guide to learn the basics about each before visiting its website for details. For me, the deciding factor was that the Evergreen festival was within driving distance and I could stay with relatives nearby. But others, drawn by the event's location and reputation, drove or flew from across the country.

From past years, I anticipated which groups would be performing. But as the event approached and I monitored the website, I was surprised to see a few past favorites would be absent. I was disappointed until I discovered a late addition specialized in playing the distinctive style of music I appreciate most (San Francisco/West Coast “revival” jazz). I ended up attending five of their performances. At writers conferences, keynote speakers, workshop teachers, acquisition editors, and literary agents fill the program. Based on what you can discover in advance, which teachers and people taking appointments fit your A-list? Your B-list?

From experience and the festival website, I decided which of the five simultaneous concerts to attend at any given hour. A couple groups I followed from venue to venue. Other times I found a good seat near the front and stayed through several groups' performances.

When I was helping plan the “Writing for the Soul” conference for the Christian Writers Guild, I made a point to try to offer at each hour a dazzling array of choices. The only way to decide which to attend is to engage in some serious self-assessment. Which workshop best connects with your current writing and can equip you to move forward? Likewise with appointments. Which editors or agents would most likely mesh with your work and your aspirations? And if all those slots are taken, what are your best alternatives?

Unlike writers conferences, the jazz festival didn't feature meal breaks, just fifteen minutes between sessions. Somewhere between 11:00 and 2:00, then 4:00 and 7:00, I had to stop, rest, and refresh. If I tried to attend everything, I'd end up unable to appreciate anything. Fortunately, most writers conferences offer CD or MP3 recordings of workshops—and often the entire conference. Being able to take home a recording helps ease the guilt of skipping a class when you desperately need to put your feet up, pray, or process something you just learned.

While I planed my strategy based on past attendance and studying the website and printed program, I also made some last-minute choices. A New Orleans-based quartet didn't click with me this year. But a Kansas City group really spoke to me with their string band music and traditional blues. Another time the choice seats were already full, so I had to accept a less desirable location. I ended up sitting next to someone with whom I shared several common interests.

No matter how much you know about a topic, there's always someone who knows more. Often they're sitting next to you. Waiting for my new favorite group to perform, I learned the person next to me was the trombone player's girlfriend. As it turns out, I used to live just a couple miles from her. Between numbers, my new friend filled me in about the band, their other performers, and the tunes they were playing. I didn't tell her she was assisting the research for my novel in progress.

Likewise I talked with the musicians. Not when they were rushing between sets, but when it seemed  they had some time to spare. I learned how a piano player I'd met a few years ago was doing after his bout with leukemia—and got his advice about a Kansas City barbecue joint where the band sometimes plays. I learned the trombone player has a Model A Ford similar to my father-in-law's and was able to offer him advice on his car's brakes. Musicians, like writers and editors, have a life outside their work. Building rapport first makes it more natural to ask and receive help in the professional realm.

Maybe it's the writer in me, but I took notes throughout the jazz festival. The names of every tune each band played, remarks about the composers, plus observations I made about the interactions among the musicians. I also shot lots of photos and even recorded a few low-resolution movie clips. They weren't selling books, but I did bring home six CDs. By time I've finished reviewing and applying everything I've learned, and hope to learn, it should be time for next year's event. I plan to be ready.

Andy's Upcoming Writers Conferences
San Diego Christian Writers Guild, Sept. 23-24
Indianapolis Christian Writers Conference, Nov. 4-5
Heart of America Christian Writers Network Conference, Nov. 10-12
Florida Christian Writers Conference, Mar. 1-4


Parenting Expert Brenda Nixon said...

Great post Andy. I remember having a few moment of "free" time in Colorado to play Man Bites Dog with you :-)
Pace yourself is good advice. With so many options and energy it's easy for me to get overwhelmed and drained.

Linda Glaz said...

Great post, Andy. I always compare the writing experience to the theatre. Isn't it fun how all the artsy ventures all blend into one if given enough time and creativity? Hope to see you at one of the conferences/jazz fests.

Caroline said...

I suppose there are a lot of similiarities between all artists. Enjoyed the post.


Kathryn Elliott said...

Great post, Andy! And my favorite part, you talked to people. Conversation is rapidly becoming an extinct form of research. Why chat with your neighbor when you can surf the web? I’m all for cyber-searching, but it is always nice to garner information from real, live humans! Sounds like a great conference.

Diana said...

Terrific advice in fresh format :-)
We now know more about you as well but what is Man bites Dog? or is it Dog bites Man? Think I will have a little Jazz with my lunch today.

Caroline said...

After just attending a writing conference, that "talking to people" challenges me most. But, doing so is both fruitful and encouraging. Thanks for the post!

Andy said...

Yes, Man Bites Dog, a tabloid newspaper style headline card game. The name comes from the journalism cliche that when man bites dog, it's news.

Jeanette Levellie said...

Great advice, especially about pacing yourself. I wore myself out at a conference two years ago, and came home sick. It's okay to sit out a session, or just visit with friends and relax.

I hope to see you in Indy in November!

Andy said...

And you shouldn't have to worry too much about pacing yourself at the Indy conference. With a noon Friday start, then going until 5 or 6 on Saturday, this is one you can treat like a sprint rather than a distance event.

Diana said...

Thanks Andy, found the game on Amazon and placed it in my cart. Looking forward to playing it.