I recently went to my first writer’s conference, something that I’ve had the best intentions to do for a long time, but never have. In my defense, I do also have a full time job separate from my writing, so that takes a lot of time, but I finally got organized and went to a conference and I’m so glad I did. Hosted by the Writer’s Guild of Alberta, the conference was held in my hometown and featured some excellent presentations and workshops. I also got a decent haul of books, and managed to get all of them signed.
One of the best parts of the conference was having the opportunity to mingle with other writers. As the saying goes, and it’s a true one, writing can often be a solitary business. Getting the chance to chat with other writers was fascinating and fun and inspiring. In general, only other writers are interested in discussing the writing process at length, and I enjoyed hearing all the different things people had to say. For instance, one young writer sitting at the same lunch table as me posed a question to the group: when starting a new project, which comes first, the character or the setting? My answer was both, since it varies from project to project, and everyone else had different answers. It sparked such a great conversation that I skipped dessert!
I think my favourite part of the conference was watching the way writers blossomed when talking about their work. At first, we all seemed a bit shy about talking about our work. I was, for sure. When someone asked me about my upcoming book, The Wardrobe Mistress, I delivered my pre-prepared blurb, but I felt too shy to elaborate much, burdened by an awkward modesty and a worry that they’d find it boring. Fortunately, this feeling eased once it really struck me that I was surrounded by other writers and all of us loved talking about stories and books. I think a few others must have had a similar realization. As the day went on, I noticed people stopped giving quick summaries of their books, almost shrugging them off, and instead launched into bright-eyed, animated discussions of settings, inspirations, the difficulties of choosing a character’s name, or plot points they struggled with. All that creative energy and enthusiasm felt infectious.
During a conversation about character, I found myself describing the way Giselle (my protagonist in The Wardrobe Mistress) and her entire family burst to life inside my head as soon as I stumbled upon a bit of research about Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, who was a watchmaker and an ex-member of a spy ring called the secret du roi for King Louis XV. Beaumarchais had several sisters, none of which who seem to be prominent in history, so I invented a fictional life for one of them as Giselle’s mother. With that connection established, dark family secrets and internal rivalries started cropping up all over the place, and it hugely affected my plot, as well as Giselle’s character.
Aside from the bright enthusiasm for writing and for individual projects, there were also a lot of other highlights. After his dauntingly intelligent keynote presentation on the way literary artists engage with the world, and the particular kind of happiness that writers know, I chatted with Greg Hollingshead about all the fantastic quotations he used in his speech. I laughed continuously at Will Ferguson’s hilarious and outrageous anecdotes, but I also took some notes on his very good advice. I participated in a workshop on character development with Marina Endicott, and was unashamedly thrilled that she remembered working with me fifteen years ago (!) when I was a high school student and she was Writer-in-Residence at the local library. I made some local writer friends and now I have more books on my to-buy list, and their readings at local bookstores to look forward to.
And it’s a good thing I enjoyed this conference so thoroughly, because I’m actually going to another one in August, a three day event called When Words Collide. I’m participating in six panels and two ‘Blue Pencil Cafe’ sessions, where I’m going to help provide feedback on the first pages of a few manuscripts. I guess this means my newbie conference days really are over. If you’re in the Calgary area in August, come see me at this conference!