My Biggest Takeaway: 2016 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference

DSCN9802Usually my biggest takeaway from the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference is something I learned about craft or a network connection I made or a revelation about myself. To that end, I was mulling a post about structure, causality, and emotion, but I decided not to write that for today (you may see it in the future, though). Why didn’t I write that post? Because that topic is not the one that my mind is still replaying almost a week later.

What is on my mind this year is not an answer—it is a question. Or rather, 3 questions.

Cecily Kellogg gave Kerry Gans her biggest takeaway this year

Cecily Kellogg

In the very first class on Day Two, Cecily Kellogg gave a wonderful workshop on building a digital author brand. She gave us a whole lot of fantastic information, and in amongst the multiple slides of her presentation was one with 3 questions: “What makes you special? Why would people want to connect with you? What unique thing can you offer?”

Now, it was first thing in the morning. Most people’s coffee hadn’t kicked in. I don’t drink coffee, so I was at an even further disadvantage. But those questions stopped the room cold. The concepts embodied in those questions were the topics I heard most people talking about after the workshop was over.

1) What makes you special?

Now, writers are often stereotyped as having low self-esteem—and there’s a reason for that. Most of us, while perhaps not having LOW self-esteem, also do not think we’re anything special. I know I feel eminently average. I think we all consider our lives uninteresting, because to us it’s everyday life. The daily grind. We don’t consider that others may find parts of our lives fascinating. What makes me special? I have no clue.

2) Why would people want to connect with you?

I am certain Cecily meant this in the “what can you do for me if I follow you” sense. In other words, what can I do for the customer. What value do I bring. Well, I don’t really have an answer to that, either, from a tangible perspective. As a person, I know I’m a trouble-shooter , and I’m good at connecting people to information they want.  I am a listener and good at reading people. Are those saleable points in an author? How do I turn that into a tangible, marketable trait? I don’t know.

3) What unique thing can you offer?

I chose to interpret this as “what is unique about your writing”—in other words, from a product point of view rather than a personal point of view. Without shifting the focus to the product (and, yes, your writing is a product), this question would be the same as #1, and I don’t think Cecily meant it to be redundant.

In spite of changing the focus, I think my answer is a lot like #1. My writing is good, but not Nobel worthy (yet!). I hope to empower kids to be proud of who they are, and to accept others for who they are, even when that is different from themselves. I hope to encourage them to think for themselves and stand up for what they believe. I hope a lot of things, but I don’t think that my hopes differ very much from the multitude of children’s writers out there.

So, you can see I have no immediate answers to these questions. However, these are extremely important questions to answer, in order to build the most effective digital brand and the most comfortable author persona. What’s a clueless author to do?

One person in class suggested that we ask people who know us well (and will answer honestly) these questions about us and our work. We all know that the way we perceive ourselves is vastly different from the way others see us—even others who know us intimately. So I suppose, while I keep mulling over these questions myself, this is the way I will start my research.

So I guess my biggest takeaway this year was learning what I don’t know–and now setting out to find it.

What about you? Can you answer those questions about yourself and your work?




My Biggest Takeaway: 2013 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference

This year was my third year going to the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. I have always enjoyed it, and always been psyched up by the energy of the writing community there. This year, though, there was a vibrancy above the energy levels of the past years.

Perhaps this reflects a change in me, but I don’t think so—others noticed it, too. I can’t say why it felt different—perhaps it was the near-capacity crowd, perhaps the mix of teachers. All I know is that I was even more jazzed than usual.

A common theme seemed to emerge in the workshops I took this year: the theme of how to present yourself to the world as an author. Cecily Kellogg talked about bloggers and their voices. Suzanne Kuhn spoke about presenting yourself professionally and consistently online. Jonathan Maberry and Keith Strunk’s Act Like A Writer was all about the “writer-persona” you need to build to present to the world. Even in Solomon Jones’ Novel: Character workshop, we worked on our writer bio. Why? Because that bio is the first character we create as writers.

How to be a professional writer. How to be engaging online without giving too much information. How to be accessible without becoming vulnerable. How to be a public figure without losing our most private selves.

A common theme—but not my biggest takeaway.

My biggest takeaway goes back to the vibrant energy of this conference. Ever since my daughter was born, I have been in something of a creative funk. I have been writing consistently, blogging, have turned out a handful of short stories, but all my novel-length work has been on projects begun and first-drafted prior to my daughter’s birth. That never-ending rush of ideas that most writers have dried up after she was born, and I have been feeling totally uncreative for more than three years now.

But at the conference something stirred. Something sparked. A fleeting glimpse into a new character, a new plot. A siren song—still far off, but audible. My creativity raised its head and blinked sleepy eyes at the world.

I am by no means back to where I was creatively. But my creativity is not dead, as I had feared. It’s still there.

And it’s waking up.

What was your biggest takeaway from the conference?

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