How to Pick a Writing Conference

I’m getting close to finishing up revisions on The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. I’m not sure what the next stage in the editing process will be, but I know it’s going to be time for me to start thinking about promotion.

May I just say…Yikes!

No, actually, I’m looking forward to it. One of my favorite things to do is go to writing conferences, and I love giving workshops. With the book out, I’ll be able to focus those workshops on this soapbox of mine and, hopefully, help other writers find their way into critiquing with supportive, productive groups.

Anyway, as I scan the calendar and sites like http://writing.shawguides.com/, I’m realizing that conference season is starting up again. There just don’t seem to be as many during the winter, and it’s a nice hopeful sign of spring that they’re popping up again. A lot of them. And I started thinking about how we writers–never overflowing with tons of extra time or money–can pick the conference (or conferences) that are the best for us.

light-bulb-brain-teaser

Blog post!

Really, the most important thing you can think about, before deciding where to go, is your goal for the conference. Do you just want to hang out with some writers, take a few good workshops, and–let’s face it–get away for a day or two? These are all fantastic reasons. They’re not necessarily, though, reasons to spend a lot of money or travel a great distance. Smaller, nearby conferences can give you all these things, often with a price tag that lets you…go to another conference!

Are you hoping to learn more about the publishing industry in general? Do you want to hear experts talk about how to get an agent or editor, to find out about promotion and social-networking tools? Are you looking for the best way to focus your writing time and energy? You may want to find a conference that has a larger number of agents and editors as presenters. Check the schedule to see if there will be an agent and/or editor panel, or a panel of published writers discussing their paths. You may have to travel a bit further to this kind of conference, maybe to a middle-sized or large city. If you’re still working within a budget (who isn’t?!), a one-day conference with these kinds of sessions may be best-suited to your needs, rather than one that covers a whole weekend, or several days. You’ll save money not just on the conference, but also on lodging and meals, and–as long as there are presenters talking about the information you need–you’ll increase your knowledge and understanding without decreasing your bank account quite as much.

Is the conference running a contest you want to enter? While a contest-win may or may not help you get published, it’s a great detail to put into a query letter or mention in a pitch. Does the conference offer you the chance to get a critique of your manuscript? This is an opportunity to get some good, straightforward feedback about your work, and it means someone will be reading the first few pages of your book. This is a good thing. 🙂

Is there an agent or editor to whom you want to pitch your book. If you have a “home” in mind for your book, and you want to pitch your project face-to-face, you’ll need to find out which conferences this agent or editor will be attending. Check their website and google their name with “conference.” Again, if you get this focused on a specific conference, you may end up paying a bit more to get there. I have a few caveats to offer about this route. I’m not sure other writers or publishing professionals will agree with these, and they’re based on my gut feelings, not any facts I’ve learned, but think about them as you go about scheduling your conference year.

  • Research that agent or editor really well before you decide to travel across miles, even states, to pitch to them. Of course, you can’t be 100% sure who you want for your book without talking with the person, but don’t go at this casually. If you make the trip and then find out that agent is no longer representing your genre, you’re going to be disappointed. And probably a bit frustrated with yourself.
  • Finish your book. Revise your book. Revise it again. (I could go on!) If that agent or editor requests a partial or full manuscript, you want to be able to walk calmly out of the pitch room, find a quiet place, and do the dance of joy. You don’t want that dance tainted by worries about how fast you can finish the book or about whether it’s really ready to submit.
  • Read through the conference brochure or website to see whether there are other reasons for you to attend, other than the chance to meet this agent or editor. Do you see workshops that look interesting, writers you think you can learn from? If the agent or editor doesn’t accept your pitch, or you decide they’re not a good fit for your project, will you still be able to find something at the conference that makes you glad you went?

I am not sure that pitching directly to an agent or editor increases your chances that they’ll represent or publish your book. I do think the in-person meet may give you higher odds that they’ll ask for a partial to read, but a good query letter may have just as strong a chance of achieving that.

I’m not saying that a trip to meet an agent or editor isn’t the way to go. I’ve done it myself, and I know many stories in which this was the first step to an author’s being represented and published. The excitement and joy those authors experience seems proof that it was the right choice for them, the right path to take. Just don’t push your common sense and judgement aside. Don’t put all your financial or emotional eggs in this one-conference basket. Weigh the options, look fully at the possibilities, and make the decision that your gut says is the best.

Conferences are two things–they’re a pleasure and they’re a tool. This very minute, as we speak, other writers are out there, organizing venues and caterers, choosing hotels and conference centers…all for us! Browse around and give one (or three) a spin. And enjoy yourself!

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21 thoughts on “How to Pick a Writing Conference

  1. Nice article, Becky. Thanks for the tips.

    I’m going to the NJ-SCBWI conference because it’s close and smaller than some of the other SCBWI events, but it still attracts a stellar faculty. I also love first page sessions for their quick, immediate feedback and relatively low cost.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks, Tara! I haven’t done a first-page session before. Is is the agent/editor reading/critiqing your first page right then & there?

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  2. I liked your article. Deciding which conference to attend can be difficult, especially when you live close enough to get into NYC, where there are lots of opportunities.

    I just went to three conferences in two weeks — Murder 203, the Edgars Week Symposium and the Connecticut Fiction Fest. Each had different advantages and I’m glad I went to all three, but I’m totally exhausted. Still.

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  3. So of course I want to know what conferences you’ll choose! I just got the brochure for National SCBWI, which I’ve never been to, cause it’s across the country, and then I thought, oh this is where my daughter lives… maybe combine a visit and conference. I’m considering. Esp if I’ll see friends there.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Oh…I probably won’t go to National yet. I’m hoping to go to our northern california scbwi conference in February. It’s held at this old retreat center on the coast. There’s also an independent bookstore north of SF that does a couple of big summer conferences-one for kids’ writers & one for mystery writers. The LA Sisters in Crime conference is really fun. And of course I’d LOVE to go to NESCBWI!! 🙂

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  4. A lot depends on the writing experience of the person attending. I’ve seen new writers spend money on big conferences assuming their work would get picked up by the editors they meet there when it’s nowhere near ready for publication. Local conferences are a much better way to start because they help people learn the trade.

    Another thing to consider is the genre. There are conferences for religious writers, mystery writers, romance writers, etc. besides the SCBWI ones. Some writing fits more than one category. For example, a person who writes middle grade mysteries could learn a lot from other mystery writers even though editors at that conference probably won’t want books for kids, and if the mystery writers’ conference is close to home it might be a better choice to start with.

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    • beckylevine says:

      You’re right–sometimes the agents and editors at a general conference may not represent the genre someone is writing in. Good point–thanks!

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  5. Great info and insights!

    I attend my local SCBWI fall conference and some of Highlights Foundation Workshops. I love Highlights workshops for the personal attention from editors and the comeraderie with a small group of writers. And for the food!

    This year I’m treating myself to a week long writing retreat there with my editor, Carolyn Yoder. I’d do it every year except I travel too much already! And there is the small matter of money…

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    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks, Joyce. That retreat sounds wonderful. I haven’t looked much at Highlights–distance is a biggie. But I’ve heard other great things about them.

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  6. So timely for me! I just got the LA SCBWI conference flyer in the mail…and I am LONGING to go…but I can’t afford it this year. Here’s hoping I can soon, though!

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  7. Some of the places mentioned have been cons rather than conferences. I love them both.

    My favorites are Mayhem in the Midlands, mystery con that many fans attend. It’s small, only 200 people.

    As for writing conferences, Public Safety Writers Association is my favorite, and it’s really small. 31 writers signed up at this point. We have only one publisher attending, but fantastic speakers on all aspects of writing. http://www.publicsafetywriter.com
    Plenty of opportunity for networking.

    Of course I love Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime, but both are huge and are mystery conventions, not writing conferences.

    Marilyn a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

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    • beckylevine says:

      Marilyn–I hadn’t heard of that conference. It looks great for mystery writers. And from what I’ve heard about the conventions, they’re really fun, too!

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  8. The PSWA conference has been around for a long time. The group used to be called the Police Writers Club and mostly cops who wrote belonged to it. (The let me belong and come to the conferences because I was willing to give talks and was writing mysteries with law enforcement heroes and heroines. They had some problems and reorganized and wanted to embrace other public safety fields and be more open to other writers.

    This year we have two forensic experts speaking, Betty Webb, the award winning mystery writer, and many lesser names serving on panels about characterization etc. The one that sounds like fun is about what things in movies, TV and books drive law enforcement, lawyers, public defenders crazy. (That’s who is making up the panel.)

    The conference doubled in size over the last two years, though still small enough for people to get well acquainted and ask plenty of questions.

    A lower price for registration will expire on May 31.

    Marilyn

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  9. Rebecca Butler says:

    Becky, very useful topic. I just got back from Malice Domestic in DC, a conference high in cozy writers attending, skills-targeted panels, interviews with top-selling authors, and really funny spoofs of classic cozy writers as well as an exciting auction. A few agent/editors like Donald Maass. Yes, it was pricey, but a reward for finishing my manuscript.

    Cheers,
    Rebecca

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    • beckylevine says:

      Rebecca–I hadn’t thought of a conference as a reward, but what a great idea! My friend Terri Thayer was at Malice, too, and it sounded so fun. Congrats on finishing the manuscript, too!

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