Writing Conferences: To Go or Not to Go?

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This past April, I attended the DFW (Dallas Fort Worth) Writer’s Conference for the first time. This was a new, eye-opening experience for me; I’ve presented short stories and papers at academic conferences several times, but I’ve never had the opportunity to visit a writing conference. In fact, I have to confess I’ve always sort of looked askance at them. How much can you really accomplish by going to a glorified comic con for writers?

I’ll tell you.

Should the opportunity to visit a writing conference present itself and you are in any way a writer, YOU SHOULD GO. Although there are a thousand reasons why this can be helpful, I will attempt to be brief and provide you with a small list of things you will need to know before attending, in order to make the most of your experience. 

Writing Conferences: What Are They?

1.  They are for anybody. If you have a completed novel, great. If not, no problem. While agents are available for querying, there are also plenty of workshops to attend that can give ideas, help with problem areas, and teach you about the writing and publishing industry in general.

2.  They are not wishy-washy nerd-fests. I mean, yeah, there’s a fair bit of geeking out over all things writing, but in general this is serious business. Be prepared to hear a lot of technical talk that—if you are serious, too—will be of great benefit. Come ready to learn and to realize that it takes more than just putting pen to paper to be a writer.

3.  They are for both the introverted and extroverted. I think I covered this in “they are for anybody,” but some writers will be alienated by the idea of having to socialize with hundreds of other people. Rest assured, you can go at your own pace. If the conference is any good, you will have choices. You can choose to do nothing but take in workshops, sitting quietly in the back with a notebook, or you can sign up for read and critique sessions to show off your work. You can go to the after-hours parties and hob-nob with agents, editors, and fellow writers, or not. It’s entirely up to you, and no one will force you into anything.

What to Bring:

  1. Extra copies of everything. By everything, I mean:
    1. Your first chapter
    2. Your synopsis
    3. Your query letter
    4. Don’t bother to bring your entire manuscript; there’s a 98% chance it will NOT be asked for, even if an agent is interested. Some people like to bring their first 50 pages, but even this is iffy; agents generally don’t like to be forced to carry around entire reams of paper during their stay.
  2. A USB drive. If you still feel compelled to bring your whole novel, load it onto a portal USB drive. Also keep file copies of all the above-mentioned items there as well; you never know when you may run out of copies and need to print, or else be asked to share something on the spot in electronic format.
  3. A computer, as well as a notebook and writing utensil. Probably a given for most of us, but it bears saying. You will want to take notes. You will want a place to jot down sudden inspiration, and you will want something to do in any downtime that crops up.
  4. Business cards. Have twenty or so of these with you. Make sure it contains your name and contact info (website, email, social media) at the very least. Some people also like to include the genres they work in or the title of the work they’re promoting. It’s nice to be able to hand these out to new writer-friends so that you can keep up with each other after the conference and avoid the embarrassment of trying to get numbers on the spot. Besides, it just makes you look so legit.
  5. Your elevator speech, and your pitch. The elevator speech is the one minute summary of your current work in progress or completed manuscript; enough to grab someone’s attention and facilitate a more in-depth conversation. The pitch is the two to three minute version of this that you would present to an agent. Practice these in advance; write them down and rehearse.

So there you have it. The very, very basics. In a forthcoming article, I’ll discuss some tips on how to prepare for agent pitch sessions, but for now I hope I’ve granted a bit more insight into what a writing conference can offer, and how you can begin to prepare for one.

As I said to begin with, if you have the chance, take the plunge. You’ll be surprised how enlightening it can be!

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