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A Purr-fect Place to
Boost Your Writing Skills

2010 Lori L. Lake


If I told l you I saw a cat in a morgue, would you believe me?

It's true. Last April, I attended the Mad Anthony Mystery Conference in Hamilton, Ohio. As part of that event, participants toured the Hamilton Police, Fire, and Coroner's departments.

The morgue was particularly fascinating. The coroner, Dr. Burkhardt, walked us through the process of receiving a body, and he and his staff showed us autopsy tools and spoke of procedures while regaling us with stories both macabre and humorous. As the coroner spoke, an orange tabby wound through our legs, his kitty-cat curiosity apparent. Someone asked why they had a cat in the morgue, and the coroner said, "There's so much desolation here—it's comforting to have something alive when devastated people come to identify their kin."

A cat in the morgue. What an unusual fact, and wouldn't it be great fun to weave that thread into a book? I must admit, though, that I did find myself wondering what would happen if some body part fell off the autopsy table or if those grieving next of kin had severe allergies to cats.

But feline antics aside, this conference included an in-depth Writers Police Academy taught by active or retired law enforcement personnel. About 120 people, including presenters, attended the mystery-related event, which was not only inexpensive but also surprisingly worthwhile.

Have you ever wondered how to interview and interrogate suspects or do hostage negotiations? Perform a high-risk traffic stop? Understand police tools, guns, and equipment or arrest techniques and handcuffing? The presenters covered all these and more, and we were able to practice many tactics or see them performed by professionals.

This is just one example of a writers' conference that I found different and useful. They also had panels on nonfiction, children's books, plotting, and so on. I met two agents, many published writers, and staff from Writer's Digest.

Every year, there are scads of multi-faceted conferences all across the nation, and many of them could change your writing life in unexpected ways.

Why Attend a Conference?
Many writers think pitching books is the main reason to attend a conference, but selling your book is one of the less likely opportunities you'll have there. The best reasons to attend are to:
• Learn new things, work on new skills, improve current abilities;
• Meet others who are passionate about writing;
• Develop a network of people and resources.

Other reasons to attend might also include:
• Meeting authors, editors, agents, publishers, and industry insiders;
• Making friends with aspiring writers or with authors you admire;
• Receiving mentoring, critiquing, career guidance, or general feedback about your work;
• Having opportunities to sit on panels, speak, read, and/or teach;
• Learning about different genres and unfamiliar topics;
• Hearing others perform or teach, and discovering how to do that from their efforts;
• Promoting your work and learning about markets and the publishing world;
• Gathering energy and inspiration to help you forge on with projects;
• Spending time with other writers to share ideas and gain support.

Types of Conferences
There are conventions and conferences all over the United States and Canada, and you can find them covering every topic, including specific writing skills as well as mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, YA and children's novels, scriptwriting, and various types of literature: memoir, essay, novel writing, creative nonfiction, playwriting, etc. Two of my annual favorites are the Bouchercon mystery convention and the Golden Crown Literary Society Convention (www.goldencrown.org). Perhaps the best-known and generally most extensive online source is the Shaw Guide to Writing Conferences (http://writing.shawguides.com). Many writing magazines list conventions and conferences as well.

How to Pick a Conference
Writers' budgets tend to be limited. Although trip expenses, fees, and hotel costs can be written off taxes, attending any event will require time, energy, and money. You want to be smart about how you decide to allocate your resources.

What do you want to get out of a conference? Do you want to meet publishers? Enter a contest? Pitch your completed manuscript? Learn how to get an agent or editor? Get advice on writer's block or strategies for using your writing time and energy? Determine what you want, and then look for conferences in your price range that offer what you need. The closer in proximity, the better. If you can get what you need at the Loft, why travel across the country?

Established national events such as the yearly Bouchercon mystery conference, Romance Writers of America, Western Writers of America convention, and the Golden Crown Literary Society conference are easy to find information about. But many conferences (such as the one I attended in Ohio) are smaller local affairs that are not so well advertised. On the other hand, some genres, such as science fiction and fantasy, have multiple events locally and regionally. In the Twin Cities alone, I believe there were nine sci-fi/fantasy cons last year.

Which events are worthwhile? Which will suit you? Before laying out cash for travel and registration fees, be sure to do the following:
• Scour the conference website, paying particular attention to the schedule to see if there is enough substantive material and a little of whatever constitutes "fun" for you.
• Are keynote speakers and presenters qualified? Is there a variety of high-level and interesting topics?
• Who is sponsoring or underwriting the conference? Is a professional organization or established writing group involved? Be wary of anything that seems like a fly-by-night operation.
• Talk to someone who has attended and get that person's impressions. Organizers should be able to put you in touch with people who have attended in the past. • Ask organizers for contact information for some of the presenters and reach out to them to find out more. Many conferences have websites and leave up their schedules from the previous year. Look at who presented and contact them via the Internet.

I attended the Ohio conference because I knew the reputation of the lead police organizer, Lee Lofland, a retired police detective and the author of The Howdunit Book of Police Procedure and Investigation. I contacted him, and he assured me that the Police Academy would be fantastic...and he was right.

Once You Decide on a Conference
• Plan ahead: review the schedule, prioritize, and focus specifically on what you want to attend.
• If you hope to pitch your work, prepare professionally organized copies to take with you, and make sure you practice your pitch.
• Bring promotional materials to leave with others—business cards are especially useful if you haven't yet been published.
• Pack comfortable shoes and clothes, and bring a bag or backpack that accommodates handouts and giveaways as well as holds pens, paper, your book(s), and, if you desire, your laptop.
• Pack a few snacks and a bottle of water. You never know when you'll get a break.

Who You Know Matters
Many writers tend to be introverted, even reclusive, but meeting people is important. As the old saying goes, it's not what you know, it's who you know. If you walk away from a conference having made just one good contact, that could change your life. I met Lee Lofland in 2005 at a conference. Since then, he's connected me with law enforcement experts, referred me to his agent, and featured my writing on his blog, The Graveyard Shift. His experience and networking help have been invaluable. At various conferences, I've also met and befriended writers and editors with whom I go out of my way to share information. Help others, and they will help you—or they'll refer you to resources who can assist you. One of the best places to meet people who love writing as much as you do is at a writing conference.

And you might just run into some intriguing cats along the way, too.
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2010 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author.
Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments. Her website is here: www.LoriLLake.com
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