The Writer’s Digest Conference 2017 (WDC17) wrapped up last Sunday, with most attendees looking tired but eager to dive back into their works-in-progress. Myself included. It was my first time attending the conference, first time in NYC, and first time flying to the opposite side of North America.
But did the three-day conference make my financial investments worth it?
Did I actually learn something new here, or was WDC just an echo chamber?
Would you learn something new if you attended?
After reading a couple post-WDC17 blog posts over these past few days, I decided I needed to answer these questions.
More for those contemplating attending in future years than for reconciling with my bank account. The fast answer is “probably,” but it depends on where you’re at as a writer, what you’re hoping to find, and your financial standing.
Let’s start with the monetary value of the event, and the additional costs associated with travel if you don’t happen to live in or near NYC. Most of us are writing with the goal to make a living off of our passion; money counts.
Your conference badge starts at $469USD ($349 if you’re an early-bird keener like myself, or $499 if you’re a last-minute decision-maker). That’s 117 ($4) coffees at a decent cafe, coffees that are hopefully fueling your writing/editing.
Millennials like myself already have to choose between our avocado toast and getting a house.
Must us writers also be faced with a Sophie’s choice of cafe-writing versus attending one of the largest (public) writer’s conferences?
Shall we succumb to drab offices or familial distractions so we can pinch our pennies and get our butts over to NYC?
Oh, and swipe your credit card for another $99 if you want in on the Pitch Slam. A $99 opportunity to pitch directly to agents looking for new talent to represent.
Assuming you have a manuscript ready for action, $469 + $99 = $568. That’s up to 142 coffees now.
Another thing to keep in mind is whether you need to get a hotel, or if you have a friend whose apartment you can invade. Eating in NYC isn’t the cheapest either, though the Halaal carts offer options like chicken and rice for $4. Harlem’s a bit of a trek from Midtown, but there you’ll find divine eats for a reasonable price (more on this in a later post).
Then there’s your flight, transportation within NYC, and probably some pocket change for sight-seeing.
If money is a factor, as it is for most of us, I can’t stress the importance of budgeting for these costs prior to purchasing your WDC ticket.
So what does your sacrifice of hundreds
or thousands of coffees get you?
How do the WDC gods reward your
The Writer’s Digest Conference can be broken down into:
A fancy, comfortable venue. Not sure about previous years, but WDC17 was at the The Hilton in Midtown Manhattan. You’ll feel like you’re suddenly a somebody, striding across the shiny floors and being served drinks by people in suits at the reception. Or you’ll feel like an imposter, a spy even. I think both are great outcomes.
Over 60 speakers. That’s a lot of people to learn from. And all are from different walks of life, work in different genres, etc.
Three days of session after session. Arguably the greatest thing that WDC does in regard to these sessions is record them (with a few exceptions for some speakers). This makes choosing which sessions to attend much less stressful: I prioritized those that weren’t being recorded, knowing that in the following weeks I could relive WDC from my comfortable office (a.k.a. my bed).
Networking! I came home with 20 business cards, so if I consider the principle of equivalent exchange–and account for a few instances where people didn’t have cards to trade–I’d guess I gave out only around 25 of my own cards. Since I’m not the most extroverted person, it was difficult to bridge the gap of an empty seat of two while waiting for a session to start. Though by the end of Sunday I just said “screw it,” and interrupted someone who was engrossed in the last few pages of a book. Sorry not sorry. Take my card.
Pitch Slam: slam your pitch into the faces of as many agents as you can within the time limit. I didn’t participate in it this year, but if I attend next year you can bet I’ll be there making a fool of myself. This is probably the most unique component of WDC, as I know of no other opportunity to be in a room with over 50 agents/editors. If you have a completed manuscript (not just a first draft with no editing), this is your next step. Every person I spoke to who pitched had gotten requests to see more. And while I’m sure there’s some who went home without any bites, I don’t think that’s the norm. If you’re worried about pitching, there’s a session specifically dedicated to perfecting your pitch. Practice while socializing with other writers, take a deep breath, and you’ll be fine.
So, if I didn’t attend the Pitch Slam, did I
gain from this weekend?
Yes, and no.
Starting with the “yes”…
The overall experience
The chance to connect with so many writers (about 1000 attendees) was not something I could have gotten elsewhere. Even snippets of conversation followed by an exchange of contact information presents the opportunity to stay in touch with, as Lisa Scottoline (New York Times Bestselling Author) put it in her opening keynote speech, “your tribe.” I think this is valuable for everyone, not just those of us without an existing writing community.
The Writer’s Digest Conference rekindled my drive. Although making steady progress on my present novel, it’s slow as heck. I have excuses for it, some legitimate, others not. But some of the speakers did a phenomenal job reminding me why I write. Why it’s important to keep writing regardless of current world events. And why to not throw in the pen even after 100 rejections.
Motivation is the number one key to success as a writer. If you don’t have it, nothing will get on the page. And if nothing’s on the page, there’s nothing to edit, nothing to send to an agent, and nothing to publish. Motivation is something to treasure, to wield, to respect. I think it’s worth at least a few dozen of those aforementioned coffees.
A few of the sessions I attended helped me get my thoughts in order. I knew my opening chapters required work, and that my lead protagonist didn’t interest me as much as my supporting characters. But I hadn’t quite determined how (or when) to fix these. Should I crank out the full novel and then address these problems during editing? Or pull the breaks and assess them now at the risk of derailing my progress? I realized that the former could wait for the second draft, but that the latter needed urgent attention. I doubt that I would have came to these conclusions on my own so quickly and with this level of understanding.
Although I didn’t pitch this year, the thought of doing so no longer makes me start chanting a get-the-hell-out-of-here spell! Hurrah! The query writing workshop was one of the most valuable sessions I attended. My notes even helped a friend who had missed it but was still polishing their pitch for the next day. Now, if my manuscript is ready for querying prior WDC18, I’m confident that I can query agents without making them trash the email after reading only two sentences.
On to the “No”…
My mind wasn’t blown
I’m not a complete beginner to writing, so there were times when the information presented to me in certain sessions was too general or obvious. Of course, it’s impossible to go into significant detail while addressing a large audience on writing; one size doesn’t fit all. A solution to making one red herring work won’t apply to another red herring in another story. The key is to understand this when going into sessions. Listen, think, absorb. And appreciate reiteration. Sometimes being reminded of what you may consider basic knowledge is necessary for stumbling toward whatever wip-related solution you’ve been searching for.
Limitations by design
One session that I was particularly excited for left me wanting more: Authenticity & Authority in Culture-Specific Writing. I’ve lived in Japan for two years, have traveled to a handful of other countries, and am moving to Thailand next month. In university I took four years of Japanese alongside my science psychology major, which included a few courses in cultural psychology. I hunger for learning about other cultures, how people behave and interact within them, how their values are reflected in language, etc. In my writing I want to express what I’ve learned about these cultures. Yet hopefully avoid the backlash of my being a white female from Canada. I also refuse to pass all my readers rose-colored glasses. I want to show truth while maintaining respect.
However, this is a difficult topic to discuss at a conference, even more so than I had originally thought. There were interesting anecdotes, and helpful examples from published works, but no solid answers on how to write with authenticity and authority like a master. How could there be? It depends on what’s integral to your work, what the themes are and how cultural details support or negate those, and your intent.
Furthermore, we must realize–and more importantly, remember–that there will always be someone who questions whether you’re allowed to write about a culture you’re not a part of. Or just don’t look a part of. If you don’t “pass” as belonging, there will be those who attack you for it.
Ultimately, I’m glad this session existed. But (cue some rambling) I wonder if changing its format would have benefited it. Perhaps making it a two-part session? Or, an attendee presents a specific problem (in advance), and the speaker helps troubleshoot it. I realize this requires extra work on behalf of the speaker, but I think troubleshooting concrete examples could be useful. Again, this is a tough topic to address in an hour timeslot. But I keep thinking about how to best dig deeper.
Unless you already have an agent and a strong social network, the Writer’s Digest Conference is likely worth attending. Decide on what skills require work, where you’re falling short, and how much of a push you need to network or get back into writing after a hiatus. Look at your budget and consider how much you’re okay with investing in your writing career.
Maybe the financial costs are too great, and that’s okay too. There’s other avenues you can take to progressing as a writer, like Gotham Writers Workshops, #PitchWars or #5amwritersclub on Twitter, reading books like The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne, or Youtube-ing recordings of writing panels from other events.
Despite the cost of coffee, I’m glad I attended. And unless my travels become too out-of-hand in the coming months, I anticipate attending next year as well. Will I see you there?