Why a Conference or a Writing Class?

Are you an avid reader? Have you ever read a book that was so good that for hours, or even days after you completed it, you felt like your mind was far, far away in another world? You looked right at your children or your spouse, maybe even nodding your head, but you didn’t really hear a thing they said because your brain was somewhere else? Spouses or children of an avid reader or writer will know that blank look they get when they interrupt the writer or reader who is “in the zone.”  “You didn’t hear a word I just said, did you?” my oldest son has been known to ask, and I sheepishly admit he is right.  My poor family. That is what it is like for me for days after a conference, with my head so full of things to think about.

I wrote for over 20 years without ever attending a writer’s conference or class, with some success, I might add. I considered myself a self-taught writer; learning by doing, as well as reading everything I could get my hands on about the publishing world and the business of freelance writing. I learned how to write a proposal, query letters, and a synopsis. I managed to obtain nearly 200 bylines in magazines, newspapers and anthologies.

The first writer’s conference I ever attended was the Cedar Falls Christian Writer’s workshop in Cedar Falls, Iowa in the summer of 2011. My mother had died the winter before and I’d inherited many of her notebooks and journals. In them, I discovered two prominent themes; my mother’s strong desire that her children get to heaven along with her fervent hope that they would use their God-given talents while here on earth. Over and over, she wrote about her dreams for her children, and it was evident that she never doubted for a moment that every single one of them had talent.

My interest in the conference was just as much spiritual as it was creative.  What better way to honor my mother’s desires than to hone my craft and fuel my spiritual fire? My husband not only encouraged me to attend, he insisted it was high time I invest in what he considered my burgeoning talent.  David believed in me. I enjoyed that first conference so much, I was hooked.

The next one I attended was last November’s Heart of American Christian Writers conference (HACWN).  Again my husband encouraged me to go, caring for the kids while my friend Mary and I attended several days of amazing workshops.

I learned a great deal at each of these conferences; ideas in how to promote myself and build up my platform as a non-fiction writer. I took both fiction and non-fiction workshops, knowing I could incorporate some of the fiction techniques into narrative or “creative” non-fiction. I came home last November determined to establish myself as an expert in my non-fiction topic of couponing. I already was the expert after 30+ years as an avid couponer, but through couponing workshops and a weekly couponing column, I became the “Tri-State’s Coupon Queen,” and am now called on for speaking engagements on the topic. Not only that, but just in the last 15 months, I’ve had seven essays accepted for inclusion in anthologies, making my total count now 17, and added another 50+ bylined articles, giving me credibility as a workshop presenter on the subject. Around this same time I modified a writing course I had used with 12 homeschooled teens and designed a writing workshop for adults. Not only did I want to learn, I wanted to encourage and jumpstart the creativity of other women and men who had the desire to write. I now conduct writing workshops at community colleges and an independent bookstore.

This May I attended the Write-to-Publish conference in Wheaton, IL, thanks to a scholarship from author Cecil Murphey. Once again, I needed the spiritual boost just as much as the creative, since my husband David had died in March and I was struggling to find direction in my life.  It became a healing time for me. In June, I attended the Cedar Falls conference for the second year, this time speaking on writing for anthologies.

More recently, I spent three days in Michigan, taking workshops at the Maranatha Christian Writer’s conference. I hadn’t intended on going to another conference this year but when I saw that my generous scholarship benefactor, Cecil Murphey, would be speaking there, I looked through the list of workshops, and my heart beat faster. I immediately wanted to go. After I e-mailed my good friend and mentor, author Shelly Beach, things fell into place so easily, I knew I was suppossed to go. Shelly not only reccomended the conference, but also met me at the airport.

Yes, dear readers, you heard that right; getting to this conference involved me flying on an airplane for the first time.

If I’d done nothing other than sit at a table with Cec Murphey and listen to him “talk shop” with Shelly, the entire trip still would have been worth it. Many of you will remember that the book Cec co-wrote with Don Piper, 90 Minutes in Heaven, was my husband’s favorite book, and their Getting to Heaven the last book he touched. Cec has written over 120 books including this beautiful new one, which I now own a signed copy of, Making Sense When Life Doesn’t; The Secrets of Thriving in Tough Times. I just started it, and it is amazing. I’ll review it when I finish.

Why do I recommend writers or aspiring writers attend a conference or class?

To learn more about the craft of writing.  I believe in lifelong learning. No matter our level of expertise in writing, there is always something new to learn. Sometimes we have to make a commitment to hone our craft and that commitment might involve both time and money. Committing to a conference or a class could be the first step in taking our writing seriously. Call it an investment in yourself. I tell attendees at my workshop that paying for a class gives them a reason for taking time out of their busy days to write. “Tell your husband or your kids that you paid good money for a writing class so now you need to write and sell something to recoup your money.”  If you take yourself seriously, others will take you seriously, too.

Learn more about the business and the world of publishing. It is no longer enough to be a good writer; you also have to learn about the ever-changing world of publishing. What is a book proposal? How do I write a query letter? How can I build up my platform? Do I need an agent? Where do I find markets for my work? These are questions that we can find the answers to at conferences and workshops.

Connect and network with other writers. There is nothing more enjoyable than “talking shop” with another writer who understands the foibles and follies of the world of writing. Writers at conferences and workshops share markets with each other, commiserate about rejections, and support each other’s accomplishments. I have made life-long friends at each conference I’ve attended. My world has gotten so much bigger in the last two years. It was at the Cedar Falls conference I met the co-founder Shelly Beach, the friend who was instrumental in me meeting “Cec.”

Meet and network with editors and agents. Not everyone who attends a conference ends up sitting next to an agent at a lunch table and subsequently signing a contract with her husband a few months later, but I did. I have developed both personal and professional relationships with editors and agents I’ve met at conferences. While initially the prospect of meeting with agents or editors was quite daunting to me, I have experienced some wonderful conversations with several of them. I can’t speak for non-Christian conferences but the agents and editors I’ve conversed with at the Christian conferences have been great. Of course, the easiest conversations are those I’ve had without the anxiety of attempting to sell something.

Wonderful things happen at Christian writing conferences.Again, I can’t speak for all conferences as I’ve only attended Christian ones, but I’ve found that if I pray before, during and after a conference, keeping my eyes and heart open to God, amazing things have transpired at each of the conferences I’ve attended, some so powerful they are difficult to talk about without crying.

This advice doesn’t just apply to writers; I would encourage all creative people continue learning and honing their craft throughout their life, whether it is painting, drawing, music, or quilting. During some of the seasons of our life, it might have to be simply checking out library books on our subjects or subscribing to magazines on the subject, but if time and money permit, a class or conference can be a great jumpstart to living creatively!


A Difficult Decision

David wasn’t much of a reader, but in the last year or so, he was reading much more than he had in previous years. He loved Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven, co-written with Cecil Murphey.

While he was in the hospital recovering from his heart attack, I brought him many books and magazines to read, but he shoved them aside, saying he didn’t feel like reading.  One day when I was visiting him, he spotted the book I was holding. “What’s that book?” he asked, and I told him it was Getting to Heaven by Don Piper and Cecil Murphey.  “The same authors who wrote 90 Minutes in Heaven,” I said.

“Can you leave that book here for me?”  he asked, and of course I did. It was the only book he’d shown any interest in.

I will never know if he read any of it.  The next day when I stopped for a visit, everything from the table near his bed was up high on a shelf. All I know is that book was the last book David wanted to read, the last book he would touch here on earth.  He wasn’t doing any reading in the three days after he came home from the hospital.

The day my husband died, someone handed me my mail as I sat on the couch, stunned and in shock. Sometime during the night, my beloved’s heart stopped and my world would change forever.

There were birthday cards in that stack of mail.  David died the day before his 61st birthday.

There was also an envelope from a Twila Belk, Heavenly Company Book.  I couldn’t bear to open the birthday cards, but I did open that envelope, and inside was a piece of paper and a check. The paper informed me that an angel story I’d written would be included in Cecil Murphey’s Heavenly Company: Entertaining Angels Unaware book to be published by Guideposts in August. My breath caught in my throat and fresh tears poured down my cheeks. A Cecil Murphey book, one David would likely have enjoyed reading… it was a heart-wrenching moment.

On the evening of my husband’s wake, an e-mail awaited in my inbox. I had won a Cecil Murphey scholarship to a writer’s conference in IL, a scholarship that covered the four-day conference, a room, and meals, a value of over $750.  Cecil Murphey again~ what are the odds? Coincidence?

The last day of the conference was June 2nd, what would have been David and my 33rd anniversary.

Before I’d applied for the scholarship, I’d ask David if it would be terrible if I won it, and we were apart on our anniversary.

“No, we can celebrate our anniversary anytime. Go ahead and apply,” he’d encouraged.

I cried when I got the e-mail about the conference; in bittersweet joy, sadness, and in fear.

How could I leave my fatherless children for days, so soon after a loss?

How could I not?

I knew what David would want. He’d been my number one fan and supporter these past months. He’d encouraged me to go to KS last November for a conference, to Cedar Falls last June for my very first conference, the one that lit a fire inside me for more. But David had been at home, caring for our children during those conferences. That fact, alone, allowed me to go and enjoy the conferences, fully secure in the knowledge that their father, who loved them, would be there in my absence.  He told me after the November conference that our youngest, Abby, had fallen asleep next to him every night, holding his hand, “so he wouldn’t feel lonely without Mom.”

I was torn. My heart ached, with the loss of David, and with the possibility of leaving my children for several days. I e-mailed Cecil, who kindly responded that I could use the scholarship for next year’s conference if I couldn’t bring myself to attend this year. I asked family and friends for advice. My adult children insisted I go, that there was a reason for my win. Friends prayed for me. Two weeks, and I still hadn’t decided. Frustrated, I turned to a group of new Christian writer friends I had met at KS. Their replies were swift and gentle. Can’t you trust their Father to care for them in your absence? was the gist of some of the comments.  Others reminded me of the doors God had opened up for me in the last months. I remembered then,the biggest piece of advice I’d gleaned from the November conference; If God opens a door, walk right through it.”

I’d been following that advice ever since. The workshops, the weekly newspaper column; the swiftness of these doors opening had been mind-boggling to both David and I. Was I going to let fear paralyze me now and prevent me from walking through yet another door?

With a leap of faith and a supreme amount of trust in my older children and siblings who might check on my family in my absence, this morning I filled out my online registration and I am now scheduled to attend the Write-to-Publish Christian Writer’s conference the end of May.

Today’s prayer: “I believe you have a reason for me to attend this conference, and I trust in you to reveal it. I trust in you to care for my children in my absence. I ask for healing in the Holy Spirit, and wisdom to discern the path you wish for me to follow. Please, God, I ask that you take the fear and anxiety from me, and continue to bless me in the people you have chosen to work through.”


Five Important Lessons I Learned at Writer’s Conferences This Year

Five weeks.

According to my calendar, it has been five weeks since I returned home from the HACWN Writer’s Conference, and I still haven’t had time to process everything I learned. I do know I would highly recommend that writers attend conferences. This was only my second conference ever but both were amazing experiences I won’t soon forget and hope to repeat in 2012.

So, what exactly did I learn at these conferences, and how have I implemented the advice and inspiration I netted?  These are the five main areas I, and every writer, needs to work on in the coming year;

#1 Writers, especially non-fiction writers, need to build up their platform.  I’m working at this one, so that by the time my book is sold my platform will be broader and stronger. I have couponing workshops set up in the beginning of 2012 as well as a new column appearing in a larger newspaper. I’ve also got queries out to some national magazines for articles on my subject of interest.

#2 Non-fiction writers should make themselves an expert.  Not only have I started a second blog that centers on my book’s subject, CrazyCouponer.blogspot.com, but I will soon be writing a regular column for a larger newspaper on the subject of couponing. I have several upcoming couponing workshops set up, as well.

#3 If God opens a door, walk right through it.  I love this advice. God has been opening many doors for me this past year, and while initially, I was somewhat hesitant to discover what is on the other side of the door (public speaking, coupon workshops, interviewing people for feature articles) I am finding that I love all of it! After I did my first coupon workshop and the coordinator was walking with me to the parking lot, she mentioned sending the check on the 16th and I blurted out, “Oh, yeah, I forgot I get paid to have this much fun!”  When a newspaper editor e-mailed me, as a coupon expert, and asked if I would meet with him, I didn’t know what he had in mind, but I didn’t hesitate at all. I was eager to meet with him, and that meeting might well develop into a regular column for their paper.

#4 Don’t hide your light under a bushel. This is a bit difficult for me. It doesn’t come natural to me to toot my own horn but I need to be able to promote my writing and my classes.  Why should anyone take a  coupon workshop or a writing class from me? If I can’t tell them, who can? So I write the class description that includes my qualifications, include a glowing bio along with my essay submissions, and hand out business cards and learn to talk about myself and my work. It is getting easier, and I remind myself; if God gave me the talent to write and talk, why would he want me to hide either? I also remind myself to always use those talents for good, not evil.

#5 Keep your blogs updated; twice a week or more.  I’ve done pretty well on that front for the last couple of years but now my time is torn between two blogs and I’m afraid I’ve sluffed off recently. Certainly I can get back on track after the holidays. One workshop presenter suggested posting a photo or a favorite saying during those weeks when you can’t seem to get a decent post written.  I’ve dug in my files many times for articles and essays I’ve written that were never published, and used those when I am low on time and inspiration, but haven’t resorted to a simple photo or quotation too often. I’ll likely have to consider doing so as I get even busier.

After last week’s lament about not getting my Christmas letter written, I could have posted the final product for those not on my list.  Perhaps I’ll do that if my inspiration well runs dry the rest of this week.