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ASK THE EDITOR Why Attend Writers' Conferences?

By Susan Malone

July 2002

Writers often ask me about literary conferences—should they attend?  Are they worthwhile?  Do you learn anything?  Meet anyone (translate, agents or editors) who might help?  Etc., etc.  And they answer to all of the above is a resounding yes.  That yes, however, may be for entirely different reasons than one guesses from the outside.

Literary conferences can further a writer’s growth, in both the nuts-and-bolts side of things and the business/marketing side, in a number of ways.  Of course, you have to pick reputable conferences, but most of the ones that have been around for a while these days are.  Now and then I hear of a conference that didn’t deliver, but in the ones at which I have spoken, and still do, you really get a lot of bang for your dollar.  And in this business, that’s a big part of the game.

First off, conferences offer many sessions discussing the technical aspects of writing. Everything from character development to furthering the plot to basic manuscript 101.  A weekend conference can be equal to a semester of a writing course.  No, it won’t be as in-depth, but you’ll get the benefit of learning from a myriad of professionals in the business, who not only teach what works and what doesn’t, but who have the track record to prove they know of what they speak.  I.e., published authors, agents, and editors.  The difference in how those folks go about writing and what is often taught in colleges is usually oceans apart.  I’m not saying taking courses isn’t an effective means of learning the basics. But it is a more limited means than being taught by those who’ve not only been there, but have “made it” as well.

Another aspect of this business—the marketing angle—is usually taught in a variety of ways at seminars. Everything from writing effective query letters to fashioning synopses to fleshing-out outlines usually gets covered.  These marketing documents are vital, and it can take months if not years of research to learn to do them well, when cut-to-the-core tips at a conference (not to mention the wording an agent or editor specifically asks for) can provide you with the essentials. 

One of the most important occurrences at conferences, however, has little to do with the writing itself.  Most of the bigger ones bring in top agents and editors—those who are getting the job done in finding new talent and bringing it to published pages.  These folks are very accessible at conferences, speaking with new writers, hearing book pitches, often engaging in one-on-one personal meetings.  While this may seem a very autonomous business (and what could be more so than words on a page), editors and agents are actually real people as well. And they have quirks and personalities and likes and dislikes.  Sifting through what they in fact handle is easier when you’re speaking with them, face to face.  And it helps them as well to put a face with a manuscript, once it then arrives on their desks. 

Many conferences offer manuscript evaluations and contests as well.  While the feedback may vary widely—anything from notations on the pages to a two-line overview—you’ll usually get a good, hard read from someone in the business.  You may win the contest.  You may catch an editor’s eye.  But if nothing else, what a great barometer for where you are! 

You cannot sell something un-publishable at a conference.  But you can make inroads with folks in the business, and begin to establish relationships that lead to contracts down the road.  A well-known Western author and friend of mine sold his first book to a Berkley editor while driving from the airport to the conference site.  Okay, so he didn’t actually sell the book that day, although the editor still says he did!  And those stories abound.  I know countless similar ones.

Finally, you get to spend the weekend with a host of other writers, all striving for the same goal, all working hard and learning.  Many will be complete newbies, and many will already be published, with all sorts of folks in between. We spend so much of our time toiling alone, FEELING alone, that it sometimes helps to remind us we’re human when we can relate to others in the same boat.  And, it gives us inspiration to boot.  The number-one killer in this business is not the bad agent, not the devils in NY, not smarmy practices.  It’s giving up.  The road to the brass ring twists and turns and is filled with mountains and valleys and sharp precipices.  It can really be helpful to know you’re not in this all by yourself.  Sometimes, that very camaraderie is what keeps you in the game.

Susan M. Malone is author of: By the Book (novel); BodySculpting; Fourth and Long; and Five Keys for Understanding Men, and owns a successful editorial service. Fifteen Malone-edited books have recently sold to traditional publishers! Malone is a contributing editor to Authorlink.com. http://www.maloneeditorial.com