Your First Writers Conference:
A Guided Tour

Absolute Blank

By Kristin Baxter

I didn’t get to go to my first writers conference.

In late 2006, I joined Pennwriters, Inc., a Pennsylvania writers group. My reasons for joining were threefold: I wanted to go to their conference, which in most cases is cheaper as a member; I wanted a critique partner who wrote in my genre; and I wanted to network.

I got the critique partner. I’m still working on the networking—breaking into established groups always makes me shy. And the conference? Well, I even submitted the first ten pages of my two young adult novels to the group’s annual writing contest, the results of which are announced at the conference. I was that dead-set on going. As I told my husband, I didn’t hope to actually win (a blatant lie); I wanted the judges’ critiques that came after the contest.

Life doesn’t always agree with our plans, though. In May 2007, when they announced the contest winners at the conference’s Saturday luncheon, I was in my car on I-495, probably having a panic attack as I dealt with D.C.-area traffic for the first time. Somewhere between entering the contest and the actual conference, my husband and I agreed to a temporary move to Virginia for his job. Our moving weekend just happened to coincide with the conference.

I’ll admit I thought of the contest once or twice, on the drive down, but once we got to Virginia everything was so chaotic that I didn’t think of it again until Wednesday. Since we were still without Internet access, I called my mom and helped her access my email. I paced our still furniture-less apartment as she scanned the messages, looking for the right one. You probably didn’t win, I told myself. Don’t expect to win.

“Oh, my God,” Mom said from five hundred miles away. I heard the excitement in her voice, but I couldn’t have guessed what came next. My breath caught in my throat as she read the winners’ list. “‘Novel Beginnings’ Contest: First place, The Malloy Legacy, Kristin Baxter. Third place, Battle of the Hexes, Kristin Baxter.”

It was the first time I ever won anything. And, technically, the second. In retrospect, not attending the conference was probably a boon, since my jumping-screaming-crying reaction may not have made the most professional impression on my peers. It made a lasting impression on the cat, though.

That particular bittersweet experience inspired a singular goal in my mind: I would go to the 2008 conference, and I would take advantage of every second.

So, in May 2008, I drove to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to attend what should’ve been my second writers conference but was really my first. Throughout that weekend, my heart rose in my throat and plummeted to my stomach, I got several serious cases of jelly knees, and I was exhausted to my very marrow and yet utterly unable to sleep.

This is the mark of a good conference.

I listened raptly to a keynote speech by Joyce Carol Oates, one of my favorite writers. I nearly had a heart attack when an editor from Avon read the first two pages of my novel to an editor from Berkley and another from Tor, as well as a room full of writers, and then all three editors critiqued it. I pitched my novel to an editor from HarperCollins and received a request for the full manuscript.

I came away from the weekend inspired and invigorated, and ready for another year of lonely work. I also arrived home brimming with advice for first-timers.

There are several features to consider when choosing a writers conference. Conferences can be prohibitively expensive once you add everything up. This may be the only time this year, or for several years, that you get to gather with other writers of all genres and areas, at all levels of experience, and learn about the one thing that brings you together. You want the event to be worth every last penny.

Here’s how to figure out which conference is right for you, which features are important and which aren’t, and how to take advantage of every second.

Costs

A full conference can cost anywhere from $200 to $1000, and that’s just the base cost. Once you add hotel rates, food, drinks, transportation costs, and extras such as keynote dinners and parties, you’ve shelled out enough for a nice vacation. And if you’re just starting out in this business, you probably aren’t making nearly enough money to nullify the hole this trip will put in your bank account—if you’re making any money from your writing at all.

If you’re not sure whether a conference is right for you, or if you can only invest a limited amount of time and money, some conferences allow a single-day attendance option. If the conference is located within a few hours’ drive, you not only decrease the total cost of the conference, you also eliminate the need for an expensive hotel stay.

A full writers conference, though, is like an investment. You must be confident that you’ll get a return on it, whether it be financial in the long run, or mental and emotional in the short. So the most important consideration is whether it’s worth your money.

Here’s a basic list of what to look for:

  • Location: Is the conference close enough that you won’t go broke paying for gas or plane fares? Does a friend or family member live nearby, providing free accommodations?
  • Classes and seminars: Does the class list pique your interest? Does it strike a good balance, with offerings for both beginners and more advanced writers?
  • Editors and agents in attendance: Will editors from well-known publishing houses or magazines be there? Will agents who represent authors you read and admire be making the trip?
  • Critiques: Does the conference offer in-person critiques of attendees’ work, whether by fellow writers or by publishing professionals?
  • Pitch sessions: Will you have the opportunity to pitch your work to an established editor or agent?
  • Keynote Speaker/Guest of Honor: Is it someone you admire? Someone you’ve been dying to meet?

Classes and Seminars: Striking a Balance

Writers are like snowflakes—no two are exactly alike. Some of them are seasoned pros, and some of them make clichéd comparisons to snowflakes.

In all seriousness, every writer is at a different level of experience and skill, and if they’re steadily working, their level of experience is in constant flux. No conference can possibly cater to every writer in attendance. And even when a conference and the classes attended are chosen with utmost care, every class a writer attends isn’t going to enlighten and inspire. Think of the class offerings, then, in terms of which level of writer they’ll attract. Do most of the classes focus on the basics like manuscript format, or are they geared more toward multi-published authors who need to brush up on copyright law?

Find a conference that offers a balanced selection of both. This both increases your chances of learning as much as possible, and almost guarantees a diverse attendance of writers. I firmly believe that we can learn something from every writer, from the starry-eyed neophyte to the wizened professional, if we keep an open mind.

Do yourself a favor and attend at least one class that seems beyond your current reach. Do yourself a second favor: buy a fellow attendee a drink in the bar. Be brave, and you’ll learn more than you thought possible.

Editors and Agents: New York Comes to Podunk

Most writers, contrary to popular belief, do not live in New York and hobnob with the literary elite every day. We live in the suburbs, in the country, and in the woods, and we spend our evenings at the computer or the kitchen table. For many of us, this is our one chance to connect and network with the people who decide what’s on the bookshelves each season.

To make the trip worth your while, do your research. Go beyond the conference’s guest bios and look up the agents and editors slated to attend on sites like AgentQuery and Preditors and Editors. Are they currently active in publishing? Do they have a solid history of sales or acquisitions? Most importantly, ensure that at least one editor and one agent will be attending that represents or acquires in your genre. A good conference will have a wide variety of publishing professionals with diverse areas of interest. This is especially imperative if you write in multiple genres—or if you haven’t quite settled in a genre yet.

Pitches and Critiques: Get Gutsy

While you could easily pitch your work from home with a well-polished query letter, this may be your only chance to meet one-on-one with a publishing professional. Some might scoff at pitch sessions as a worthless hook used to lure writers in, but they can be more than just an in-person query. Pitch sessions can last anywhere from two to fifteen minutes, and that face time can be valuable if used correctly.

Frequently, when registering for a conference, you can indicate your first and second choices for pitch appointments. I chose to spread mine out—I picked a children’s book editor as well as a fantasy editor, since my novels fall under both headings. Do your research, though; you’ll be wasting your time and the agent’s or editor’s if you pitch something they don’t represent or buy.

Once you’re at the conference, as terrified thoughts of your upcoming pitch dance through your head, try to attend a class led by the agent or editor you’ll be pitching to prior to your appointment. They’ll most likely be discussing your genre of choice, anyway, but this will also give you the opportunity to gauge their personality. Are they personable and lively, or subdued and curt? These cues can help you tailor your pitch to the individual who will be hearing it.

Most advice columns regarding pitch sessions tell readers not to be nervous. This is the most pointless advice I’ve ever heard. You’re risking face-to-face rejection—of course you’re going to be nervous. Better advice would be: Be yourself. Remember the passion that drove you to complete your project (don’t waste their time by pitching an unfinished book), and let that passion shine through. Once your pitch is completed, if you have time remaining, ask the agent or editor questions about their work, how they ended up doing it, and what they like best about it. Ask them about their most recent favorite book. Be friendly and open, but be professional. They’ll remember you for it.

On that note, a word of advice you’ll find everywhere else, but that too few writers heed: Don’t pitch your book to an agent or editor while they’re leading a class or seminar. There’s a fine line between bravery and rudeness, and this crosses right over it. Remember that everyone else in the class has paid to be there, just as you did. Classes are for learning; pitch sessions are for pitching.

Many conferences also offer read-and-critique sessions. In most cases, either an agent or editor, or other writers in your genre, will read your first few pages and offer their thoughts. These usually fill up quickly, so reserve a spot while you can. I didn’t register in time for the group critique sessions, but I got lucky enough that my first two pages landed near the top of the pile in a class on writing better beginnings led by three editors. When they read my first two pages aloud, I was busy searching the room for a portable defibrillator—but once I calmed down and listened, I got some phenomenal advice that helped punch up those first few pages, and that I carried through the rest of my writing. As terrifying as those few moments were, they were also invaluable to my writing.

So, while nerve wracking, these sessions can be extraordinarily helpful for your writing. Again, be brave and don’t let your fear get the best of you: you’ve paid for this opportunity, so use it.

Keynote Speakers/Guests of Honor: Bonus or Waste of Money?

Joyce Carol Oates, creative writing professor at Princeton, three-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize, and bestselling author, delivered the keynote address at the 2008 Pennwriters conference. I’ve admired her writing for years and consider her one of my favorite writers of all time, so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered she would be the featured speaker at my first conference. I emitted a very loud squealing noise, terrifying both my husband and my cat.

Ms. Oates’ speech focused on writers and rejection, a theme with which we can all identify. While such a speech could easily turn depressing, it seemed to uplift everyone in the room. She related anecdotes about legendary writers from Emily Dickinson to Samuel Beckett to Norman Mailer, and the rejections, both personal and professional, that they suffered. She then connected these rejections to each writer’s life and work, showing the profound effect rejection can have on a writer.

To know that the greats have endured such stinging rebuffs and refusals, and yet continued on to become legends and permanent members of the literary canon, should inspire even the most disheartened writer.
After her speech, Ms. Oates signed books and graciously posed for pictures. I now have a treasured, personalized memento from that weekend, one I would be unlikely to procure anywhere else.

While the keynote speaker shouldn’t be your central consideration when selecting a conference—especially since keynote dinners are not usually included in the base cost—he or she can certainly add yet another transcendent moment to the event, if the speaker is someone you admire.

Final Advice

On clothes: Most conference organizers recommend business casual wear for classes and seminars. This is a professional event, so leave the jeans at home and look your best. Plan for varying temperatures, though, and dress in layers. Many hotels and conference centers air condition their meeting rooms, but the bar and luncheon areas may be warmer. And for the ladies, don’t wear your highest high heels. You may be making several circuits from your hotel room to the classrooms, and your feet will thank you for your thoughtfulness.

On roommates: One way to cut your hotel costs in half is to bunk with another attendee. Most conferences offer a roommate-matching service. In addition to the financial considerations, this is a great way to get to know another writer.

On your fellow writers: Writers are not the most social lot; we spend a great deal of time alone, with only our characters and thoughts for company. This is your chance to spend a few days with a few hundred other writers, and the crackling energy in the air will sustain you until your next chance. Be brave. Break out of your shell. Forget your mother’s advice and talk to strangers. At the end of the weekend, you’ll be glad you did.

Resources

Below are some websites that can help you sort through the plethora of conferences out there and find the right one for you:

The Shaw Guides to Writers Conferences and Workshops: Allows sorting by genre/specialty, month, country/state.

AgentQuery: The popular resource for agent hunting tackles conferences.

Writers’ Conferences and Centers (WC & C): A division of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Includes both conference dates and registration deadlines.

Preditors and Editors: Alphabetical listing of conferences, conventions, and festivals.

Guide to Literary Agents: Small conference listing by state. Not all states listed.


Kristin Baxter lives in Johnstown, PA, a city full of characters. She’s been a reporter, a technical writer, and an assembler of travel mugs. Presently, she drinks too much coffee and stays up far too late while writing young adult novels.

Final Poll Results

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