Here’s the deal. I write non-fiction. For those of you who slept through Language Arts, or are accountants, that means I write about things based on facts, real events, and real people. Fiction writers, on the other hand, write about things that are imagined, though they may be portrayed in such a way they feel like reality. Like one who comes across a group of children painting a fence and expects to find Tom Sawyer among them.
I don’t know a lot about writing fiction. That’s why it comes as such a surprise (to myself included) that I attended a fiction writer’s conference this weekend. No seriously, I’m not making this up. I’m a non-fiction writer, remember. I stick with the facts.
I just returned from Nashville, Tennessee where I attended the American Christian Fiction Writers annual conference.
With over 550 in attendance who specialize in literary categories such as fantasy, sci-fi, romance, young adult suspense, historical drama, or crime thriller, I was really a fish out of genre.
During the countless introductions between myself and other writers, the same question would be posed. “What do you write?”
“Non-fiction.” I’d respond with a smile. And then they’d all look at me as if I had two heads. The sci-fi people were mentally writing my character into their next book.
Then they’d slowly and sweetly say, “You know you’re at a fiction writers conference, right?”
Yes. Yes. I knew. And I’d explain how I got there. That I am friends with an amazing Christian fiction writer, Colleen Coble, who lives near my hometown and who has been ever so gracious to help mentor me as I dream of a writing career. I’d relay that Colleen taught me that whether writing the truth or the imagined, the craft of storytelling is much the same. That she believed I would learn a lot from the conference teachers, and that she knew that the many agents and editors in attendance work with both fiction and non-fiction writers.
This would all make perfect sense to the fiction writers. Colleen is basically a rock-star in their books (figuratively, not literally). She has published over fifty books and is the CEO of the American Christian Fiction Writers Association (ACFW). If Colleen says it, even fiction writers know it’s as good as truth. I had a golden ticket in my mentor and friend.
But, I already knew that.
So once we writers got past the initial shock of my presence, we would have the most wonderful conversations. We’d talk about each other’s books, dreams, and families. We’d laugh and shake our heads at the amazing room full of talent. I was so impressed with their creativity and kindness.
I admit there were a few moments when genre explanations would cause my eyes to grow wide. Like the woman who told me she wrote “paranormal romance without the erotica.” I guess I just wasn’t expecting that phrase to come out of her mouth and it took a while for the little Plinko chip in my brain to bounce off the pegs and settle into the slot of acceptance. But it turns out she was very sweet and became a friend that promised to keep in touch. I hope she gets a good wifi signal on her spaceship.
And so as I now sit at home in my favorite recliner and mentally debrief the past few days I thought I’d make a few observations as an “outsider.” Sometimes those are the most enlightening because of the fresh perspective. So without further ado, I give you:
5 Outsider Observations about the 2016 ACFW Conference
1. The agent and editor appointments are serious business. (Like, sweaty palms and shaky leg serious.) But they are amazing opportunities.
Attendees are given a very special piece of paper when you check in on day one and this sheet tells you who you are meeting with and when. At your appointment you have 15 minutes to pitch a book proposal to an agent or editor. 15 minutes. No more. Time keepers come to the door and cut you off. They may or may not be trained in judo.
Before your appointment you prepare and you practice and you put on more deodorant. And then it’s your time. Your time slot has been called. You have been chosen like one of the little green aliens grabbed by the big claw in Toy Story and you rise from your chair and walk down the hall. You sit across from your potential dream-come-true-maker and you say stuff. Hopefully it sounds better than that last sentence.
I pitched twice on Saturday to two different literary agents. It turns out they are not nearly as scary as I feared. They smiled at me and even made some small talk. I took some deep breaths and we got through it together. I appreciated their gracious feedback and will look forward to following up with their advice. All in all, these appointments are a GREAT opportunity the ACFW conference presents. Attendees should not miss this chance!
9 out of 10 editors agree.
2. Literary agents, editors, and successful published authors are real people too.
Contrary to popular belief, these skilled professionals put their pants on one leg at a time. (I didn’t actually witness this, but it’s what they tell me.) The first night of the conference I sat for two hours and listened to two different panels of literary agents answer questions about pitching, proposals, and publishing. There were 13 total agents and I could have told you 11 of their names and partial bios before they were introduced. Listen. I’m not a stalker. I just use the internet. I’ve been reading these people’s blogs and tweets for months and I respect them greatly. I was a little star struck seeing them in real life. (Oh my gosh! Chip MacGregor just looked my way!)
These agents and their fellow laborers, the editors and successful published authors, are just like me. Only they actually make money in the writing business. But seriously, they are so humble, funny, kind and gracious and they are at the conference to discover new talent and to help writers! These professionals WANT to help and know HOW. It’s a great two-for-one.
3. Writers are nice.
I don’t know what I expected, but I thought maybe there would be at least an undertone of competiveness among the conference attendees. I was wrong. Instead, everyone I met was my new friend and cheerleader. We prayed for each other, swapped ideas and advice for pitches, gave hugs, and dealt each other drugs (ibuprofen) for stress headaches. We swapped business cards and handed out compliments. One woman gave me a piece of chocolate. It felt like a cozy home away from home in that huge air conditioned banquet room. And that’s saying something.
4. Lighted magnifying mirrors in the hotel bathrooms are not a great tool to utilize for face scrutiny before a meeting with an agent or editor. You just saw freckles and pores you didn’t know existed. You didn’t need to see that. Enough said.
5. The “C” in ACFW stands for Christian, and they ain’t joking.
Each day we were led in a time of worship. The vocalists and musicians that led were wonderful, not just in talent, but in leadership. They didn’t make it about them, they made it about God. The songs and worship times glorified the One who is more creative than any room full of story creators. The focus was on Him. My voice caught in my throat one day as I glanced around the room and saw men and women, old and young, with all colors of hair, skin, and clothing raising hands and worshiping the Almighty God. No book contract could ever bring a sweeter collaboration.
The shock is wearing off. I went to a fiction writing conference.
Did I get home after midnight and have to drive almost seven hours each way by myself? Yes. Did I drink enough caffeine the past three days to damage my kidneys? Maybe. Did my brain cry out for sweet relief after feeling as if one more bullet point would cause it to burst. You know it. Did the valet parking fee use up my eat-out budget for a few weeks. Dang it.
Was it worth it all?
And you can trust me. I’m a non-fiction writer.