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Secrets Revealed by a "Writers’ Conference Junkie."


           Elsewhere on a writers’ discussion board, a novice author asked me which writers' conferences I recommended.
            Earlier in my writing career I was a "writers’ conference junkie," attending as many workshops and programs as I could cram. It was my self-designed MFA in which I mastered writing skills, studied the tools of the craft, and absorbed as much information about the publishing industry. I also met other writers and formed lasting connections. I met agents who encouraged me and ultimately offered me representation.
            What I liked most about that novice writer’s question was that she understood the need to learn the craft. You will not plan to give a piano concert without having logged thousands of hours of piano lessons and honed your musical skills until they are as close to perfect as possible. Yet, recently, at a social event, I met a woman who had “finished writing a novel” and was looking for an agent. When I probed further, I discovered that her “novel” was merely 30,000 words long (most novels run around 90,000-115,00 words.) Nevertheless, she rejected my suggestion that she study the business of writing and publishing—even start by reading articles on the Internet. “She didn’t have time for that.” Yet, somehow, she had received a grant to help her jump to that publishing state….
            This post is for writers who are serious about learning to play the piano before applying for a grant to pay for the concert hall:
            There are over 600 writers' conferences each year across the country. Many—not all--are affiliated with English departments of universities, yet do not require that you be a student there. In fact, they draw a mature crowd that is quite different from their student body. If you've never attended a writers' conference, it's always easiest to start with one near you to get a feel, although they vary by programs and offerings as the people that organize and populate them, so you should plan to attend at least two or three... (See http://writing.shawguides.com/ for a complete listing.)
            To focus on the craft of writing and to venture into new fields of writing, my favorite is IWWG's “Remember The Magic” (for women only) that offers the most classes and workshops simultaneously than any writing conference I've been to. The warm and supportive environment nurtures writing free of judgment.  
            Perhaps the most prestigious conferences ones are Sewanee Writers Conference, (TN) and Breadloaf Writers Conference  (Middlebury, VT) where you must submit your work to be accepted, and the competition is fierce. They focus on the writing craft, not marketing, but Breadloaf also offers democratic access to visiting agents who scout the conference for yet-undiscovered talent. Iowa Writing Workshop also offers numerous week-long writing programs that can be stitched together into a summer-long studying. Their instructors, though, may vary in strength and teaching abilities.
            APW conference (this February in Washington DC) is intense and is tightly related to MFA programs in contents and in atmosphere. If you are not affiliated with an MFA program, you may find yourself floating unanchored in a horde of thousands of strangers…. But there is a huge amount of lectures and panel discussions, though not hands-on instruction.
            But if you are past the stage of learning and it is time for you to focus on meeting agents, Writer's Digest Conference in New York City this coming January does that.  Also IWWG has "Meet the Agent" program in NYC in April and October, (open to men, too!) It is an excellent opportunity to pitch directly to agents who are looking for new authors. In addition, many conferences across the country are attended by agents who travel far to present there; some make particular conferences their "home" as they return every year. It is especially true for genre-specific conferences that focus on sci-fi, romance, fantasy, etc. 
            If your manuscript is ready and you want to pitch directly to publishers, the NYC Pitch Conference is the place for you. You need to apply and show that your manuscript is in a good shape to pitch to the visiting editors from main publishing houses. While only 5% of all pitched books have ended up with a publishing contract, this event is an excellent place to evaluate where you stand in the publishing journey and what you must still do to get there. I found that honing my pitch through the methodical, thoughtful process was extremely valuable in eventually landing an agent and a publishing contract.
            There are many other good writers' conferences, and I admit to not having traveled to either the West Coast or overseas. As you start searching for the right event, here are some suggested steps:

1) Your budget: Registration, travel and housing—as well as number of days and time of year— are obvious considerations. 

 2) Check how long an event has been around. The poorly organized ones do not last, as attendees do not return.  If it is a new conference, check who are the organizers and what is their track record. But don’t overlook those. A small, new conference with excellent instructors may offer the intimate, comfortable environment you need.

3) Start with a local writers’ conference, knowing that you will attend more.

4) Take your time to evaluate the stage of your manuscript or your idea (for non-fiction) and set your goal for the conference accordingly.

5) Google writers or industry professionals you particularly like and check which conferences they attend.

6) Be prepared to be friendly and make contact with fellow writers. They are an equally important benefit of your conference experience. 

I am certain that many Red Room writers have attended good writing workshops and events, and I invite you to respond to this post with your own suggestions.

Talia Carner

Author, Puppet Child & China Doll--and upcoming in 2011, JERUSALEM MAIDEN

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Excellent write-up,

Excellent write-up, Talia.

For writers on tight budgets, community college creative writing programs are a great resource, as well (and some of them sponsor conferences).

For West Coast Americans, I can vouch for the Squaw Valley and Tin House conferences.