How to Know When to Go to a Writing Conference

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

It's the time of year when many writers start to think about going to conferences. At least I've been thinking about them. In fact, the big Romance Writers of America National Conference started yesterday, July 25, out in Anaheim, California. And I've been seeing lots of tweets from writers who are there. One tweet said: Now the week of nonstop awesomeness begins.

When I see things like that, I can't help but wonder if I'm missing out when I'm not at conferences.

In our modern information age, when we hear everything on Twitter or Facebook, it begins to seem like everyone is going, that anybody who is somebody is there, and that if we don't go, then we'll be left behind.

But over the past several years, I've learned that conferences are indeed a lot of fun, but that we often put too much pressure on ourselves to go.

I actually didn't go to my first national writer's conference until after I had an agent and signed a book deal. I'm not sure I would have been ready before that. And it probably wouldn't have been a wise financial investment.

After all, the bigger national conferences are quite expensive. For the cost of registration, air fare, and hotel, a writer can easily spend close to $1500. A writer could pay for a freelance editor at that cost. And a top-notch edit can help improve our writing skills and manuscripts like nothing else can.

Me, Carol Moncado, & Casey Herringshaw at the ACFW Conference in 2011

Lest you think I'm discouraging writers from going to conferences, I DO think there are numerous benefits in attending. Obviously, the workshops have the potential to be very helpful and inspiring. But after sitting in numerous classes over the past few years, I've also come to realize that much of what I've heard is also similar to what one can find in good writing craft books.

So I don't suggest going just for the classes, because there are much cheaper ways to learn how to write than going to workshops at conferences.

How, then, can writers know when it's the right time in their career to put out the money and go to a conference? 

1. When we're ready for an agent. Most of the larger conferences give writers scheduled appointments with agents. I've had plenty of friends who've received representation as a direct result of linking with an agent at a conference.

2. When we have a manuscript ready for querying a publisher. Since most traditional publishing houses are closed to unsolicited manuscripts, conferences are the primary way for those without agents to get a manuscript directly in front of a publisher. Again, I've known many friends who landed book contracts as a result of perking the attention of an editor at a conference.

3. When we need to build connections. With the growth of the internet, I think it's becoming less imperative for writers to go to conferences to build connections. But I still think meeting people face-to-face solidifies relationships and can open new doors (i.e. for critique partners, group blogs, support groups, etc.). Newly contracted writers may need to attend in order to meet agents and editors for the first time. Or to meet other authors from the same publishing house.

4. When our first book is releasing. The months surrounding our debut release is a special time. And participating in a conference can be a great way to get your name out there further and help spread the news about your book. Take bookmarks, business cards, or postcards that list information about your book and hand them out liberally.

5. When we're at a stage when we can give back to the writing community. Many writers reach a point where they want to serve other writers either through teaching, providing critiques, helping with contests, etc. We've been blessed in our writing journey by mentors who've come alongside us, and now we're wanting to do the same for younger writers.

My Summary: If you're struggling to know whether to attend a conference, ask yourself a few questions: Have you spent enough time growing and learning the craft first? Do you have a couple of books under your belt? How close are you to being ready for publication?

There's no reason to rush to a conference. You don't want to put your work in front of agents and publishers before it's the best it can be. If so, you risk becoming overly discouraged.

Instead, tune out the Twitter noise and Facebook pictures of everyone having fun at conferences. Focus on writing a killer book. And promise yourself that one day, you'll give yourself the gift of a conference. In your own time.

What do you think? When should writers consider going to a conference? Is there such a thing as going to a conference too soon? 

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