Writers’ Conferences

This weekend I’m going to be busy at the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association Conference so I thought I’d do a post on what exactly writers’ conferences are. Of course, this will be the first big-time one I’m attending so this is not written from the voice of experience but the voice of research.

Most writers’ conferences are Friday and Saturday with additional events (for which you pay extra, of course) on Thursday and Sunday. They’re also really expensive. The PNWA conference, for example, is $495 for members and $595 for non-members. I’m going as a vendor, meaning I don’t have to pay to get in, but I still have to pay for my hotel room, and most attendees also have to pay for travel expenses. So conferences aren’t for the casual observer: they’re for people who are serious about learning about writing.

Conferences often have several components. Presenters, usually authors, agents, or editors, give mini-classes on a topic of choice. Andrea, my boss, is going to be giving a workshop on Crafting Fiction that Sells in Today’s Marketplace: An Agent’s Point of View. (I’ve helped her prepare the notes and it will be a worthwhile class, so if you’re by any chance going to the conference, it’s worth trying to get in!) These classes are meant to teach the participants to be better writers, but if you’re a serious writer they shouldn’t be the only classes you get all year.

Agents and editors also often hold pitching sessions at conferences. This basically means that a writer can pay for a certain amount of time (sometimes five minutes, sometimes fifteen, depending on the conference) to tell the agent or editor about their project. It’s a query letter aloud. I was in charge of selling these sessions last minute at WIWA’s conference when I first started my internship, and I remember how stressed out all the people pitching were. But pitches are also tiring for the agent or editor because they have to sit there and listen to writer after writer telling them why their story is the best. However, these sessions are a great opportunity for writers to get their work onto an agent’s desk because, after all, agents are human, and if it’s hard to reject someone by email, can you imagine how hard it is to reject them face-to-face?

Sometimes conferences also have manuscript critiques, where writers can pay to have an agent or editor read and critique some amount of pages of their novel ahead of time, and then at the conference the writer gets one-on-one time with that agent or editor to go over the edits. That is a really great opportunity, so naturally it costs a lot!

Another thing conferences do is hold contests. The PNWA holds a contest in 12 different genres; before the conference the finalists are announced. While the winners receive cash, all the finalists are given badges and a great amount of visibility so the agents and editors will be sure to take note of them. It’s another great opportunity to get noticed.

Conferences also usually have big dinners and events. At the PNWA, on Thursday night there is a reception with the agents and editors, on Friday night there is a dinner with a keynote speaker, and on Saturday night there is a dinner where the winners of the contests are announced. It will be interesting to see how these dinners are organized; whether there is assigned seating, whether there is opportunity for co-mingling and networking, whether the food is any good. At the WIWA conference I got to sit next to bestseller Jamie Ford. I doubt I’ll be so lucky this time, but you never know!

All in all, conferences are a great opportunity for a writer to network, to get their work noticed, and to keep learning. They’re generally held by writers’ associations like the PNWA. A website for researching conferences is: http://writersconf.org/.

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3 thoughts on “Writers’ Conferences

  1. I have a question for you… I attended the Whidbey Island Conference and was asked by an agent to submit my first 50. I was so excited! Then, during one of the workshops, the guest author told our group that it is typical for agents to request pages from the attendees (ie: even if their work isn’t that great…as in, because you were there, you get a free pass to submit). Have you found this to be true? It was my first and only conference and was just wondering what you thought about that.

    • In my experience, it’s not that the agent accepts everything, but once you meet someone face-to-face, it’s harder to reject them right off the bat. Plus, at a conference you get more than just to give them your query letter; you get to give it to them as a pitch, in person, with your personality. A lot more can come across through that than through an email. So I think agents do end up accepting more from conferences than from the slush pile, but that doesn’t mean your writing was unworthy at all! You’ve got one foot in the door already. I hope to hear soon more good news from you!

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