Aug 20, 2013

Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Writing Conference *Experience*

Since joining the SCBWI almost nine years ago I have attended many writing conferences. At the beginning, I was terrified. I stressed over what to wear, nervously hugged the walls during the many “meet and greets” and continental breakfasts, avoided the evening social hour (I still can’t believe this!), and was tongue tied and star struck in the presence of *any* agent/editor/author within a ten-foot range.

Thankfully, I am much more relaxed when I attend a conference these days. With time I have realized three essential truths about attending writing conferences:
·        Children’s writers are the nicest people you will EVER meet!

·        Editors and agents are just regular people.

·        A positive conference experience can majorly benefit your writing and supercharge your excitement about your writing, which is the most valuable conference “take away” of all!

With the fall conference season upon us, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned that help me get the most out of the conferences I attend. I hope you find these helpful!
Study your conference brochure and any other available conference information ahead of time. Look at the schedule, decide which sessions you’d like to attend, and make a tentative plan. Sometimes conference organizers will ask you to select your breakout sessions ahead of time, but sometimes you will be required to wait until the conference begins to choose your sessions. Either way, it helps to have an idea of what you are interested in attending so you don’t drive yourself crazy with indecision on the day of (yes I have done this…).

Research conference speakers ahead of time and read books by the authors who are a part of the conference faculty. I LOVE to do this! It is such a thrill to meet published authors, especially when I am familiar with their work. If you plan to attend a breakout session by a specific author and read his or her book beforehand, it can also help you to understand the author’s presentation better, since authors often use excerpts and examples from their own books during their presentations. If your conference has an autograph session scheduled you can get your books autographed, too! 

Get a good night’s sleep the night before. I can’t stress this enough—when you are at a conference, you (naturally) sit for long periods of time, and sitting = sleepy if you are not well rested.

Dress comfortably and *always* bring a sweater. Hotels can be cold, but they can also be stuffy and hot; be prepared for either.

Arrive with time to spare. It is better to be a bit early than risk running late. Registration lines can be long, and you will want to get a good seat for the opening keynote address. If you don’t know anyone to talk to while you are waiting, look for someone else who looks like they don’t know anyone either, and start talking. (I met the ladies in my wonderful online critique while chatting at a conference. I promise—you can meet really great people this way!)

Have business cards handy. OK, so I admit, this year will be the first year that I have business cards to hand out (they arrived in the mail yesterday). I have avoided this step until now because I do not have a book published yet. But I’ve been published in magazines, I have a blog, I’m active in several writers’ groups, and am in full-speed-ahead mode with two different manuscripts right now. For years I have been gathering business cards at conferences and jotting down my information for other writers I’d like to stay in touch with, and when several people at last year’s conference said, “What do you mean, you don’t have a business card??” I decided that by this year’s conference I would have cards of my own to share. I chose to use Vistaprint, but there are lots of great companies that will let you design your own cards for a marginal fee.
Here is my new business card--I included my blog address and email.

Have realistic expectations. Don’t expect to sign with the super awesome agent who is there before you drive home, or have an editor beg you for your manuscript. This rarely happens, and you will be disappointed if you are attending a conference solely for this reason. Conferences provide great opportunities for meeting agents and editors, and you may even be invited to submit your manuscript for consideration once the agent or editor you are chatting with hears your fabulous pitch. But remember that the main purpose of attending a conference is to learn more about the craft of writing. Following a fabulous, inspiring conference years ago, I actually heard an author say that she had wasted her money because she didn’t get a book deal out of the conference. Don’t be this person.  

Have a short pitch ready. How hard can this be, right? VERY hard, I tell you. Especially if you are tongue tied and star struck when an agent or editor (or author you adore) asks what you are working on. If you have written a short pitch ahead of time and practiced this pitch, you will be much more confident. Trust me on this one.

Make the most of your breaks, depending on what YOU need. During breaks, mingle. OR find a quiet spot and regroup. Your choice will largely depend upon your personality. I am an introvert, so sometimes I *need* a moment to myself. My sweet friend Ann always offers her hotel room as a quiet getaway, since I live 20 minutes from the conference site and don’t usually reserve a room (thanks, Ann!). I am also a pro at finding quiet spots at conference sites. Other attendees want to take advantage of every single moment to network. Just allow yourself whatever kind of break you need.

Remember that agents and editors are real people who need breaks too. If you see an agent or editor heading to the elevator, don’t chase them down. That usually means they are heading for their room. And please don’t follow them to the bathroom to pitch your book (I know we’ve all heard this one, but seriously, people DO this and I have heard about this happening very recently!)    

Bring snacks, some cash, and a bottle of water. The $1 M&Ms you buy at Harris Teeter taste just as good as the ones they sell for $2.50 at the hotel. ☺

Take advantage of any “extras” offered at the conference. My local SCBWI conference offers “Intensives” preceding our conference each year, which give authors and illustrators a chance to focus on and workshop their skills. We also have the option of signing up for critiques with authors, agents, or editors. These require an extra fee, but people generally find the expense worth it. Our conference also offers opportunities for late night critique groups, art portfolio displays, a Saturday social hour, author’s round table, a “First Pages” session, and much more!

Regarding “First Pages” sessions…I have participated in and attended many of these sessions, where authors anonymously submit the first page of a manuscript, a reader presents it to the audience, and a panel of agents and editors give their honest first impressions of the writing. *Most* of the time this is a positive experience and the panel participants are respectful and give honest, constructive feedback. Yes, it can hurt a bit if a panel member hears your writing and says “the writing is not great and I’d stop reading here,” etc. BUT this is good to know, right? And this kind of feedback will definitely make our writing better.

However, on one occasion I had the terrible experience of sitting in on a first pages session where the editors on the panel were disrespectful and definitely crossed the line regarding another author’s piece of writing. Pretty much everyone I talked to there was mortified by their behavior, and that is all I will say. The important lesson here is to realize that if you submit your first page for critique at one of these sessions, just be prepared to hear anything and everything, and don’t take it personally. First pages really are a wonderful opportunity to gage professional opinion of your writing, and the agents and editors who sit on these panels allow us an inside glimpse into publishing’s first crucial step—getting the attention of the folks in charge!

Take advantage of the opportunity to hear illustrators and art directors speak, even if you are not an illustrator. When I first began attending conferences, I wasn’t drawn toward sessions given by an illustrator or art director, since I am a writer and definitely *not* an artist. But during a fabulous keynote address by an art director from a big publishing house several years ago, I learned that picture book writers can get SO much out of hearing the perspective from the “other side.”

Plan ahead to meet friends you have met through online writers’ groups at the conference. This year I am looking forward to seeing several friends I first made contact with on Verla Kay’s message board. It is always fun to put a face with a name!

Within a day or so of the conference, take time to type up and/or organize your notes, and plan to take advantage of any special submission opportunities you may have following a conference. Sometimes editors from closed houses will allow attendees the opportunity to submit to them during the months after a conference. Don’t let these rare opportunities slip through your fingers!

Finally, please be aware that speakers participate in these conferences as part of their jobs, so don’t reprint or distribute conference-specific information online (or otherwise). If you blog all the fine points of a super awesome agent’s workshop, for example, that information is now free for anyone to take, and takes away from that presenter’s opportunities moving forward. It is fine to recap, but not to “re-present.”
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There are many writing conferences put on locally, nationally, and internationally every year. Resources for further information include:

The Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators

Local writers’ groups—in South Carolina, for example, we have the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop, which includes all genres of writers and presents a wonderful conference each year. The organization doesn’t have to be geared toward children’s writers to be helpful; as writers, we all share the same goal—to write great literature!

National writers’ groups such as the American Christian Writers and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, just to name a few.

And don’t forget about online conferences, such as writeoncon, which took place online (for free!) last week!
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I hope you’ve found this helpful, and that your next conference experience will be a great one! Happy Writing!


  1. I am not as experienced in conferences, nor am I over the shyness I feel at these events. But I second what you wrote, most especially your first point about kid-lit writers being an uncommonly kind bunch.

    1. Yes...the shyness. I did not address that, but that is a very *real* problem for me, as well. I just try to pretend that I am really an extrovert for awhile. By the end of every conference I am always exhausted (but also happy and inspired!).

  2. Great tips! And I love Vistaprint, getting on there and fiddling around w/different designs. One day I will order some!

    1. Thanks, Leandra! It was fun to design my cards! = )

  3. Dear Becky,
    You have many fun ideas. I'm glad you did the Business Cards this year. Hurray for you.

    Never Give Up
    Joan Y. Edwards

    1. Thank you, Joan! Looking forward to seeing you soon! = )

  4. Wow, LOVE those business cards, Becky!
    I've yet to go to a big conference, but I did attend SCBWINE's Encore event last year and loved it.
    Thanks for all the great tips.

  5. Your biz cards are lovely, Becky! And though I've only been to an online conference (WriteOn Con), I do think that children's authors and illustrators are the warmest bunch of artists ever. Thanks for your tips.


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