When you are a writer, just starting in your writing career, there are many things you are required to learn, understand and do in your journey towards becoming a published writer, an author.
The main one is, of course, dedicating as much time as possible to writing. You can take courses to learn about the mechanics of writing, the creative process, and the classic patterns of storytelling. There are many ways to achieve that, from taking creative writing courses to reading books about writing. This is all part of improving your writing skills.
The second thing that comes to mind is to learn, at the same time, how the publishing industry works. In order to do that, you need to get your feet wet in that world. Some ways of doing it are by joining a local writing group, by attending writing events in your area, and, of course, by attending writers’ conferences.
In this post, I will share with you my thoughts about attending a writers’ conference when you are only starting your writing career.
So, what are Writers’ Conferences
As a new writer, at first, I felt intimidated by the idea of a writer’s conference and thought someone like me, just starting to write, would be out of place at a gathering of writers, which I assumed would all be published and famous. But that is not the case.
Simply put, writers’ conferences are:
- gatherings where writers of all levels, creative minds, literary agents, top editors and publishers come together
- these events take place all over the world, generally, on an annual basis
- they are events organized by professional associations or groups of people who belong and support the world of writing
- these conferences happen over the course of a full day, a weekend, several days and even a week or more
- venues were large numbers of people attend (the number of attendees is in the hundreds, while there will only be two handfuls of speakers, perhaps, and just a few (3 or 4) editors and publishers who will be very busy with everyone trying to have a minute with them)
- these are writerly events that consist on a series of workshops, classes, master classes, lectures, panels of discussion presented by speakers that are published authors, guest speakers that are best-selling authors, top literary agents, publishers, and editors
- in the workshops, you learn about different subjects that are pertinent to a writer, such as:
- the craft (e.g. best ways to construct a plot, how to develop characters effectively, etc.)
- the business of writing (e.g. how to build an author’s platform, understanding riding off taxes as a writer, selling and underselling your work, networking techniques, etc.)
- life as a writer (e.g. finding a mentor, organizing your work, balancing work and personal life, etc.)
- the publishing industry (e.g. the process of publishing, differences about self-publishing, traditional publishing, indie authors, advantages and disadvantages of getting a literary agent, understanding markets, niches, tribes, how to write query letters, how to present a manuscript, pitching your work, etc.)
- they offer, as well, the opportunity to book an appointment (generally for an extra cost) with an editor or an agent to either pitch your work to or get feedback on an idea, a few pages of work, a synopsis or a query letter
- they have a cost that you have to consider and for which is wise to have a budget, that should include:
- a registration fee (that varies for members and non-members of the hosting association)
- additional fees for extra opportunities (such as appointments with agents and editors, master classes, special workshops, etc.)
- extra pocket money (for things such as raffles)
- travelling, transport, food and accommodation costs
Some people believe and would advise that you should only attend a writer’s conference when you already have a finished piece of writing, a completed manuscript so as to pitch to agents or publishers. But having this opportunity to pitch is not the only advantage a writers’ conference offers. The many benefits of attending one, even when you are a beginner writer, all depend on the stage you’re at in your writing career.
Over a year I kept reading about writer’s conferences, what they are about, who goes to them and what you can expect, before I finally decided I was going to attend my first one, this past September, the Northern Hearts Conference, in Toronto.
Following you will find the four reasons that confirmed to me, after my experience at the Northern Hearts Conference, why it’s a good decision to attend a writers’ conference as a writer who is just starting her career.
1. To improve your writing skills:
Best-selling, published authors give talks, master classes, lectures, panels and workshops that help beginner writers, and writers in every level of writing for that matter, improve their craft. You will be able to learn from the best and hear about their personal journeys when they made mistakes and had successes.
In these classes, the speakers share what works and what doesn’t. They talk of writing techniques, tips and tricks they use and proved to be successful for them. They also recommend books that you can read and where you can find really good advice. They share their insight and experience on how to navigate the publishing world. Through their talks, you can also learn about new things you never heard of before. In my case, I learned about some applications, programs and tools, specifically designed and used by writers, today. All those things that help a writer be more efficient at handling all the information you require for writing a novel, doing research, keeping track of characters, sub-plots that start to develop, etc.
The great thing about all this practical advice is that it can be applied immediately to your writing process. From how to construct a plot, to writing a synopsis, or a query letter. It is in this way that you start to understand little by little how it’s done and how it works. This is how you dip your toes in the literary and publishing waters.
One thing that struck me, during the conference, was how candid and open are some authors when they talk about their experiences and heartbreaks in this world of writing. They are willing to help, answer questions and share what they have learned so far.
2. To begin understanding the publishing industry:
Literary agents, top editors and publishers, on the other hand, help a new writer understand the unknown arena of literary publishing. They are able to share their insight about new trends, what they are looking for, what the market is like today and they will even talk about markets you perhaps never heard of. This can open up your mind to new possibilities.
You will also hear about current issues in the industry and how things change in the literary world with the influence of world events and peoples’ changing views on different topics. For example, the #MeToo movement affected romance writing in a profound way. I found it fascinating to hear what the people in the publishing industry have to say about this, which is a game changer in particular sub-genres of the romance novel writing.
Meeting with one of these professionals is one of the best ways to learn firsthand about the publishing world.
3. To have the opportunity to network:
Writer’s conferences are also great opportunities to network and meet people and professionals who have already made it in this industry as well as other writers advanced or beginning just like you, and who are interested and passionate about writing.
In general, being a writer is a very solitary occupation, as you know very well. So, finding a group of people with the same love for writing and who take this business as serious as you do is a wonderful way to feel connected and a part of something bigger, an entire community of like-minded people. This is very inspiring and energizing because as a writer doing it all by yourself and alone can be difficult and draining, especially when you don’t have a strong support system or when you are just starting out.
The most important benefit of networking is the fact that this might be the single most important aspect for building and preparing the way towards being published. You will be able to start relationships, finding either a new friend, a group, a critique partner, a published author who is open and willing to mentor you, someone who can connect you with an agent or an editor. It’s a way of starting to carve your place in the writing world.
4. To take that leap of faith and pitch your work or learn of the process of doing it:
A writers’ conference is also a door opener and great opportunity, for those who are ready with a completed and polished piece of work, to pitch their novels.
One of the good things about writers’ conferences is the opportunity to request and set aside a spot to meet with an editor, an agent or a publisher, as I mentioned before.
But a word of caution must be put in place for the beginner author: There really is a specific time for pitching your work to a literary agent or publisher, and it should not be your first writers’ conference when you have nothing ready to show. You need to be aware that at the beginning of your writing career, meeting with one of these professionals without having something ready and polished (or almost ready, at least) might not be the best idea. Trust me I know. You can read (here) about my experience.
It’s important to understand that literary agents, editors and publishers are busy people, constantly looking for clients and sources of revenue. What they do is a business. They attend writers’ conferences because they are there in search of the next talented writer, someone who will pop out from the crowd and will help them make money.
As you know their daily work involves receiving and going through endless piles of query letters and manuscripts, most of which won’t see the light of day again. At a conference, you get the opportunity to sell your product and yourself as a writer in person and know the outcome right then and there.
Meeting in person gives you the opportunity to make an instant connection and sometimes that is what seals the deal. But the thing is, this only works at its best when you actually have something ready to show. If you don’t have anything ready yet and you decide to go for it [meeting the agent], regardless, as I did, at least have a plan and an objective for seeing one of these professionals.
Remember that even though you will only meet with them for 10 minutes, you are paying for their time so use it wisely. Take advantage and come out of that short meeting with something valuable. Let a meeting like that one take place for the sake of the experience and see how you react, how the process works, how the editor or agent communicate with you. Also, think of it in terms of learning objectives. You might be pleasantly surprised.
From my personal experience, I can tell you that a literary agent can be someone who is friendly, sensitive, easy going, open to hearing about your book idea, about you as a writer. This professional can also be someone who is willing to share with you a little insight into what they look for, what they know works and is trending in the market. They can also be willing to give you feedback on the premise of your story or idea, your synopsis or your query letter if you ask them. All of this information is important and valuable.
I believe that attending a writers’ conference is one of the steps you have to consider taking to advance your writer’s career.
You should have clear objectives and a plan for attending one.
These events are costly, they can be overwhelming but consider their benefit in terms of improving your writing skills, begin understanding the publishing industry, learning about market trends and wants, and as a networking opportunity, exposure and connection with other writers, friends, possible mentors, experts and professionals in the field.
For sure you will come out of a writers’ conference energized, motivated and inspired to keep working hard on your writing. You will be better informed in some way or another and more knowledgeable, too. But mainly you will be happy to have invested in your career by spending some time dedicating your mind and efforts to learn about that which you love doing: Writing.