Field Trip: Writer’s Digest Conference 2016

WDC2016 Banner

Now that all of the late-summer busyness has passed, I finally have some time to tell you about this year’s Writer’s Digest Conference! And what an amazing four days it was. In fact, I think it topped the 2015 edition!

With this post, I’ll give a general overview of WDC 2016, including which sessions I enjoyed most and what I learned. Last year I did a trio of posts for DIY MFA; and while I would have liked to have covered the conference for the site again this year, it wasn’t possible with my friend’s wedding 2 weeks later. The good thing is, waiting to do this post has given me time to digest (no pun intended) everything I absorbed that weekend and feel grateful for continuing to invest in my writing career.

WDC 2016 swag

Souvenirs and “swag” from WDC 2016. I was also one of their winners of their magnetic poetry kit giveaway!

The Format

Like last year, WDC organized its sessions into five core tracks that concentrate on different aspects of a writing career:

  1. Getting Published (the many publishing routes for books, print vs eb-books, freelance writing for publications)
  2. Platform & Promotion (social media, blogging, book promotion / marketing)
  3. Craft (craft aspects of writing such as character development, setting, and revisions / editing)
  4. The Business of Being an Author (agent and editor Q&As, author career plans, writing communities)
  5. Genre Studies (fantasy / science fiction, historical fiction, YA / middle grade, romance, mystery, etc.)

In other words, five sessions occur during each one-hour time slot, each falling under one of the above tracks. This kind of schedule allows attendees to be flexible with their schedules. They can follow the track that interests them most, or they can hop around. For example, I went to mostly Platform & Promotion and Business sessions, but attended a few seminars in the other tracks, too. (Hey, I’m a fantasy writer. I couldn’t miss the world-building panel!)

The Venue (Hilton Midtown @ New York City)

hilton midtown

Hilton Midtown in New York City

While the Roosevelt Hotel served WDC well in 2015, it was clear from the packed meeting rooms and networking sessions that the conference had overgrown that venue. Writer’s Digest must have noticed, too. This year, they moved the conference to the Hilton Midtown in NYC’s Manhattan neighborhood, and it was an outstanding decision.

The big plus about this year’s set-up was that everything was on one floor. Registration, exhibitor tables, the conference bookstore, and refreshments were held on the Hilton Midtown’s second-floor promenade (lobby area). All of the sessions and keynote speeches took place around the corner, in five labeled meeting rooms. This was much more ideal than last year’s two-floor arrangement, where attendees crowded elevators or raced up equally crowded stairways to get from one session to the next. The hotel room I had was also spacious and well-maintained, with a large desk, free wi-fi (with a special WDC discount code), and a comfortable bed – all of which are very important to writers!

The Keynote Speakers

WDC2016 Keynote Speakers

Talk about knocking it out of the park. Writer’s Digest invited three best-selling authors to be this year’s keynote speakers, and each gave a talk that was memorable in its own way:

  • Children’s author and poet Kwame Alexander (left) gave a HUGELY entertaining keynote on Friday. He’s a bundle of enthusiasm, lyricism, and laugh-until-you-cry humor. He shared his winding, slightly unorthodox journey as a writer, from his attempts at screenplays and independent publishing to his 2015 Newbery Medal winner The Crossover. All the while, he shared bits of wisdom he learned, from creating one’s destiny to the power of persistence (“Even when people tell you NO, we can still say YES to ourselves.”)
  • Mystery / thriller writer David Baldacci (center) took the stage on Saturday. He offered an engaging and witty behind-the-scenes look into his career, offering anecdotes about research trips, inspiration, family life, and unforgettable “run-ins” with readers. The true gems, though, were his insights on writing. He reminded us of the need for passion in our work, the value of listening to people, and forging a story’s “human connection” through our characters.
  • Emily St. John Mandel (right) wrapped up things on Sunday with an intelligent, intriguing keynote. Best known for her most recent novel Station Eleven,  she broke her speech into two parts. The first half focused on  the importance of literature in the world, from how writers inspire one another to a story’s impact on readers. She then devoted the rest of the time to craft-related insights, including embracing uncertainty, learning to love our individual processes, and being “ruthless” with our writing time. My favorite quote from her talk? “If you’re engaged in the task of writing, you’re not an aspiring writer. You ARE a writer.”

The DIY MFA Experience

Writers Digest 2016 DIY MFA Book Launch

Gabriela Pereira @ the DIY MFA Book Launch Party. Courtesy of Writer’s Digest.

Between last year and this year, Writer’s Digest Conference has become an annual DIY MFA meet-up. Last year, I met the site’s founder (and my boss) Gabriela Perreira, web editor Bess Cozby, and fellow columnist Leanne Sowul. This year, not only were Gabriela and Bess there again, but I also met fellow staffers Elisabeth Kauffman, Emily Wenstrom, and Wendy Lu. So I had a blast eating with them, chatting about writing and life in general, and getting to know them better.

Gabriela also held three sessions at WDC this year. Each one was fantastic, so I’ll say a few quick words about them:

  • Storytelling Superpowers Master Class: As part of the DIY MFA Insiders Program (at an additional cost to the main conference), Gabriela discussed the four Storytelling Superpowers and how they’re based on the types of characters we write most naturally. We also explored character traits and masterplots that fit each superpower, and learned how we can channel each superpower (even our three weaker ones) depending on the story we’re writing.
  • The Writing Life – How to Survive and Succeed Without Breaking Your Heart or Losing Your Mind: Quite possibly my favorite talk of Gabriela’s ever. This session was all about developing the right mindset and attitude in order to succeed as a writer. She offered practical tips and tricks while underscoring a very important truth: Writers must be persistent and positive if they want to pursue this kind of career.
  • Rework, Rewrite and Rock Your Revisions: Elisabeth tag-teamed with Gabriela on this seminar that broke down the revision stage into a layer-by-layer approach. You can learn more about this approach in Gabriela’s DIY MFA Book, so I don’t want to give much away. What I will say, though, is that this is a must-see presentation for writers looking for a more organized and less daunting method to the revision madness.

The true highlight of my WDC 2016 experience, though? The DIY MFA Book launch party! Since Writer’s Digest published the book, they incorporated the party and a related networking event into the schedule as part of the DIY MFA Insiders Program. The turnout was fantastic, and it was a joy to hear Gabriela read an excerpt from the book and celebrate a truly special achievement. Click here if you’d like to watch the live-stream video of the launch party on Facebook.

My Five Favorite Sessions

It’s impossible to sum up all of the sessions I attended (12 in total). So, I’ll showcase the five that stood out most to me.

Hot Sheet Live: Which Industry Issues Are Your Business (Porter Anderson, journalist)

Porter Anderson is a monthly contributor to Writer Unboxed, one of my favorite writing websites. So I knew I wanted to attend his WDC seminars, and I really enjoyed his first one. (His other one, “Authors Without Borders: How Global Is the Writer’s Reach Today,” was also excellent.) He presented an honest look at current issues in the publishing industry and narrowed down three that unpublished writers should be most cognizant of. He also suggested industry-related websites to visit, pointed out contract rights that can work to a writer’s advantage, and urged us to take initiative and stay on top of the business side of writing.

In Short: Superbly informative. Even though there was a lot to absorb, Porter’s rational and clear-cut approach made everything easy to understand and opened attendees’ eyes. If he ever presents at a writing conference you visit, do NOT miss his sessions.

Key Quote: “You’re going to have to run your business. Steer your ship. Know how you have to run your shop.”

Getting Blood on the Page: From Truman Capote to Diane Sawyer (Kim Powers, author / news writer)
Kim Powers during his presentation. Photo taken by me via Kim's iPhone.

Kim Powers during his presentation. Photo taken by me via Kim’s iPhone.

This talk by Kim Powers focused on injecting more emotion into our writing – or, as he put it, “blood on the page.” He shared excerpts from his novels and examples from his work as a writer for ABC News (20/20What Would You Do?). He shared his techniques for drawing out that “blood” for emotional impact, from play-acting scenes to listening to appropriate pieces of music when writing. He also imparted some of his lessons from working with TV journalism greats such as Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer, and emphasized the need for a “TA-DA” at the end of a scene or chapter to make our work more memorable.

In Short: A smart, candid perspective of one of the most difficult writing techniques to master. I admit that I got REALLY excited when Kim revealed his “emotion-infusing” methods, because they’re very similar to mine. It gave me validation that maybe I’m on the right track.

Key Quote: “Make your words count. Make them bloody. Make them cost something for you.”

10 Things No One Told You About Writing Weapons in Fiction (Ben Sobieck, author)

As soon as I saw this session on the schedule, I thought, “I HAVE to go to this!” And while the material concentrated more on modern-day weapons (guns, knives) than epic fantasy go-bys like swords or archery, Ben Sobieck’s presentation really delivered. He debunked several weaponry myths that often creep into stories, pointed out pitfalls to avoid, and reminded us that characters are vulnerable to injuries, mistakes, or lack of knowledge with weapons. Regardless, writers should research the right sources as much as they can so they feel comfortable writing about firearms, knives, or the like.

In Short: Awesomely educational and fun! Ben knows his stuff and presented his tips with frankness, humor, and clarity. I’m thrilled that I bought a copy of his Writer’s Guide to Weapons for future reference, and I recommend that other writers do the same if it  might help with their stories.

On a related note, I connected with Ben on Twitter after the conference, and he was interested in hearing more about my experience with archery lessons as research for my WIP. Click here to read my recent guest post on this topic at his blog.

Key Quote: “Be as simple as possible when describing weapons. But if you’re going to include details, get the details right. Readers, agents, and editors catch those mistakes more often than you think.”

Effective Marketing Strategies for Authors (Panel Including Fauzia Burke, Dan Blank, Amy Quale, and Others)

Marketing and promotion responsibilities are falling to authors more often, regardless of their publishing route. So, how can we do it? Which methods are the best use of our time when we have books to write and busy lives in general? This panel of industry professionals answered that question and many others. They discussed the growing importance of email newsletters, social media, websites / blogging, and strategies for understanding your book’s potential audience. Some of the advice was conflicting, but all of the participants acknowledged that different marketing techniques will work for different people. It’s up to writers to learn what works for them and use those methods to connect with potential readers.

In Short: A dynamic, thought-provoking conversation chock-full of ideas and suggestions. Marketing can be an overwhelming topic for some writers (*hand raised*), but the more we learn about this necessary aspect of our careers and the more willing we are to try things, the better we’ll be able to promote our books when they’re out in the world.

Key Quote: “Make goals for your book outside of dollar amounts or number of sales. They can be abstract or long-term goals like teaching or speaking engagements.” (Amy Quale)

The Art (and Science) of Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Panel Including Jeff Somers, Matthew Kressel, David Mack, and Others)

Going to this panel was a no-brainer for me. Five speculative fiction writers shared their techniques and tips for creating fictional worlds that are fantastical yet believable. They stressed the need for internal logic in every aspect of a story’s world and shared some of the questions or strategies they use to help bring their realms to life. Other topics included info-dumping, research, consistency and “breakability” of a world’s rules, and questions to ask beta-readers so they can help us determine whether our worlds are realistic.

In Short: How could I not love this session?! It was equally enlightening and delightful, with moments of laughter so loud that the neighboring rooms must have heard us. It reinforced advice I’ve heard before but is always worth remembering while giving me new angles to consider in order for me to make my fictional worlds seem as real as possible.

Key Quote: “Do a lot of research, but leave most of it out. Do enough that you feel comfortable to write from a place of confidence.” (David Mack)

Book haul from WDC 2016

Book haul from WDC 2016, including Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN and books by several other WDC presenters.

Other Highlights from WDC 2016

Apart from the sessions and DIY MFA related happenings, three other highlights made this year’s WDC even more meaningful than last year’s:

  1. Finally finding a one-sentence pitch for my WIP that WORKS. During the Storytelling Superpowers Master Class, Gabriela said that a good story pitch should briefly mention the stakes. It should reveal why the story goal matters to the protagonist or what might happen if he/she doesn’t reach that goal. This twist was missing from my pitch. Once I added it in and started practicing the updated pitch with other writers, it seemed to grab their attention more often than the previous pitch had. Yay!
  2. Being Kim Powers’ unofficial “photographer” for his Blood on the Page session. If you visited Kim’s Twitter page during WDC, the photos you saw of him speaking were taken by me via his iPhone. It happened a bit spontaneously, but the photos came out well, and the experience gave me another reason for loving that session. I guess it’s one of the surprises you might get when you sit in the front row!
  3. Meeting other writers and reuniting with attendees I met last year. I may be an introvert, but I always love meeting and getting to know other people who share my passions and dreams. The sessions, networking events, and mealtimes provided plenty of those opportunities. Plus, it never ceases to amaze me how attendees come from not just other states, but other countries – even as far away as Australia. (Hi, Rebecca!)

My Post-WDC Action Items List

You know a writing conference has inspired you when you leave with a “to-do” list. Here are a few of those items, which I either have acted on already or am seriously considering:

  1. Investigate several writing-related websites. The conference presenters recommended a multitude of industry-related sites that I’m planning to visit in the coming weeks. Perhaps you’d like to check them out as well:
  2. Possibly start a newsletter. This was one of the most repeated suggestions all conference long. I’ve been hesitant to start my own because a) I haven’t had much time to get one going, b) I have no idea what to put in it, and c) I have no idea if readers would be interested. So, be on the lookout for a future blog post where I’ll ask for help from readers on this!
  3. Research agents. Though I’m still a ways away from querying or pitching my WIP, I’m already gathering names of agents who accept fantasy novels. Reading the agent bios in WDC’s program gave me several more to add to my spreadsheet. I also “renewed” my profile on QueryTracker, which helps writers research agents and track the status of their queries. Again, I’m not ready to take this step yet, but it never hurts to be prepared.

Did you attend Writer’s Digest Conference 2016? If so, what were some of your favorite sessions, moments, and/or lessons learned? If not, have you attended other writing conferences before? Finally, do you think you’d like to attend WDC in the future? Maybe I’ll see you there next year. 😉

35 thoughts on “Field Trip: Writer’s Digest Conference 2016

    • Funny, because I couldn’t remember if I’d seen a review from you for Station Eleven. So you answered my question before I could ask it. 😉 I probably won’t get to read the book until next year, but I’m really looking forward to it, especially after Emily’s keynote.


  1. This sounds fabulous! So much practical and real life information. How exciting that Emily St. John Mandel was there, Station Eleven is still one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Thanks for the run down, Sara!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never attended a Writer’s Digest conference. I’ve attended a couple others, but realized when I did so that conferences aren’t as useful without a finished – or at least close-to-finished – manuscript. For example, coming from screenwriting, pitching is my strong suit, so I pitched my novel idea… and the agents wanted more! Problem was, I didn’t have more than development notes and the first 10 pages. Which will suffice when pitching film/TV execs (depending on the writer’s experience), but not in publishing. Lesson learned. That said, I hope to be ready with a manuscript and attend a conference by next year! I will definitely keep the Writer’s Digest one in mind. Thanks for this awesome post about it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a good point about pitching. Your manuscript has to be DONE if you want to pitch it to agents or editors. I was hoping my WIP would be ready to pitch in time for WDC, but it wasn’t. But that’s OK, because a) there’s always next year or another conference, and b) I still wanted to learn more about the business and marketing sides of writing.

      Let me know if you decide to go to WDC next year! Registration isn’t open yet, but I received a “Save the Date” email for August 17 – 20th at the same hotel (Hilton Midtown), so that seems to be when and where it’s happening. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like you had such a wonderful time, Sara. Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned with us!

    I’m curious about the World-building session you went to. Since I’m close to the beta readers stage, what are some key questions I should ask my betas about the story’s world-building?

    Yes, the newsletter. I’m still figuring out how best to go about it. As you know, I posed the question “What do you look forward to most from an author’s newsletter” on my blog, and had some interesting results. I’m curious to see what advice/tips your readers will give on the subject. I feel it’s a topic that should be discussed more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, E.! 🙂

      I don’t have my notes in front of me at the moment… but the main “beta-reader” suggestion was to ask them whether the story’s world seems believable to them, and whether they find instances where the world’s logic or rules appears to be broken. They didn’t get more specific than that… but those two questions are hefty enough on their own.

      I just checked out your post and poll results. Book updates won, huh? Hmmmm… See, if that ends up being the highest vote-getter when I post my survey in a couple weeks, then I’d probably wait until I’m ready to promote a book before I launch it. We’ll see, though. I have more changes planned for the blog, too, so that may or may not influence people’s responses to the newsletter survey…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m so glad you went again and had a great time again! It sounds like it was an even better conference than 2014 or 2015. I’m going to try to be back next year. I’m determined to make it work, even with an extra kid to arrange childcare for! Hippocamp isn’t the same weekend, thank goodness, if I choose to do both.
    I’m glad to hear the hotel was better too. I was actually sad that they moved it out of the Roosevelt. It’s such a historic place and SO close to Grand Central. But it sounds like this was a better venue for the conference.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Please let me know if you do decide to go back to WDC! It would be great to see you again. 😀

      Yeah, getting acquainted with a new section of NYC was the only real downside of the move to the Hilton Midtown. But it worked to the conference’s advantage, and I got to know the area fairly quickly. So it’ll sort of feel like returning to an old haunt next year.


  5. Publishers Weekly and Publishing Perspectives are both great newsletters to follow. I just scan the headlines every morning and then delete or read. There’s also Shelf Awareness, which caters to a neat middle between publisher and reader.

    Looks like it was a really good conference! I FINALLY get to go to my first writers conference this month and next in Vancouver and I am unbearably excited. Of course, it’s meant a really big decision, which I’ll be blogging about this week…. but I’ll explain to you now (cause I like you 😉 ) I’m retiring my pen name in order to make my dreams of networking easier. So…. very soon you’ll be seeing a new name floating on all my social media: Ariel Hudnall. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve heard of Shelf Awareness, too. It wasn’t mentioned during WDC, but that’s another site I’ve been meaning to look into a little more. Thanks for suggesting it to other readers!

      Yaaaaaay!! I can feel your excitement through the screen. 😀 Hope you have an amazing time!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds like a lot of fun! I wish I could attend something like that at least once in my life (will probably add this to the ever-growing bucket list). I really like how you presented your leanings without it being too much of information to absorb. Thanks for all the links! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • *lol* Well, I had to limit myself at some point, or else it would have been too long of a blog post. You learn so much over those 4 days that by the time you come home, you almost need just as many days to recuperate from it all. A couple WDC attendees agreed with me that we should call it a “conference hangover.” XD

      Thanks for commenting, Nandini! And you’re welcome. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sounds like it was an amazing experience! Now you’ve really convinced me to make it a point to get down there next year!
    The idea of starting a newsletter is something I’ve also been toying with and I’ve been holding back for a much of the same reason. I look forward to your post about it.
    Thanks for taking the time to share your discoveries with us. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it was! I already can’t wait for 2017’s edition. 🙂

      The newsletter post is actually coming with a survey. That way, readers can tell me whether they’d be interested in a newsletter, and (if they are) what they’d like to see in it. That post is also coming on the heels of an announcement I’m making about my blogging schedule next week… but we’ll discuss that when the post goes live.

      Thanks as always for your comments, Faith. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It sounds like you had a great time! Writers conferences are such awesome experiences and those are some great sounding sessions! That’s so cool that you got to be the unofficial photographer haha and that connection led to a guest post. That’s the magic of conferences. ^ ^

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really was a great experience, and those two surprises (along with the DIY MFA launch party and networking) helped make it more impactful and memorable than last year’s. I already can’t wait to go back in 2017. 😉

      Thanks for commenting, Tori!


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  10. I really enjoyed reading this text and it made me think I’d love to attend one some day. Maybe I’ll manage next year or in two years… 🙂
    Anyway, thanks for taking time and sharing your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

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