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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The Saturday Chathouse Conference

Well folks, it’s come and gone. The Saturday Chathouse Conference was today, and boy did it go fast! I woke up at 6:15 to get down to the venue by 8:00 to help with registration. My main job was to accept payments from anyone who wanted to register for any event late. However, I was also good for odd jobs like setting up signs, moving around tables, and, with another intern, delivering snacks to houses and heating up hors d’oeuvres. All in all, I got to see just how much work a conference takes. So the next time you’re at one, stop and think about just how much time it took simply to get all the nametags ready!

During the lunch break, participants could pay to have five minute pitches with agents. My job was to sell these pitches, so while I didn’t get to observe them, I did get to see people coming in and out of them. The whole time I just kept thinking how nervous I would be if I were doing a pitch; I just know I would end up stuttering and stammering and messing it all up. But the interesting thing was most people came out of the session and immediately wanted to buy another one. I don’t know if it was because the pitches went well or poorly, but the trend was that one or two pitches just wasn’t enough.

Although unfortunately I did not make it to any of the chathouses themselves (in which the authors and agents were giving presentations), I did get to attend the dinner at the end of the day. Because WIWA was trying to make money from the event, the organizer of the conference (the wonderfully kind and gracious Dorothy Read) combined forces with the philanthropic PEO to hold the dinner in the community center. The PEO women made and served dinner; each table was set with a different woman’s fine china and napkins. The dinner was great and the mismatch of dishes had a wonderful charm. So keep that in mind the next time you’re planning a gala dinner on a low budget!

The keynote speakers were Elizabeth George and Jamie Ford. Elizabeth is the author of many, many mystery novels. I am in the middle of one and I am really enjoying it! Her graceful prose is a nice break from the punctuated fast paces of many detective novels, and she has great insights into the relationships of characters. I highly recommend it. Most of her novels are set in England, and she writes so convincingly in British inflections and vocabulary that I was astonished to learn she’s an American born and bred now living on Whidbey Island!

Jamie Ford is the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet which is a love story imbued with a historical lesson on Japanese American internment during WWII. It is a wonderful novel. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jamie at dinner and discovered that he is a very personable, funny guy! If none of that has sold you on him, maybe this will: he met his wife in a public library and proposed to her in a bookstore. When he told us that anecdote, the room was filled with a collective “awww.”

The takeaway point from both Jamie and Elizabeth is that writing is about the passion and that you shouldn’t get lost in the journey of getting published. Elizabeth pointed out that her “first published novel” was actually her sixth novel. She kept writing because she loves writing; that love of writing bred hard work, and her final words of wisdom were that it is those who work hard that get published. Jamie similarly encouraged us to write what we love and what we want to write, not just what we think we should be writing. Passion is the key, and everything else will fall in place if you work hard enough.

Another thing I learned about conferences is that when people find out you’re a writer, they’ll ask you what kind of things you write. This took me off guard because I’ve never thought about classifying my work; that was always something I was going to do when I actually tried to get published. I just write what I want to write. So I¬†vacillated¬†between labeling myself as a writer of women’s fiction (which only worked until they asked me, well what do you mean by that? at which point I had to quickly remind myself of every plot I’ve written and figure out what it is that links them together) and talking about how I like to write novels but I just discovered the short story format. Next time, I’ll come prepared with better answers.

The conference was a great experience and I am so glad I got to take part in it!

Last thing I read: Chapter 17 of Careless in Red by Elizabeth George.