As an author, program librarian, and writing instructor, I’ve been thinking a lot about my responsibility as a speaker to educate versus inspire. The two go hand in hand, as they should, but I’ve noticed the tone of conference programming has changed over the years.
When I attended my first conference in 2012, programs were focused on the basics of writing and networking. Since then, conferences near me—and now online—have become more sophisticated, offering programs for seasoned writers as well as newbies. Most notably, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the state of the publishing industry has become popular, especially due to changes from the pandemic. Conversations about how to query have become focused on who not to query, the horrors of querying, the worst of the worst. That might be followed up with a discussion dedicated to rejection, in brutally honest fashion.
While warning each other is necessary—especially when it comes to predatory practices or people—I do wonder what happens when we spend too much time on the negative. I myself recently attended a conference where over half of the lineup was dedicated to the pitfalls of publishing. Even a program that I thought would be inspirational had a discouraging tone. After watching three of the five programs I had registered for, I gave up. I closed my laptop and just sat there, staring into the void.
“Why am I doing this?” I thought. “Publishing is impossible. A game of luck. I can’t succeed at anything. My genre is wrong. My age category is wrong. Everything is wrong.”
Warning each other is good. Necessary even. But what happens when we scare artists away from even trying? If I am leaving panels discouraged—when I have more than ten years of publishing under my belt—how are newbies feeling when they hear this information?
As a speaker, I want those who attend my programs to feel uplifted, energized, and excited. I admit that I didn’t always know how to do this. Many years ago, when I was invited to guest speak about my writing journey, I spoke about my trials and tribulations. When I opened the floor for Q&A at the end, a teenage girl in the front row raised her hand first. She asked me, “Why should I even bother?”
Whereas I thought I had been inspirational by sharing all the hardship I had been through, it had frozen a teen writer in her boots.
I had never felt so terrible. Discouragement was not what I wanted my audience to take away from my speech. I knew right then that I needed to correct my speaking style.
Over the next few weeks, I did a deep dive into what inspired me to write when I was first starting out. I thought back to when I told my dad I wanted to pursue writing. He didn’t sit me down and say how hard it would be, how much rejection I would face, my mediocre chances, etc. He knew I would face that on my own and keep going if I truly wanted that dream. He simply told me he believed in me. The next day, I sat down and wrote—and wrote, and wrote again.
I made a lot of mistakes along the way. Heck, I still do. But making those mistakes was part of the journey. If I had known everything I knew now about publishing at the beginning of my writing career, I can’t say I would’ve attempted to pursue my dream. The weight of the future might’ve felt like too much to bear, when really, I needed to focus on creating and exploring (instead of what could go wrong). Learning came with the territory. Networking, too, weaved its way in, and slowly, my understanding took shape.
When I think back on my first conferences, I remember so many more success stories. How I got my book deal. How I got my agent. How you, too, can organize your writing space, your book, your dreams, and make them a reality.
I learned more about the negative side when I was ready to learn, and a lot of being ready required real-life experience. There’s only so many craft books you can study before you must write your first sentence. You can read all the rejection stories in the world, but that won’t stop you from getting rejected when you finally put yourself out there. You may know how other people have reacted, coped, and kept moving, but that is a unique experience to you that you will learn with time.
Sometimes I worry for the writer who attends a conference for the first time and hears discouraging conversations over and over. Yes, those discussions are important to have. But hope is a powerful thing. I don’t want the world to miss out on fantastic art because a writer left a program wondering why they are even trying. To make that happen, we need more encouragement. More dreaming. More “Yes, you can! I believe in you. Here’s how you can succeed, too.” Our educational programs can also be inspirational.
Shannon A. Thompson is a science fiction and fantasy author, avid reader, and a habitual chatterbox. She’s the author of two YA series, Bad Bloods and Timely Death, and her work has also appeared in numerous poetry collections and anthologies. She’s the Story Center Program Manager for the Mid-Continent Public Library, the largest library in the Kansas City metro. Between writing and befriending cats, she graduated from the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing, and she travels whenever the road calls. Learn more at her website.