Are Writers’ Conferences Valuable?

Having just attended my first big writers’ conference – the Writers’ Digest conference in New York City in January – I have been thinking a lot about the different people I met at the event, and the various expectations that those who attend such events in general bring along with them. For me, the event was a chance to learn about the market today, and get a better grasp of what it means to be an author in a world where traditional publishing may not be the only game in town. From that perspective, the event was wildly exciting, making it clear to me that there are several avenues open to someone willing to put in the work. With a background in marketing, the aspect of self-publishing that seemed to stymie many of the writers present wasn’t a huge hurdle in my eyes – but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. My first novel is still a draft – a second draft that is far cleaner than the first, but a draft all the same.  So it’ll be a while before I try to dance the publication salsa. I also learned a ton about the agenting process – what an agent can and cannot be for an author, and I got to pitch agents in my category, receiving great feedback on my ideas and some leads to follow up on when I’m ready to submit.

I’m no introvert, but I did find myself spending a lot of time just watching the other writers in attendance. We are an interesting crowd. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to find all walks of life, young, old, female, male and any other generalizing category you care to toss out there. What was more interesting to me, though, was the variety of attitudes that came to the table. Like any other cross-section of humanity, there were many types present and a list would surely exclude some. But I thought it would be fun to create some general categories of the writers I met and watched during my first big conference experience.

Overconfident Egomaniac: I didn’t meet many of these, but couldn’t figure out exactly why they were there at all. These types argued with the presenters, described their own work in arrogant and self-righteous terms, and acted as if they knew more than anyone else. I wondered what they hoped to gain, since they seemed already to believe that they had mastered the skill set at which the rest of us were grasping.

Understated Success: I’d be in conversation with a friendly writer who would mention, only when pressed, that they’d secured a publishing deal for a three-book series. Or who would say, as a side note and in a quiet voice, that they were hoping to publish their sixteenth book soon. These were the people I most admired – those who were already successful, still seeking to learn, and not in the least bit egomaniacal. Maybe one day I can be one of these.

Curious Seeker: I was one of these. (Hopefully). These were the folks who studiously attended sessions, asked pertinent questions for reasons other than to hear their own voices or to try to prove their knowledge, and engaged others at their table in hopes of finding potential readers, critics and friends. These people seemed to be somewhere along the path toward a first publication, or just past that landmark and seeking the next.

Complete Newbie: Also generally a friendly breed, these people were like sponges, asking all manner of questions every time they had a chance to interact with anyone. Though they seemed to know nothing about the business of writing, many of them had finished several manuscripts or stories, and had only just thought of potentially sharing their work with others. Another group of these seemed to be just thinking about writing, trying on the details of the life for size before actually writing anything.

Disillusioned Downers: I accidentally had breakfast with two of these on my last day. These are the folks who are disheartened by the changes in the publishing industry, who believe that writers don’t stand a chance in the face of the “business” before them. These people seemed to think much less about the passion and craft of their work and much more about the negative aspects of trying to get published.

I left the conference after a great workshop on “Plot vs. Character” taught by Jeff Gerke. I spent the rest of my night in NYC reflecting on the whole experience, on all the various people who managed to find three days outside their regular lives to attend this conference. How amazing it was, I thought, how powerful the drive to write really must be, to pull people from their lives – from as far away as Brazil! – to meet and learn from others working towards a common goal.

I’m interested in hearing viewpoints from other writers on the value (or lack thereof) of attending conferences. Which ones have proven worthwhile? Have any really launched an idea or a career? Are they a useful tool for finding colleagues in a career that is otherwise a solitary pursuit? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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