Thursday, January 26, 2012

My First Conference

My First Conference

When I went through my list of writing firsts—first rejection, first contest, first sale etc.—I decided to choose one of my most important and memorable firsts to talk about. Before any setbacks or kudos came my way, I attended my first conference. It stands out in my mind because it’s an experience I really enjoyed and now I enjoy remembering it. Some writing milestones are learning experiences (rejections, critiques, contests) but not necessarily pleasant to recall. In fact, some are downright painful! But the Silken Sands Conference was just the opposite.

I joined the Gulf Coast Chapter of RWA in November 2002, a month or so after I decided to pursue writing seriously. Really, all I wanted to do was get past the first few pages of a story. My goal was modest, to say the least. At the first meeting I learned GCC was going to hold a writers’ conference in April in Gulf Shores, Alabama right on the Gulf of Mexico. As the greenest of green newbies, I didn’t realize writing groups held conferences. I’d never even heard of RWA or their local chapters until October 2002, the month before I joined!

Beth, one of the members who writes inspirations told me Jennifer Peterson (daughter of Tracie and Jim) a Barbour editor, was coming to the conference. Beth said I could pitch to Jennifer if I had a manuscript ready. Sounded good to me, but what was a pitch? Being new, insecure and shy, I shuddered at the idea of telling someone all about my wip in seven minutes or less, especially since I only had a vague idea of the story.

But Beth thought I could finish—or at least come very close to finishing—in the 3 ½ months left before conference. Huh? I’d only written a few pages. But her encouragement spurred me on. I had a lot of first pages of several different stories, but not even one completed chapter. Although I was totally overwhelmed, Beth convinced me to try. I hated to pass up an opportunity because I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the chance to attend another conference. Little did I know conferences would become part of my writing life!

So I wrote and wrote and wrote, but I didn’t complete my wip before the big weekend. However, I had an appointment to pitch to Jennifer and I wasn’t about to give that up. It was such an enormous accomplishment to get to the point where my manuscript was approaching completion. My self-confidence soared. I could actually envision finishing not just a chapter, but an entire book as long as it was short. I wasn’t there yet, but I did have an ending and an idea of how to get there.

I volunteered to pick up Jennifer at the Pensacola Airport. She was coming in a day early so I decided to stay an extra day in Gulf Shores and help out the conference chairman. Jennifer and I chatted during the entire forty-five minute drive to the hotel. I learned so much about publishing, Heartsong Presents, and the inspirational market. That night we went to dinner with another member. My knowledge shot upward. I learned more from Jennifer in one day than I would’ve learned in months on my own.

The following night I won a critique from her. Instead of reading just the first chapter, she went way above and beyond and asked to see the rest of the pages I brought along. Her critique helped me so much! I made every newbie mistake imaginable, but she pointed out my strengths as well as the weaknesses in a really kind way. (I could be easily crushed back then.)

I pitched to her the next day which wasn’t difficult since I now knew her. She requested a full manuscript and I was beyond thrilled. Since I wasn’t quite finished I went home and worked hard, polished it and prayed it wasn’t too awful. I sent it to Jennifer who answered me quickly and said I’d know soon if HP was interested.

It was rejected, but I wasn’t too disappointed because it wasn’t ready for prime time and neither was I. The point was: an editor treated me as a serious writer with enough talent to continue on. I knew I had a lot to learn and a lot of practicing to do. But that was fine. I didn’t need a sale. I needed someone to encourage me. And that person was Jennifer. So I’ll always be grateful to her.

I turned the contemporary story I submitted to her into a historical and years later sold it to Thomas Nelson as the second book in the Ladies of Summerhill series, Love on Assignment. Even old manuscripts don’t always have to be wasted. It can be really difficult, but even first attempts can often be re-worked.

Jennifer is now a freelance edit and manuscript technician, a.k.a. Ms. Manuscript, (

If you’ve had any memorable experiences at a conference, please tell us about them!

I’m giving away a copy of The Writer’s Book of Matches: 1,00l Prompts to Ignite Your Fiction.


  1. Cara,

    Thanks for sharing your interesting experience! Isn't it grand to review the guidance the Lord offers? It's so obvious in hindsight! :)

    I've not attended too many conferences. The last one had an event that answered a prayer and directed my path. And the journey has been wonderfully amazing!

    GO May GO!

    I've enjoyed this series of firsts. Keep 'em coming...

  2. Hi, KC! I'm glad your conference helped you too. They're expensive, but they're usually worth the $. You can pick up so much information and sometimes meet new friends. And old ones. Of course, there are always the editors and agents.

    I'm not usually up this late at night since I get up early in the morning. Ok, no earlier than most, I guess, but if it's dark out, it's early to me.

  3. My first conference the mantra seemed to be "Getting published is really really hard" and for some reason that energized me to finish my first book with great speed and get serious. Guess I must like a challenge.

    And since yesterday North & South came up in the comments again, I finally pulled it off the shelf it's been sitting on for a year and made the 5 year old bored to tears watching it with me this afternoon. And I have to say, that indeed, that was one very good kiss. :) However, I think the best best part was where he begged her to look back at him and she didn't. A hero's love unrequited--gets me everytime.

  4. Memlissa, you just made me your best friend for LIFE! I have that movie and have forced all sorts of friends and relatives to watch it. Nobody really likes it, let alone loves it!
    Gaskell is one of my very favorite authors. Did you know she wrote at her kitchen table, while raising five kids?? She's my hero. (And Richard Armitage is... unbelievable.)
    Ok, not to go off on a tangent but we have those little yellow roses he 'find inthe hedgerow' at Helston. Ok, so I showed my 11 year old that scene, at the train station, where he pulls the rose out. I'm swooning at his INTENSE stare and her inability to look him in the face! And she says, 'This is so creepy. Is he a vampire?'
    HAHAHAHA! I guess she needs a few more years to see that scene for what it is. (Although I hated that kiss, since they never would have done that in public in the 1880's.)

  5. Sorry, I got so excited I misspelled your name!

    And for conferences... I can only dream. I loved how this post showed the learning curve. I'm just starting to understand what a huge leap publishing is and I'm trying not to get down about all the mistakes I've made so far. It'll be funny someday, right??

    meanwhile, I'll console myself with a little audio of Richard Armitage reading a poem. :)

    Oh! Melissa, have you seen the Vicar of Dibley? He's the modern love interst and it's sooo funny to see him wearing normal clothes and laughing.

  6. Ok, I caught up on what happened here yesterday ! And a link to THE SCENE! :D

    Pure yum.

  7. I have yet to attend a writer's conference but I am setting my sight on ACFW in 2013 as it's only a couple of hours away in Indianapolis.

    I have attended other Christian conferences and I have always learned so very much and hated when the conference ended.

    Truly enjoyed your post.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.


  8. Cara -- I love the way you turned that contemporary story inside out and into an historical that sold!

    A good conference is SO enlightening. I always feel energized when I return home from a weekend spent with writers, agents and editors.

  9. This series of firsts, no matter the disappointments or embarrassments, are success stories. That's what I love about them. I'm with KC. Keep 'em coming...

    I'm sorry to say I've never been to a writing conference of any sort. Perhaps this year.

    Please enter me in the drawing. Thank you.


  10. I didn't get up as early as I thought. Good morning, Seekerville!

    Melissa, getting pubbed is hard, but if you work hard and learn the craft, it'll happen. It's amazing to me that so many unpubbed people I met at conferences several years ago are now published. It's a step by step process.

  11. Virginia and Melissa, I never saw North and South so I decided I should check it out. It sounds good to me. I just downloaded it on Kindle for free!!! It's in 2 parts. Part 1 is free and Part 2 costs $, but not a lot.

    I really like the Vicar of Dilbey. British TV is so different than ours.

  12. Hi Cara, What a wonderful first for you. You truly were blessed to have an editor take you under her wing.

    Does she know the story is now published? I bet that would thrill her no end.

    KC is right. You really had godly guidance right from the start.

    Hmmm, Now I'm interested in North an South. Thanks Melissa and Virginia

  13. Cara, what wonderful memories you call to mind!

    And disasters.

    I was so nervous my first conference, I pressed against the wall the whole time hoping no one would notice me, LOL! But I wanted to hear and learn EVERYTHING.

    That conference was a simple one day event. I came home with my mind so full of information and excitement, I don't think my husband and kids got a coherent word our of me that entire next week.

    I learned never take big bites at the meals because sure enough some editor or agent will turn to you and ask you a question and then a piece of that delightfully dry chicken will get stuck in your throat and while you're gasping for air, your fork will slip through your fingers and clatter to the floor and the bewildered look on the poor E/A face will remain etched in your mind for eternity, LOL!

  14. Melissa and Virginia, I haven't thought of North and South in years! I loved it and have the VHS tape, but no longer have the VHS player.

    Will have to go searching through Netflix...

  15. Cara, I loved your first conference story. It actually brought a tear to my eye to see how those further along the journey encouraged you to reach higher than you thought you could. I love hearing about how God leaves His finger prints on our lives like He did on yours. Those encouragers are so important on this road!

    Loved this line: "But that was fine. I didn’t need a sale. I needed someone to encourage me. And that person was Jennifer."

    I've visited Gulf Shores, AL, and have fond memories from that area of our country. I also have a friend named Beth who's helping me figure out this adventure. :)

    I haven't been to a conference yet, but I've been to a couple of writing retreats. I hope to attend ACFW for my first time this year. :)

    And, Melissa and Virginia, I guess I'm going to have to check out North and South now too. Thanks. I think. :)

    Thanks for sharing your story today, Cara!

  16. Hey, fresh coffee from the cafe! And we've got fresh baked bread with honey or maple syrup or Ruthy's home-made sour cherry jam... Grandma's favorite!

    Cara, my first cool thing was when Madelyn Hunter took me aside and told me to keep doing what I was doing, to keep writing book after book. "Honey, once they discover you, they will not get enough of you!"

    I will forever be in her debt for those kind words.

    And I think it was that cute Mia Ross that brought me to to Madelyn's attention when Madelyn came to visit our RWA chapter.

    At a conference?

    Oh, well, that's easy. My first meeting with Tina Novinski (now Radcliffe) in the Doubletree ladie's room, where I caught sight of her from behind which is generally where I ended up in contests... Right behind Tina or Mary or Audra or Julie or... ;)

    You get it!

    And having Mary Connealy (before she was famous) in a session with Randy Ingermanson where she and I did not pay attention as well as we should have. I knew right then I would love both women forever. And that we were meant to meet. And did you know that Mary is very SLY about making you say things you should never let slip????

    Either that or I'm a real easy target!

    Cara, God has had his hand on us from the beginning... And I can't wait to see your next proposal come to fruition!!!

    Go, Cara, go!!! (from my cheerleading days circa: a long time ago... When cheerleaders actually wore clothing.)

  17. Fun to travel back to your first conference, Cara! You were wise to volunteer to shuttle that editor! And not waste a manuscript.

    My first RWA conference was in Chicago in 1999. Nothing memorable happened perhaps, but I met writers at that conference who've become dear friends. I soaked up every workshop I attended like parched ground soaks up rain. Even with short nights and a hectic schedule, I left the conference energized and brimming with hope.


  18. My first conference I did a paid critique with Alton Gansky. Love the guy! It turned out the room we had the critique in, Andy Scheer needed for setting up his next session. So, we were rushed. However, Al buzzed through it and make some very encouraging remarks. In fact, at one point, Andy Scheer's head jerked around and said, "Really? That's unusual for a new writer." My feeble brain can't recall at the moment what it was in regard to (maybe my characters development or the dialogue... not sure), but I remember Andy's reaction and it thrills me to this day. Hmm... maybe I need to pull out that MS and start reworking it. It is my first completed MS and I stuck it in the drawer because it needs to much work. Anyway, at the time, I didn't know how to take advantage of grabbing an editor's attention. At the time, Andy was Jerry Jenkins main editor and I was very nervous and hesitant. But I'll never forget those few minutes in the room with Al and Andy.

    I LOVE writing prompts! Some of my best stuff has come from them. Please include me in the drawing. :D

  19. PS - made not make... ugh!

    BTW, anybody who knows Andy knows he's a brutal editor! I'd love to get his feedback!

  20. Sounds like SUCH a wonderful conference and experience, Cara! Please enter me for the writer's book of matches.


  21. Wow, that is an amazing experience, Cara.

  22. Cara, spending all that time with an editor must have been an exciting learning time for someone just starting.

    I haven't been to a conference yet but enjoying reading about the experiences others have had. Maybe one day :)

    I'm glad to hear you were able to rework your first story. I hate to think of all the time and work put into a story and just file it away.

  23. Sandra, Jennifer does know the story was published. I e-mailed her to tell her name I wanted to use her name in the blog.

    Glynna, I always come home from a conference energized and on overload! There's so much info etc. Cindy and Cara, I hope you get to go to the conference in the future. They can be a little daunting for an introvert like me, but I just take time out to be alone for a while.

  24. Thanks for sharing your first conference experience! I'm looking forward to attending the ACFW conference this year (Lord willing), and I am nervous about pitching to editors. I appreciate your encouragement!


  25. I've been away from Seekerville so long. In the midst of a "no time for writing" period of life (in which I'm focused on all the details of buying a new house and getting it ready to inhabit) I'm beginning to think all my writer's knowledge is drying up before I get a chance to put it to good use. And I don't have much, so I can't afford to lose any.

    I'm making a point to read Seekerville more, that definitely helps.

    All your talk about Mary, and Tina makes me think of Tulsa...ah what a lovely trip that was. I wish I could have known you all when you were as green as I am. But just hearing about it is very encouraging...if I can make myself believe it.

    Thinking of that trip makes me think of the conference I missed last year. My disappointment was keen, and I quickly tired of hearing all the wonderful stories on the loop and in blogs. I confess, I was pouting...a lot. God used that trip to ease my disappointment. And it worked wonders! Wonderful memories with wonderful friends.

    Cara, someday, I'll get to attend my first conference, and I hope I learn as much as you did at yours.

    The when and where are safely in the hands of the Almighty, where I intend to leave them until He tells me otherwise.

    I'd love to win the book.

    andeemarie95 at gmail dot com

  26. One of my most memorable moments was at my second ACFW conference. I was still very nervous about the whole conference thing and I was checking into my hotel room and I finished and turned around and there was CARA!!!!!!

    Cara, I must have told you at the time but I'm not sure if you really know how fantastic it was to see a familiar face. It just felt like someone had thrown me a life preserver.

    And I think I clung to you for the rest of the conference.

  27. Cara, what a great story!!! And what a great way to start your writing journey. I think I know the "Beth" you're talking about. Is it Beth White? She is such a sweetie. I like her a lot, and how fortunate you were to have another inspirational writer in your RWA chapter! Someone who would encourage you to finish that manuscript and pitch it!

    I have had some wonderful experiences at conferences. And some not so wonderful! LOL But it's all part of the learning journey.

  28. EXCUSE ME, RUTHY????!!!
    I'm very SLY about making YOU let things slip?

    Let me think back? Is there ever a moment when I had to LURE you into TALKING MORE?????????

    Nope. Never.

  29. Fun story, Cara! These trips down Memory Lane are such poignant reminders of how far we've come--and how much we've had to learn over the years!

    The important thing is that we persisted. And you can't expect to succeed as a writer in today's publishing world if persistence isn't part of your character.

  30. What a great 'firsts' story. Thank you for sharing. God was definitely at work.
    Please enter me
    lostie815 at hotmail dot com

  31. My very first conference was so huge for me. So terrifying.
    I was a finalist for a Genesis Award with two different books, Petticoat Ranch and Montana Rose.

    I had no intention of going to a CONFERENCE!!!
    My critique group just nagged and threatened and begged. But going to a conference was so outside anything I'd ever done before. I, who am possessed by a vivid imagination, just could not imagine it.
    Finally they talked me into going and I roomed with Susan Smykla Osborn. My other critique partner, Christy Barritt, the two of them promised they'd help me.

    I swear Susan had to get down on her knees and lure me out from under the bed by waving a Twinkie and crawling slowly backward as I emerged.

    And I remember Julie. We sat next to each other at a meeting with Ami McConnell from Thomas Nelson.

    Need I saw that Julie was very PASSIONATE about her writing. And very memorable.
    She was the first Seeker I met face to face. The real FIRST was Ruthy who had abused me online for quite some time already.

    But this was BEWS--Before We Were Seekers.

    By my second conference the Seekers existed. YAY!

  32. Hey, Cara, I am SO with you on not ditching the old manuscripts. I hear authors say this all the time that their first book would never see the light of day, but I can't help but wonder why? As a person who LOVES editing, it puzzles me why a published writer who has learned SO much on the journey, can't feel like they can go back and edit/fix that first ms. I just don't get it. I'm a word-frugal gal inclined to NOT waste anything I've written, but instead store even the deleted scenes in a file for possible future use.

    Fortunately for me, my first ms. was A Passion Most Pure, so I got out the gate on that first book, but as nice as that is, I sure wish I had a closet full of old ms. to rework so I can get those books out there a little more frequently. Mary Connealy is my hero (or heroine) because she had about 20 ms. written before selling her first, and WHOA, BABY, the books came out bullet-fire from that point on.

    Thanks for a great reflection this morning, Cara, and I am SO glad you persisted.


  33. JULIE--I agree on this 'My First Manuscript Will Never See The Light of Day' thing.

    Of course my first manuscript probably will never see the light of day. But those first manuscripts...of COURSE you get better. O fCOURSE you learn things. But those manuscripts contain a STORY. And I still love my first story. I think I'd have to scrap the whole manuscript and start over but that was a cool story. I'd love to tell it with slightly improved (okay MASSIVELY improved) writing skills.

    The Clueless Cowboy, a sweet little Heartsong Presents romance, was my second manuscript. And it's in the collection Black Hills Blessing and that gives me great pleasure.

  34. ANDREA and CAROL we had such fun meeting you and hanging around with you in Tulsa.

    It was fantastic.

  35. Mary, I loved Clueless Cowboy. And the rest of the Black Hills Blessing stories.

  36. Ruthy, that is soooo funny! I always imagine myself in a session, taking copious notes, eager face turned toward the speaker... But in reality, if my years in school are any indication, I'll be botted for chatting or writing notes or staring out the window.

    But hey, if they're speaking about STORIES, I may just pay attention.

  37. Hugs, Andrea. For every thing there is a season, right?

    And even though I knew there was NO WAY I could go to ACFW, was resigned to it, I still turned green when I saw all the posts and pictures! :D

  38. JULIE, if you have twenty manuscripts under your bed and you get published and then the publisher wants more and more and you end up with 22 books published in a few short years....then you're somebody's heroine.

    If you never get those books published, then you have obsessive compulsive disorder and they try to get you onto some meds and maybe send you to a quiet facility under 24 hour observation.

  39. My first conference was a regional one. I cried myself to sleep the first night and ALMOST didn't go the second day [was staying with my in-laws].

    Second day was better.

    Now, my first ACFW conference... that went well overall. Even the rejections [or rather the 'no' and lack of request for more] weren't too bad. I don't THINK I committed any major faux pas... Not that anyone's told me anyway...

    SO glad we got to go to Tulsa! Twas fun! Even when we were lost ;).

    There was something else I was going to say, but I've not got a clue what it was /sigh/. Such is my brain on school days...

  40. We're having thunderstorms in nw Florida right now. Hopefully, no tornadoes.

    Melanie, yes, Beth White is the writer I was talking about. She's a great friend!

    Jeanne and everyone who has never gone to an ACFW conference--GO if you get the chance! It's the best.

  41. What a GREAT story. I am sort of in that place right now. I have had four people request the full manuscript that I am pitching. I received my first rejection the other day from one of them. But I wasn't sad. It was the encouragement and support this person showed me that made it all ok. I think it is so important that agents, editors, etc realize they hold your heart in their hands (especially a newbie). I love the Christian market though, because everyone is so sweet and supportive.

  42. Hi, Ruthy! I could use a cheerleader today. I'm doing line edits today and I'm on a too tight schedule. Groan.

    Linnette, pull that manuscript out of the drawer and try to re-work it. Or if you can't, then maybe you can at least use the idea. Having a great idea is half the battle.

  43. Carol, I'm so sorry you cried. I wish I'd been there. :(

    We could have hidden under your bed together and eaten all your cookies without sharing! (this is a plan with merit!)

    If you calmed down, cheered up and gone out, I'd have guarded the cookies from under the bed while you were gone.

  44. Cara, I like your attitude. I'm glad Beth's "rejection" was just the kind of encouragement you needed.

    I'm hoping to go to my first writing conference (ACFW) this September, but we'll see.

  45. LOL, Julie! I agree with you. No scene should be tossed permanently. I too wish I had a fistful of manuscripts under my bed like Mary, but I'm afraid I only have dust and other people's books. I do have one written but rejected and still unpubbed. I can't use the manuscript itself because the romance wasn't really a romance. But the idea is still useful and I'll probably use it some day.

  46. Mary - I think hiding under the bed and eating cookies sounds about perfect.

    Maybe Sandra will come with us.

    Very glad I went the second day even if I didn't get a TON out of it [and knew like one person still by the time it was all over]. I very likely won't go back to that conference as it had very little emphasis on fiction - mostly other stuff [children, poetry, nonfiction, scripts, etc] both of the last two years. I think the $ is much better spent on ACFW even if it is more expensive.

    By the time I left ACFW, I'd met about a million people - ones like y'all who I already knew and a bunch of new people too.

    At least for me. Others might not feel the same way...

    But I could just come and eat cookies. That sounds yummy.

  47. Carol, conferences usually have good parts and not so good parts. At one I met with a very brusque agent (to say the least) and I felt like crawling under a table or hiding in the closet. But it didn't matter because eventually, when I needed an agent, I found a great one. It's not so humiliating looking back as it was at the time!

  48. Thanks, Cara! I plan to pull it out eventually. Right now I'm trying to focus on my current series. The synopsis thing is an absolute pain! Been working on it most of the day trying to prepare for Genesis!

    Thanks for your encouragement, though. I just might do that sooner rather than later. :-)

  49. Salena, four requests is fabulous! All you need is one sale--although a book auction would be great!!! I don't know if they have many of those any more.

    Linnette, I hate to write a synopsis too. I always struggle with knowing all there is to know about a story if I haven't written it yet. And I know it'll change as I write it! I think it's a real art to be able to do one in advance of finishing the book.

  50. I enjoyed reading about your conference experience, Cara.

    The first conference I attended was the NJRW about three years ago where I insulted a prospective agent! Yikes! It was innocent, really. And I don't want to go into details because she might be lurking here, lol. But it was about protocol, and being so new to the business, I didn't realize I'd stepped on toes. She did ask for a full, BTW, but when I sent it, she mailed it right back with the comment that she doesn't rep what I was writing! Ouch. That naive mistake really cost me. Live and learn...

  51. What a great post, Cara. I enjoyed hearing about your first conference.

    And, as several have said, that Beth is a sweetheart! We drove to New Orleans together in 2001, and to Dallas in 2004.

    We talked non-stop for 9 hours straight, and then did it again on the way back. Fun, fun, fun!

  52. Great post, Cara, and lovely story about your first conference.

    I was flying high at my first conference. Pinch me, I kept thinking. I must be dreaming. Mingling with published authors and industry still my heart!

    Georgia Romance Writers' Moonlight and Magnolias Conference was my first. It continues to be my favorite conference and one I never miss. I hope some of you will plan to attend this year.

  53. Lyndee, I think we all have conference experiences we'd like to forget. I have a few that I'll probably never tell about!

    I've heard both the New Jersey conference and M&M are wonderful. If M&M weren't so close to ACFW I'd go since it's within driving distance. Debby, do you think they'd change the date for us???

  54. Pam, Beth and I drove to the ACFW conference in Nashville several years ago. What fun we had!

  55. NJRW is a wonderful conference, Cara. I think the proximity to NYCity is the key. A lot of agents and editors attend so there are a lot of opportunity to pitch. Plus the group is fun. I think we danced until dawn that year, lol.

  56. I'm jealous of all you people who got to drive 9 hours to conferences with Beth White!!! Just sayin'.

  57. I look forward to going to my first conference. Thanks for telling about your first experience!

  58. Those local conferences are so helpful this way--more interaction with the speakers!

    I've really enjoyed all the stories of FIRSTS this month and I'm glad that old story became Love on Assignment, Cara. Enjoy your weekend!

  59. Cara, I am so honored to be a small part of the incredible journey you are on as a writer and a woman of God!