What I Learned at Big Orange Book Festival

I went to the Big Orange Book Festival at Chapman University in Orange, California this weekend. I came to give a couple of speeches, volunteer (and got a nice cap and shirt for the effort), and learn from other writers. The learning part was especially important. Here are four things I learned.

1. Write because you love it

As writers, we all want the type of experience Mark Levin had at the festival: Filling up Memorial Hall, getting a standing ovation, and having an iPhone-on-release-day line of fans wanting you to sign your book. For most of us writers, the experience is like, well, mine. How do we cope with the inevitable highs and lows of the writing life? Panelist Paul Hughes says that we need to understand this:

Most people really don’t care about your writing…If the writing is enough, it’s worth it…Just because it doesn’t matter to other people, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

Melinda Combs adds:

You have to be in love with writing…That’s what keeps the perseverance going.

Finally, Catherine Keefe reminds us:

You realize you are a writer…I’m a writer, and this is what I do. You have to have faith in the process.

2. Be true to yourself

Part of that faith comes from being true to yourself and what you choose to write. This is important even when you write for hire. Garrett Calcaterra said that even though he sold himself “anyway possible to make a living by writing,” he recommends that we should “find projects you have some interest in…be a little bit choosey.”

When you are true to yourself, the passion comes through in your work. You also earn the respect of your readers. Even if they don’t agree with you, they can still respect the integrity you put into your work. I certainly felt that way about Mark Levin. Even though we have different political beliefs, I still respect the intellectual vigor he puts into his arguments.

Sapphire, author of Push and The Kid, expressed her passion and integrity this way:

I want to use my gifts that go beyond…just making people feel good. I want to be a part of the truth-telling. Be a part of those who refused to look away.

This determination makes a work worth writing…and worth reading.

3. Find your fan base and build it

Of course, we still want to fill those auditoriums and lengthen those book signing lines. We do this by building a fan base. Lizz Winstead said she built her fan base as a comedian bit by bit by developing a following. Even if she had six people come, they would tell others, and her fan base grew.

A panelist said to use compliments to build relationships. Find people whose work you admire and share ideas. He also recommended using events and bookstore signings to make contact with fans and further the fan base.

4. Writing Is Worth It

Overall, writing is a lot of work with no guarantee of it being appreciated, let alone rewarded. But it is still vital work and worth doing. This was made clear in a speech by Mary Badham, who played Scout in the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. She said that “Ignorance is the root of all evil. Education is the key to freedom.” The way we can educate is through reading. She said:

Reading is so important…It warms my heart to see that people love to read.

As writers, we contribute to the growth of our society. Whether it is informing people about important issues, exposing horrible but necessary truths, or providing entertainment, writing is important and worth doing. I came away from the Big Orange Book Festival with renewed dedication to become a better writer.

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