Getting the Most Out of a Writers Conference

Today I’ll be speaking at the Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference. Over the past few years, I’ve spoken at a handful of conferences in addition to this one, and I’ve found them all to be valuable in one way or another. For one thing, they give writers an excellent opportunity to escape the solitude of banging out words and to talk to other writers in person.

In this sense, conferences present an excellent opportunity to network; attendees can meet other writers, discuss ways to deal with various problems that come up over the course of the writing process, and get the good feeling that comes from realizing that one is not alone in one’s struggles. We writers tend to be a solitary bunch, and it’s just nice to talk to other people from time to time.

Of course, there’s that other sense of networking to consider as well: not just meeting other writers and possibly striking up friendships, but meeting professionals in “the industry.” For better or for worse, the focus of many writers conferences is publication, and most writers conferences offer attendees opportunities to pitch their ideas to agents and editors.

Yet while meeting with an agent or an editor can be an especially valuable experience for anyone whose manuscript is completed and as close to “perfect” as it’s going to get without further professional input, I worry that the emphasis that so many of these events place on such meetings takes away from the real value of writers conferences: learning about craft.

Perhaps one reason I’m especially sensitive to this issue today is that my talk on novel writing is scheduled in the same time slot as the “pitch sessions” at this particular conference, but I really think that the focus that many conferences place on finding an agent is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Personally, I started learning a lot more about writing when I stopped going to conferences with the intention of wooing an agent with my half-completed manuscripts and, instead, started listening to what the speakers and panelists had to say about the actual day-to-day stuff of writing.

Here’s how it usually worked for me: I’d spend the whole day obsessing over what people in the industry would call my “elevator pitch.” That’s the one-sentence explanation of the novel that you give to the agent or editor you’re meeting with in the hopes that they’ll like your idea enough to ask for the first ten or twenty pages of your manuscript. The trouble was that I’d keep going over it my head and, as a result, I wouldn’t hear anything that anyone was saying during any of the workshops or lectures I’d paid good money to attend.

To boil it down to dollars and cents, I was basically spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $90 or more per conference to speak a single sentence to a complete stranger when I should have been getting my money’s worth by shutting up and listening to the collective wisdom of writers who actually write. Math has never been my forte, but once I figured out the crass economics of the situation, I started listening and, more to the point, I started learning.

Personally, I think that the best way for a writer to get the most out of a writers conference is to forget about the agents and the pitch and concerns about getting published. All of that will come with time — and only after you’ve honed your craft. Sure, it’s good to have a basic understanding of how the publishing business works. But for my money, the best writing doesn’t occur when writers have “the industry” at the forefront of their priorities, and it certainly has very little to do with being able to boil a 90,000 word novel down to a single sentence. Rather, it occurs when writers sit down and focus on their work, and conferences are a great place to learn how to do that.