Friday, March 23, 2012

Is a Writing Conference in Your Future?

The learning curve to become a writer is a long slow one, so you need all the help you can get. Just because you get a piece or two published doesn’t make you a freelance writer. Learning should continue as long as you continue to write. One of the best ways to learn new skills and make contacts is by attending a writers’ conference.

No matter where you live, unless it’s literally in the wilderness, you’ll most likely find a writers’ conference being held nearby. Some are worth the money and time you spend on them. Others are not. Matching yourself and your own writing and business needs to the right one in the right place takes planning, lots of research, and money—extra amounts of which are often harder to come by for many freelancers. Also, the quality of conferences tends to ebb and flow. What was a great conference one year may not be so great the next, depending on its management, the amount of promotion, the level of faculty expertise, and the state of the economy. And don’t be swayed by celebrity names on the roster. Just because a writer is well known doesn’t mean that they can convey what they know to you.

So what makes a good writers’ conference? You should judge a conference by the seminars it offers, not by how many editors or publishers will be there. Remember, your main objective at any conference, for writers or not, is to learn new skills. Pick a conference that will offer you the most new knowledge for the money.

A good example of a narrow view is the Philadelphia Writers Conference, held annually in June. The management of this conference prides itself in allowing seminar presenters to work at the conference only one time. This bypasses many really good instructors who could share their knowledge with even more writers over the years. It also requires participants to attend all three days of the conference. This is supposed to weed out wannabees. Instead, it makes it harders for professional writers to attend, giving the conference a definite amateur outlook.

If you're considering a conference coming up in your area, ask yourself some questions about it first. Can you tell from the flyer or Web site what type of writers the conference targets? Is this a conference for all writers—nonfiction writers as well as fiction writers and poets? Does it offer too broad a range or too narrow a one? Is it aimed at beginning writers or those already in the business? The American Society of Journalists and Authors runs an annual conference aimed primarily at those not in their ranks. They encourage their membership to volunteer for the conference, but not necessarily to attend it.

If you’re a working freelance writer, there’s nothing like enhancing your skills and knowledge better than attending a writers conference by professionals for professionals. Talking shop with other working writers for several days or a week can add immeasurably to your overall knowledge. The annual Malice Domestic Conference for both writers and fans of “cozy” mysteries, held each Spring in Bethesda, Maryland, is a good example of a conference that offers both seminars in writing skills and the exchange of ideas and the latest in mystery publishing between mystery writers. While not a writers conference as such, this massive mystery meeting draws mystery fans as well as working mystery writers.

Bouchercon, the world mystery convention held in a different location each year, attracts mystery writers from around the globe. All the major mystery writers' organizations have meetings there, and some, such as Sisters in Crime, even offer a writing workshop a day prior to the convention.
Find out about the speakers at the conference you plan to attend? Do research on them beyond what you read in the brochure. Do you recognize the titles of their work? Do you know if they'll be criticizing work at the conference? Time constraints prevent one-day or weekend conferences from offering a critiquing service, unless you send in work ahead of time. However, longer conferences, with higher fees for room, board, and workshops, usually do. 

Will publishers and agents also be present? While it’s always good to mingle with these people, most of the good ones simply don’t have time to attend conferences. Plus, they’re not looking for beginning writers but more for ones who have had some work published. Does the conference have social hours scheduled or a place where you can meet and talk casually to seminar presenters? Try to find someone who has attended the conference in the past and ask them about its good and bad qualities.

The best way to find a conference near you is to search for “writers conferences” on Google. Writers’ Digest Magazine has also published a list of conferences annually in their May issue.

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