On Writing Conferences

I’ve been to a lot of writing conferences and workshops this year. I’ve been to seven so far:

  • Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace

  • Writer’s League of Texas

  • 4th St Fantasy

  • Highlights Foundation

  • Futurescapes

  • SCBWI Las Vegas

  • Las Vegas Writer’s Conference

Coming up I have:

  • Willamette Writers (sign up for my 5 hour master class!)

  • Writing Excuses Retreat and Workshop

So, I know from conferences. Not all conferences are created equal. Some seem to exist to take advantage of aspiring writers. Some exist to provide education and learning. Some are great for networking. Some feel like a literary version of the most dangerous game where writers are let loose to hunt down agents and pitch them wherever they find them.

Here’s a list of real talk items that will probably drastically cut down on how many conferences I get invited to in the future. But, for you dear readers, I will take the risk to lay out some of the common pitfalls and hazards of the conference attendee.

You’re not going to get a book deal at a conference.

Writers conferences pay agents and editors to come to the conference. In return for travel, lodging, and, if you’re lucky, a decent honorarium, you’re expected to participate in pitch sessions, critique feedback, and to be generally available to the attendees. The truth is, though none of us go to a conference expecting to come back with a client.

Yes, we are looking for new talent and you’re always open to finding that diamond in the haystack. But we’re not here for the purpose of finding clients. We’re here as educators and to build our brands and increase our profiles.

If you’re thinking of going to conference, go in prepared. Have your pitch, but the reason to pitch is to get feedback from professionals, not to get an book deal. Conferences are opportunities to learn about the business, to learn strategies to succeed, and to professionalize your writing career.

As an agent, it’s a nightmare to just get pitched over and over again. After the fourth in a row you can’t remember any of the details. I literally won’t remember any of the pitches I heard this last weekend (except for three of them that were so spectacularly racist I will never be able to scrub them from my brain). Learning to pitch is extremely important and practicing in front of people like me is a fantastic way to learn.

I love when a first time attendee sits down, visibly nervous, and dives in. It's such a great moment to watch them tackle this thing they're obviously nervous about, often terrified of and then pull it off. And I love giving them tips and pointers about how to make it better for the next time. I talk to them about how to position it for the market, timing and pacing, tricks for setting up a more receptive audience, how to pick comp titles. It's real work and it takes time to build up that rapport and to have a real conversation.

So, pick your moments. Don’t pitch me when I’m walking to my next panel. Don’t pitch me when I’m trying to go to the bathroom. Don’t pitch me when I’m at the bar drinking with my friends.

Prepare your questions. Know what your goals are. But also remember that publishing professionals are people. We are in search of good conversation and human connection. We remember people, not pitches. So treat the industry folks like you would anyone you’d meet on the street, in a bar, at a friend’s house. Talk to them. Ask questions. Be interesting but also be interested.

Networking is making friends

If you want to network, go in with the idea of being friends. The best conferences and workshops I’ve been to I’ve come away with new friends. People I talk to online. People I’m excited to see at other conferences. People who, when they’re in town, I dm and say, “let’s hang out!" simply because I enjoy their company.

They’re also aspiring writers. I can be useful to them in a number of ways and we both know that. But we’re friends because they treat me as a human and we have shared jokes and hang out and have a good time. And, for my friends, I go above and beyond. I make intros. I answer their questions. I help them strategize. If you treat someone like you want something from them all you’re going to get is a yes or no to the thing you want.

If, on the other hand, you go in with the idea of making friends then even if that person isn’t useful to you down the line, at least you have a new friend. There's nothing bad about that. It’s a no lose strategy.

Writers conferences are about writers

Honestly, publishing pros like me are at conferences to convince people it’s worth it to pay hundreds of dollars to attend. But we’re not the real value. We have things to share and you can and should learn a lot from interacting with people in the business.

But, the real value, the big secret of conferences, is that it’s not about us at all. The thing you can get out of conferences that will have a true lasting impact on your career is finding a peer group.

When you go to a conference, look to meet other people at your level. Find crit partners. Find a writing group. Get a slack going where you can bitch about the shit that happens over the course of trying to finish a book and get it published.

That cohort will be the single most useful thing in your career. Friends who will grow with you. Writers who will introduce you to their agents. Folks who will blurb your book when the time comes. I’m so happy when I see squads of people from workshops at cons all hanging out together, supporting each other, making intros and networking like mad.

Honestly, the value of writers conferences is in the friends you make along the way.

A bad conference is exploitation

If a conference is telling you it’s all about getting a deal

If a conference tells you just to pitch people

If a conference isn’t providing talks and panels

If a conference isn’t focused on education

If a conference isn’t fostering community

… don’t go.

The economy of workshops and conferences that prey on aspiring writers makes me furious. And when I realize I’ve ended up at one of those conferences and inadvertently lended my name to their cause I feel sick to my stomach. Don’t pay for a pitch session just for the sake of the pitch. The only thing you’ll get out of a pitch session is the opportunity to query, which you could have done anyway most times.

Pay for the opportunity to pick someone’s brain. Pay for the opportunity to learn from an expert. Pay for the experience of pitching in person.

Don’t give in to the promise of an easy deal. Most published authors have never been to a writers conference. Most successful writers have never been to a workshop. You can learn from these experiences and there are some that are very very good and I heartily endorse. But many of them, most of them, are looking to profit off of people’s hopes and dreams.

You don’t need them to succeed. I’m not saying don’t go to them. I’m saying know why you’re going and what you want to get out of it. Be intentional. Be careful. And most of all, go make some new friends.