I had a blog post all queued up for this week, but I’m on a plane back from the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ annual Colorado Gold conference and can’t stop thinking about the weekend and what it made me realize about this business—and the authors who are the soul of it.
Nearly 400 writers—published and not yet published—agents, and editors convened in Denver for the conference. If you’ve attended events like this—brimming with inspiration, education, and camaraderie, all centered around the love of the art and craft of language and story—you already know their myriad benefits: the chance to learn the craft and the business from authors at the top of their games and to hear how they achieved their success. The opportunity to pitch directly to your dream agent or editor, to ask them questions in person in panels and hear about their agency and market trends—to join the brightest lights of publishing for a drink at the end of the day and talk shop or just chat. The overwhelming generosity and support of other writers: the friendships that form (and endure), the critique groups that are created, the tips and suggestions and connections and commiseration.
If you’ve never attended a conference, pick you a good one and get yourself there. If it’s too expensive, volunteer. If it’s still too expensive, drive or carpool and split a hotel room with three roommates, or find one nearby and day-trip (and evening-trip so you don’t miss BarCon). Trust me, it will be worth it, partly for all of the above reasons.
But mostly because of the stories, and what they will teach you.
I don’t just mean the actual stories—the stacks of books you’re likely to find for sale in the pop-up bookstore. The bag full of them you may be handed on registration. Not even the freebies lying around or pressed into your hands.
I’m talking about stories like the ones the keynote speakers tell—like Christopher Paolini (bestselling teenage wunderkind author of the Inheritance Cycle) talking about writing his first novel out of boredom living on his family’s rural Montana homestead—and rewriting it, and rewriting it, and his family nearly losing their home with the expense of self-publishing and self-marketing it, and his relentless speaking engagements and book signings and the excruciating effort to talk to person after person, one by one, to convince them to buy his book until finally something caught fire and it started to sell, and a major publisher came calling with a major deal, and then a film deal.
Or like Kate Moretti, whose first book was written in snatches while her baby slept, then quickly sold, and who benefited from a well-timed BookBub ad that catapulted her—a brand-new author with a debut book—to New York Times bestseller status, who confesses that six books later she still wrestles with the feeling of never having earned her success.
Or like Corinne O’Flynn, indie-pubbed author of the USA Today–bestselling Expatriates fantasy adventure series, who wrote her first book while battling serious health issues and losing both her daughter and her mother, who literally arrived at the conference fresh from being rushed to the emergency room for an allergic reaction and having a shot of adrenaline administered directly to her heart to accept the Indie Writer of the Year award.
Those stories are inspirational, aspirational. But if you’re doing the conference right (and that tends to involve staying in the common areas and out of your room as much as possible and talking to total strangers, usually in the bar, and often with alcohol), you’ll also hear countless stories from the other writers in attendance: the author who got dumped by his publisher or agent after a few books and finds himself back in the dugout again. The one who submitted to her dream agent four separate times over three years with four different manuscripts until she finally, finally got the yes. The one who still hasn’t. The one who came last year with a dream of writing a book, and is here this year pitching her completed manuscript. The ones who met at a conference when they were all struggling in the trenches and formed a critique group and are now all successfully published. The one who, despite crushing critique from an industry professional, is here anyway, trying to keep believing in her writing and herself but contemplating quitting…who received multiple requests for submissions from agents over the weekend.
The one who went to her first conference more than a decade ago as a freelance copyeditor desperately wanting to do something more creative in the field she adored, not just correct the mechanics—and is now a developmental editor working hands-on with authors to shepherd their visions into the world and traveling to conferences presenting editing workshops to the bestsellers of tomorrow. (That one’s me.)
What you will learn from all these stories, the common takeaway of almost any gathering of like-minded creative souls is that everyone has had a different path to get to where they are. And almost every one of them—whether the lifelong writer who amassed six unpublished manuscripts and a thousand (literally ten hundred) rejection letters who is working on the third in his series that finally sold, or a relative neophyte who stumbled to the pinnacle of success and suffers from impostor syndrome—feels no different from the hundreds of writers still dreaming of “making it.”
What conferences teach you is that you have made it already. You are a writer by virtue of the fact that you’re writing—and even if right now you’re struggling to write your first manuscript (or your seventh), or desperately hoping for an agent or a publishing contract, your world can 180 on a dime. When Kate Moretti’s book launched onto the NYTimes bestseller list and her career started to suddenly take off, she told her husband in shock, “I think my life is about to change.”
At any moment, your life—your writing career—could be about to change. But you have to be ready for it: Do the work. Learn your craft—always be learning your craft. Find your people—writers and other industry folk—and build your support network and connections. Be part of this industry at writers’ events. Read and be generous about buying other authors’ books; if money is prohibitive, then be generous with reviews or retweets or talking them up to friends.
Most of all: Stay in the game. If you love this craft, don’t quit. Tell your stories. Know that if you do, if you simply persist no matter how long it takes, no matter how much rejection you may endure, no matter how many times you lose faith in yourself or your writing and struggle to get it back, you will be rewarded. Maybe you won’t be J. K. Rowling. Maybe you will simply be a solid midlist author. Maybe you’ll indie-publish. But your stories will be read. You will make a difference in someone’s life. And you will make a difference in your own because the act of fearlessly making your art, of sharing your truth and your creativity, is sacred and it’s magic and it enriches your life and the world beyond measure.
And if you are at a writers conference, or pitching an agent, or sending off a manuscript to publishers or reviewers, breath held and heart suspended and riddled with doubt, remind yourself of this: None of this exists without you, the author.
You are the source, the nexus, the fulcrum of everything every publishing industry professional does. You are literally the creator, the fountainhead, the raison d'être of this business. Remember that if you feel overwhelmed or supplicant or inadequate or just tired. Every successful artist on earth has felt that way—and most still do, at times. But you don’t have to earn your way into anything: You are the golden ticket.
Getting on the elevator on the way to my first presentation this weekend, I found a lone woman already inside, her hands clasped in front of her solar plexus, her face a bit pale. I introduced myself, and in the standard greeting of writers’ conferences I asked her, “So what do you write?”
“Oh, this is my first time,” she said apologetically. “I’m pretty nervous.”
“I know exactly what you mean.” I fell into step beside her to the conference registration area. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
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Tiffany Yates Martin is privileged to help authors tell their stories as effectively, compellingly, and truthfully as possible. In more than 25 years in the publishing industry she’s worked both with major publishing houses and directly with authors (through her company FoxPrint Editorial), on titles by New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestsellers. She presents editing and writing workshops for writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences and writes for numerous writers’ sites and publications.