Tuesday, April 21, 2009

To Conference or Not to Conference

The Writers Conference beckons, a seductive voice calling your name, the whispers of fame and fortune and fearless agents tantalizing your ego. Your entire body arches toward it, drawn as if by the radiant sun. But you hesitate. Torn, you ask: Is it really for you? Are you ready yet? Is it worth the time, money, energy, and steel-toed boots crunching your soul down?

I can't answer those questions for you. But I can tell you the thoughts that wandered through my head as I packed up my things last summer, ready to head home after a 3-day writers conference in Seattle, Washington.

The Cons:

1. It is expensive. The Pacific Northwest Writers Association holds a conference that costs $395 for members. Plus hotel. Plus most meals. Plus airfare or gas or train ticket.

2. The sessions are good but not "blow your socks off" good. Who knows: perhaps I'm jaded since I attend so many conferences for my profession. Regardless, I walked away from some sessions with excellent information, and I sat through some where I was working hard to find that something.

3. It's daunting & nerve-wracking. Agents and writers, editors and hopefuls litter the floor, halls, and banquet rooms. In mass quantities. You never know when you're going to be cloistered in the elevator with an agent. (Yes, it really does happen.) And you never know when you're going to be flattened by a more aggressive hopeful. (That doesn't happen so much. Honestly. People are generally kind and helpful. Thankfully.)

And honestly? I walked away thinking, "I'm glad I attended, but I'm not sure it was worth it." I'll go home and huddle in my hermitage now, thank you.

It wasn't until a couple of weeks eased by that I realized the wealth of experience I had walked away with. Because of those sessions, because of those talks with agents and editors, because of those budding relationships I made with other writers, I now knew what questions to ask. I knew what to research. I knew how much my pitch totally sucked. But even better, I knew how to fix it.

So, my advice? Follow your heart, of course. But after that, do attend one. At least one. There is no one single event in the Writers Conference that makes it worthy or valid or perfect. (Unless, of course, agents mud-wrestle for you, but that's another story.) The synergy, on the other hand, is overwhelming and the lessons last a lifetime.

For those of you who have attended conferences, did you have similar experiences? nightmares? joyous accounts? Which conferences were the "best" in your opinion? the "worst"?


  1. So, I haven't yet attended a conference, but I'm signed up for one called Sirens which is taking place in Vail CO in October. It's the first year for the conference, so I'll be 'getting in on the ground floor' if it turns out to be a success and something that will become an annual event. There are some great authors lined up as guests of honor and I'm excited as hell to be going.
    That said, I'm also scared as hell about what might or might not happen, who I might or might not meet, and the impression that I might or might not make on people.

    For me, the hardest part of being a struggling writer isn't rejection or bad feedback (when I get any feedback at all) it's meeting people. I have zero concept as to how I come across, and while I'm learning, I can only be who I am, which is the biggest advice I could give to anyone attending a conference. Be who you are, assuming that you aren't a rabid sociopath with homicidal tendencies... There's a fine line between 'cleaning your act up' and 'polishing your public face' and destroying the person you are in an attempt to woo publishers and agents. I'm dancing that line, but in confusion more than anything else, and no one but you can know when the line gets crossed.

    While I think (and hope) that conferences can offer up an abundance of learning experiences and doorways to possible success, I also think, especially for those of us desperately pining for the 'next step' in our writing careers, conferences can be a danger zone if you don't have firm ties to your true 'self'. So latch onto whatever it is that makes you, you, people! And then head out to learn whatever bits of knowledge you can glean from those you meet in elevators, or on escalators, or in the next bathroom stall when they discover that they're out of toilet paper... :D

  2. I've attended two conferences, one incredibly large, and one very small one. The first, BookExpo, which at the time was in Washington D.C. felt more like a circus. I attended the workshops. One of them was a pair of agents who seemed to be able to deliver every single platitude ever come up. "Reach for the stars, but keep your feet on the ground." Casey Kasem, right? Well...you get the point. I also attended a pitch session, which allowed me to send a partial to an agent. She remembered me from the conference, plucked my partial out of the slush pile, and gave me an honest, personal rejection, which helped me.

    The other conference was at Seton Hill University, where I got my Master's. Very small, two agents, five workshops. All very personal, and by far the best retreat I've ever been too. I was able, once again, to get an agent personally remove my query/partial out of the slush pile and give me a clear explanation as to why it didn't work for her.

    So, overall...big conferences, meh. local/small conferences. Most definitely.

  3. If they are not too expensive, or too big, by all means, GO. I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference in 06 and 07 and found it to be educational. As Alex said, it wasn't that I could put my finger on any one thing and said I learned this. It was more hearing how other writers had done it, and learning from them. It was listening to agents and sucking up every shred of information possible.

    When I went in 06, I thought "I'm going to get to meet an agent in person and knock their socks off." Well... not so much.

    I did meet them in person, I did find them very personable and helpful, but it didn't help me land one (yet). It still comes down to the book. It's always about the book.

  4. You are killing me here Alex! Especially writing about a conference that is, for all intents and purposes, RIGHT NEXT DOOR!

    But I have two small children, a dog, two felines and a lovely wife who I wish I could spend more time with doing fun things.

    Right now, in the choice between writers' conference and heading to the beach with the fam, the beach wins. In an eye blink, the kids are older. I already miss babies, miss babies bad, like it hurts.

    Someday I will go, but not now.

    If anyone attends the Seattle conference(s), drop me a note! I am even contemplating joining the 600 yard rifle range. Bring your rifle and lots of expensive ammo.

    Alternately, there is booze and coffee. I know of a GREAT coffee shop. Heuh.


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  6. I've been to a handful of conferences, including PNWA. And I just signed up for Seattle's big conference again.

    What I have decided is that when I feel like I am not getting enough out of a conference, when the costs start outweighing the rewards, I will stop spending the money.

    But, for now, the long term rewards have made each conference worthwhile.


    There are unexpected things that happen and there is no way to really know what those great things are going to be until you are at the conference or even until the seeds of possibilities germinate much later. You can't anticipate how things like randomly saying, "Hi" to a person will lead to the development of something like a team blog, but it happens. Adventures in Fiction Writing is a case in point, as you know.

  7. @A.Grey: you are so right. it's really hard to find that balance of public face and delightful self. my room-mate for the event (who is a perfect darling & oh so very personable & sweet) was so out of her element that she hid in the room. she had several other conferences lined up for the summer, but after PNWA, she canceled them all, saying she wasn't ready. She's a brilliant writer and I know she'll make it...but she'll do it in other ways :)

    @Patrick: the very idea that you have such personalized rejections is hugely encouraging. and i bet you get sick & tired of hearing that:D kudos to you, tho. I'm with you, too, on the smaller sized conferences. makes a difference, doesn't it?

    @Douglas: and one can't stress that too much. It's always about the book. Even if you had a nephew as an agent, it'd still come down to the book! It's a beautiful adventure, isn't it?

    @Anthony: Family comes first. You are so right. But it's just a Thurs night - Sun afternoon :) I know people who just came for a day because that's all they could fit in! You have options, you know... Well, to be honest, I'm not planning on going this summer. Keeping to a strict budget this year & all. But if I change my mind, if I win the lottery or come into an unexpected windfall, I'll look you up for coffee. I've been dying to meet your baristas...

    @Dave: like i've said before -- the relationships forged are the most important aspects of this entire writing thing. And I count myself blessed to have not only met you at PNWA but to have struck up a genuine conversation...and to have that discussion develop into friendship. And look where we are today? Team Blog? Who woulda thunk it?

  8. Though I have not attend such a conference before, it is safe for me to infer my conclusion that follow your heart is still the best guide. This conclusion is entirely based on my past experience after attending many of other conferences and courses. It may not true especially for those who have not attended or rarely attended conferences.

    Don't me wrong here, I am not against the idea of attending conferences. What I trying to say is that it is very much depend on what the attendant truly looking for from the conference.

    It is always good to learn from others in regard of their real experiences; the latest trend of the industry; the latest development of the industry. In these instances, attending conference may be the best and effective way of obtaining such first hand information.

    Thanks for reading my humble thoughts on this issue.

  9. @james oh: you are so right. everyone is looking for something different & one man's trash is another's treasure :) glad to see you here!


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