A monthly column of wit, insight, irreverance and inspiration by a published author and veteran of the publishing trenches.

The Ink-Stained Wretch: "The Writer's Conference"

Don Whittington

January, 1999


At some point in your writing life you will ponder the notion of writer's conferences: Should I go?  Why?  Which one should I attend?  How much should I spend?  Let's have a little plain talk about it, shall we?

Should I go?

Depends. Are you normal?  I've seen folks at these things so wound up, so anxious and eager and worried about their work, that I kept expecting them to explode.  Folks like that make other people nervous.  Many writers are shy, but most editors are not only shy, they're suspicious as well.  If you strike them as the kind of person who will ferret out their private address and phone number and hound them throughout your career, then they are going to run away every time you come near.  If you know you strike folks that way, if people often comment about how tense you seem, you may well do yourself more harm than good by attending.

Otherwise, you should go.


To get out of the slush pile.  It's as simple as that.  There is no quicker way to advance to the pile of solicited manuscripts than to make a personal connection with an editor or agent.  Many conferences offer one-on-one pitch sessions with editors and agents.  These sessions don't last very long, but if you are personable and bright, if you know how to tell a story, and if you can demonstrate passion about your work without scaring everyone to death (see above) chances are someone will ask to see your work.  And that is what it's all about.  No matter how wonderful your book is, it's no damned good at all unless someone reads it.  Conferences are fast-tracks for making that happen.

Which one should I attend?

Well, what do you write?  For example, if you write westerns you might want to go to the Western Writer's of America conference.  Nearly every genre hosts a specialty conference and admission is open to anyone with the registration fee.  Writer's Digest publishes lists of all national conferences, and with the added resources of Authorlink! and other web sites you should be able to find the one that's right for you.  Some of the best are regional conferences, where representatives of almost every genre can be found.  University sponsored conferences are my least favorite.  They often have impressive lists of attendees, but there is a definite in-crowd ambience at many of these that seems to defeat the spirit of a good conference.

Whatever your preference, pick a conference which:

          a) features guest writers you've heard of,

          b) features editors who publish what you write,

          c) features agents who represent your type of work, and

          d) is specifically for writers and not fans. 

Fan conferences can be fun, too, but guests attend with a very different mind-set and aren't necessarily looking for new writers.


How much should I spend?

The registration fee alone is not a gauge of a conference's worth.  After all, a $350 conference you can commute to each day is a better bargain than a  $150 conference four states away.  Also, make sure the conference is well established.  The older conferences have ironed out the bugs and tend to give a better product, so they're worth a little more.  Plan to attend with enough cash to spring for a round or two.  The best contacts are made in the bar after the scheduled events of the day.  Guest writers, editors, and agents don't expect to buy a lot of drinks, if you get my drift.  Be wise when you join a group.  Often an editor, agent, and writer agree to attend a conference only because it gives them a chance to meet in person.  If you see a writer and his editor in grim conversation (the writer will be the one talking) be nice and give them some private time.

A writer's conference is by far one of the best ways to promote yourself, and if you've never gone to one you should try it.  But a quick word of advice: don't forget to have fun.  Give yourself half a chance, and you'll make new friendships that last for years.  And if that's the only good thing that comes out of it…well, that's worth the price of admission all by itself.