What You Will and Will Not Get Out of a Writers' Conference

Ever wondered if attending a large writers' conference is for you? As I prepare to attend (and present a workshop at) the Romance Writers of America national conference in Orlando, Florida, I've been a little overwhelmed by the logistics of getting myself together for four jam-packed days of events with about 2100 participants from all over the country (and increasingly the world.)

Despite the stress level, I keep going back for...
1. The best craft/research/business-of-writing workshops, bar none. A large conference has its pick of experienced, popular, and well-prepared speakers on a variety of topics. You're never too old a dog to learn (or relearn) new tricks or benefit from someone else's wisdom. I go to however many workshops I can manage, and buy recorded sessions for the rest. Sure, some are going to end up duds, but there's a lot of good stuff in the mix.
2. Fresh-squeezed market information. Every year, I hear about who's buying what, what's trending up, what's fizzling out. This has helped me choose between ideas a little more wisely and save myself a lot of time.
3. Networking with industry pros, authors, and aspiring authors. The best way to wade into networking, a.k.a. schmoozing, is to take - not fake - a genuine interest in the other person. If an author, ask her about her latest book or how she got started writing in that area. If an industry pro, try asking what's the latest project he/she is really excited about repping/acquiring. If an aspirant, ask her to tell her about her work in progress or her reasons for attending. And ask everyone you meet to tell you what books they've been reading and loving of late. Since we're all book peeps, conversation should flow naturally - which is a heck of a lot better that making the other person feel stalked.

If you attend, I'd advise you to meet everyone you can and never snub beginners. For all you know, they'll be next year's publishing world darlings (and everyone remembers kindnesses done.) I make a point of wandering into luncheons late so I'm forced to sit with a table of strangers. Then I do my best to make sure they aren't strangers (at least the ones within earshot, because my hearing in a crowd is a sad remnant of its former glory) by the time the meal is over. Even if you're shy, you can train yourself to do this.

4. Friends. If you're doing #3 right, you'll acquire new friends with every conference. As you catch up in subsequent meets, you'll pick up industry tidbits you will never hear in the official publisher dog and pony shows. And you'll get to meet the coolest people from all over, people who will listen to you crow or weep over your writing/publishing highs and lows, who will support you in the same way you support them in their journey.

Here are a few things you shouldn't count on getting out of a large conference.

1. A vacation. Bwahaha! Conferences and being "onstage" comprise serious work. If you're an introvert like I am (don't faint; I'm not kidding) you'll be tired just thinking about the hordes and exhausted for about a week afterward. With events scheduled from early morning to late, late at night, don't expect to have a lot of time to cavort in the host city, either. If you want to do that, I suggest arriving a day or two early. If you try to do it afterward, I suspect your brain will be cooked.

2. An economical experience that pays for itself in future contracts. You can tell your spouse whatever you like, but... no. Large conferences are generally an expensive proposition. Aside from the conference fee, you'll generally have airfare, hotel, food/drink (not all is part of the package), books you'll pick up, and extraneous things such as a fresh new haircut, shoes, clothing items. I never stay extra days and always have a roommate, but RWA national conferences can easily run me between $1500 and $2K. Other conferences, such as the Mauii Writers Conference (where I'd give my eye teeth to attend) and a number of those taking place in New York City can be even higher. And heaven only knows when or whether your attendance will pay you back in some tangible form.

3. A career. You may or may not score a meeting with an editor/agent, but whether or not you do, pitch sessions are only the teensiest toe in the door. They're great practice in the art of honing the essence of your story to a few marketing-hook-savvy lines, but in reality, they sell nothing. They can only offer you a possible invitation to submit. And frankly, people sell without the in-person pitch session every single day. Besides, with so many people at the conference, you don't stand a great chance of getting an appointment, much less making a big impression. The smaller to mid-sized conferences can by better on that front.

You don't really sell your story. Your story sells your story. To an agent, an editor, and then to readers. So don't sweat the pitch sessions as if they're you're only shot.

That's all I can think of for this evening. If you're going to Orlando, look for me among the 500 authors attending the giant, humongous Readers for Life Booksigning to benefit adult literacy on Wednesday from 5:30-7:30 PM.


Jeanna Thornton said…
wow...that was great advice, Colleen! I need the workshops and I hope to get into some good ones!
Jo Anne said…
Excellent summary, Colleen. I've been to four National conferences, and even though I love them, cost and this year, my health, prohibit them annually. And even though I love to go (and I know most folks who know me won't believe this), I'm somewhat of a recluse. I never meet a stranger, and love the high energy pace, but (like you), I must hide and recoup for a week afterwards. AND, I have to admit that at this point, the best thing I can do for my writing career is put words on the page.

The conferences are amazing - and it's absolutely impossible to do, see, hear, meet, network, and experience everyone and everything one wants to do, see.... So, wear comfortable shoes, go prepared, and enjoy! I'll miss you this year, Colleen. Have a great time!
Vicky said…
Colleen, this is an excellent overview of the RWA national conference. I've attended 9 so far and completely agree with all you've said, particularly about pitching. Put it in perspective. Even if you get a "no," remember this is only one person's preference, not an indictment on your writing.

The best part about nationals is meeting so many other authors. I have friends I see every year. This year I'm looking forward to meeting new Twitter buddies in person. Can't wait!
You're right about the shoes, Jo Anne. I pack along nicer shoes and a pair of what-the-heck shoes to pull out once my dogs are howling! Every year by the second day, I see barefoot lasses walking, their stilletos dangling from their hands.

Wish you were coming. I'll miss rooming with you!

Vicky, for me, catching up with online pals is a huge part of the draw. Along with meeting with my agent and editors, it's the high point of the experience.

Well, except for the Harlequin party, which absolutely rocks!

Can't wait to see you bright and early Wed., Jeanna. You're going to have such a blast.
Pamala Knight said…
Great advice, Colleen. Sadly, I won't be able to make it to RWA nationals this year but I'll bookmark this post for future reference.

Have fun and I'm sure your panel's going to be great.
Thanks, Pamala! And you and Jo Anne can outdo us all this year by keeping your butts in the chair and actually writing! That's the most important thing of all.
Fantastic post, Colleen. Although I've never been to that kind of writing conference, I have been to several academic conferences, and a lot of the same points apply. My last conference, I went, presented and chaired a session, and then locked myself in the hotel room the rest of the time because I was still doing the bibliography for my dissertation! Not the best use of a conference, but even from that, I still made a life-long friend.

But now I'm in the same place JoAnne is--I just need to sit down and finish my work. THEN I can come out and try to sell it! :) I AM considering going to the AWP conference spring 2011, but that's probably about all I'll do for awhile. The self-imposed hermitdom kind of sucks, though.
TJ Bennett said…
Great point, Colleen. I've attended several national conferences and regional conferences, and both have a lot to offer. National conferences are great networking opportunities, a place to meet up with friends you haven't seen for awhile, and a good way to stay up on what is happening in your industry; regional conferences are a good way to meet agents and editors and have the opportunity to pitch and even just chat with them in a less-pressured environment.

If you are like me this year and can't afford RWA Nationals, there are still plenty of wonderful regional conferences going on all year long that will fit the bill. I'm hoping to be able to do one in the fall, myself.


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