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5 Ways to Make a Writers’ Conference Work for You

I know I need an agent, but I don’t know where to find one.

I don’t know how to start building an author platform…I don’t even know what a platform is!

I should join or start a critique group, but I don’t know any other writers!

Sound familiar? Aspiring authors and curious writing bystanders say things like this to me a lot, and my answer is always the same:

Get Thee to a Writers’ Conference!

Writers connect at the Port Townsend Writers Conference (Photo Credit: Centrum Foundation)

Writers connect at the Port Townsend Writers Conference (Photo Credit: Centrum Foundation)

Although writing a book can be a solitary, introverted activity that you can do without bothering to put on pants, publishing a book is a community activity. Writers’ conferences are the places where we network, visit, and meet the next generation of authors.

There are hundreds of multi-day events for writers all over the country and around the world. They’re organized for writers in a particular region, or for a specific genre of writing. Some conferences are organized more for indie and self publishing, while others invest a lot of time in connecting writers with agents and publishers in pitch sessions. Some focus on the craft of writing, while others are much more about the business and marketing aspects.

In other words, wherever you are in your writing journey, there’s an event that’s just right for where you are right now.

Here are 5 ways to make a writers’ conference work for you:

1.   Choose your conference wisely.

This is a major investment, so do your homework. Look carefully at the event website. Are these workshop topics appropriate for your type of writing? If you’re going in order to meet agents and publishers, look at the list of faculty who will attend; do they represent your type of writing? A few years ago I spoke at the Association of Writers of Writing Programs, a prestigious (and expensive) national event that mostly draws literary writers, MFA students, poets, small presses, and the like. I met a rather befuddled local doctor who had signed up for the conference at the last minute, hoping to find out how to make his health-and-wellness nonfiction book a commercial bestseller. Needless to say, he did not find his answers.

2.   Before you leave, work on your pitch.

If you’re in a conference center with 200 other writers, you’re going to be asked over and over, “What are you writing?” The smoother and more compelling you can make your pitch and summary, the easier that icebreaker will be. Plus, this is one of the best ways for you to really dig in and understand what you’re writing and what sets it apart as unique, no matter where you are in the process.

3. Talk to people!

Yes, the workshops and classes at conferences are fantastic, and you will learn more in two days of listening to experts than you can learn in two months of reading books and scrolling through the Internet. But what will really make a difference for your long-term career are the relationships you make with other writers and publishing professionals. Introduce yourself to other writers at meals and during breaks. Share experiences.

Even if you’re not ready to pitch your work to an agentespecially if you’re not ready to pitch your work to an agent!—introduce yourself. Ask questions. Tell jokes. Be a normal person. (Agents aren’t as scary as they seem, I promise; I was an agent for five years and I never bit a single writer.) Building a positive reputation in the community will benefit you in the long term.

Caveat: DO NOT, under ANY circumstances, talk about your work to an agent, a publisher, or another writer while you’re in a bathroom. Yes, I know this sounds silly. But it happens ALL THE TIME. Writers see someone they’ve been hoping to meet standing at the next sink (or worse), and the next thing they know, they’re passing a pitch sheet over the soap dispenser (or worse). Just don’t do it.

4.   Share contact info.

Stay in touch with other attendees. Become Facebook friends or email accountability partners. Add them to your mailing list (even if you don’t have a mailing list yet…) As your writing progresses, theirs will, too. These might be your future endorsers and blurb writers, your advocates and influencers. No one supports new books like other writers.

5.   Don’t say it’s impossible.

It’s too easy to talk ourselves out of investing in ourselves and our dreams before we even try. If finances are an issue for you, contact the conference (well in advance) and ask if they have scholarships or volunteer opportunities. Many events are entirely volunteer run, and they offer registration discounts in exchange for a few hours of your time handing out name tags or setting up chairs. (This is also a great way for you to connect with others, especially if you’re not naturally a small-talk-and-chat person.) Or ask for a conference registration and travel costs for the next major holiday.

If you think your family can’t get along without you, ask them. Partners, siblings, parents, and friends may surprise you.

This might be the best investment you make in pursuing your dream, or your next career.


(Have a specific question about a conference, or need a recommendation for your situation? Use the comments, and let’s see if we can crowdsource you to the right place.)

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