Getting the Most Out of Writing Conferences
I recently attended the "Writing Day Workshop" in Tampa, FL, one of several writing events I've gone to in recent years. Other events have included the annual conference put on by the Historical Novel Society; Bouchercon (mostly thriller and mystery writers); and a workshop put on by the Orlando Public Library.
I absolutely LOVE writing conferences and workshops. I nearly always walk away with renewed creative energy and a notebook full of ideas, and I've also enjoyed pitching to agents at these types of events.
Thinking about signing up for your first writing conference? Or, have you gone to a couple and you're disappointed with how they've turned out? Read on for my tips about getting the most out of writing conferences and workshops, as well as a few resources to get started.
In my own experience, when it comes to writing events, you get what you pay for. I've gone to a couple of free events and a couple of paid events, and the quality of the latter is significantly higher.
By quality, I'm referring to the speakers; the programming; the availability of agents taking pitches; and what I'll call the "social & swag." I cover each of these in greater detail below.
I would suggest waiting until the conference organizers have posted the schedule of speakers and the program before registering for any writing event. It's easy to get excited about an upcoming conference—perhaps it's close to where you live, or you're sure that this event will be *the one* to spark your new book idea—but I can assure you that until you've seen the planned schedule, you have no idea whether this conference will benefit or hinder you.
Remember, opportunity cost. When I'm tempted by cheap, local conferences, I have to ask myself: would that Saturday be better-spent with my hands on the keyboard, plugging away at my WIP? Or, is there a session at this conference that truly meets my current needs and interests and will benefit me long-term?
Speakers & Programming: What am I looking for?
This depends on where you're at in your writing career. Let's look at a couple of examples.
Free or highly-discounted conferences often include beginner-level sessions. And when I began writing, this was exactly what I needed! For example, these were the types of sessions that might have appealed to me:
Keep Your Reader at the Edge of their Seat: Intro to Writing Suspense and Thrillers
Worldbuilding 101: Setting and Specificity in Fiction
Parallel Narratives in Historical Fiction: How to Structure a Dual-Timeline Novel
But as I've grown as a writer, I'm now looking for sessions that are more technical and complex, or sessions in which industry professionals express their thoughts and interests. For example:
Sub-plots: Develop and Maintain Secondary Conflict in Fiction
Seamless Transitions: Maintaining Pace Along a Story's Path
Agents Speak Out: Hot Trends in Women's Fiction
Before you start scoping out conferences, know your objectives and the level of intensity you want in your sessions. Keep in mind that many conferences offer beginner and advanced sessions. Win-win!
Take a few minutes to google the speakers putting on these sessions. If conference organizers can bring in top-notch authors and industry pros (like agents & editors) from around the country, that's a great sign. Pay close attention to subject matter experts, too: if you write medical thrillers, a leading neurosurgeon presenting on botched surgeries may make for great research!
Pro Tip: Volunteer!
Volunteering is a valuable yet often overlooked opportunity. There is no better way to break the ice with attendees and industry professionals, as well as get "inside deets" on conference happenings and the who's-who. Every single conference I've attended has gladly accepted volunteers, so don't miss the chance to sign up.
The other great thing about volunteering? Perks. Think ARCs (advance reader copies of books not yet published); free lunches and snacks; and the opportunity to arrive early on-site, snag a good seat, and dig into the swag bags.
Okay, so you've carefully chosen your conference, and you're finally on-site. Cue the butterflies and over-caffeination. Now what?
First of all: be advised that it will seem as though everyone else knows each other. There may be a few panicky moments where you're wondering when the hell everyone became BFFs. Don't sweat this! You're not too late to the party. Many authors will know each other because they share agents or publishers, or they might know each other from previous events.
What matters is that you keep your eyes up and a smile on your face; if someone glances your way, say hi. If you see a fellow attendee sitting alone, sit with them. Short on words? Try this: "What brings you to the conference?" or "What do you write?" I met two of my best beta readers at my first-ever writing conference, simply because I saw them sitting alone and decided to strike up a conversation.
Many writers are introverts by nature, but a writing event is the time to stifle that inclination and speak up. Your writing career will benefit, I promise.
If your manuscript is pitch-ready (i.e., polished and ready to send to agents in the next thirty days), then do not miss the chance to pitch to agents at a conference. There are so few opportunities to meet agents in-person, so it's worth every penny (yes, agent pitches do cost extra.)
Your pitch should be a "conversational" version of your query letter: the main character, the conflict, and the stakes. One to two minutes is ideal; even the best pitch will lose steam after a couple of minutes.
I've pitched to four agents in-person. I'm a confident speaker, but even I feel sick to my stomach before these things. It's okay: agents are used to nerves, and they care more about the premise of your story than your sweaty hands. Do your best to memorize your pitch (another reason that shorter = better) and remind yourself that at the end of the day, these are just fellow human beings.
Get a request for materials? Congrats! Send within a week or ten days, if possible.
No request? No sweat. You practiced pitching, and that's a win. Onward.
What to Bring
When attending writing conferences and workshops, the most important things to bring are a notebook, a few pens, and a bag or backpack with plenty of space for conference materials, free books, etc.
To give you some insight into my note-taking routine at conferences, I jot down notes in three separate sections:
Session notes and general knowledge that will serve me in the future. Example: Backstory should be a drip-feed within the action of a scene, not revealed all at once.
Random ideas that come to me about my current WIP while I'm attending a session. Example: Split paragraph about Caroline's childhood in chapter 1 and incorporate into pub scene while she's talking to bartender.
Quick to-do's after the conference is over. Example: Research [author's] agent and send thank-you email to speaker.
Last but not least: bring a book! There's a fair amount of downtime between sessions, and if you're feeling awkward because there's no one to talk to, a book is always a willing companion.
About the Hotel Bar...
What they say is true: lots of really, really good things happen at the hotel bar. And this does not mean you need to have an alcoholic drink. But if you can muster up the courage to approach the bar crowd after the conference sessions have ended for the day, chances are you will come away with some valuable knowledge and new friends.
Case in point: in 2018, at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, FL, I spent my lunch break outside at the hotel bar with a Cuban sandwich and a mojito. There was an empty seat next to me, and I smiled at a nice lady as she approached. I offered her the seat and we chatted non-stop for about half-hour, after which she revealed she was a publicity director at HarperCollins. She handed me her card and asked for my manuscript; a few weeks later, she sent me a list of a dozen agents she worked closely with. Her business card is still on my fridge. How's that for a damn good mojito?
Looking for your next writing conference or workshop? Here are a few places to start.
The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) has a fantastic directory of writing conferences. I check this site every few months for new additions.
Local writing groups: search for writing clubs in your city or state. I'm a member of the Florida Writer's Association, and they host monthly meetings as well as an annual conference.
Genre-specific groups: romance writers, don't miss RWA. Thriller writers, check out Thrillerfest. The list goes on. I'm a member of the Historical Novel Society, and they host a conference every other year in the U.S. (alternate years in the U.K.)
Of course, a good 'ol Google search never hurt anyone, either.