When I finally decided to get serious about my writing, I knew I needed some external motivation to keep me going when the days got busy or my story stalled out. Writer’s Digest ran an article about giving yourself deadlines, and one of their suggestions was registering for a writing conference. I did a little research and discovered that my regional chapter of SCBWI hosted an annual conference each September. It was a pretty big deal for me to go. For starters, we had to come up with the money to pay for it. Then, there were logistical concerns. My daughter was very young and my husband’s work schedule was erratic, so I would need to arrange childcare for the weekend. But my family supported the idea, and I registered for the conference.
With all the effort required just to make it happen, I knew I had to make every moment of that conference count, so I spent months prior to the event pouring hours into preparation. My hard work payed off in an inspirational and educational weekend that fueled my writing for the next year.
My third annual conference is coming up in September, so I’m in full preparation mode right now. If you’re considering attending a writing conference or looking to get more out of one, here are my suggestions for squeezing the most out of the experience:
1. Research the speakers.
The short bio that comes in the conference brochure just scratches the surface of who these writers, editors, and agents are. Visit their websites, follow them on Twitter, check out interviews they’ve given. Each of these platforms will round out your understanding of how they approach their work and color how you take the advice they give in their presentations. Does this editor’s blog reveal her to share your worldview and approach to literature? Then her presentation might include more gems that you haven’t considered yet. Did you snooze off while trying to read multiple books by this author? Then you might want to take his presentation on developing tension in your story with a grain of salt. Does this agent detest paranormal romance? Then she might not be the best candidate for your zombie love story pitch.
2. Read the books.
Writers write books. Agents sell books. Editors edit books. What’s the common denominator? The books! So, read them. There’s no better way to discover if a writer knows how to deliver on the skills they’re supposed to be teaching you, if an agent knows how to pick winners, if an editor knows how to develop a manuscript’s potential. The answers to all these questions lie in the books that they write, represent or edit. I’ve always had favorite writers, but when preparing for my first conference, I discovered my favorite agent and editor. I loved nearly every book they represented or edited. In fact, sometimes when I’m looking for a new book to read, I’ll see what they’ve represented or edited and check it out. It’s almost always exactly what I’m looking for. There were other agents and editors at the conference who were also good at their jobs and quite successful, but I suspect they wouldn’t be as good a match for me because I don’t share their same sensibilities. How did I discover this? I read their books.
On another practical note, everyone will use their biggest or most recent books as examples in their presentations, so you’ll get more out of the conference if you’ve read the books in question and know what they’re talking about. And if you get a chance to chat with any of the conference faculty, you’ll have some ready-made topics of conversation.
3. Consider where you are in the writing process.
If you’re just starting the first draft of your first manuscript, you’ll be better served by sessions on craft than those on building your marketing platform. Of course, I ignored this advice for my first conference. I thought I was ready for everything because I wanted to start submitting my work right away. I mean, I had a finished manuscript, didn’t I? Well, no, it turns out my manuscript was nowhere near ready for publication, a fact I realized when preparing for the pitch session with an agent that I—in my exuberance—had signed up for. It’s one thing to realize your work isn’t ready for publication. It’s another to realize it and then still have to go meet with a real, live agent who (gently) tells you that no, this particular story just isn’t for her. I still cringe at the memory and try to comfort myself that surely she won’t remember the encounter by the time I submit a manuscript that is ready—because I really like this agent—and at least I got to practice making a pitch. But seriously, don’t let this happen to you. Ease into the waters. You’ll be less likely to drown.
4. Get the most feedback on your writing that you can.
This principle, though it did lead to my unfortunate pitch session, is generally sound. It’s hard to get professional feedback on your writing, particularly in the early stages of your career, so one-on-one critique sessions, as well as first-pages and query workshops will get you valuable information usually available only in the conference setting. I try to organize my conference schedule around as many of these opportunities as possible. But the key to getting useful information is being open to what they have to say. Don’t focus on defending your work. Be willing to reconsider it from an outside perspective.
5. Talk to people.
This advice includes going to the opening-night dessert party, even if you don’t know anybody. Conferences are about learning, but they are also about connecting with other writers. You don’t just learn from the official faculty. You learn from every encounter you have. Yes, you’re a writer. That probably means you’re an introvert. I am, too. Talk to people anyway. Ask the person sitting next to you in each session what they’re working on right now. Be prepared to tell them what you’re working on, too. You can hibernate behind your computer for the rest of the year. But for three days, talk.
6. Go to everything you can.
When I decide to go to a conference, I go whole hog. I sign up for pre-conference intensives; I enter the contest; I do the optional critique session. Each offering is another opportunity to learn, to get my work in front of professionals, or to improve my writing. You’ve already invested the effort it takes to get there. So, take advantage of every minute.
Writing this post has reinvigorated my conference preparation process. The days are ticking away, and I’ve got lots to do, but I know my prep time with pay off when the conference arrives. What suggestions do you have for getting the most out of a conference experience?