Do You Need to Attend Writers' Conferences?

I'm starting to pull my old columns from the INkwell Newswatch archives. I hope to post updated versions here for the next few months.

This is from June 2007, in response to lots of questions I was getting about the necessity of attending conferences...Anne

Writers’ Conferences: the INside Scoop

by Anne R. Allen

Writers’ Conference season is upon us, and wordsmiths everywhere are packing up laptops and manuscripts to journey to those idyllic retreats where they can polish their craft, learn the latest publishing trends, and hang with successful authors, agents and publishers—for a hefty fee. At some of the bigger conferences they’ll even get a chance to book a personal pitch session with an agent—usually for yet another fee.

Should you be joining them? Are conferences a shortcut to publishing success?

Most agents do recommend them. Many suggest attending a conference or two before even sending a query. Advice to attend conferences also features in an increasing number of rejection letters. I’ve received several myself recently, urging me to “learn about the publishing business by attending a writers’ conference.”

I personally find these a little annoying, since the novel being rejected is a satire of writers’ conferences and I state in my query that I have attended nearly a dozen.

But those dozen were worthwhile, for the most part, and I’d recommend them to other aspiring writers. However, the conferences did NOT land me an agent or publisher.

Most agents will admit they don’t discover many new clients through conference “pitch” sessions (especially when the pitch comes from the next stall in the ladies’ room. Don’t do this.)

What I got out of my experiences was solid instruction in the basics of the industry. I also received some painful reality checks and a couple of ego boosts. But for me, the major benefit was networking with fellow writers. A random sampling of writing blogs suggests that’s the general experience. Ours is a lonely profession. Connecting with others of our species keeps us grounded.

If you’re thinking about attending a conference, choose carefully. Some of the best known are more like fantasy camps for Scott and Zelda wannabes than training grounds for professional writers.

I’ve heard it’s cleaned up its act, but the oldest and most revered conference, Vermont’s Bread Loaf—which rejects 78% of applicants—is also known as “Bed Loaf” for a reason. In a famous 2001 article for the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead said, “The triple compulsions of Bread Loaf have, traditionally, been getting published, getting drunk, and getting laid.”

Unless you’re looking for a party-hearty getaway or an excuse for an exotic vacation, avoid big-name conferences and start small. The most cost-effective are weekend conferences offered at many colleges and universities. You may even find one close enough to home that you don’t have to pay for lodging.

Most writers I know get more out of conferences that concentrate on their specific genre—not the national award-centered extravaganzas—but smaller workshops sponsored by regional organizations. Local chapters of RWA, MWA, SFWA and others offer shorter conferences such as the Central Ohio conference for children’s writers, or the Hot Springs “Criminal Pursuits” mystery writers’ conference. Check the Shaw Guides for a comprehensive list. My own personal favorite is the Cuesta College Writing conference in San Luis Obispo. Only a day and a half long, it gives major bang for your buck.

If you decide to go, here are some tips:

Don’t dress to impress. 

At one conference I attended, a woman came dressed as a tree. Shedding real leaves. Don’t do this. Also, dressing as one of your characters WILL get you noticed, but not in a good way.) Wear neat but comfortable clothing. The days will be long and intense. A distinctive scarf, hat, or jacket you can wear each day will help people remember you.

Don’t pitch your project to agents or editors unless you’re in a specified pitch session. 

If you get a chance to talk with them, ask how they’re enjoying the conference, or what books they read for fun. It will give you great material for your query letter.

Don’t take criticism personally. 

If your conference involves critiques, the assumption will be that you want to know where your work might need improvement. As with any criticism, consider the source.

Do go to learn, not make a splash. 

The accolades will come when you perfect that book and get into print.

Do take along some protein bars and energy drinks or water. 

Your breaks may be too short to grab real food.

Do remember agents and editors are people too. 

As the late great Miss Snark said “It’s like visiting the reptile house. They're as afraid of you as you are of them. Honest.”

So do you have to go to conferences to get published?

No. All the information they provide is available from books, blogs and agent websites. If your time and/or funds are limited, stay home and write the *%#@ book.