Should You Attend a Writers Conference? Part II: What to Expect – and NOT Expect – M. Ruth Myers

Should You Attend a Writers Conference? Part II: What to Expect – and NOT Expect

In Part I of this article, I advised authors-in-the-making to ask themselves two questions before deciding whether to pony up the price of attending a writers conference. If you have done it, I urge you to before going further. You’ll better digest what I tell you today.

Q. 1) – What do you expect/want from a writers conference? Different writers will have different answers. Let me address some of the most common.

  • An editor who signs me to a contract or at least wants to read my work. – This one is a long shot. A very long shot. Yes, it happens, but don’t expect it.
  • An agent to represent me. – Chances are better on this one, but not by much. Don’t even fantasize unless you have a goodly chunk of novel to show them should they be interested. For non-fiction, you’ll need the same, plus a well-executed outline and/or synopsis.
  • Feedback on my work from a professional writer. – Yes! You should definitely be able to get this. Many conferences have an arrangement whereby for an additional fee you can submit a certain number of pages in advance to be read by an instructor in your chosen area (novel, short story, magazine article). At the conference you’ll be allotted a time slot to meet privately with the reader to discuss it. These one-on-ones usually run 20-30 minutes each.

For the basic conference price, however, you should expect some basic feedback from the instructor during your classes. Perhaps s/he will give you all an exercise and have you take turns reading what you came up with. Perhaps it will be an assignment to bring in the next day. Maybe it will be a chance to read part of something you’ve already written. Instructors vary wildly in how they structure their classes.

  • A chance to rub elbows with famous authors. – You’ll certainly get a chance to hear them speak and ask them questions. Some will be willing to have students join them for coffee or a drink. Others are more private. Personalities of authors and conferences vary.
  • Information to make me a better writer. – Absolutely! You’ll get it in classes, for starters. Your instructors have stumbled into, and out of, many of the pitfalls of their chosen profession. They have bruises to prove it. If you listen, and already have written enough to grasp what they’re telling you, (see Q. 2) they’ll show you how to write effectively and avoid some bumps.

You’ll get additional tips on writing and selling at special lectures and panels. So many your head will start to ache.

To top that off, you’ll be able to get both tips and feedback from fellow writers. Maybe it will be over lunch or maybe at late night get-togethers where you take turns reading your works in progress.

  • Motivation. – Yes indeedy. You’ll get a great psychological boost from being with other writers and talking writing 24 hours a day with people who have the same interests, frustrations and challenges. You may even find people to exchange work and critiques with after you return home.

Q. 2) Where are you on the path of your own writing career?

The more actual writing experience you have under your belt, the more you’ll get out of a writers conference. Don’t go in cold and expect to come out ready to sit down and pen your first novel.

At minimum, you should have taken a class or two, or written a couple of short stories or whatever it is you long to write. If you have your sights set on writing a book, have at least fifty pages of it under your belt. More is better. You may end up throwing those pages away. I threw my entire first novel away. The second one got me an agent, who didn’t think it was ready. The third one, she sold to the first publisher who saw it. It came out in hardcover and sold foreign rights as well.

You’ll also fare better if you’ve had experience taking criticism, bad as well as good. Your family and friends may love what you’ve written because they love you. You’re going to be dealing with strangers here. Some will be tactful. Others won’t be.

Occasionally, someone comes along who hasn’t written much but will be content to feel like a writer and immerse themselves in talk about writing. That’s fine. Just know what you expect, and where you are in being able to understand what you hear. Then make your decision to attend – or delay attending – a writers conference.

To those who have attended such an event: Please share your thoughts about what you wish you’d known or done ahead of time, and what you got out of your experience.

M. Ruth Myers, whose novels include the Maggie Sullivan mysteries, has taught at week-long, weekend, and three-day writers conferences from coast to coast.