I am often asked how important it is to attend a writers’ conference. I believe it is very important, on more than one level. First it is the best place to go as a beginning writer to give necessary knowledge and background in as short a time as possible. You have to read a lot of books or articles on writing to learn even a portion of what you will assimilate at one conference. Even if you’ve read a lot before attending, the workshops and talks you hear at a conference will help you put it all into perspective and answer those nagging questions that have come up but weren’t answered.
I suggest that beginning writers attend a conference every year or two to continue to learn and grow as a writer. One of the frustrating things about attending a conference is that you can’t take in everything that is offered and you know you won’t remember everything you hear. That is all right. I often remind writers that when you attend a conference, it is to learn the things you need to know for where you are right now, or will be in the near future. You will pick up and remember those things this time.
The next time you attend, you will be at a different place and will pick up on the things you need then. That is the value in attending as often as you are able. Also, as you move into new areas of writing, you will be able to take new workshops in those areas—constantly expanding your field of knowledge. The beginner to intermediate author will look for conferences that offer the best teachers and a well-rounded teaching program.
For the more advanced writer, the conference serves a different purpose. Although the advanced writer will look for interesting classes and experienced teachers, they will be most interested in the number and quality of editors and agents present. It is the personal contact with those editors that the advanced writer needs. In Christian publishing, like in any other business, it is not what you know (or can write), it’s who you know (or who might buy it). As it gets more difficult to find editors who will read unsolicited submissions, it will become even more important that advanced writers attend one or even two conferences a year where the largest number of editors are in attendance.
Any writer who attends a conference and doesn’t take advantage of every opportunity to meet and interact with the editors present is missing out on one of its greatest advantages. You may not have something to sell to a particular editor right now, but you need to get better acquainted with both editor and publication or publishing house to begin paving the way for future projects.
I suggest that you look for a conference that boasts a good number of editors (some have as many as 10-20, or more) and let that be at least one of the determining factors in your selection. After registering, begin to prepare to meet with those editors. Make a list of the editors you are interested in and either find some appropriate manuscripts or write a query, book proposal, or manuscript to take along to show them. Even if you don’t have time to make such preparations for every editor, either come up with an idea to pitch or take along a published manuscript that would fit their needs to use to launch some other ideas that might interest them.
I can remember one of my first conferences where I took an idea for a children’s picture book. I showed the manuscript to seven different publishers during the week. Of those, five showed an interest, but only one was interested in the book as I presented it. The other four gave me ideas for variations, different approaches, or other products that I could develop from that same basic idea. It was that experience that first taught me the value of talking to an editor about any idea. It is best to have several ideas to present to each editor, as the first one may fall flat. Sometimes simply discussing the smallest kernel of an idea will develop into a “mighty oak.”
If you don’t feel comfortable making an appointment to talk with an editor on a more formal basis, at least try to sit next to one at meals and learn all you can about the editor and the periodical/house represented. Even listening to other writers discuss their ideas will give you insights you can use later in your own marketing.
Advanced writers should also look for conferences that offer an Advanced Track that deals with the special needs of the advanced writer. Such tracks often deal more with the business of being a writer, rather than with actual writing techniques. They may cover topics such as negotiating book contracts, income tax, marketing or trends, as well as providing editor panels where the writers can ask questions and have closer interaction with the editors and speakers.
One of the best by-products of a writer’s conference is the people you meet and the contacts you make. I met writers at my first conferences over twenty years ago that I still consider among my best friends. Nearly all of my closest friends I met originally at a conference. In addition I have met many others who have proved exceptional contacts when I needed information in their areas of expertise or someone who could refer me to other resources I needed. Writers help writers and the writers’ conferences becomes central to making that happen.
See the Christian Writers’ Market Guide for a complete list of conferences nationwide. Write to any that interest you and ask them to send a brochure as soon as available. Read the brochure carefully and note any special services the conference offers, such as pre-conference sign-ups with editors or the chance to send manuscripts ahead of time, a manuscript critique service where for free or for a fee you may have complete manuscripts or book proposals critiqued by professionals. These extra services are often worth the cost of the conference.