Writers’ Conferences: the challenges and rewards

The end of October marked the beginning of a new phase for me as a debut author. The CONS. Conferences and conventions.

For the past three years, I have attended the Sirens Conference for women in Science Fiction and Fantasy. I have always enjoyed this conference for its camaraderie and passionate and informed discussion and panels. For me, Sirens has the familiar feeling of an academic conference with the added bonus of wildly imaginative readers and writers.

This year, I was excited to reunite with friends and catch up on projects. I was also keenly aware of the opportunity to network, or rather the opportunity for a shy person to practice how to network. Like many writers, I am not naturally extroverted. But the chance to introduce myself and talk about my upcoming book in a welcoming environment like Sirens allowed me to get over some of my jitters. In the process, I made new friends. I also received some great How To pointers on CONS which I put to work at my next CON, World Fantasy.

While Sirens felt like a reunion, attending World Fantasy Con for the first time felt a little more like sitting for my grad school qualifying exams. I was convinced everyone knew more than me, and they’d figure out there was an imposter in the room. But really, only part of this was true. There were indeed many award-winning and talented writers, both among the Guests of Honor and the attendees, but they were also welcoming and engaging.

And while World Fantasy had stellar programming,  it had another “track” beyond panels and readings that happened in the lobby which put to task the skills I’d practiced at Sirens. I shook hands, introduces myself, talked about my book, asked questions, and most importantly had wonderful conversations with folks that I now can’t wait to see at the next World Fantasy Con (in Baltimore).

Next year, my CON schedule will be hectic to support the publication of THE SONG OF ALL (FogCon (Bay Area), WisCon (Madison, WI), DragonCon (Atlanta, GA), World Con (San Jose, CA), Sirens (Vail, CO) and World Fantasy Con (Baltimore, MD). And these are just the confirmed ones. I know I’ll face many next new challenges this coming year, but I also know that there will new friends along the way and hopefully a streamlined packing list to keep me going.


My packing list for 10 days of travel and two very distinct climates (Vail, Colorado and San Antonio, Texas) was bolstered by 3 Advanced Reader Copies of my book THE SONG OF ALL, 3 books to be signed by attending authors, 100 new business cards, 250 new book promo postcards, protein powder and travel blender, and enough nuts and seeds to keep me and neighborhood squirrels from going hungry in between meals.


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First Public Reading for THE SONG OF ALL

When I received the final programming schedule for this year’s World Fantasy Con, I was surprised and honored to discover I had a Reading slot. Friday, November 3rd. 2-2:30 pm. It would be my first public reading of THE SONG OF ALL.

And with that, I began to panic. 30 minutes? I couldn’t imagine reading for that long. I emailed my editor and my agent, and they calmed me down.

“It’s a great opportunity.”

“You’ll make introductory remarks about you and the book, read for 15 minutes, or so, then take questions at the end.”

And then I began to obsess over what I should read, which meant I didn’t make any decision until just before the conference. Then I practiced aloud the selection to get the timing and inflections just right. Thursday, the first afternoon of the conference, I attended three readings to see how other authors handled their 30 minutes. And, as outlined by my editor, they followed opening comments with a 15-20 minute reading, and questions at the end.

By Friday, I’d practiced reading the selection another half-dozen times. My nervousness bounded between, What if nobody shows up? What if people do show up? Of the two, the former was the real fear. With ten minutes to go to my reading, I made my way to Executive Salon 3. The previous author had already finished, and the room was vacant. The neatly arranged conference chairs sat empty. I set my name placard up in front, poured myself a glass of water, and opened my bound manuscript to the selection I’d chosen.

I looked at my phone. 1:56 pm. I was alone in the room. I laid out my opening remarks, some of which I hoped were clever. 1:58 pm. I was alone in the room. 1:59 pm. I was alone in the room.

I texted my husband saying, “I don’t think anyone is showing up.” He texted back encouragement. I was about to pack up my manuscript and leave, the sting of humiliation flush on my cheeks, when someone walked in. I smiled and greeted her and resolved to do my best reading just for her. And then two University of Texas students walked in. They were fulfilling a class requirement. I welcomed them warmly, hoping my inner relief remained unremarkable.

With this quorum, I began my opening remarks, managing to keep going through a late arrival, even as I tallied silently. Four.

At five minutes after 2:00 pm, I began the reading. I found my rhythm almost immediately. My voice resonated just as I had practiced. The words rose effortlessly from the page. I tried to give them all the emotion I had put into them as I wrote and then rewrote this scene again and again in the pursuit of perfection.

Fourteen minutes later, I finished the chapter. I looked up at the neatly lined and mostly empty chairs before me. I was surprised to see my agent. Apparently, I had been so caught up in my reading, I had not heard him slip in to take a front-row seat. I silently tallied. Five.

The subsequent applause was generous, the questions perfunctory, and the comments complimentary. Still, the shame of 1:59 pm clung like a burr, determine to follow me out of the room as I packed up my manuscript and name placard, and placed my water glass on the tray in the corner. I walked beside my agent. He gallantly pointed out the challenges of the time and location of my reading. We emerged into the hotel corridor just as the neighboring room disgorged a packed house of enthusiastic attendees. With a flash of envy, I looked to the room’s marquee.

2:00 pm reading David Mitchell

David Mitchell, Two-time Booker Prize nominee and New York Times bestselling author of CLOUD ATLAS, THE BONE CLOCKS, and SLADE HOUSE. Guest of Honor at the conference and charmingly erudite, with a lilting British accent.

The organizers had scheduled me opposite David Mitchell!

I hadn’t realized this because I was so focused on my reading it didn’t occur to me to look who else was on the schedule at the same time. It felt like such a rookie mistake. But I was glad I hadn’t known.

Afterward, each time I found myself in the elevator with David Mitchell, I had a new surge of envy. But my jealousy would inevitably fade because David Mitchell was invariably gracious and charming, with that disarming accent. I thought of sharing with him this anecdote of my first reading pitted against his, but the elevator rides never afforded a private moment. And just as well.

It was my first reading. A starting point.  My next reading will likely not be scheduled opposite a Booker Prize nominee and New York Times bestseller with a lilting British accent. And besides, I had FIVE folks who chose me over David Mitchell.


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