Writing Advice Sucks #5: The importance of community, the quantum state of cons, and recharging your creative batteries

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Two weekends ago me and some pals rented a cabin in upstate New York for what we like to call Broke Hack Mountain: a few days of eating, fighting, drinking, and writing.

I was working on a final pass of The Warehouse before submitting it back to Crown. It was great, to see all 472 pages over the course of two and a half days—I caught so much stuff I wouldn’t have caught if the read were stretched over a longer period.

Like, hey, I used a somewhat similar metaphor 70 pages ago and why do so many characters have ponytails? kind of stuff. I know it’s not easy to find a whole, obligation-free weekend, but if you can, it’s worth it.

That’s not what I’m here to talk about, though! I’m here to talk about community. Because one of the many, many publishing-related questions that came up over the weekend was: are conferences worth it?

It’s actually a pretty common question, and one I’ve been asked a lot: do I need to go to this con or that con?

Which is a good jumping off point, I think, that’ll bring us back to why we went to the cabin in the first place (and why we hope to make it a more regular occurrence).

Because the answer of whether cons are worth it is: maybe. Unless it’s Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee, at which point the answer is: why the fuck aren’t you registered already?

Conferences exist in a quantum state. They are worth it and not worth it, simultaneously. It really depends on your definition of the word “worth.”

From a dollar-and-cents perspective, hell no, they are not worth it. Especially if you are paying your own freight. Every year I attend Bouchercon and I do not sell enough books to cover plane tickets, a hotel room for three to four nights, cabs, meals, a bar tab, and incidentals. I don’t even come close to breaking even. It’s a big-time money-loser.

(Though I expect it’s a money-losing proposition for an A-list superstar author, too—no one is selling thousands, or maybe even hundreds, of copies at conferences. Dozens, at most? Unless it’s a bananapants conference like San Diego Comic-Con and you’re George R.R. Martin?)

From a networking perspective, they’re sort of worth it. I first pitched the Ash McKenna series to the publisher of Polis Books outside a bar in Albany. I was asked to throw my hat in the ring to co-author a Bookshot novella with James Patterson while in Raleigh.

Granted, I knew both of these editors from New York publishing circles, which is where I live and work. Did I need to be there to close these deals? Dunno. There’s a difference between running into someone at a party or a book launch, and being stranded in a shitty town for days on end with not much to do outside the hotel bar (looking at you, Albany…).

If you don’t live in New York, then yeah, if you want to do some serious networking, it’s probably worth it.

But conferences are also really hard, and there are things about them that really turn people off. Some of those reasons are pretty legit.

The cost, for one thing, is a huge economic barrier. Not everyone can drop two grand just to go hang out at a hotel bar for three days. Also not fun if you have social anxiety, because it’s a lot of socializing. Or if you’re sober, because everyone is boozed up like a dummy. Or if you’re a woman, because you spend a lot of time around people who are boozed up like dummies. Or if you’re a minority because a lot of these conferences are largely white-run and white-attended.

As a writer, the experience can be demoralizing. Especially on newer, younger authors. You’re not a known entity to readers or conference organizers, and some conferences just suck at courting younger folks (see: the recent Worldcon debacle).

I remember the year I was given an allotted time to sign books in a large ballroom, next to Charlaine Harris. She was lovely. She also had this huge line of people waiting for her. I signed, I think, two books? And one of them was a galley, which means the guy didn’t even buy it.

In the moment, kind of a bummer. But looking at it rationally, how could that have played out differently? She writes a hugely popular series that became a hugely popular television show (god, I miss True Blood…), and I’ve got a book out from a small press. Of course there’s going to be a disparity.

Which I think is an issue with conferences, and maybe even with a lot of the industry: an expectation problem. You go in having written a whole book and you expect a hero’s welcome for this valiant effort. But everyone is there to shill and no matter how big you are, there’s always someone bigger.

And the bigger names are the draws. No one’s there to see you. They’re there to see Lee Child, or Megan Abbott, or Laura Lippman, or Michael Connelly.

That’s even if you have a book out. If you’re an unpublished author with a manuscript and you’re looking for a publisher or an agent—that’s rough. I remember those days. Because you want to make meaningful connections with people but you also want them to recognize your genius and publish your shit.

It’s a lot. And it can be exhausting.

But there’s one thing about conferences that keeps me coming back: recharging my creative batteries.

This is me. Maybe it’s different for you. But there’s something special about being around other writers. It can be a boost. Maybe some shared craft talk. Maybe just some bullshitting. Think about this: how many of your day-to-day friends are writers?

Maybe not many. I’ve made some really close friends in the writing community in the past few years, but mostly, my closest real-life friends, the one I’ve been with the longest—they may be creative people, but they aren’t writers.

And writing is a damn lonely calling. You spend so much of your time doing it alone. It’s important to meet with fellow writers and realize that your trials and struggles and doubts are shared. Sometimes you need that realization: it’s not just you.

That said, the community of a con maybe isn’t right for everyone. It can be big and overwhelming and expensive. Some people there can be pretty lame and some of those friendships aren’t underpinned the way you think. Some folks use it as an opportunity to sell snake oil and junk science—building brands for themselves as punk rock truth tellers or master craftsmen when really… they are not. And sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between who knows their shit, and who is full of shit.

So maybe you don’t do a con. Maybe you recharge your batteries at a cabin. Or in a writing group at your local library. Or in a weekly Skype chat with a reliable critique buddy. Or deep in the woods, over a pentagram drawn hastily in the blood of a goat, when the moon is full and the forest seems to come alive…

I don’t know what you’re into. You do you!

But this is a roundabout way of saying: Cons are great, and they’re not. I like them, because I like to travel, and I like to meet new people, and I like to see friends who I don’t normally see. I like to share drinks and talk writing and sometimes get up to shenanigans.

I also like the intimacy of the cabin—just six guys doing guy stuff (being gross dumb assholes). A curated group of people who like to eat, who like to fight, and who like to put on our headphones and work for hours at a time.

And sometimes I like to sit in my office by myself.

Spending a shitload of money on a conference or a cabin rental is not going to make or break your career. But if you go into this stuff with the right expectation, with a willingness to listen and meet new people, with the self-awareness to sell yourself without being a dummy about it—they can be valuable.

I’ve gotten a lot out of them. Which, I know that I say that from a position of privilege, because I can afford to go. There seem to be some conversations going on right now, about ways to take down some of those economic barriers, and I am happy to hear them.

Find your community where you can. But don’t forget that, for as fun as that community can be, it doesn’t matter if you’re not getting your work done.

So, there we go. My usual caveat: writing advice is subjective and maybe none of this is helpful and that’s fine! And this isn’t even really writing advice, but the question comes up often enough I thought it was worth talking about. If you’ve got some thoughts to share, pop on down to the comments.

Otherwise, Potter’s Field is out in the world, and you can find it here, and also, sending out another newsletter soon with some book recommendations. Sign up, and see previous newsletters, at this link.

3 thoughts on “Writing Advice Sucks #5: The importance of community, the quantum state of cons, and recharging your creative batteries

  1. I agree with so much of this. Many cons seem cliquey and the main group of people very self-congratulatory. I leave wondering how I can break in, and even if I want to. And I do hate hanging around at bars, engaging in small talk. i go to learn because the speakers can teach me so much, and even three books in, I’m a huge author groupie (but harmless. Really.) I am curious what’s especially great about Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee?

    • Murder and Mayhem is the most fun I’ve ever had at a conference. It’s smaller and more intimate than something like Bouchercon and really just like a super cool big family hangout.

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