5 Takeaways from the Writer’s Digest Conference

Last weekend, we attended the Writer’s Digest Conference West. We wanted to get out of the academy and see what’s what in mainstream publishing. A lot of what was said, we already knew. Some of that provided good reminders. A few tidbits were new to us, or at least new approaches to tried-and-true advice.

1) Writer and Author are different roles.

That writer and author are different roles we embody isn’t always the way we talk about our writing lives, but it’s a helpful distinction to make in order to carve out focused writing time as well as consider how to present your work to others, including an agent, an editor, or a reader. This distinction lingered in the air like perfume, but literary agent Katharine Sands of the Sarah Jane Freyman Literary Agency was the person to say it bluntly: “Gone is the day when you can sit in a black turtleneck and just write.”

Of course, Sands is speaking from the agent’s perspective, so she wants writers to think of themselves as authors. She wants us to treat approaching an agent or an editor—maybe even a reader—as if we’re applying for a job. She wants us to know that our work will be judged according to how quickly we can immerse someone in the world of the story, whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction. She wants an author to set aside hubris and humility, perhaps the two most necessary qualities in a writer.

2) What’s your book about?

Authors have to field the question What is your book about? Marketing consultant Rob Eagar advised, “Never answer that question.” What the person is really asking is What’s in it for me?

The question, then, is an invitation to tell someone why he or she should read your book. Does your book provide a vicarious experience? Does it add to that person’s knowledge about culture or history? Is your book funny or heart wrenching? Eagar emphasizes that what drives the writer will drive readers. If we think about why we are writing about the end of the space shuttle program, we’ll be able to figure out why readers will benefit from our book. We can transform our interest and investment of time into readers’ interest and investment of time.

3) It’s about voice, not brand.

With all the pressure these days to build a snazzy platform with a zillion tweets and posts that garner a zillion hits, it was great to hear novelist and game designer Chuck Wendig tell us that voice matters. That’s what writers want to hear. As he put it, storytelling is art, and writing is craft, and that needs to be working.

Wendig is especially leery of branding because it can mimic typecasting. Once Bob Denver became Gilligan, he couldn’t be anyone else in the public’s gaze. For those writers, like Wendig and us, who want to write more than one kind of thing, branding might limit us. That’s not to say one shouldn’t build a platform and an audience but that one’s voice—art and craft—is one’s mark on the world. And he’s convinced that for every author, there exists an audience.

4) If it’s not working, do something else.

If a writer takes every piece of advice about building a platform, she will face two problems. First, of course, she’ll have no time for the writing that is the raison d’etre for the platform. Second, she won’t be playing to her strengths and hiding her weaknesses. Both Rob Eagar and Chuck Wendig emphasized that authors shouldn’t waste their time doing tasks that they aren’t enjoying and that aren’t paying off.

If you don’t like people, reading tours and workshops should be avoided. If you’re going to tweet once a month about what you had for dinner, why bother? If you can’t write anything under 5000 words, don’t blog. As blogger Nina Amir pointed out, if you start a blog, but it doesn’t work—you want to change your focus or nobody outside your family is reading it—you can hit the delete button and start fresh. In other words, authors have lots of options, can test out those options, and can make individualized decisions instead of thinking there’s only one best way.

5) Screw the numbers. Readers are individuals.

That’s what Chuck Wendig said, and we want to believe it. But it’s not easy. Agents check the numbers. Editors check the numbers. Some authors check their BookScan numbers every day. We recently heard a poetry editor say that their marketing person checks how many Facebook friends a poet has. Numbers matter enough that you can buy Twitter followers to make you look more popular, though there also now exists software to determine how many fake followers a person has.

You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Each reader really is an individual, a real person who makes a decision to buy your book, to invest his time in what you’ve written. Writing is most often done in isolation, one person crafting sentences one by one to make something artful. Reading, too, is most often done in isolation, one person holding a book or an e-reader. Even those authors who sell millions of books depend on one person at a time, each reader taking in the words alone. Of course, every author hopes that the words matter to that reader enough that he tells two people, and they tell two people.

9 thoughts on “5 Takeaways from the Writer’s Digest Conference

  1. Oh, you can have all the hubris and humility you want — once you sell books! My advice is meant to help writers pitch their work….Katharine

  2. Thanks for this great advice from a great conference. Mind if I tweet it out? In January, I’m teaching a workshop for writers beginning to use social media and I’d like to use this posting as an example, if I may.

  3. I think the concept of branding is important for authors, but they should focus on keywords or phrases that they are naturally drawn to anyway. For example, I write nonfiction essays about love, loss, relationships, grief, and humor. Those are my keywords, and it’s what I write about on social media, my blog, and in my books. That’s not to say I can’t write about Nutella if I want to (and I do).

    To say branding is bad because it categorizes in some way is, in my opinion, to not understand what people do, regardless of whether we consciously participate or not. We as humans categorize every bit of information we take in. Why should books be any different?

    1. RachelintheOC–

      I don’t think that the takeaway is that branding is bad. Indeed, we point out that building a platform, which often comes across as synonymous with branding, is worthwhile. We were relaying the advice of someone, Chuck Wendig, whom we respect and who has built a multi-faceted career: novelist, screenwriter, blogger, and game designer. Even as someone who writes in several genres, his point was simple: voice matters.

      Thanks for your take!

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