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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? 

26 comments:

  1. This is a great question, Jody. I'm going to my first one this year in Dallas and can't wait. I think the answer to this question has to do with our expectations. If you haven't written a single word, and don't even have an idea for a book and are expecting an agent and a contract by Sunday it's going to be a waste of your time and money, and a HUGE disappointment. If you go to make connections and learn and see the writing/publishing world in person it will probably be a great experience.

    I didn't go last year because I couldn't afford to, but have planned all year since then to go to Dallas. I have something ready to pitch to an agent and know a little bit more about all the things I don't know about writing. Because of that I was able to be much more intentional about workshops and other things that I want to do.

    This is just another step along the way that I trust to God's timing and his plan. There are many published authors who have never attended a conference. Like everything else, we have to keep attending conferences in the right perspective and place.

    Are you going this year? Hope to meet you there?

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    1. Hi Sherri!

      I agree that even if writers think they're ready for an agent or publication, they should go into a conference with realistic expectations. Even though I've had plenty of friends get agents and book contracts through conferences, I've had just as many friends who haven't.

      And, no, after going to ACFW for the past three years, I've decided to take a year off. I'm at an odd stage where I don't really NEED to go. I WANT to go! But I'd really like to go and give back. So perhaps next year I'll have the opportunity to DO something at the conference whether it be teaching or critiquing or something!

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  2. Very good advice! The few conferences I've been able to attend were fun and energetic, but I didn't learn anything more than I had already picked up from very good writing books.

    I view myself not only as a writer but as a small business owner and everything I do must be cost-effective and pin-pointed to reach a certain goal. The internet is an excellent, inexpensive marketing/networking tool--if one knows how to use it. (I'm working on that one!).

    With that said, meeting new people is always fun but do I have to spend hundreds of dollars to do so? I think a writer shouldn't overlook some of the special people residing in his/her own backyard.

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    1. Great point about connections, Charmaine! Nowadays, with the internet, we don't have to go to writer's conferences to make connections. They definitely solidify relationships, but there are some friends I've made online that I've never met, and I still consider them great writing friends. And as you said, there are often great support networks we can plug into on a more local or regional basis. There are even smaller conferences that we can attend that aren't as much money.

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  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! This makes me feel so much better, Jody. I wanted to attend Bouchercon 2012 in Ohio this fall because it's a "doable" road trip. However, my wallet is a little thin, and I can't justify the expense right now. When a local author put out the call for traveling buddies, I felt like I was missing an opportunity. Distance and traveling companions shouldn't be the reasons for attending, though. The reasons on your list are good ones. :)

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  4. Thank you!! I've worried so much about not being able to attend conferences due to financial limitations and this helps me to realize, when I get in a position to do so, I can do so knowing that I'll be right where I belong. It's hard at this stage to justify the expense of going to one, even though I know so many writer friends are going and I'd love to attend some. It's just not "me" yet.

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  5. I just attended my first Writer's Conference because my book is finished and I needed to pitch to an agent in person to get some advice on the next step. I flew across the country, left my two toddlers for the week (ouch!) and spend quite a bundle to do this. The agent did NOT like the "overriding message" driving my book (pro life) and said that it was completely unpublishable even though my workshop teacher and an editor back home said it was good, just needed more refining. Because the agent spent the whole appointment telling me exactly why my book was so horrible, I got NO advice on different agents to query or how to make my query letter better or what to do next. Needless to say, I am struggling with a little depression now. I am working on the refining using what I learned while I was there to make it even better, but now the next step is scarily unknown and I wonder if I'll ever get published. That agent has planted the seed of doubt in my mind.

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    1. Hi Deanna, I'm sorry to hear about your experience. I hope you can remember that was ONE agent's opinion and that agents are subjective in what they take on and represent. What one agent thinks is unsalable, another may love.

      On the other hand, I don't know that agents at conferences are really in a position to offer much advice to writers regarding who else to query, making query letters better, or really how to proceed with career steps. They are primarily there to look at proposals and decide if the particular book is something they want to represent. If they give advice beyond that, then it's usually just a bonus. So I'm not sure you would have gotten much more direction from other agents either.

      There are some wonderful resources online for help in writing query letters. One great place to start is Elana Johnson's website: http://elanajohnson.blogspot.com/p/writing-query-letter.html She has an e-book "From Query Letter to the Call."

      Another great resource is Query Tracker http://querytracker.net/ It's received Writer's Digest awards year after year for being a helpful resource for writers who are at the query stage.

      I hope you'll push through you're discouragement and keep writing! Go ahead and query other agents, send off the book, and then start a new one. I always find that writing a new book helps perk me back up!

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  6. Jody, Your advice is quite good, but like a previous commenter, I'll add that it depends on your expectations.
    I attended my first conference for the classes, because I knew nothing about the publishing industry or even the mechanics of writing. I had nothing to pitch, wasn't ready for an agent, I just needed to learn. At subsequent conferences, I interacted with editors and agents and thought it was helpful. And at every conference I've attended, I've networked with other authors--not because some of them might someday endorse my work (but they did), but because it's great to make friends who understand the loneliness, frustration, and eventual satisfaction of being a writer.

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  7. Hi Jody...I love your advice. I've fretted about missing Thrillerfest this year and planned to go next year. I've got (literally) stacks of books on the craft of writing that I've been plowing through, and they're terrific! I've also made many connections online. I took a webinar class, which was AWESOME, and only cost $40. In fact, the woman who ran the class has become my unofficial editor and has asked for NOTHING in return, except to pay it forward. She's always there for me.

    I'm learning SO MUCH! I keep saying I'm close to the end of editing my first book, and it's been six months between writing it & RE-writing it, and with all the advice I've gotten from her and the TON of books I'm reading, I feel better in reading your thoughts on how it's not a necessity just yet.

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  8. I'm currently at the RWA nationals and so far I'm glad I'm here. I've been attending conferences for several years. It was my husband's idea. He goes to them for his profession and he figured I should go to them too if I want. I used to go to the SCBWI annual conferences, but I found I didn't get as much out of them as I do with the RWA nationals. My husband loves planning our family vacations around them (we stay for longer than the conference so I can see some sights too). And since this year's is across the street from Disneyland, my kids certainly aren't complaining. :)

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  9. Very timely post, Jody! Thanks for the great advice! I've been fretting about the lack of financial means to begin going to conferences this year, and a good writing friend pointed out to me that you can actually purchase CDs of previous conference workshops and seminars online -- another great way to invest in the craft for a fraction of the price! It is also worth pointing out that some groups host writing competitions in which the prizes include free conference registrations. Bottom line = there's more than one way to "attend" a conference!

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  10. Thank you, Jody! I attended a conference last year for the first time, had an excellent experience and learned a ton -- but I also had no expectations going into it. This year, I had planned to attend ACFW since it is in driving distance, but I don't think it is the plan for me right now. I am going to keep working on my novel and when the time is right, THEN I will seek out another conference. Wonderful advice - you have taken the pressure off! :)

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  11. share your words of motivation
    Something good, not necessarily true. Something right, not necessarily good. Something good, not necessarily valuable. Something worthwhile, not necessarily good.
    Greetings, and my success is always waiting behind the visit: D

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  12. Thanks for your tips on knowing when to go to a writing conference:) I guess this would be a good year for me to go as I am in the editing phase of my 1st historical romance:)...however I am spending that $ on an editor and sadly, right now there's no extra funds available after that;( Still learning and growing...hopefully next year I can go!

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  13. I just started writing a year ago, and a few months ago (April) I went to a weekend workshop held by the New England Chapter of RWA. It was kind of overwhelming and AWESOME! I was in over my head: I didn't know all of the terms, etc, and those workshops were NOT for beginners!! But I took tons of notes and all the handouts and studied them again when I got home. I'll have more experience under my belt by the time I go again. But the most valuable thing for me was talking to other writers "in real life." It felt so, so GOOD to speak to other writers about our books. I found a local group that starts meetings again in Sept, so that's good. But forcing my introvert self to get OUT there and meet people was really good for me.

    I even pitched my book to an editor and was asked for full! I know know that even with the good feedback, I pitched way too early. But I'm glad I did it, so that when I need to pitch again, I won't be so nervous.

    It helps that the New England conferences are held only about 1 hour or so from me. I did stay overnight, though, and I will again. It was good to get away from the house, and I'll stay over again next time. The short distance really keeps the cost down. I'm not making any money as a writer yet, but it was so worthwhile for me.

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  14. While I was writing my first book, I refused to allow myself to sign up on any writer's forums, start a blog, or research agents. I told myself I would treat myself to those things AFTER I finished the book.

    I'm working on my third ms, while revising my second for a resubmit, and my first is currently being read by an agent. I've decided my attending a conference is a rite of passage, in a way. Now that I believe I've reached a point in learning the craft that I'm ready to pitch to an agent and editor in person, I've signed up for a small, local conference. I chose the smaller one because I figured it'd be a great way to get my feet wet, it's close by, and the price is reasonable. There's also one more reason: attending a national conference is another rite of passage, to me, and until I've signed with an agent, I don't think it's a good investment.

    Needless to say, I love this post! :)

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  15. I'm attending my first major writer's conference this year (ACFW!) and am so extremely excited about it. I thought briefly about going last year, but I think I would have been really overwhelmed. Instead, I went to a smaller, 2-day, local conference. That was perfect. There were about 50 people in attendance and it gave me just a taste of what a conference could be like. I learned a lot from the sessions and met some great people.

    I'm so looking forward to ACFW because it will be my first opportunity to pitch to agents/editors, and to meet in person all of the wonderful people I've befriended online!

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  16. Jody, thanks for saying it's OKAY not to attend writer's conferences. For some of us, it's just not in the budget, and we're lucky to scrape together $250 for a partial edit on our novels! I soooo agree that it's more important to get that novel ready to be seen first. It's also cool that I can "meet" people somewhat through vlogging--they see me, and I can see them, so I feel more connected to my writer peeps that way. Of course, I'd be THRILLED beyond compare if I could meet my writer friends face-to-face, not to mention my agent! Or a pub. house editor, someday. But I do think that's something to gear up for once there's a contract on my book. I'll be SO happy to figure out ways to afford a conference, if I have a book ready to hit the shelves! Grin.

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  17. You make some really good points, Jody. Some of my online contacts are raving about their retreats and conferences and if I say I can't afford to go, they will usually say an aspiring writer can't afford *not* to go.

    I'm fortunate to live close to a centre that hosts an excellent annual conference. It's still expensive, even without airfare, but after attending in 2004 with a friend for the first time, I came away so full of information, motivation and inspiration that I immediately started saving for the next one. I can't do it every year, but have managed every second year since then. (This is my year... squeeeee!!)

    Yes, I have a huge stack of great 'how to' books and have learned a lot from them. But there's nothing quite like the exhilaration of being immersed for a weekend in a crowd of other writers, of hearing personal stories and advice from best selling authors, and learning directly from successful agents and editors. It's the difference between watching a hockey game by myself on TV or cheering in the crowd at an arena.

    I agree with all your points, but I'd add one more. Attend a conference when you need a dose of encouragement and motivation. Even if you're not ready to pitch a manuscript, it can be very worthwhile.

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    1. Hi Carol - you made an excellent point, and I wish I had read your comment before chiming in here. My first conference in 2010 literally changed my life, because it gave me the validation I needed to go forward with my crazy dream and making it a reality. Encouragement and motivation are often the things an unpublished writer needs the most to acquire the bold audacity that is required to plug away and write, day after day.

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  18. I especially liked what you said about tuning out the conference "noise". It's so fun to share what we're doing, but to use the time wisely to learn and grow. I feel so incredibly blessed to be going to ACFW again this year. It makes me excited to see what God has in store for me there. :)

    And hey, thanks for posting our picture! Will I see you again this year? :)

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    1. Hi Casey! I thought I was going to be able to go, but recently had to make the decision to stay home this year. Even though I really WANT to hang out with everyone and love the atmosphere and will miss being apart of the fun, I had to make the tough choice to wait a year. Will miss seeing you!

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  19. Hi Jody - I concur with much of what you said, but I do need to point out that you have painted conferences with a fairly broad brush. There are some that focus more on the craft of writing, rather than the business side – and vice-versa. Most are multiple day events, but not all. As you correctly point out, it is all about timing, and this hinges greatly on where a writer is at; whether they are thinking about writing a book, are in the process of writing, or are looking to sell and promote what they have already written. Of course, some conferences are also more genre-specific than others, and no one conference can treat all genres equally well.

    I realize this is going to look like a shameless plug, but The Unicorn Writers' Conference is unique in the fact that it is a single day event and is held just 120 miles outside NYC, in Portland, CT. The cost for the entire day is just $279, including breakfast and lunch, and manuscript reviews with agents and editors cost just an additional $45 each. It is a jam-packed day, to be sure, but we have received rave reviews by neophyte writers as well as published authors who have attended three years in a row. I bring this up to point out that your comments hold true mostly for a conference that requires a large investment of both time and money - but we do offer another option.

    Yours in writing,

    George A. Brandt
    Manager of Community Relations
    Unicorn Writers' Conference, Inc.
    www.unicornwritersconference.com

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  20. I feel I am ready to attend my first BIG conference (ACFW) this year. I have a book released through OakTara and am completing 2 more.

    I am nervous because I am not very good at selling myself. Something I need to work on! However, I have 2 good stories to talk about with other writers and with the agents/publishers there at the conference for tips.

    I really look forward to meeting other writers and asking them some questions about what they write and why.

    But you are correct in that writers don't always have to attend a BIG conference to learn new things. I have attended 4 smaller conferences locally and gleaned much information from writers.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing.

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