Writer's Conference Confidential

Thinking that attending a writers' conference might be a great way to jump start your career? I couldn't agree more - providing that you choose the right conference for you. When examining conference listings, ask yourself the following questions.

1. Is the conference geared to what I write? If you're a poet or essayist or playwright, the realities discussed in a conference of mystery writers probably won't be worth the time and money you'll invest. But if you're a mystery writer, you may find that your genre and, for example, the romance genre (where newer writers are also published in mass market paperback and often share the same publishing houses) could have enough of a common denominator to be of help. And craft of fiction writing workshops focus on truths central to all novelists.

2. Does the conference include high-caliber speakers? If you're shooting for publication by the New York establishment, why bother with a conference where the majority of speakers are self-published or where the editors attending are folks (often nice, book-loving folks) who decided over coffee one day to start up their own micropress to publish their own and their buddies' oft-rejected manuscripts? (If your goal is self-publication or tiny/print on demand publication, look for a conference that specializes in that area and on the hand-selling you'll need to do.)

3. Which agents and/or editors are attending? There are some excellent workshops led by knowledgeable authors or other expert speakers, but conferences usually have at least a few agents and editors flown in like exotic orchids. Look them up by name online and find out if they're interested in the sort of work you are doing. Check out their track record and see if they're someone in whom you'd be interested. If you find the conference is bringing in people listed as scammers over at Preditors and Editors or Agent Query or if you find no information whatsoever, I'd skip it.

4. Are you comfortable with the size and cost of the conference? Each writer gets to play Goldilocks. Some conferences will be too small to fit, some too large, and others will feel just right. I love regional conferences, such as the DARA conference (Dallas Area Romance Writers) where I spoke last weekend. There were four respected agents, three editors from major publishing houses, and about one hundred-sixty or so attendees. The conference was large enough to offer tracks so you could choose from among three different offerings for each time slot and small enough that those interested could get an appointment to see an editor or agent. (You shouldn't sign up for a pitch session unless you have a project ready to sell that's appropriate to the person you want to see.) This particular conference was extremely friendly but not claustrophobic. My favorite kind.

When I was first attending conferences, however, I preferred them even smaller. A conference with between sixty and, say, eighty attendees allowed me to meet and get to know a variety of area writers and get over my tendency to hyperventilate in the presence of a (insert awe-struck gasp) New York Publishing Professional. It took a while before I finally realized that these folks are looking for an undiscovered gem to publish and not looking for reasons to reject. And they're just people, with the same variety of personalities as any other group. A lot of 'em you'll like; some of 'em, you won't, but give them the benefit of a doubt. At conferences, they usually find themselves spending their weekend (their only days "off") locked in a poorly-ventilated, windowless room, where they're besieged by a brain-numbing parade of supplicants. You'd get glazed eyes, too.

I attend a large conference about once a year for a number of professional reasons. I always enjoying seeing old friends, my agent, and the nice folks from my publishing house, but I find all the crowds and hubbub exhausting. For an introvert (and that's upwards of 90% of the writers I know), it can be a stressful experience.

But stress is only one cost of attending conferences. Take into account both the financial outlay (which ranges from modest to crazy-nuts-expensive) and the commitment of time, and don't get sucked into the thinking that you "have to" do every conference that comes down the pike. They can motivate you, give you great new ideas and contacts, and help you meet new, like-minded buddies, but they aren't the only road to Oz.

So what are your thoughts on writers' conferences? Love 'em? Hate 'em? Which kind do you prefer?


Joni Rodgers said…
Thanks for that, Colleen. I have to admit I'm a stranger to these conferences. I attended Inprint's one-day "Business of Writing" thing about ten years ago, and I've spoken at a few gigs, but I was one of those obnoxious fly in, yak, fly out people and never got a chance to really experience the big be-in.
I got my first big break at a small conference and its affiliated first chapter contest, but for people who write outside of genre fiction, that's not a common pathway to publication. Still, it recharges my batteries to speak to writers and authors of all stages of their journeys and listen to publishers' reps describe their current wants/needs. I've also learned a lot about what not to do from listening to agents.

Attending conferences can be a reality check, too, as you'll meet both writers who would kill to be where you are and those who look back on where you are with a kind of pitying nostalgia. The nice ones are gracious about it and share both excellent advice and (often hilarious) cautionary stories about the various screw-ups they've survived. The not-so-nice ones become cautionary tales in their own right. ;)
Andrew Beierle said…
I have attended four writers' conferences--Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Napa Valley, and Kenyon Review. Of the four, I found BL the best. NV and KR were good, but short; I didn't develop the friendships I did at the other two, which were 10-12 days long, and the friendships and contacts were the most valuable aspect of the programs for me. Many of the people became--and remain--good friends. I also got to work closely with some absolutely amazing faculty, among them Claire Messud, Alice McDermott, and Randall Kenan. Ms. McDermott offered me the single most important piece of advice about my then novel-in-progress.
The friendships forged are a huge part of the draw for me, Andrew. Thanks for stopping by to share!

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