The Yin and Yang of Conferences and Retreats

This past weekend, I went to my Regional SCBWI retreat. Well, I went to part of it as I am still recovery from the surgery. I’m so blessed to have a husband who was willing to drive me two hours away and stay close in case I needed him. And so thankful to belong to a group of writers who were willing to do whatever they could to make things easier as I strolled around with my walker, Daryl.

Writer retreats and conferences are awesome. And scary. And informational. Potentially hopeful. Potentially devastating.  This retreat was that and a whole lot more.

Most importantly I got to spend time with my writer friends. I have some wonderful friends in my life who love me and support my writing. They listen to my ideas, read my manuscripts, give me feedback. I love them dearly and they are so important to me. But they are not writers.

Sometimes I just need to spend time with other writers—people who think like me, know the publishing business, have felt the same immense joy of creation that I have and the same crushing defeat of rejection that I have.  My tribe, so to speak.

So I got to do that and it was the awesome part. I could tell you some stories, but one day I think our little Regional chapter might publish an anthology of the spooky/creepy things that happen to us on retreat, so I’ll save those for the book.  But what a wonderful boost t was to visit with my writer pals, especially right after having spent SO MANY DAYS lying in the bed. I left there feeling so encouraged because of my friends.

Retreats and conferences go beyond the personal connections, though. There are professional connections as well. We were lucky this year in that we had an agent and an editor as guests at this retreat. They both gave us valuable information in their sessions on world building, character, the publishing industry, etc… I came away with a lot of helpful tips.

(The tip that made me go hmmm:  “Look at the last line of every paragraph. You’ll find that you probably don’t need it. –Bethany Strout, Little Brown Editor.  She was right. I didn’t cut EVERY last line, but I found a few that were pretty much summarizing what had already been said in the paragraph! So simple, but so effective.)

Of course, part of the conference/retreat purpose is getting one-on-one feedback with these professionals. We got that from both professionals, so two for the price of one I suppose. As nerve-frying as writing query letters can be, personal pitches can be just as hair raising. We sent our materials ahead of time so they could read and be prepared with comments, so it wasn’t THAT bad, but still there is this element of fear that comes with meeting with them. Will she like my manuscript? Will she like me? Will she tell me I suck at writing and need to give up now? Will she hate my story because it isn’t contemporary? Will she love it and want to offer me rep today?

(So, that last one rarely happens, but writers would be lying if they tell you at least some kind of similar fantasy hasn’t crossed their minds prior to a professional crit session!)

Our retreat is held in an old Monastery that has partially been turned into a retreat facility. There is beautiful artwork and pictures of Jesus everywhere. Believe me when I tell you, I was talking to him before I went into my crit sessions! Have you heard of Schrodinger’s Cat? You know, where there is a cat locked in a box with a vial of poison. Until you open the box there is no way of knowing if the cat is alive or dead, therefore he is both and he is neither.

Going into a crit session is exactly like that. Hopeful that it will go well, fearful that it won’t. Until it happens both are possible.

My sessions went well and I got some advice from both professionals that I will put into my manuscript, some I won’t. I may not have landed MY AGENT FOREVER AND EVER with this retreat, but the perspective I gained is so valuable and I’m so thankful for a professional evaluation of my work. All feedback is good feedback. Remember that kids.

Early on in my writing career I read something that said most writers have this weird condition—at times suffering from crippling self-doubt that anyone will like their work versus times of extreme confidence in your words and ideas that there is NO WAY that this story will not be published.

I suffer from this condition, whatever its name. And now that I’ve experienced these retreats and conferences, written several different manuscripts, spoken to other professionals, I think I understand that this is a necessary part of writing.

Writers have to doubt sometimes. They have to care enough to want to make their stories the best they can be. Without doubt, there would be no growth. Without growth, there would be no improvement. Every writer, even the biggest and baddest among us, should want to improve with every story, every line and every word.

On the flip side of that, writers must believe enough in their stories to finish them, to have the drive to revise them again and again and again if necessary. And they have to have the bravery and the confidence to write that first query, attend that conference, put that manuscript out in the world and KNOW that someone else will “get it.”

It’s like Yin and Yang—can’t have one without the other. No dark without light. No good without bad. No reward without risk.  Retreats and conferences are like that too. Friends and critiques. Tips and rejections. Hope and disappointment.  Without all of those things, I would not be a better writer today than I was on Friday. And I am. And I am thankful for that.  For the retreat and every experience that came with it. (Even the scary one on the elevator.)

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