By Katie Lewis
Choosing to attend a writer’s conference can be a daunting quest. Beyond the general social anxiety, there’s also the practical worry of wanting to ensure we spend our limited time and money wisely. I put out the call to adventure, dear wanderers lo though we are sometimes wary of putting ourselves at risk.
While we all have different reasons for making that challenging decision (landing an agent being the least important factor), all that matters is what you take away, what you learn, and how your thinking evolves as a result.
We attend conferences to learn, to inspire, and to have an opportunity to put on something other than sweatpants.
My first attempt was also the worst.
To be fair, this wasn’t at a writer’s conference, for one thing. This was at FAN EXPO Denver (née Denver Pop Culture Con, née Denver Comic-Con). The “Con” in those former names stands for convention, not conference. Conventions are generally places where people of common interests, most notably fandoms and those content creators followed by those fandoms.
If you haven’t been, these kinds of conventions focus on all things comic-oriented, genre-related entertainment in action-adventure, science-fiction/fantasy, and horror/suspense.
You like Doctor Who? There’s a Whovian convention. You like Anime? There’s an Anime Expo. You like Star Trek? There’s the 56-Year Mission Conventions.
At the Fan Expo, I attended several informative writing and literature-based panels. One that sticks in my mind was held by several writers of Dungeons & Dragons tie-in novels. They talked about describing actions that are glossed-over mechanics in the game. For example, you can’t just say, “the wizard casts Magic Missile,” you have to explain what that spell looks like in practical application.
But I digress. An old college friend wanted to put together a panel about “Surviving a Creative Writing Program as a Genre Writer,” which I thought would be very interesting. Of course, I understand why college programs prefer non-genre writing to teach craft because it removes the pitfalls of leaning on tropes. It can still be disheartening, though, to be told as an eighteen-year-old that you aren’t allowed to write about magic for class.
I was invited and a few other professors and published authors to be on the panel. The problem was that the convention scheduled us for the last time slot on Sunday. Most con-goers have already left to beat the traffic or are making a final turn of the merchandise room. No one showed up. It was vaguely humiliating, but now I get to give writing advice on this blog, so all’s well that ends well.
The Sirens Call
Meanwhile, two of my best friends have been attending a conference known as Sirens for about a decade now. I was finally able to participate in person last October. Attending that conference was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Sirens isn’t a writing conference. Instead, it’s “a conference dedicated to examining gender and fantasy literature, is a speculative space unlike any you’ve ever known.” Readers and writers are equally welcome. To be honest, I think that model really made it such a fantastic weekend. There were plenty of writers there, and I spent most of my time with them. Still, there were also librarians, teachers, literature professors, and people who loved to read.
That fusion of both sides of the book relationship encouraged a different discussion about literature trends. I think that connection can be lost in a crowd of only writers. Not that other writers aren’t good company, but it can become a bit of an echo chamber when only people in the industry are present. Having readers and book lovers give their perspectives really changed the conversation.
And we had several eye-opening conversations at panels, such as:
- Gender but to the Left: Nonbinary Identities in Science Fiction and Fantasy
- Villains you Love to Hate: The Psychology of Narcissistic Leadership
- Seasoned with Soy Sauce: Asianization in Western Speculative Media
- Why Don’t Female Villains Deserve Redemption Arcs?
I was incredibly nervous going into that conference. Because the Sirens mission statement discusses gender, that immediately introduced a rather intense form of Feminism. And as a nonbinary person, I was afraid I wouldn’t be angry and femme enough or something.
I quickly wished I had listened to my friends and started attending this conference years ago because that was so completely and utterly NOT the attitude of that magical weekend.
The Sirens’ actuality can perhaps best be described with the following example. While I first attended Sirens in person last year, they did hold a free Zoom conference called Sirens At Home in 2020 due to the pandemic. I also participated in that weekend, and while it wasn’t the same, I learned something valuable.
To manage the conference’s large turnout, we were divided into breakout rooms and given an ice-breaker question at every panel. At the first panel I attended, the ice breaker was, “Show us a book with a red cover written by a woman, nonbinary, or transgender author.” Cue me running around my house, checking all seven and a half of our bookshelves, desperately searching for anything with a red cover not written by a man.
I eventually found a book in my Audible library, but that was the best I could do. Seven and a half bookshelves, some of them double-stacked with my partner’s and I’s books. For the first time, I realized that 80% of those books were written by white, cisgender, heterosexual men. Considering that the only label that applies to me is white, I logged off the first day of Sirens At Home, realizing how desperately I needed to broaden the scope of my reading.
Words of Wisdom
Sirens in-person was even more inspiring. I wasn’t just fired up to write after that weekend. I wanted to be able to go back to that conference with something to show that would make everyone I’d met proud of me. I desperately wanted to be a louder voice in the conversations about gender in literature that had worried me so much before I attended.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic interrupting planning, Sirens is taking a year off for the first time in its history this year. It was a fact that made even me, a first-timer, burst into tears when it was announced. However, it will be back in 2023, and I want to leave you the words that left the strongest impression on me from that weekend.
In 2021, Sirens had four guest authors, one of which was Fonda Lee, author of the Green Bones Saga. She was amazingly friendly, and I enjoyed dancing with her to 90’s pop ballads at the Sirens Ball. She said something during her keynote address that I have thought about almost every day since that conference, however.
During the Q&A portion, someone asked about advice for pivoting from a corporate job to being a full-time author. Fonda said, “Be aware, there will be a time when your art is your full-time job, and you are doing it without any income. The hardest part is getting through that.”
Those words have been etched on my heart ever since I heard her say them. My greatest hope is that someday I can meet her at another conference as a successful author in my own right and tell her how much those words were my light in the darkness.