Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Making the Most of Your Time at Writers of the Future

This time last year I was getting ready to embark on my Writers of the Future adventure in LA, as a contest winner attending the workshops for volume 24. If you are right now getting ready for the volume 25 workshop (lucky you! The big anniversary year!) congratulations! Writers of the Future is like taking a condensed college course while being a debutante on a reality TV show rushing the coolest, geekiest sorority/fraternity on Earth. It can be an incredible experience if you make the most of it. Here’s my advice on how to do just that:

1. Get to know folks in advance. Our group had a live journal before we ever met and it made our first meeting more like a reunion. Track folks down on line and see if they want to be in touch to swap info about the contest, etc.

2. Be social! Many writers are shy. That’s why we’re writers. But WotF workshops week is a time to shelve the shyness. You will find that it is easy to get to know people at WotF because you have so much in common as writers and as fans of sci-fi and fantasy and because the intensive atmosphere of the workshop makes for quick bonding. These people are your peers and your support group: pick their brains, swap market info, reading lists, whatever. And don’t neglect the artists! We were told that our year was unique because the writers and illustrators mingled so much and I’m very glad that we did. The illustrators tend to be a more international bunch (because there’s no language barrier getting in the way of visual art) and the fact that I got to know them means that I now know talented people all over the world.

3. Check competition at the door. You have a healthy competitive streak-- you wouldn’t have won WotF if you didn’t-- and it may stand you in good stead in the rest of your career. But once you’re at the workshop, no one makes a distinction between first, second or third place (and we are all jealous of the published finalists because there’s a chance they will get to come back and do the workshop again!) Really, there was so little emphasis put on where people placed, I didn’t even realize that my room mate was one of the first place winners until the awards ceremony.

4. Trust that you belong here. Most people in our group admitted that they had a moment of feeling like a fraud, worrying that their entry was a fluke that they were not really good enough to be there. Everyone feels this way, but try to trust the judges. They have read thousands of entries and they saw something of potential in yours. Tell yourself, “I am good enough, smart enough, and dog gone it, I belong at WotF.”

5. Participate in the workshops. The workshops are challenging, thorough and fun. A huge amount of info is condensed into a short amount of time. You won’t be allowed to record, so come prepared to take notes. You will hear things from guest speakers that will blow your mind. Try to ask yourself, “What is the one question only this person can answer?” and then ask them that. Be brave. Volunteer. And if you get an assignment in workshop, follow the rules. You may be tempted to “cheat” to make yourself look good, but Tim Powers is psychic and he will know. Plus, you won’t learn as much if you cheat.

6. Sleep is for wussies. Okay, we want you healthy and shiny, so sleep a little, but basically you can sleep at home. All the best conversations happen post-midnight. Suck up your tired.

7. Talk to the pros. It can be intimidating to talk to writers you admire. You may be tempted to clam up to avoid looking stupid. But these pros have graciously agreed to be a resource for you and they wouldn’t be at WotF if they didn’t want to give back, so take them up on the offer. If you love their work, tell them so, then try to shelve your inner fan-boy or girl and act like a “colleague- in -training” because that is how you will be perceived at WotF. (One of my favorite WotF moments happened after the awards ceremony. Kevin J. Anderson came over to ask me to sign a copy of the anthology. I laughed and said that I felt a little funny having a best-selling author ask for my autograph. He looked genuinely surprised. “Why?” He said, “We’re colleagues now!” You will find that all the pros involved in WotF will be generous enough to show you that kind of respect.) Ask about their process, about the business, about their favorite movies. If you are shy about chatting up professionals, still challenge yourself to sit at their table at dinner, etc. You can learn a lot just by listening to professional writers chat about writing. And when in doubt, ask about their cats!

8.Don’t gripe. I know, you think that if someone flew you to LA and put you up in a nice hotel, you wouldn’t complain, but you might be surprised. WotF is a tight schedule and you will get tired (see “sleep is for wussies”, above.) Also, there are some people who bond through griping, and there is bound to be at least one moment where you feel like you are on one of those reality TV shows. But remember, a lot of people worked very hard to put this week together and one of them is probably within earshot at any given moment. There are thousands of writers who would happily take your place. The WotF people will do their best to spoil you, but it’s your job not to act spoiled.

9. Enjoy the awards ceremony. You may feel nervous about getting an award in front of a few hundred people. That’s only natural. But think of the awards ceremony as an opportunity to express your gratitude to the folks who brought you here by acting like a professional. In dressing, err on the side of formal (Women, go for the floor-length. I mean it. And bring a clutch—it’s a long evening and you can’t be lugging around a purse, but you’re going to want something for essentials like your speech!) Keep your thank you’s under thirty seconds. Speak from the heart. Write it down in advance—you may think you can speak off the cuff, but it’s hard to do in front of a crowd at an emotional moment. Use humor if you want but don’t be flip. The ceremony is photographed and filmed so it will live on forever on line and you might as well make it good. This is your introduction to several hundred potential friends, colleagues and readers who are passionate about sci-fi and fantasy. I put some thought into what I wanted to say on stage and, as a result, several people told me that they took the time to read my story in the anthology first, while they were waiting in line to have books signed after the ceremony. Remember that many people work all year to make the awards ceremony happen and their main reward is to have it come off well, so do your best to make that happen.

10.Keep in touch. Sadly, you can’t live in a hotel in California with a bunch of other writers forever. But the memory lives on. Our group formed a yahoo group to exchange news and it has been exciting to hear about other writers sales and awards, and extremely helpful to swap info on new markets, compare response times, and link up at conferences. We have become a real support group for each other. And if I ever make it to Australia, I have several couches to crash on.

I want to leave you with two of my favorite WotF moments. One happened the last night of the conference. The spouse of one of the winners congratulated me on my success. I thanked her, but said that we contest winners were still on the bottom rung of the ladder. “To me,” she said, “It doesn’t seem like rungs on a ladder. It seems more like a question of who is in the audience and who is back stage, and you just got awarded a backstage pass.” I realized that she was right. Later that evening, my friend and fellow contest winner David was talking with one of our mentors, author and former contest winner Steven Savile. It was our last night of the workshop and we were coming back to earth fast. “How much does this really count for?” David asked, “I mean, sure, my story won but it was only one story.” Steven looked him in the eye. “It’s not just one story,” he said, “It’s your first story.”

Here’s wishing you many more stories, and a truly door-opening time at WotF!


Kelly McCullough said...

Very nicely done. I can only add emphasis on the get to know your fellow winners. Some of them will become lifelong friends and colleagues (which is a fabulous reward unto itself) and may well be more valuable to your career than any of the old pros you meet.

Norma Boe said...

And congratulations to this years winners!

Gary said...

Hi, Laura, and thanks. I'm going to be heading out to LA for the workshop in two weeks, and this was really helpful.

If you have time, I'd like to ask you some questions about the workshop. Trying to quell last minute jitters about goofy minutia, mainly.

Gary (scriblomancy-at-gmail-dot-com)

JD said...

Fantastic summary, Laura. It's all true. I remember Steve telling me that: he's truly an incredibly supportive man, as well as a writing dynamo. You spend a week with people like that, and you're just overwhelmed with this feeling of pearls of wisdom cascading over your head while you're trying desperately to catch at least a few and shove them in your pocket for later.

Or, in less purple-ish words, take good notes!

-David Parish-Whittaker

Dosferatu said...

Great post!
The only thing I could add (not for this year's group, but the next) is to get to know the illustrators too, and to network and make friends with everybody there. And have buisness cards with your email and blog on it.

I had a lot of favorite moments, but one of the best pieces of advice I got from Tim, and have tried to impliment, is that when doing critiques, you can either be "funny or helpfull" and now I do crits in a much more serious mode now.