Getting the most out of a writers’ conference depends on the reason you are considering attending one. Choosing a conference that meets your needs and interests is essential. Before you commit your time and money, there are questions you should ask
• Do you need and/or want help with a manuscript?
• How much one-to-one help do you expect?
• Do you hope to learn from writers whose work you respect?
• Are you self-published and seeking marketing advice?
• Are you looking for a literary agent to represent you?
A writers’ conference might have a lofty reputation, but if it doesn’t offer what you are looking for, it is likely that it won’t be worth the cost. If it meets your criteria, you’ll have a positive experience and feel that you made a good investment in your career.
Conferences that offer individual manuscript critiques charge extra for them. They also set specific time limits—anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour—and require prior registration.The Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference here, for example, has both short and long conferences. They accept 15 pages for the basic evaluation and up to 40 pages for longer critiques. There is an additional charge for re-sending revised pages. Applicants are advised to apply well in advance because individual manuscript critiques fill up quickly.
I’m not sure how helpful these critiques are. I have had only one experience with an individual manuscript critique at a writers’ conference, and the experience has made me wary of them. The writer who criticized the 50 pages of a manuscript I had given him was a brilliant writer and teacher, but the advice he gave me was wrong. He told me to change the story from the first person to the third person. Fortunately, my novel was accepted by a New York publisher less than a month later. The change he suggested would have ruined the book.
If submitting a manuscript is your primary reason for attending a writers’ conference, an alternative might be hiring an experienced freelance editor to help you. Your entire manuscript will be read, and you will get one-on-one attention. A good editor will catch your mistakes from plot weaknesses to changing the color of a character’s eyes. If you’re wondering where you can find a good editor, join KBoards Writers’ Café here. After you join, you can go on Writers’ Café and start a new thread asking writers in your genre to recommend editors they have used and been satisfied with. The writers on the forum are generous with their help. There is also the Yellow Pages on KBoards (under the tab “Other”) for a listing of editors offering their services.
There are several things to look at here. First, are there writers on the faculty whom you respect who write in your genre? If you are unfamiliar with their work, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t attend the conference. You can read one or two of their books before making a decision.
Second, are the writers who are lecturing effective teachers? Being a skilled novelist doesn’t make a writer a skilled teacher. If you are going to the conference to learn as much as you can about the craft of writing, try to find feedback on members of the staff.
There is no magic formula for writing a best-selling book, but you can learn valuable writing tips from good teachers. I still remember an observation made by a staff writer at a conference I attended years ago: “The best villain is the one you treat kindly.”
More and more conferences are offering courses on marketing for self-published authors. Trade published authors can learn from these courses as well. With the flood of books that are being published, informed marketing is crucial to success.
Unfortunately, some conferences that have marketing featured on their home pages actually have only one or two sessions devoted to marketing. The best way to find out the scope of marketing sessions offered is to check the schedule from the previous year as well as the proposed schedule for this year.
There is one more thing to say about self-publishing: not all conferences look favorably upon self-published authors. Several years ago Jim Rudnick, a successful writer of science fiction, posted on KBoards Writers’ Café about the literary snobbery he encountered at some literary conferences he attended here.
Self-published writers will probably not feel welcome at Bread Loaf, Sewanee, etc. There are a number of less well known conferences where self-published writers will encounter the same attitude. These conferences focus on writers who want to be trade published. If you are self-published or planning to be self-published, you need to do your homework to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you would feel uncomfortable.
LOOKING FOR A LITERARY AGENT
Every year more conferences are offering pitching sessions in which conference attendees pay extra to pitch their books to agents. These sessions are tense. Are they worth it? Do they work?
In her article, “Are Writing Conferences Worth It?” J.H. Moncrieff wrote about her experiences pitching for agents at conferences she attended here. After giving her reasons, she concluded that pitching sessions are a waste of time.
Agents tell everyone who pitches to them to send their manuscripts, which is easier than telling writers to their faces that they aren’t interested. Meanwhile, conferences are collecting money for sessions that are going nowhere.
Occasionally writers get agents at writers’ conferences, but it doesn’t happen often. Although some conferences have the happy faces of writers who found agents on their homepages, they offer no statistics. If getting an agent is your primary purpose for attending a writers’ conference, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.
You can learn more about the odds of getting an agent at a writers’ conference by reading the blog post “Pitching for Agents at Writers’ Conferences: What are the Odds?” on my website. here
REASON TO ATTEND A CONFERENCE
Elise Blackwell went from being skeptical about conferences to endorsing them, with some reservations. here Like many other writers, she is enthusiastic about the friendships writers can make. It’s valuable to get to know people who are in the same place you’re in. These friendships can last a lifetime.
Writers on the faculty go to conferences for the same reason, to renew old friendships and make new ones. They write blurbs for each other’s books and share helpful information. It is also an opportunity for them to talk to agents and publishers.
BE A SMART SHOPPER
It doesn’t hurt to be wary when you are reading an article extolling the benefits of attending writing conferences. You might find a pitch to attend a specific conference toward the end of the article. As Elise Blackwell says, “Those considering attending a conference should investigate them well.”
In today’s publishing world new enterprises are started every day that try to make money by selling something to writers—promotional sites, courses on becoming a bestselling author, promises of effective marketing management, etc. The list is endless. Writers’ conferences are no exception; they are in business to make money. They are competing with each other, and they are charging for extras wherever they can. Compare the faculty, the schedule, the facilities, and the travel and housing expenses when you shop.
Marian D. Schwartz is the author of The Writers’ Conference: A Novel.