Writing Conferences - Why Go?

by guest blogger Maggie Smith

My name is Maggie Smith and I have a confession: I’m a writing conference junkie.

I love attending seminars, workshops, and gatherings with other writers and I’ve got the lanyards to prove it. I’ve put Fire in my Fiction with Donald Maass. I’ve let Story trump Structure with Steven James. I’ve Written By the Lake in Madison. I’ve gotten myself Unboxed in Salem. I just wrote with Let’s Just Write! An Uncommon Writers Conference (registration will open this Friday!) in Chicago… Well, you get the idea.

What is it I find so addictive about writing conferences? Given the financial cost, time commitment, and ordinary life stuff like kids, husbands, and day jobs, what’s the attraction of carving out a weekend or even an entire five days to mingle with other writers at one of the myriad writing conferences around the country? 

The number one reason for attending a conference is meeting other people in the writing community.  

Writing is not a team sport. You go into a room, close the door and type combinations of words that exist only in your mind. The person you know best is the protagonist you made up. And lately, your family’s eyes have started to glaze over when you talk about your novel, your memoir, or your latest poem. 

It’s refreshing to get off an elevator and be surrounded by people JUST LIKE YOU: people who’ve experienced writer’s block, people who’d had a minor character take over their story, people with a bulging folder of agent rejections. And they’re sitting right beside you in a workshop, or standing in line for a glass of wine, or milling around at the registration desk, and you can meet them, introduce yourself, and that dreaded word, NETWORK (tips on this later).    

Here’s how Della Leavitt, a Chicago-based writer, puts it: “When I attended my first conference five years ago, I’d just started seriously writing so I focused on craft sessions. While those are still incredibly beneficial, I’ve shifted my emphasis. Now I go primarily to meet other writers at all stages of their career and connect in person so I can learn by sharing resources and experiences.”

And it’s not just fellow writers. Keynote speakers and workshop leaders are often published authors who have expertise not only in areas of craft but who can turn into your mentors or your developmental editor as well. In pitch sessions you can meet one-on-one with agents and editors actively seeking new voices. Service providers like web-designers and publicists often have tables at events and meeting them in person can help you decide who to work with.          

The second best reason to go? There’s always more to learn.  

Savvy writers aren’t lazy. They keep up with the publishing industry, from how the Big Five are morphing to trends like podcasts, audio books, and hybrid publishing, to innovative marketing techniques like serial publications, street teams, and virtual book tours. And conferences are one of the best venues for hearing about all this. As last year’s Let's Just Write! keynote speaker Ann Garvin put it, “I believe that being a successful writer means living the writer’s life—going to conferences, meeting other writers, learning about writing and the business of writing. Conferences make me feel successful even when I’m struggling through a draft or feeling uninspired.”

But what if you’re an introvert? What if the idea of meeting new people makes your toes curl? Here are three tips:

  1. Talk only 25% of the time. The rest of the time, LISTEN. Trust me, no writer will turn down an opportunity to talk about their book. If you let them, you’ll be their friend for life. Prepare a set of questions beforehand, like “what kind of writing do you do?” or “What have you liked best so far about the conference?” or “What’s your book about?” And remember, other people are often as nervous as you are. Look for the person sitting or standing alone. Go up and strike up a conversation. 
  2. Ask around to see if anyone you know on Facebook or in your local writing group is also attending. Travel together or meet up at the registration desk.There’s comfort in numbers. 
  3. If possible, book a room at the conference hotel. When you’re overwhelmed, you can retreat there to relax and regroup. 

Finally, remember to do the following before you leave:

  • Prepare your answer to, “What’s your book about?” because, trust me, you WILL be asked. Have a 2-3 sentence response ready and afterwards say, “If that sounds like something you’d be interested in reading I’d be glad to put you on my mailing list.” Get their name!
  • Look over the conference schedule and plan out what sessions fit where you are in your career. If you’re just starting out, concentrate on learning the craft; if you’re feeling blocked or discouraged, pick a motivational session; if you’ve sold your book and you launch in a year, look for workshops on marketing. Consider tracking down the speaker’s email and dropping a note before the conference, saying how much you look forward to meeting them.
  • If you want a manuscript critique or to pitch to an agent, sign up early. Slots fill fast.
  • Consider volunteering to help the organizers; this puts you behind the scenes and is invaluable for networking with the people involved in the association.

Do it! You'll be happy you did. I look forward to meeting you at Let’s Just Write! An Uncommon Writers Conference in March with keynote speakers Elizabeth Berg and Jacqueline Mitchard. Registration will open on November 1st. 

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