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Get the Most Out of a Writing Conference: A Guide

To get the most out of a writing 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.

MANUSCRIPTS

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.

WRITING STAFF

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.”

SELF-PUBLISHING

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

The Writers’ Conference: A Novel will give you the experience of being inside a conference. 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

 

 

 

Get the Most Out of a Writing Conference: A Guide2020-07-11T18:27:07-04:00

Writers’ Conferences: An Investment or a Waste of Money?

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

 

Writers’ Conferences: An Investment or a Waste of Money?2020-07-11T18:32:23-04:00

How I Came to Write Sarah Barefield

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.

How I Came to Write Sarah Barefield2020-03-19T18:16:11-04:00

Pitching to Agents: What are the odds?

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 successful results stated on a writers’ forum that standing on a street corner during a blizzard with a cardboard sign asking for donations was preferable to participating in a pitching session.

Why do aspiring writers subject themselves to an experience that so many of them describe as nerve-wracking? The answer is in sheer numbers. There are literally thousands of writers who are trying to get literary agents to represent them. Some agents are deluged with five hundred or more query letters a month. Aspiring writers hope that pitching in person will improve their odds of getting representation.

In baseball, it is easy to find out how well a pitcher is doing: we look at his stats for wins, walks, and strikeouts. Statistics are available for a game, a season, or consecutive years. There are no statistics for pitching at writers’ conferences. Instead, there is anecdotal evidence, the smiling faces of happy writers who found agents by pitching at conferences. But some of those writers found the agents years ago. On one website some of the successful connections with agents were made in 2007.

To be fair, getting an agent is a longer and more complicated process than pitching at a baseball game. The author’s initial pitch must hook the agent into wanting to read the first two or three chapters. If the chapters are promising, the agent will request the full manuscript (some agents request a full initially). But what if the novel falls apart somewhere before the end? Then the agent will either pass or be willing to work with the author to fix the problem. It could also happen that an agent would pass on the initial manuscript but be sufficiently enthusiastic about the author’s writing to encourage a future submission that could eventually lead to representation.

The lack of information regarding the rate of success for authors who pitch at conferences raises the question of what the odds are for an aspiring author to actually get an agent at a writers’ conference. Some agents have acknowledged the difficulty of telling writers face-to-face that they aren’t interested in their work; it’s easier to tell them to send their manuscripts. The writers think they have a leg up because of their pitches, but the truth is that their manuscripts end up in the slush pile with hundreds of others. The pitches they paid for don’t give them an edge.

Andrew Zack was one of first literary agents to speak out regarding pitching at conferences. On a blog post in 2012, Zack stated flatly that “…verbal pitch sessions at writers’ conferences are useless…it’s the writing that counts.” Zack also related that he got into trouble for telling writers that he wasn’t interested in their work. The conference organizers were concerned that his honesty would lead to author dissatisfaction and buyer’s remorse.

An editorial director at Random House Children’s Books said in an interview that she gets as many as thirty pitches per conference she attends, and she has yet to acquire a manuscript as a result. In a blog post Rant: Pitch sessions are the spawn of Satan, literary agent Janet Reid says that pitching is evil because “…it sets writers up to fail.”

At the present time it is impossible to know what the odds are for writers pitching for agents at conferences. If a conference has three hundred fifty aspiring writers pitching and five percent of them are successful, seventeen would have found agents. But when conference web pages are using testimonials that are ten years old from authors who have successfully pitched, perhaps the odds are more like two percent, which I suspect is a more accurate figure. I also suspect that conference pitching sessions will be fully enrolled again this year, regardless of the odds.

Marian D. Schwartz

The Writers’ Conference: A Novel will give you the experience of attending 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

 

 

Pitching to Agents: What are the odds?2020-07-11T18:34:44-04:00

Imagine Harper Lee Pitching “To Kill a Mockingbird” Today

The publicity surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s discovered novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” led thousands of people to her first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book that is still a bestseller more than a half century after it was published. The characters in “To Kill a Mockingbird”—Atticus Finch and his children, Jem and Scout, and their neighbor Boo Radley–have become part of our literary lexicon. But in today’s literary climate it is legitimate to wonder whether Harper Lee would stand a chance at getting an agent to represent her and a publisher to accept what has become an American classic.

It is difficult to imagine Harper Lee being rejected by literary agents. If she had written her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel within the past ten years and sought representation, it is likely she might be in a position similar to the one that thousands of aspiring writers are in now. They are finding it difficult to get literary agents to represent them.

As the numbers of authors seeking agents continues to grow, more of them are attending writers’ conferences that have pitching sessions. They hope they’ll win an agent by describing their unpublished manuscripts face-to-face because the query letters they’ve been sending have failed. Most writing conferences require a separate registration for pitching sessions, which are often filled long before the conferences holding them are fully enrolled.

If, in desperation, Harper Lee decided to attend a writers’ conference, she would be told that the first sentence of her novel must have a compelling hook to catch the reader’s attention. The first sentence of “To Kill a Mocking Bird” is interesting—When he was thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.—but it’s a stretch to call it compelling. She would also be told that her novel had to get off to fast start, that the first ten pages were crucial. But one of the strengths of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is that it builds slowly, moving in its own unique rhythm.

Instructions would be given to her for the pitching session she would be attending. She would be told that the best pitches are brief and that she should aim for an elevator pitch of 25 words or less. Most important, her pitch, like her first sentence, must be (here is that word again) compelling. How can she make her novel, a story told by an eight-year-old girl about courage and race and bigotry that takes place in a small Southern town in the nineteen thirties sound as compelling as the manuscripts other writers will be pitching that are thrillers or mysteries?

Harper Lee is one of the most reclusive writers in the history of American letters. It is almost impossible to imagine her in a large room where nervous writers stand in long lines anxiously waiting to pitch to the agents of their choice.

If the impossible did occur and Harper Lee actually pitched “To Kill a Mockingbird” to agents, they might ask her a question or two about her characters. Would they be interested in a novel about a lawyer who is a widower, his two young children, and a reclusive neighbor no one really knows? It’s doubtful. At best, they would mentally label it a midlist book.

What is a midlist book? It is a well-written book for which publishing houses have a low expectation. They doubt that it will become a bestseller. At best they hope it will garner good reviews, help build the author’s reputation, and sell enough copies to pay for its publication. Agents aren’t enthusiastic about representing midlist writers. They are looking for the next John Grisham.

So what does Harper Lee’s hypothetical experience at a pitching session mean for us? It means that if she wrote her novel today, chances are that she wouldn’t find an agent to represent her, and her manuscript wouldn’t be published by a traditional publishing house. She would either self-publish her book and it would be lost in a sea of self-published books, or it would be stowed away in a closet. In either case, we would have lost an American treasure.

Marian D. Schwartz

The Writers’ Conference: A Novel 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

Imagine Harper Lee Pitching “To Kill a Mockingbird” Today2020-07-11T18:37:21-04:00