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Writers, UnPlugged: Lessons from the Writer Unboxed UnConference

I’m writing this on the Saturday morning following the Writer Unboxed Unconference in Salem, still under the spell of the one of the most amazing weeks ever. It was the absolute best, hands-down, no doubt about it, most transformative writing conference I’ve ever been to – and I have been to a lot. I want to go on to say that other conferences had their fabulous moments, too, because sheesh, you don’t want to offend anyone, and it is true. But right now, it doesn’t feel true.

[pullquote]What made the UnCon different from other writing conferences is the same thing that can help you figure out what matters in your work, where to put your energy, and how you can care for yourselves and your writing career.[/pullquote]This conference played in a different ballpark and gave writers something seminal that other conferences don’t put first: real community.

This doesn’t mean everyone sat around singing Kumbyah (thank god). Rather, we came together as complex human beings. We listened, we learned, we argued, we debated, we found common ground, and through it all we didn’t pretend to be anyone other than who we were – let the chips fall where they may. Did it make us vulnerable? Sometimes scarily so. But it was liberating, expanding, clarifying, empowering.

I can hear you yawning, thinking And so? Unless you were one of the lucky pups who got to spend five days together as the winds rattled through Salem, why on earth would you care? Why would exploring the difference between the UnCon and all those other otherwise-worthy conferences matter to those of you who couldn’t come — which, let’s face it, with everyone’s crazy, busy schedule, along with a cut off at 100 writers, is most of you? The answer is that what made the UnCon different is the same thing that can help you figure out what matters in your work, where to put your energy, and how you can care for yourselves and your writing career.

What made the UnCon so different? As the iconic singer Tony Bennett said when asked what he can put into a song in his eighties that he couldn’t when he was younger, “The business of knowing what to leave out.” What gave the UnCon the power to transform every writer there — including, I’d venture to say, the presenters as well — was what they left out.

There were two main things:

  1. There was no talk about how to get an agent, how to find a publisher, how to pitch – nor were there any agents or editors taking pitches.

Why does this matter? Because pitching, and “getting an agent” requires a completely different mindset than writing. It’s focused outward – it’s about selling. Writing is focused inward – it’s about creating.

[pullquote]Pitching is focused outward – it’s about selling. Writing is focused inward – it’s about creating.[/pullquote]And selling isn’t just focused outward a tad. It’s all consuming, especially since it’s just about the opposite of what writers normally do — which is open a vein and write. While that may sound scary in and of itself, it’s nothing compared to the horror of pitching. Put simply, pitching is terrifying. Unless you have a knack for it (and most of us don’t, I couldn’t even pitch my own book after it was published) pitching is petrifying because it pushes so many of our very tender buttons at once. To wit:

What this means is that when you go to conferences that include pitching to actual agents, your focus tends to be on exactly that – with laser beam intensity. So even when you’re talking to other writers, it’s almost impossible not to scan the room in your peripheral vision, constantly on the lookout for a lone agent – a straggler – to pounce on. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s human nature. We all have a driving agenda or else we’d be toast.

Trouble is when we’re constantly on high alert, we have to suit up internally – which means that cortisol (the stress hormone) surges, mixing with adrenalin – it’s a potent biological cocktail that keeps us on guard at all times. After all, when your goal is to snag an agent, it tacitly puts you in competition with all the other writers in the conference, who are trying to do the exact same thing. While you don’t do it on purpose, it can put up internal barriers, and sometimes their success feels like your failure.

[pullquote]When your goal is to snag an agent, it tacitly puts you in competition with all the other writers in the conference, who are trying to do the exact same thing.[/pullquote]And here’s the irony: most writers go to writing conferences to pitch long before their manuscript is ready to be pitched, anyway. When I went to conferences as an agent, I’d often ask to look at a manuscript, and then it never arrived. At first it puzzled me. But later, speaking with other agents and editors, I learned that it’s par for the course. Turns out even many of the writers who could speak clearly about their work weren’t really ready to show it, and they knew it.

But there are other costs – deeper costs — of going to a writing conference with this mindset. For instance:

[pullquote]Despite how much we dearly love our family and friends, when it comes to writing, they very often just don’t get how it works. So they ask well-meaning questions — like, It’s been a year since you decided to become a writer, when’s your book coming out? — and then have no idea why you suddenly burst into tears.[/pullquote]The Takeaway (and this is as true for your daily writing life as it is for writing conferences): If you focus first on craft and community, you’ll not only have a much better chance of writing something that other people want to read, but you’ll be part of a group of writers who have made that journey with you. And that, in and of itself, bestows the most sustaining gift of all: empathy, understanding, connection, deep debates, camaraderie. Not to mention someone to talk you off the ledge during those long dark nights of the soul, when you’re positive that no one will ever want to read what you’ve written, and are toying with giving up writing and becoming an interpretive dancer instead.

  1. There was no talk about how to self-publish, promote, or use social media to build an audience.

At just about every conference I go to, there is a very large self-publishing contingency, complete with booths set up by companies eager to help writers get their words into print. While there’s nothing wrong with self-publishing per se, you only have to hear that in 2012 over 390,000 books were self published, and that the average self-published book sells less than 150 copies, to know that there’s probably something that the vast majority of those writers missed. The point isn’t that self-publishing is inherently a bad idea, but that you have to be sure that what you’re self-publishing is something other people will actually want to read.

[pullquote]Here’s the real problem: once a writer’s focus shifts from writing to getting into print, the question of what you’re getting into print begins to take a backseat – almost always long before it’s ready for publication. [/pullquote]This is not a point the self-publishing companies make. Having a vested interest in helping you to get your work into print is a good thing when you’re working with a traditional publisher — because that publisher has paid you an advance. Having a vested interest in getting you into print because you paid the publishing company is a wholly different matter. Caveat emptor, anyone?

But here’s the real problem: once a writer’s focus shifts from writing to getting into print, the question of what you’re getting into print begins to take a backseat – almost always long before it’s ready for publication. My most vivid memory of this comes from a writers’ conference I spoke at last year. It was a great – if traditional – conference. It had sessions on craft, on getting an agent, on self-publishing and self-promotion. The agents and editors they’d flown in were incredibly impressive – funny, savvy and full of really good stories about publishing, what sells, what doesn’t and why. I gleaned all that from the speakers’ dinner we had the night before the conference began, and so looked forward to the hour long Q and A session the next day, where writers could ask these agents and editors questions.

But it turned out that none of the writers asked about any of that. There was only one thing they wanted to know: how could they keep publishers from stealing the electronic rights to their books? Mind you, this was a conference that was mainly attended by writers who’d yet to publish anything, most of whom were still a goodly distance from that splendid day. No one asked about craft. No one asked about what grabbed the agent or editor. No one asked anything that related to the content of what they were writing at all. It was kind of heartbreaking.

It was also understandable. Who wouldn’t want to believe that it’s simply a matter of greedy, clueless publishers holding them back, and that there’s an easy way to side-step that whole messy process and find instant success? It’s a seductive belief, that’s for sure. And while a select few of that 390,000 did find success, for the vast majority of them, 150 copies was about it. Not to mention that almost all of that very successful few were subsequently – and very happily — snapped up by traditional publishers.

[pullquote]By completely unplugging us from our external desire – selling, publishing, self-publishing, self-promotion, and instead focusing completely on our internal struggle — how can I best write my book, what do I want to communicate to the world, how do I want to change my readers? — the UnCon provided writers with a safe place to be vulnerable. [/pullquote]To have a chance of being snapped up by anyone – a reader or a publisher — only one thing matters: Craft. Writing. The story you’re telling, the words on the page. Which brings us right back to the UnCon.

By completely unplugging us from our external desire – selling, publishing, self-publishing, self-promotion, and instead focusing completely on our internal struggle — how can I best write my book, what do I want to communicate to the world, how do I want to change my readers? — the UnCon provided writers with a safe place to be vulnerable. But by safe, I don’t mean unchallenging – in fact I mean the exact opposite. The most common thing I heard writers saying was, “I just realized I have to go back and rewrite everything.” But here’s the thing: even though that’s always a gut punch, they didn’t sound unhappy, dejected or angry. They sounded excited, eager, and full of ideas. I like to think that’s because they had so much support from people who really got what they were trying to be, to do, and to say.

And how does all this relate to us out here in real life? Here’s an example that comes to mind: oftentimes, when you really want to sit down to write, you decide that first you’ll just take one little sec and check your email, and then maybe your favorite blog(s), Reddit, Facebook, and the latest cat video trending on YouTube, (even for the cynical among us they can be embarrassingly irresistible). Point being: there are all sorts of things out there that vie for our attention, distracting us from the thing that matters most: creating a story that other people will need to read.

Thinking about being published, about pitching, self-publishing, and self-promotion can be great, but it’s merely the delivery method for what you’ve written. Focusing on it first is like spending years perfecting the bottle you’re going to sell your champagne in, before you grow a single grape.

The UnCon was about growing grapes, then turning them into champagne. I’ll drink to that!

About Lisa Cron [1]

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence [2] and Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste 3 Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). [3] Her video tutorial, Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, can be found at Lynda.com [4]. Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, [5] opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, schools and universities, Lisa's passion has always been story. She currently works as a story coach helping writers, nonprofits, educators and journalists wrangle the story they're telling onto the page; contact her here. [6]

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