Why Go to A Writers Conference? 10 Reflections and 10 Tips to Get the Most out of Your Conference Experience

I kind of have a love-hate relationship with writers' conferences. I've been to some that left me dazed and confused (and considerably poorer) but I've attended others that energized and inspired me.

So are conferences necessary to launch your writing career?

No, but it can be a great way to  learn the basics of the business, network with other writers and industry professionals—and help you make the leap from amateur writer to professional author.

Plus a conference can offer an intensive course in the craft of writing that can be as valuable as a lengthy college class.

But I won't lie to you: it can be an exhausting, draining experience.

That's why I suggest newbies start with a smaller, local conference. They tend to be less expensive and less intimidating than the big national cons, but you can still make vital connections, meet agents, and network with other authors.

For tips on choosing the right conference for you, see our post on Writers Conferences: Are They Relevant in the E-Age? You can research conferences in the Shaw Guides to Writers Conferences.

Our local Central Coast Writers Conference in San Luis Obispo, CA is the type that can be ideal for a new writer. I always enjoy it, and I've made a lot of great connections there. I got to meet my blog idol Nathan Bransford at the CCWC, and Smashwords' brilliant Mark Coker.

I've asked CCWC director Judy Salamacha to give us some insights into the concrete ways the writers' conference experience can help an aspiring writer succeed. Judy is a long-time journalist and an industry professional who's savvy enough to fill her conferences with cutting-edge publishing stars like Nathan and Mark Coker—and this year, Joel Friedlander—so she knows the business.

But until recently, she'd never published a book-length work herself.

In April 2013 she and her co-author, Sandra Mittelsteadt, published a book of local California history, Colonel Baker's Field – about the history of Bakersfield, CA—with Bear State Books. Judy got to find out what it's like to be one of those authors she's been shepherding at the CCWC for all those conferences.

She had a lot of "a-ha" moments when the shoe was on the other foot, so I asked if she could share them here. Writers' conferences are a great place to educate yourself about our complex and rapidly-changing industry. I'm not teaching this year, but I know the CCWC will be great!

10 Things I've learned from Writers' Conferences
by Judy Salamacha 

#1 – Writing is hard work, but the journey is worth it. 

Why make the journey?

I think the answer could be as simple as "writers write." We’re here to tell the story…chronicle an era…please our readers...please ourselves.

But what I really believe is writers keep writing to feel the narcotic joy of the writing process—going to those out-of-body moments when the muse darts words from brain to fingertips to page or screen.

Publication is a bonus: a confirmation that someone wants to read what we have written.

#2 – Publishing has changed and now is the best time for writers to become authors. 

Publishing has produced its own story arc during the four years of my involvement with the CCWC.

The first year, we heard we had to get a traditional publisher.

The next, we were advised to go for it and self-publish because self-publishing was the new pathway to get noticed by a traditional publisher.

Meanwhile, agents realized change is here to stay, so they are offering new services that today’s writers need. (For more on agent-assisted publishing , see Porter Anderson's series  at Publishing Perspectives...Anne)

Now we see there are many different paths open to writers—more than ever before.

#3 – If the goal is to publish, then pitch until you find your niche.

Attending a conference allows writers to meet editors, agents and publishers face-to-face. If nothing else, writers are kept informed about the new rules of the game.

I’m convinced the safest forum to get genuine feedback for the least investment is at a conference.
The more we put ourselves and concepts out there, the better the chances are that we’ll stumble upon that unique new story or a way to freshen an old one.

Conferences provide the inspiration and confidence so you can combine an idea with your personal voice and style and make your project ready to seek publication.

#4 – Write the first draft before editing and don't get lost in the research.

Once you have your outline, follow it and plow through until the end.

It was so easy to get lost in the vast amount of material about California in the 1800s, and it was also easy to go back and re-read and re-write each time I sat down to focus on the story.

Not only did we research and edit too soon, we let life and tangents take over. We'd have saved a lot of effort if we'd had a solid draft the first time.

#5 – Maybe your first idea won’t be one that gets published. 

We changed the direction of the book a couple of times, learning from feedback we got at conferences.

The first change was for a great reason. We had the chance to collaborate with the great-great grandson of a character in our story. Here was an entirely new direction: a biography.

We wrote a new draft and submitted it for a manuscript critique and signed up to have our first page reviewed by the editors at the conference.

With kindness and finesse, our new concept was rejected.

So…we bought a book by one of the editors, Jordan Rosenfeld's Make a Scene. It helped us organize our format so we were back to writing a product that fit our style.

#6 – Don't self-publish a book before its time. 

We self-published, thinking we’ll put it out there and discover the issues from our readers…what was I thinking!!...

We didn’t discover a thing from our readers. We were the only buyers.

But two things happened with our aborted effort.

1) An editor let us know the beginning chapter was not where the book needed to start.

2) We found a publisher who took charge to get us in print—the right way this time.

A conference can help you find an editor, agent or publisher who will help you avoid these pitfalls.

Best to listen! Query, pitch, manuscript critique opportunities are all available to help get you there. And agents are now creating opportunities within their agencies to help those who want to self-publish. Second time around, I’d go there.

#7 – Your friends are not editors. 

Find a critique group in person or online, at a conference, or a privately conducted workshop like the one I attended with Catherine Ryan Hyde. (Catherine and I will be offering a series of webinars soon, so even if you don't live in CA, you can benefit from her expertise...Anne.) 

Look for someone who appreciates your concept, genre, and talent and will enhance your creativity rather than change your vision for your story or style as a writer.

#8 – Shout-out your triumph. 

Once the book is written you still need to find the readers. We got lucky. Our book has a regional niche and is the only biography about Bakersfield’s namesake currently in print.

So when our publisher asked for a review from the local newspaper, it started the ball rolling for other media opportunities and group presentations.

We partnered with libraries and independent book stores who were interested in regional books. By giving a couple of copies to the library, we also received an offer to do presentations for their local author’s programs. Once we had one presentation that motivated readers to buy, we fine-tuned our presentation and made ourselves available for future presentations and book signings.

#9 – Building platform makes sense. 

Finding your readers before your book is finished through social media? What a concept!

What are the benefits for writers to use Facebook, Twitter, Blogging? Now I get it!

#10 – Enjoy the journey and thank those who have helped along the way. 

Thank you, Anne R. Allen and Ruth Harris, for trusting I might have a “take-away” insight for your mega-reader blog base.

Even if you aren’t ready to publish, test out your manuscript and hang out with writers who want to be authors and authors who want to learn to be better writers. Who knows, you might even meet your editor, agent and publisher at the conference.

And I hope some of your readers can visit beautiful San Luis Obispo on September 20-21 and attend the 29th Central Coast Writers Conference.

And if you do go, here are some tips from Anne...

Anne's 10 Do's and Don'ts to Help You Get the Most Out of Your Conference Experience

1) DON’T dress up. Wear neat but comfy clothes. The days will be long and intense. It helps to wear something distinctive: a scarf, hat, or jacket every day that will help people remember you.

2) DO Google the presenters and learn as much about them as you can so you'll have good subjects for conversation if you have a chance to chat.  (Don't pitch your project unless you’re in a specified pitch session!)  But it's smart to offer to get a presenter a cup of coffee or ask how she’s enjoying the conference.  It will give you great material for your query letter.

3) DON’T expect to get representation at a conference. It does happen in rare cases, but it won't 99.9% of the time as agent Sarah LaPolla said in a great post last week. 

4) DO get business cards printed if you don't have any yet. They are essential for networking. Something that can be helpful—if requested—is what’s called a “one sheet”. It’s mostly a convention in the Christian book world, but it’s useful for any kind of book gathering. It’s a printed page with your photo, bio, contact info and a short pitch for your book including word count, genre, target audience and short synopsis.  Here's the skinny on one-sheets from the agents at Books & Such.

5) DON’T cart around all 800 pages of your magnum opus and try to thrust it upon faculty members. If you're attending a hands-on critique session workshop—bring a first chapter, story, or a few poems.  (Full disclosure: I schlepped my own first novel around a writers' conference for a whole weekend before I realized nobody else had one.)

6) DO perfect your pitch beforehand, so you can tell an agent or editor in three sentences what your book is about. (See my post on “Hooks Loglines and Pitches.”) Then ask if you can query (if your book is complete.) If she says yes, you can put “REQUESTED” in the email header. A big plus.

7) DON’T neglect your health. Carry some protein bars and water and maybe an energy drink. Your breaks may be too short to grab real food. If you're feeling overwhelmed, don’t feel you have to attend every session.

8) DO take a notebook and several pens as well as your laptop or tablet—wifi can be iffy and batteries die.

9) DON’T forget to have fun. You’re there to make friends as well as learn. Skip a class and hang out with some other writers. Go to the bar. As Chuck Wendig says, that's where the writers are. These connections will probably be the most important thing you take away from the conference.

10) 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.”

For more great tips on Writers conferences, check out Meghan Ward's tips at Writerland.           

What about you, scriveners? Have you ever been to a conference? Was is a good experience? What conferences would you recommend to a new writer? Is there one you're longing to get to someday?

Colonel Baker's Field by Judy Salamacha and Sandra Mittelsteadt is available 
from Bear State Books

You can find more about the Central Coast Writers Conference at the Cuesta College Website.


1) Self-Publish your book for FREE! BookBaby is offering their basic book publishing package free if you get their coupon here this week. This is an amazing deal. You get basic formatting and distribution on all formats, for Amazon, B&N, iTunes, Kobo and many, many more. Just make sure your ms. is perfect. Making corrections will cost you. Deadline August 15th.

2) Cash prizes for memoir. Poetry or prose. NO entry fee. Memoir Journal A prize of $500 and publication in Memoir Journal is given twice yearly for a memoir in the form of a poem or an essay. The editors will judge. Using the online submission system, submit up to five poems or up to 10,000 words of prose. Visit the website for complete guidelines. Deadline August 16th.

3) Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards. Since most short fiction contests tend to favor literary work, this is a great one for genre authors. Choose your favorite genre and enter your best in 4,000 words or less. Six first prizes of $500 each and a Grand Prize of $2,500 and a trip to the 2013 Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. Deadline, Sept 16th

4) FAMILY CIRCLE FICTION CONTEST NO ENTRY FEE  Submit an original fictional story of no more than 2,500 words. Three (3) Entries per person and per household throughout the Contest Period. Grand Prize: A prize package including $1,000; a gift certificate to one Mediabistro online course of winner's choice, one year Mediabistro AvantGuild membership; and a one year Mediabistro Freelance Marketplace membership. Second Place Prize: $500; one year Mediabistro AvantGuild membership; and a one year Mediabistro Freelance Marketplace membership. Third Place Prize: $250; and a one year Mediabistro AvantGuild membership. Deadline September 16th.

5) The Harper's Bazaar UK Short Story Prize is open to all writers. NO ENTRY FEE. Are you the next Dorothy Parker or Anita Loos? Submit an original short story (up to 3,000 words) on the subject of 'spring' to: shortstory@harpersbazaar.co.uk. The winning entry will appear in the May 2014 issue. Its author will be able to choose a first-edition book from Asprey's Fine and Rare Books Department to the value of £3,000 and enjoy a week-long retreat at Eilean Shona House, on the 2,000-acre private island off the west coast of Scotland where JM Barrie wrote his screenplay for Peter Pan. Deadline December 13th.

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