About mariandschwartzI was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. Reading was my escape from the legendary Buffalo winters and probably contributed to my becoming a writer.While I was in graduate school at the University of Buffalo I began writing poetry, some of which was published in small literary magazines. The first sentence in Realities – My children are gambling – was the first line of a poem that grew into a novel. It was gratifying to see Realities published, not only in the United States but in England and Sweden, where it was a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. The idea for a novel can come from anywhere. The Last Season, The Story of a Marriage, started with an image of three middle-aged adults sitting at a dinner table, a married couple and an unmarried man. When the husband asked the man what his intentions were, the fellow replied, “I intend to marry your wife.” The image was a gift, and I had to run with it. When I start a novel I know the beginning, but I have only a vague idea of what might happen between the start and the finish. For me it is an adventure, as I hope it is for the reader.
It is a fair question to ask if writers’ conferences are an investment or a waste of money. Some aspiring writers consider going to a writers’ conference as an investment in their careers. But no one wants to waste money attending a conference that isn’t likely to deliver what they’re looking for.
Creative writing conferences are thriving from coast to coast, from the Yale Writers’ Conference in New Haven to the San Francisco Writers’ Conference. There are conferences for every genre from science fiction to romances. They have become a growth industry.
Some writers attend conferences because they are looking for more than creative writing workshops and advice on marketing. Thousands of aspiring writers are attending writers’ conferences in the desperate hope they will connect with a literary agent who will get them contracts with traditional publishers.
Any aspiring writer who has tried to get an agent knows how difficult it is. Some agents claim to get two thousand query letters a week from unpublished writers seeking representation. The odds against these writers are staggering, so it’s understandable that they keep writers’ conferences filled.
Hopeful writers are lured into the conferences by the promise of contact with agents and editors. Many conferences get well-known agents to attend by paying for their plane tickets, hotel rooms, and meals, but this doesn’t mean that the agents are interested in acquiring new clients. The Southern California Writers’ Conference is candid about this problem. On their website there is a note to agents telling them that they can contact the conference if they are accepting new clients. The note, which sums up the problem, states: “There are plenty of other conferences that provide reps who have no sincere intent of acquiring new clients with free weekends at nice hotels in desirable locations. The SCWC is not one of them.”
The SCWC’s candor is refreshing. The conference I attended years ago still promises agents and editors, but they are very careful in how they phrase it and with good reason: it’s doubtful that more than a few writers out of thousands who have attended have gotten an agent there.
Some conference websites prominently display testimonials from writers who found agents and got book contracts, but for what percentage does this actually happen? One percent? Five percent? Ten percent? Not one of the conferences that I am aware of offers this statistic, and some of the testimonials on their websites are ten years old.
It is impossible to know how many of these success stories are the direct result of attending a conference. What happened to me raises this question. I had just gotten an agent when I went to the writers’ conference I attended, and my novel Realities was accepted by a publisher a month later. Several months after it was accepted I received a letter from the conference wanting to know if there was any news about my novel. I didn’t respond. The advice I had gotten at the conference—that I should change the novel from the first person to the third person—would have ruined the book. It didn’t seem right that I should let the conference take credit for the book’s acceptance.
Although the Algonkian New York Pitch conference offers no statistics, its rigorous vetting process and a program designed to help writers get their manuscripts ready for publication seems to offer the most hope for success in getting an agent. But it should be noted that the sixty writers who are accepted for the conference must have worthy manuscripts that are judged either ready for publication or close.
Pitching at conferences has become big. Some pitches are called “agent consultations” and are sold out months in advance. Writers pay forty dollars and up for a chance to pitch their novels to agents for ten minutes or less (one conference limits pitches to ninety seconds). The writers are nervous and understandably so: imagine standing in a line of twenty people or more, waiting for your turn to tell an agent why he or she should want to represent you.
Agents may tell the writers who pitched to them to send them their manuscripts, which is easier than telling someone face-to-face that they aren’t interested. The writers think they have an edge, but the truth is that their manuscripts end up in the slush pile with everyone else’s. Occasionally writers have successful pitches that get them agents, but it doesn’t happen often. Pitching seems to be more profitable for the conferences than it is for the writers who are paying for it.
Next year there will be even more writers’ conferences than there are this year, and why not when there is so much money to be made? This year Yale is charging $4040 for two sessions that last a total of eight days. Having a writers’ conference is a profitable way to fill empty dorm rooms after the spring semester ends and to make a nice profit as well. No one said the people at Yale aren’t smart.
I’m sure good teaching took place at Yale, at least I hope it did for a $4040 price tag. But is it necessary to pay that much to get help improving your writing? I honestly don’t know if it’s worth the cost. But if I were considering attending a writers’ conference, I would think hard about why I wanted to go and what I expected to get out of it. Then I would shop very, very carefully.
Marian D. Schwartz
The Writers’ Conference: A Novel will will give you the experience of being inside a conference before you make the commitment. Click on the link to find out more: https://mariandschwartz.com/writers-conference-ebook/
“I enjoyed every minute that I spent reading this excellent novel, and I was pleased to read so many reviews from writers who confirm that the description of the conference is quite accurate.” A. Rees
“Some conferences are more respectable than others. All are there to take your cash. In The Writers’ Conference, Marian D. Schwartz tackles the topic with glee, laying bare the underbelly of one such event. It’s fiction, of course, but the writers, agents, publishers and academics who populate her story are clearly drawn from experience… a fun read for everyone, and a useful education for anyone who might be thinking of a writing career. The story moves along quickly and holds the reader’s interest all the way to the exciting (and surprising) ending.” Peter C. Foster, author
To the people who have read SARA BAREFIELD, her situation is so real to them that I have been asked questions that I hope to answer here. I wasn’t a social worker; nor did I know a single mother like Sara. And I have been blessed in that I have never been on welfare or have had the need to apply for food stamps. I got the idea for SARA BAREFIELD while working as a volunteer in a women’s center in the town where I live. A single woman in her mid-thirties came in for a counseling session; she wanted to go to college to study art history. When I told her that I didn’t know of any aid she could receive other than a Pell grant, she became quite upset. She wanted to know why welfare mothers could get help to go to college and she couldn’t. She’d seen articles about these women in the newspaper. Unfortunately, I had nothing more to offer her unless she took out large student loans that she couldn’t afford.
I started thinking about welfare after she left. If it was as wonderful as she seemed to believe it was, why wasn’t everyone on it? That’s when I started my research. I was curious, I wanted to know more. After I explained my reason for wanting to attend, women on welfare who were in a support group at a local community college allowed me to sit in on their meetings, but there were rules: I wasn’t allowed to talk or take notes. None of the women in the group were pregnant or Sara’s age. I attended their weekly sessions for approximately two months when I decided to make an appointment with a caseworker to learn more about welfare. At that point I had the idea for Sara’s story—a forty-year-old pregnant woman who had meager savings and was utterly alone—but I wasn’t sure I wanted to write it. The subject didn’t seem compelling.
My appointment with the caseworker was for ten thirty in the morning at the county office building. I arrived ten minutes early and stood at a wide counter, waiting for two women who were talking to each other behind the counter to notice me. Minutes went by: five minutes, seven minutes. The women, who were only a paycheck or two from being out on the street, knew I was there, but they ignored me. I was of no more significance to them than a dust mote that might have been floating by. Ten minutes passed when I’d had enough. “Excuse me!” I said in a voice that demanded attention. The women jumped.
I told them I had an appointment at ten thirty. One of the women called the caseworker, and he arrived soon after. “If you had been five minutes later, I wouldn’t have seen you,” he said after introducing himself. “I have rules that my clients must follow.”
“I was ten minutes early for our appointment,” I said. “The women behind the counter ignored me. Is this how you treat poor people?”
The caseworker was visibly surprised, and I believe there were changes made as a result of my experience. There was also a change when I attended the next support group session. I asked for permission to speak, and I told the women how I had been ignored. When they heard the tone I used when I said, “Excuse me,” their faces lit up. They literally looked overjoyed. Every woman in the group had been kept waiting, some of them for hours, holding babies and trying to keep toddlers occupied, and each one of them had been afraid to express even the slightest annoyance at having been ignored.
That was the moment when I knew I was going to write Sara Barefield’s story.
I have kept my life and my personal experiences out of my fiction with one exception: my experience being ignored in the social services office. Sara was ignored because I was ignored, but Sara wasn’t in the position that I was in. She couldn’t say “Excuse me,” in a tone that demanded attention.
Pitching to agents at writing conferences is a big draw. Thousands of authors will be pitching their unpublished manuscripts to agents and editors in 2020. They will pay an extra premium above the conference cost for the privilege, and because the slots are limited, they are sold out fast. What happens during these sessions? Are they effective?
Pitching sessions are like speed dating on steroids. Authors seeking representation are given a set time, anywhere between 90 seconds and 15 minutes, to tell agents about their unpublished manuscripts. The sessions are held in rooms where nervous writers stand in lines anxiously waiting to pitch to the agents of their choice. On her blog, Faye Hicks describes the pitching session at a Pitch Slam as bedlam, packed and noisy.
Writers are told that the best pitches have no more than twenty-five words. Mentally rehearsing and polishing their pitches while they wait, they hope their pitches will hook the agents of their dreams. A writer who attended several pitching sessions without succes