A Beginner's Guide to Writing Conferences

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Ever since I attended my first writing conference back in 2009, I've been a conference junkie. I attend at least one, sometimes two, a year. I just can't get enough! If you've never been to a writing conference before but are thinking about attending one, this post's for you.

Why Attend a Writing Conference?

Networking

My favorite part of conferences is the opportunity to spend time with other writers. Writing is solitary by nature, so it's nice to step away from your laptop for a couple of days and hang out with other writers who just get what you're doing--whether you're brand new to writing, already published, or somewhere in between. There are other ways to make these connections, of course. Social Media is great for that. But it's especially nice to chat face-to-face. As a bonus, if you go to a conference on a particular genre or category (for example, my favorite, The Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)) you can interact with other writers who write the same kinds of stories as you, which only increases the feeling of camaraderie.

Conferences are also great places to meet agents and editors, and get a sense of whether you'd like to work with them if given the chance. When putting together my agent list before querying my first manuscript, I included several agents I'd met or heard speak at conferences, because I liked what they had to say and could tell I'd work well with them. At some conferences, you can pitch to agents or editors, or receive feedback on manuscript pages. As a bonus, most agents and editors invite attendees to submit to them (using a specific email subject line) for a period of time after the conference ends, which increases the chances of your manuscript getting noticed within the slush pile.

Inspiration & Knowledge

Real talk: writing is hard. It takes a lot of work and it can be easy to get discouraged on difficult writing days, or in the midst of rejection. Conferences provide much-needed inspiration. I’ve gotten the chance to see many authors I admire speak at conferences: Laurie Halse Anderson, Sara Zarr, Kate DiCamillo, R.L. Stine, and Libba Bray, to name a few. It’s impossible to hear these amazing authors speak and not feel invigorated and motivated. Having these inspirational boosts once or twice a year is really helpful and I’m always excited to get back to writing after a conference.

Conferences are also great for learning about the craft of writing and the publishing industry. Breakout sessions can be very specific--I've attended sessions on writing from personal experience, first pages, and on how to use Scrivener, among many others. It's true that a lot (if not all) of what's discussed at conferences is available online and in books, but the interactive classroom setting can bring your learning to another level.

Preparing for a Conference

Plan Ahead

Conferences can be pricey, especially if you have to travel a long distance to attend. Besides the conference tuition, there are travel and hotel costs, and agent/editor critiques are usually an extra fee as well. Plan your conferences early so you can save up. Also, many conferences have early bird rates, so make sure you register in time to take advantage of them. Conferences associated with writing organizations (like SCBWI, RWA, etc.) usually offer discounts to members. It might be worth paying the membership fee before registering for the conference to receive those benefits. Finally, planning early gives you the chance to connect with other attendees beforehand--you can start by using the conference Twitter hashtag to find other attendees online.

Be Strategic When Choosing your Agenda

Think about what you want out of the conference before selecting which workshops to attend. If you're an aspiring author who wants to make your manuscript shine, pick craft-based workshops. If you're already published, you might want to attend sessions on marketing yourself or building your brand. Seeing a list of workshop options can be overwhelming, but if you think about what you want to accomplish at the conference, it will make the selection process much easier.

Once you've selected your agenda, make sure you're prepared. If you've signed up for a manuscript critique, your book needs to be polished beforehand. If the conference includes pitching sessions, you’ll want to research the literary agents you’re pitching and practice ahead of time. Give yourself enough time to work on these things.

Bring Supplies

Carry a notebook. Extra pens. Glasses, if you need them. Don’t let your lack of supplies prevent you from gathering notes. Even if you aren’t typically a note-taker, I still suggest jotting things down. The pros are presenting to you. That kind of in-person exposure isn’t available everyday!

Also, bring business cards. Most likely, an agent or editor at a conference won’t take your card but they’re great for handing out to other writers so you can stay in touch. The basic information you need on a card is your name, title (writer), and contact info (website, email address, twitter handle, etc.) 

Finally, have a pitch for your manuscript memorized. If you end up mingling with an agent and he or she asks what you working on, you want to have something to say. This does NOT mean that you should bother an agent with your pitch in the elevator or bathroom line!

Picking a Conference

There are so many writing conferences to choose from (all over the world!) so it's impossible for me to list them all here. But here are a few popular options to get you started:

Also be sure to check out WriteOnCon, a FREE online conference that happens every summer, usually in August. Stay tuned to their website for announcements about this year's conference. Even though it's online, many agents, editors, and published authors participate so it's worth checking out. They also have a fantastic forum where you can get feedback on your query or manuscript pages, and have the chance to get requests from agents.

Whew! I've shared a ton of information on conferences but I hope you've found it helpful. If you're on the fence about attending a conference, I hope I've convinced you to try one! 

Have you attended a writing conference? Which are your favorites? If you have any other tips to share, please do so in the comments!