How to Choose a Writer’s Conference

PJ here, happy to be on the East coast and back in my own bed…ahhhh. After doing this writing thing for a while, I’ve been to quite a few writer’s conferences, and I wanted to share my experience on how to choose the “right” conference for you. If you belong to RWA or a similar writer’s organization, you probably get inundated with lots of options. Here are a few things to think about.

Location/Accommodations: Check out the hotel venue and make sure the location is some place you’d like to stay for a few days. A bad night’s sleep, disappointing food, or poor quality hospitality can really put a damper on your stay. It’s worth visiting the hotel’s website and checking out their reviews. Make plans for car rental and recreational activities ahead of time so you don’t get there with hopes of visiting a locale on your “down time” only to find that you can’t get a car rental on short notice or the place you want to visit is closed. Although you are going for business, one of the perks of traveling is enjoying the sights along the way. Also, check to see what is around your hotel. Are there local restaurants and shopping within walking distance? Is there a gym? An indoor pool? Are you next to a train yard, airport, or in a bad section of the city? Some of these things may not be important to you, but if they are, make sure you know what you are paying for ahead of time. Scope out your hotel and surrounding area on Google maps.

Price: Is it affordable and worth the money for what you are getting? Are meals included? Are the speakers well known and knowledgeable? Is it worth your time, money, and effort? Remember to consider your loss of income while you’re away from your day job, and factor in any accrued costs such as wardrobe, entertainment, and additional travel fees (taxis, trains, buses etc.). Remember to save all receipts for tax purposes.

Focus of conference: Does the conference offer workshops that will help you further your career goals? If you are a newer writer, make sure there are craft workshops geared to what you’d like to learn. If you are seeking publication, are there opportunities to meet with agents and editors to pitch your story? Agent and editor panels offer a great opportunity to ask questions, find out what they are looking for, and hear the latest about the industry from publishing professionals. If you are a published author, do they offer promotion, marketing, and business oriented workshops? Interested in self-pubbing? Do they offer the most updated information available in this rapidly growing and changing aspect of the industry? If you are participating in a book signing, how successful have previous years been and how many readers can you expect to see? Shipping books is expensive, so ask for clear answers about realistic expectations. My experience is that print books don’t sell all that well at conferences and I rarely recoup the cost of shipping. I can see e-books being the way to go for future signings.

Networking: Conferences are a wonderful place to meet like-minded individuals and make professional contacts that you might never have the chance to meet otherwise. Don’t stalk the agents and editors but research them and know who you’d like to make a connection with. Make the effort to sit next to them at lunch or dinner (or in the bar). Be ready to talk intelligently about your work. Be prepared with a SHORT pitch of your WIP. Create a one or two sentence summary (log line) of what your story is about. The most common question asked at conferences is “What do you write?” The second most common question is “What is your story about?” Have an answer memorized and ready, and confidently smile as you give them your brief spiel. Don’t monopolize their time, but use the time wisely. If you get tongue tied and start rambling or their eyes begin to glaze over, stop talking and ask them a question about something unrelated. Where are you from? Are you a writer, too? Do you love baseball, zumba, pole dancing? Something that will put you at ease and take the heat off of you until you can collect yourself and get comfortable enough not to sound like an idiot. These are just people, but they are professionals and are there to FIND YOU! Respect their time, but don’t let your fear stop you from putting yourself out there.

Quality Speakers: I cannot stress this enough. Do some research on the speakers. What are their publishing/professional credentials? Just because they are there, doesn’t mean they are interesting, entertaining, or an expert in their field. Have they done this workshop before? How many times? Ask around to other writers and check out the websites of your presenters. If they don’t have a professional website that is engaging and informative, it might be an indicator that they aren’t all that well organized.

Organization: If you’ve ever participated in organizing a conference, you know about the gazillion moving parts and the army of people it takes to put on a seamless production. Of course there are always things that go wrong or details that get missed, but overall, organizers want it to be a good experience for everyone and they want attendees to return year after year to support the effort. If they don’t return e-mails, or answer your questions clearly up front, chances are the conference won’t be much better organized than the individuals running it. Conferences are generally a way for organizations to make money to support writers and their endeavors, so organizers (who are all volunteers, so be patient and kind to these people) are invested in making your conference experience successful. If there are suggestions you have for improvements, be sure to share them with conference organizers.

And last but not least, Food: You might have to contact the conference organizers for this information, but it’s worth asking about the menu ahead of time. If you have dietary restrictions or just want to make sure that some healthy selections are available, it’s worth the added effort to ensure that your needs are known ahead of time. You also have the option of doing a bit of shopping when you get settled in and stocking your hotel room refrigerator (make sure one is available in your room when you book your reservation) with fruit, yogurt, water, etc. so you can avoid the breakfast buffets that offer all those yummy bagels, pastries, muffins, and such. Will there be adequate chocolate selection at breaks? Just sayin’.

Unlocked Secret: Do your research, guys. There are enough choices for quality conferences around the country and your educational dollars are valuable, so make them count and get the most of your experience.

I hope to see you all at the RWA National convention in Atlanta this summer. It’s shaping up to be a fabulous time!

Any other tips for our readers to help them find a quality conference? What has been your favorite conference experience? Any funny experiences you’d like to share from the “trenches”?


13 thoughts on “How to Choose a Writer’s Conference”

  1. Paula, your post is fantastic. You left no stone unturned. For twenty years in my career of interior design, I attended every conference, and traveled to the best cities in America. We never did go to Europe, I would have done that as well. The conferences were some of the best I have experienced. I still have my favorite tape of a speaker, Jean Houston, from 1985. She loved Ayn Rand and Margaret Mead and she spoke about looking at life in a broader perspective. Those that have, those that have-not, education and what we as world changers can do to make things better. She was motivating. Imagine, 3000 interior designers and architects all in one place listening. It’s like having 3000 Steve Jobs judging every word. She got a standing ovation.

    Thank you for reminding me of all that’s out there and how to make wise choices. Best of all, thanks for the memories.

    1. It’s wonderful that you had such great experiences. I know when I go to RWA nationals that the energy alone of 2200 crazy romance writers is sure to giuve me a boost. I always come home energized and dying to write!

  2. All great advice, PJ! As someone who travels a lot and attends many conferences, I concur with your criteria (and hope I make the cut as a speaker…). Staying in a funky-smelling hotel room can really put a damper on your time! I’ve been lucky for the most part and would add one more thing to your list: hospitality. How welcoming is the sponsoring group? Do they make sure you have an opportunity to meet people if you’re a newbie or don’t know a soul? Do you have to wait for three hours in the lobby because your room isn’t ready? Those things make a difference!

  3. That’s true Kristan. Hospitality by the group is critical, but not always available. If you are not adventurous, the start of your stay could be a failure. Being a newbie is delicate. Even at our CTRWA meetings. Last meeting Jamie had everyone introduce themselves. We don’t always have time, but I wish we did b/c it was wonderful.

  4. Great post, PJ! A couple things I would add: (1) If you have a roommate, make sure it’s someone you know and trust and someone who will be considerate of you and your joint space. (2) An in-hotel bar is an excellent place to network. You don’t have to drink alcohol (although that’s, you know, fun in moderation!), but the bar is a place to relax and get to know people in a more informal atmosphere–without the pressure of being “on” all the time and hyperfocused on pitches.

    1. I’ve had great luck with roomies. The couple of times that i roomed with someone I did not know, it was a little…weird…but okay. I pretty much stick with people I know now but it’s always fun/interesting getting to know people on such an intimate basis. I’ve now slept with several members of CTRWA…shhhh…don’t tell anyone:-) Maybe someday I’ll write a “tell all”.

  5. All good tips, and some I hadn’t considered before, so thanks! One other concern is the size of the group. My favorite conference so far is the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in Homer, Alaska–about 150-200 people! We really got to know each other. 🙂

    1. I agree, Lynn. I like smaller conferences too. It gives you a chance to meet everyone and get to know who people are. I met some awesome writers, authors, and editors at EPICon. I had the privilege of hanging out a bit with Deb Dixon (an absolutely brilliant and very approachable lady), Marci Baun, Editor of Wild Child press, (who was a boatload of fun and looked fabulous in her sparkly gold dress a the awards”, and her lovely assistant edito, Leslie Lutz (who made me feel as if we’d known each other forever). The organizers worked amazingly hard to put together a crew of excellent presenters, (including our own marketing expert, Jennifer Fusco–a highlight of the weekend), and both a copyright attorney and some tax folks who answered those hard, ugly, and pesky questions. My favorite people though, were my roomies, who really made the trip worthwhile!Thank you, Melanie Meadors and Katy Lee!

    1. I’ll miss you too! And um…you would be correct. I tried four rental car agencies and couldn’t make it work. Fed ex didn’t open until noon and by the time I got back to the hotel, it didn’t seem worth the aggravation. I was totally bummed that i didn’t get to see the ocean.

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