What I Learned from Attending Writers' Conferences

Publish date:

Before teaming up with a new publisher to release both my poetry compilation ATL Fire and California travel memoir Golden State Misadventures over one quarter of a year in 2015, I frequented writers' conferences and grew from those experiences.


Column by Han Vanceauthor of memoir GOLDEN STATE MISADVENTURES
(August 2015, Silver Stone Press). His book chronicles the soul-searching
quest of a man on an extensive summer journey throughout California. 
These tales from the road are reported with vivid depictions of the cities
and land, and interesting aspects of the culture of the American people. 
Vance is an Atlanta-based writer (author-journalist-poet-blogger) and
branded as an American culture reporter. He is also the author of ATL
FIRE, a collection of poetry. Connect with him on Twitter

1. Quantum Leaps: Your first or first few writers' conferences may be your best because you can experience such an astounding growth of industry knowledge.

I live in Atlanta and first attended the nearby Harriette Austin Writers' Conference in Athens, Georgia twice in annual visits. A longtime reputable teacher and advocate for writers, Harriette Austin has since retired, but before she left the workforce she hosted these conferences every summer for around twenty years.

Excited to be back in my college town, I showed up at my first conference thinking of my memoir-in-creation as a nonfiction book (a common and quite sensible thought for a newbie—it is a true story, after all). So, I set up a review with an elderly agent who only represented nonfiction and was looking for the next great cookbook or guide to carpentry. Memoir is represented and marketed similarly to a novel, I found out. One of many lessons learned.

It was there at my first conference where I met a cool person who would later become my editor and remains a colleague in the industry and good friend. There where I gained the most awareness from dutifully attending all the sessions. There where I ran into a housemate from my freshman year of college who had worked as a professional science fiction writer since I had last seen him. It was fun. Years before I had anything completed, I suddenly felt more like a writer in full.

(What are the BEST writers' conferences to attend?)

2. On a Path: The conference may constitute a major fork in the road or your big breakthrough, but only one thing is certain: you are there for a reason.

The next year in Athens, I submitted a chunk of the memoir to a more appropriate and therefore helpful party, and I was fortunate enough to have my first ever poetry submission win the grand prize for its category, which allowed me the opportunity to headline that evening's public poetry performance at the massive Georgia Center. I even met a beautiful female writer, and we dated. I was astounded by it all, especially receiving the award (and $500 prize money).

It galvanized me to become a more prolific poet, pushing me toward eventual poetry book publication and bigger public performances. I've read multiple times in Missouri, Florida, and Georgia subsequently and once read at an art and poetry gallery on the Big Island of Hawaii. Poetry has enriched my life immensely, as has my more commercial non-poetry project. Without those early writers' conferences, my path may have been quite different. You came to the conference to live more fully.

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3. The Social Network: Those you meet could enrich your professional life.

I'm naturally an outgoing person and developed social skills in previous work and school situations. After my first couple conferences, I realized I had a good handle on working the lobby, so I queried a contact I had made at a Writer's Digest sub-brand about writing an article on networking and had it accepted. While I was already doing some blogging at the time and had a solid readership, an acceptance by a major professional outlet empowered me to take the steps to become a widely published journalist for local and national outlets in print and online.

When I have an industry question or want a fellow writer to talk to, I often reach out to folks I first met at writers' conferences in Athens, San Francisco, LA, or New York. These people are generally thoughtful and will always have something in common with you. Lawyers hang with lawyers, right? Writers should know writers.

(Attending a writers' conference soon? Learn how to prepare.)

4. Pitching's Dual Purpose: Pitching perfect is plainly impossible, but throwing some strikes increases your chances to win. Learning itself is actually winning, too.

So you were saying you want to be the next Elizabeth Gilbert? Sounds easy enough, but our industry is actually one of the toughest to crack into successfully.

Writer's Digest's Annual Conference offers a pitch prep session which I highly recommend, but whether you can make it to that session or not, please do your homework. Have an idea what you want to say and research the agents you plan to pitch. Then, you may want to vary it up a little each time based on individual agent and what is and is not working. A win is when they let you send a piece of the manuscript later; ask them exactly what they would like to receive, as this too varies per agent. A no thank you should be absorbed quickly and move on. This is not a loss but rather a time saver.

You are looking for the right fit for your book, and I would not worry too much about any perceived negative feedback. Instead, consider all as constructive criticism and take time after to review how it can benefit you. Many of them really know what they are talking about and any agent contact may help by giving good advice. It is all about you finding your audience, ultimately. The agents are just looking for a marketable product they can sell on percentage, and from my experience the advice they will give you may contain drastic contradictions from one agent to the next. The sign marks to improvement do exist within their language, though. Listen and learn and ask as many questions as you can. Until a book goes into print it is in evolution, as your career is in evolution. While you may have your complete manuscript accepted as is and it go on to be a bestseller, you are most likely here to learn from the pitching process. Thinking of it as an educational experience takes the pressure off somewhat and makes it more fun. Now go sell.


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