I recently returned from another jaunt to the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild's annual convention -- Conflux 14: The Unconventional Hero.
This is the third Conflux I've attended now, and as always, I came away feeling reinvigorated about my art and my writing.
But given this is the case, why do I always procrastinate and find excuses not to attend most years?
In short, I am an introvert -- almost pathologically so, according to an ex-employer.
I get quite anxious in social situations outside my comfort zone -- especially when meeting new people.
And I suspect this is so for many writers.
So why put myself through this torture again and again?
Because I am increasingly of the belief that there are valuable lessons to be gleaned from attending conferences.
So, here's what I've learned thus far...
Find Your Tribe
This is one of the big three nuggets of advice you will hear time and time again -- often mentioned in the same breath as read-a-lot and write-a-lot.
Writing is, by and large, is a solitary pursuit.
We authors -- especially speculative fiction authors -- like to lock ourselves away from the world, shutting out all distractions, so we can immerse ourselves in our imaginations.
We like to breathe the same air as our characters, close our eyes and see what they see, open our hearts and bleed alongside them -- all without the mundanities of the real world.
And all in the relative confinement of our writing dens.
Finding like-minded people, then, is like the cool, crisp feeling of a glacial-fresh breeze upon your face after being trapped in a dank, dark storm-water drain -- and one of the best things you can do for your confidence as a writer.
There is nothing so heartening as just hanging out with people who speak the same language as you, who share the same interests as you, and who can truly empathise with you over how demanding it is to produce good art.
And at conferences, nearly all of them are more than happy to give you the time of day and impart their pearls of wisdom.
I shared a tea with both Guests of Honour at Conflux 14, this year -- Robert Hood and Lee Murray, both of whom have long and stellar careers in speculative fiction -- and they were both lovely, down-to-Earth, overly generous people.
I had so much time for them, and they, so much, for little old me.
They are part of my tribe.
Talk Up Your Story
What are you working on?
This is the most common question you'll hear at any writing conference -- at the cafe, at the bar, passing in the hall, waiting for the loo.
It took me several conventions/gatherings to realise that this is not merely small talk -- this is an opportunity.
I am, by my very nature, humble and self-deprecating about my work.
(I mean, I've won a Shadows Award -- which is kind of a big deal in the Australasian horror scene -- yet I still talk my abilities down.)
For years, my answer to the above question was 'nothing special, nothing noteworthy' -- I'd divert the questioner to their latest work, and they'd be off.
And the conversation would never veer back to my latest opus.
No one, it seemed, cared about my work -- I guess because, by all appearances, I didn't either.
No one cares for your story the way you do -- no one knows your story the way you do.
And if you don't talk about it, no one will.
Yes, there are structured pitching sessions at conferences, and workshops on how to hone your querying skills, but it's the informal chats with fellow delegates about your stories that seem to bear the most fruit.
This year, I came prepared -- pitches, long and short, and synopses for stories of varying lengths.
I wasn't going to let that question get away from me this time.
And so one night, over a few wines, I stumbled through a half-remembered synopsis for one of my stories with a fellow author who happened to ask what I was working on.
She then proceeded to pick my plot apart, questioning why my protagonist was my protagonist, when it seemed my antagonist was doing all the heavy lifting.
It was probably one of the most productive conversations I've ever had, in terms of workshopping a story.
(If ever The Dragon's Teeth sees the light of day, I will owe an immense debt of gratitude to Aiki Flinthart for her patience and guidance.)
That conversation wasn't planned, it wasn't formal -- the story wasn't, in fact, one I considered anywhere near ready to pitch.
I was just prepared, if the question arose this time, to talk about it and talk it up.
I have a renewed confidence in that piece of novel.
It may even be ready for a proper pitch in a year or two now.
The Art of Networking
It's not what you know, it's who you know.
My dad has been telling me this for as long as I can remember. (You'd think it would've sunk in by now!)
This is never more true than in a small, dispersed industry with finite avenues in which to excel.
Networking is probably the most powerful weapon in your writing career arsenal.
However, networking does not mean spruiking your work as a conversation opener, or stalking potential publishers on social media, or bailing up well-known authors and arguing over discontinuity errors in their ten-volume fantasy sagas.
This is about simply making connections -- an action that comes a lot easier to some people than others.
The trick, I find, is small talk.
Remember, this is your tribe.
They are like you -- newbs and veterans alike.
Chat with them about the book you're currently reading, or discuss the panel they were just on, or talk about the Netflix series you can't stop watching, or (and I cannot stress this one enough!) buy their latest book and get them to inscribe it.
I pitched a novel at Conflux this year.
But before doing so, I bumped into the acquiring editor at the hotel cafe.
We bought a tea and chatted -- about the horror genre, about places we've lived and worked, about her dogs -- anything and everything, except what I was working on and what she was buying.
I met up with her again a few more times over the next day-and-a-half, making sure to also buy her book get it signed.
When I walked into my pitch appointment, she simply grinned and we took up where we'd left off earlier in the day, as if the pitch was a foregone conclusion.
The vast majority of the time, however, networking is not about about achieving specific goals like this.
It's about opening doors -- doors you don't necessarily have to walk through right now, but are there if you choose use them later.
It's about creating options for a future you.
The Ten-Minute Fix
I know, it can all seem overwhelming -- all this in-real-life socialising with people you've never met before.
But trust me, speaking as a proud, card-carrying extreme introvert, it's worth the tacky palms and the dry mouth and the awkwardly long pauses and the barely-constrained panic.
The trick, I find, is to take it all in small doses.
Ten minutes, to be exact. (For me, at any rate.)
I can endure most unpleasant activities for about ten minutes without breaking a sweat -- swimming in ridiculously deep water, sitting in a project meeting, lying in a dentist's chair.
You'll know your own limit -- use it.
Grab a tea or a coffee (or a beer or a whisky) and spend ten minutes just chewing the fat with a fellow tribes-person.
After your ten minutes has passed, if you start feeling the pinch, make your apologies, disappear to your room, calm down, then return and start again.
And if you're not feeling the pinch, stick it out for another ten.
Eventually, that ten minutes will stretch to an hour and, before you're even aware, beyond.
I know it sounds trite, I know it sounds as if I'm preaching from the extrovert's high ground.
(Believe me, I'm not!)
But this is worth it.
You are a valued person -- you have something of valuable to contribute.
And your tribes-people want to hear about it.
I know I'm still riding the post-convention high right now.
It may well be that, after coming down in a months' time, the idea of attending Conflux again next year will once more fill me with dread.
But even if it does, I think I've learned enough now to know that the benefits far outweigh the anxiety.
Finances permitting, I think I'll commit now to making the trip again.
My tribe is calling.
All images from pixabay.com