Writing advice

Writers’ Conferences

I admit I was late to appreciate the benefits of attending a writers’ conference. Part of this, I’m sure, was because I had finished my college education, which meant I’d taken nearly every writing class the University offered. What more, I felt, could I learn from a one or two hour workshop? I’d just spent more than four years studying the art of writing for several hours a week.

Little did I know.

Oh, I did attend a conference once outside of Portland, mainly because it let you reserve a time slot to pitch your work to a real life New York agent. I did, but nothing came of it. In hindsight, I was over-reaching. I was not yet good enough. But it was an experience.

I attended all the workshops for which I’d signed up, but didn’t get much out of them. They reminded me of freshman-level courses at the University. There was a lecture hall full of about a hundred students listening to someone lecture. There was no discussion, little in the way of question-and-answer, almost no engagement. I also didn’t know a soul there, and it just being a day or two, never saw anyone often enough to make a new friend.

My opinion of writer’s conferences largely reflected that experience: me wandering alone from workshop to workshop, passively listening to the lectures, but gaining little or no insight into what I was trying to learn.

I decided writers’ conferences were not for me. The expense was simply not worth the meager returns.

I was wrong. For ten years I was wrong.

Flash forward to 2006. I had just moved to a little town on the Oregon coast and, as fate would have it, this little town hosted a writer’s conference every winter. Still, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t like writers’ conferences. Remember?

However, a family member talked me into going just once. Am I glad she did? Absolutely. That weekend experience at the South Coast Writers’ Conference truly changed my writing life. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I became one of the cadre of volunteers that help organize and host it every year. I’ve been doing it ever since.

I was converted.

So what made this conference experience so different?

In a word: size. The South Coast Writer’s Conference is a small conference. It usually only hosts ten to twelve presenters and about a hundred-and-fifty participants. Instead of a lecture hall full of student writers listening to the presenter, most workshops consisted of fifteen to twenty students discussing the topics with a presenter. Students actually did exercises and discussed them with their colleagues.

I walked away from the weekend exhilarated and enthusiastic about the craft again. It was remarkable.

Ever since then, I’ve told anyone who asks (especially writers struggling to learn the craft and establish their careers) to by all means attend a conference. But choose carefully because different conferences offer different things. Not all conferences are the same. Like any business expense, you must decide whether the benefits are worth the expense.

Some of the larger conferences (such as the Maui Conference, or Willamette Writer’s Conference) can offer things the smaller conferences can’t, such as presenters who are wildly successful, household names, opportunities to meet one-on-one with agents and film producers, or to have your manuscript critiqued. These conferences, however, are relatively expensive (someone has to pay the higher speaking fees for the big name authors) and they are often so large that it’s difficult to get any personal attention.

The smaller conferences can’t attract or pay for the household-name writers, but they also are usually much less expensive. The presenters who do come are talented, perfectly good writers who just haven’t made it into the stratosphere of the best seller lists. Often, they are young authors who are on their way up. I’ve seen a presenter suddenly have a hugely successful book and become so much in demand that a small conference can no longer afford them.

But the biggest advantage the smaller conferences have is that you can receive much more personal attention. Attendees often chat with presenters over lunch and between workshops. Also, because the workshops are small, the attendees are often seeing the same faces in several workshops. Friendships are made. Connections forged.

And whichever conference you decide to attend, that is probably the most beneficial aspect of all of them. The knowledge that whatever challenges you might be facing in your writing career, there are others out there who know exactly how difficult it can be. Some of them even know how to overcome them.

Sure, the workshops might teach you a new way to handle point-of-view, or a promotional opportunity you weren’t aware of, but the most important thing any person who has chosen this maddening and often frustrating pursuit needs to have is a sense of belonging to a community. Writing is lonely enough without feeling you’re completely alone. Attending a writers’ conference can help with that.

So should you spend your hard-earned on the local writer’s conference? Absolutely.

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