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Getting the Most Out of a Writers' Conference

Here are some tips about attending writers' conferences, from former Writer's Digest editor and frequent conference speaker Tom Clark.

As writing "rooms" go, mine isn't bad. Bookcases cordon off a corner of the basement, while cheap carpet and a small heater help make the space livable—or workable, as the case might be. The room's focal point is a roll-top desk—a family heirloom from the moment my wife bought it for me—but my attention is most often focused on the computer that sits just a swivel to the right.

Your writing area may be different in every detail, save one: It's lonely in there. True, we've each sought out our space—perhaps even fended off spouses, children and pets who covet it. But working in it is still solitary confinement.

Which is exactly what a writers' conference is not.

In the listings we've collected here you'll find information on hundreds of gatherings devoted to writing and writers. At each, you'll have the opportunity to meet successful authors, editors and agents and pick up tips that can improve the quality and salability of your manuscripts.

Conference participants dissect the acts of putting words on paper, of selling those words, and of surviving long enough to set down more. Tips are offered, contacts made, questions asked, business cards exchanged, drinks bought, critiques given, gripes aired. For most of us, a writers' conference may represent the most intensive period we will ever spend dealing with our craft.

A writers' conference is no vacation—not even a working one. You may spend an hour nursing a beer in the cocktail lounge watching baseball on the tube, but if the guy on the next stool is an acquisition editor at HarperCollins, you'll only pass a few minutes trading views on what happened to the Mets. Pretty soon you'll be asking if he edits baseball books, and what distinguishes one proposal from another, and what the market might be for a World Series retrospective.

Is a conference for me?
If for everything there is a season, then for every writer there is a conference. (But not necessarily a conference for every season: Most take place between April and September.) No two conferences offer the same experience; each shows the fingerprints of its organizers, its staff and the writers who attend it.

Most conferences are general in nature: Sessions cover—in varying degrees of depth—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, scriptwriting (although less frequently), marketing, the writing business and self-promotion. Speakers are usually experienced writers, with at least one visiting editor or agent somewhere on the program.

Some seminars focus on a particular theme (marketing, perhaps), and a few favor panel discussions over single speakers. Workshops tend to emphasize critique sessions and writing time.

Before you can choose the best conference for you, you must define your expectations. Here are a few goals you might set—with strategies for achieving them.

  • Basic information on writing and selling. You're a beginner in need of straight talk on getting started. Most conferences cover this in some form, but don't trust chance. Contact the organizers—write, call, e-mail or visit their Web site—and request a brochure that previews the conference's offerings; if it doesn't advertise specific sessions that fill your needs, call the organizers and ask if your needs will be met. Beginners may feel less overwhelmed at a smaller, one-day gathering. You'll pick up a tremendous amount of information at any conference, but a multiday affair with hundreds of people may overload the uninitiated.
  • New techniques in your writing specialty. You know the basics, but you're looking for ways to improve. Try a conference that offers writing workshops and one-on-one critique sessions. Look to larger conferences, too; they generally offer talks on more diverse and specialized topics. Again, study promotional brochures to find your best fit.
  • Get an agent or a publisher for your book. These are not realistic goals for a conference—neither agents nor editors make snap judgments at such gatherings. A realistic expectation along these lines is:
  • Meet agents and editors. You have work ready for consideration, but nowhere to send it. You'll have more opportunities at a larger conference that features several editors and agents. You can introduce yourself to them, learn what sorts of material interests them, and perhaps pitch your idea. (Some conferences arrange five- to ten-minute interviews between students and professionals.) Once you return home, you can follow up on the contacts you made. In studying promotional brochures, look for conferences that feature agents and editors active in your area of interest.
  • Swap ideas and leads with other writers. No matter what conference you attend, you can't help but network with other writers. But I've found the atmosphere for such discussions is better at longer conferences. Seek out those that run two or three days. If you can spare the time, try a week-long gathering.

What can I expect?
It borders on the clich to say that no two conferences are alike. Each element that makes up a conference—from the type of group sponsoring it to the number of days (or hours) it lasts, from the structure of the sessions to the experiences of the instructors—influences its character, as well as its content. And what makes a conference good in my opinion may leave you desperate to get back to your writing cell.

To have a successful conference experience, you must first evaluate yourself. How do you best learn? If lectures leave you yawning, you might look for workshops that emphasize in-class writing and critiquing. And why are you attending? If you hope to improve a specific project, you'll want to seek out a conference that has plenty of offerings devoted to that type of writing.

Your next step is to research what's available. Search our database for events in your region. Contact the organizers—send an e-mail, visit their Web site or make use of the US postal service (enclose SASE!)—for detailed information. You'll specifically want to know who will be speaking, what types of writing will be covered (and, if they're known, the specific topics), what instruction formats will be followed, whether critique sessions and interviews can be scheduled, and what accommodations are available.

Study the information you receive. Note which conferences include speakers that intrigue you—authors whose books you've admired, editors of publications you'd like to write for, agents who specialize in your area of interest. And make sure your primary area of writing interest will be covered. If the information is incomplete, call for answers. I've often heard people at conferences say, "I hoped there'd be more on poetry (or romance or essay writing) here." You can avoid such disappointments by doing your research before you sign up.

You're set, now go
There's not much you need to do to prepare for a conference. It can be helpful to take along some samples of your work and a current manuscript (on-the-spot critique sessions aren't uncommon). You should also make a list of your expectations, including any specific questions you hope to have answered.

As you pack your bags, don't forget pencils, pens and notebooks. A tape recorder can be useful (although you should always get a speaker's permission before you start taping). Other items to throw in the bag: aspirin, an alarm clock, extra money for the bookstore, business cards, and a bag to carry all the handouts you'll collect.

After you arrive at the conference, pick up the itinerary and plan your time. Consulting your list of expectations, plot out which sessions you'll want to attend. You might change your mind, but I like to have a plan of action so I'm not frantically trying to decide "where am I going next?" If visiting editors and agents are accepting appointments, now is the best time to sign up.

I'm there—now what?
More important than which conference you choose is how you attend it. I'm not referring to proper attire or table manners (although it never hurts to leave a good impression on the agent across the table). I mean attitude.

The most important quality for a writer attending a conference is openness. A room full of agents, editors, published authors and struggling writers is no place to be a wallflower. Muster your courage and strike up a conversation; chances are the person you're talking to will be just as nervous as you are.

One corollary to this: Put aside any intimidation you might feel in talking to editors and agents. Publishing professionals who don't want to talk to writers don't (or shouldn't) attend conferences. If we're there, it's because we're interested in helping you write better and submit smarter. (Believe me, we aren't there for the money.)

Many conferences arrange mealtime seating so that every table is "staffed" by a speaker. This is a perfect time to ask questions. Other good opportunities include cocktail parties, break times between conference sessions, even the ride on the airport shuttle. Buy an editor or agent lunch, and he'll follow you anywhere.

I'm most impressed when a writer asks a question about a point I made in a talk, or seeks a second opinion on some advice another speaker gave. Or comments on something I've written or edited. It tells me the writer has been paying attention and doesn't just see me as a potential check. Nearly always I'll get around to asking about his or her writing.

Feel free to discuss your work and your ideas. But it's impolite to push a manuscript on the editor or agent. Most people prefer to travel light—which rules out reams of paper. If the editor or agent expresses interest, find out what sort of submission he or she prefers (query, sample chapter, manuscript) and follow up when you return home.

Beyond being willing to interact with others, the successful conference attendee needs to be prepared and be flexible.

Arrive at the conference with paper and pens (lots of both), a folder or bag to hold handouts, comfortable clothing, aspirin, and money for the speakers' books that you'll want but will never get around to buying back home. If you're staying overnight, pack an alarm clock. (Never trust the front desk.) Business cards are handy if you have them, and it doesn't hurt to stash a copy of your clips and latest proposal in your car or suitcase—just in case.

Once you check in, plan your time. Review the schedule and highlight the sessions that promise to fulfill the goals you set way back when. Sign up early for whatever one-on-one sessions are offered.

Now you're ready to be flexible. Should inspiration strike, it's easier to change plans than to formulate a new one every hour and a half. By keeping your original goal in mind, you'll be better prepared to judge those spur-of-the-moment opportunities.

Finally, pace yourself. If this is a one-day affair, do as much as you can; yours is a multiday gathering, don't drain your energy reserves the first day. Try getting away from the conference for a half hour or so, too; even a walk around the parking lot can help you sort out what you still hope to accomplish.

Home again
Once you're safely home in your writing nook, follow up on any contacts you established and organize all the notes you made. You might post your marked-up schedule and name badge to remind yourself of the experience.

Then get to work on the idea that's been kicking around in your brain ever since that first morning session.

From experience, I can promise there will be one.

Visit our Conferences section

Thomas Clark is the former editor of Writer's Digest and a frequent speaker at writers' conferences.

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