(As you read this, remember it was written for and presented at a Romance Writers of America conference. It’s absolutely valid for any writer, but you may have to translate to your own genre).
A writer’s education consists of more than going to monthly chapter meetings or attending the annual local conference. It means reading EVERY book in the 808 section of the library. Twice. It means buying a ton of other books and attending critique groups. It means regularly reading RWR, Writer’s Digest, Romantic Times, any sub-genre rags like Beau Monde. And industry, craft, and genre blogs.
It means attending the national conference or buying the session CDs from National if you can’t attend. (The RWR–[that’s the Romance Writers Report for you non-romance types] will list the CDs for sale just afterward. Your local chapter may also buy a complete set.)
It means getting on-line with your chapter members or some other writer’s link or list where you can learn more about the business of writing from others.
It means getting your hands on whatever publisher guidelines are available and reading them. It means reading romances, to keep up with what’s being published and by whom.
More than anything, it means listening, listening, listening, not just with your ears, but with your brain, and absorbing every scrap of hard information that you can get.
Conferences: Attending vs Volunteering
As part of self-education, I’d like to recommend conferences. Attending a conference is wonderful. You get to hear fascinating speakers, meet your peers–and an occasional superstar writer–and chat with an editor or two. You come away inspired, feeling recharged and ready to scream through the next chapter of your book. (I’m presenting at a great small all-genre conference at the end of February, the Whidbey Island Writers Conference. Come join us.)
Even better is volunteering for a conference committee. When you volunteer, you often have the opportunity to WORK with the visiting editors, agents, and writers. You find yourself in more situations where you can actually schmooze with these folks, and schmoozing is how you really learn about publishing as a business. In the right position, you get to know people who may be able to affect your career down the road–for better or worse, so do a good job and present yourself well to them. I met my first editor, Judy Stern Palais, and Malle Vallick, who is now the Digital Queen of Harlequin (or some title like that) over the phone when I was doing materials coordination–i.e., begging books to give away at a a chapter conference. The contact with Judy led almost directly to my first sale–although I obviously had to pony up with a good book along the way. (I’ve told the story so many times…does anyone want or need to hear it again? If so, let me know in comments.)
As another example, NYT Bestseller Kristin Hannah told me that before she was published, she volunteered at an RWA National conference to babysit editor appointments–you know, stand outside and time the appointments, then knock on the door when the time’s up. The advantages aren’t obvious, but what do you suppose editors do on their short breaks between appointments? Go to the john, of course, but many of them also stand in the hallways and talk with anyone around them who doesn’t look like they’re going to throw a manuscript at them. Like Kristin, at the time. She spoke with several editors. One of them–sorry, I don’t remember who–finished a little late and came out of her final appointment harried, hungry, and looking for someone to have dinner with. Who do you suppose was standing there, smiling and handy? Who got to spend an hour with an editor in private conversation?
Lucky Kristin, right? In the right place at the right time. Get real. She made her own luck. She put herself in the right place.
And that’s part of selling a book.