Lessons from a Conference Junkie

I’m a recovering Conference Junkie. Recovering? Yep, not directly by choice, but having an expanding family (which also led to a more limited budget) forced me into an ‘almost-cold turkey’ situation. However, I’ve been around the block in terms of conferences. So come, friends, and listen to this shaky junkie on the mend.

Length of Stay. I’ve run marathons and--literally--had more energy after those than driving home from a long weekend at the SCBWI-LA conference. Most conferences are two or three days long and that’s enough for my delicate brain. Why the exhaustion? A few reasons. First of all, talking about craft and how to apply it leads me to mental jumping jacks. Secondly, if I’m sharing work with a group or (gasp) an agent/editor, the stress alone wipes me out. Finally, I’m an introvert, but I never want to miss an opportunity to connect with other writers and friends. It’s amazing how well we all get along, but it drains me.

Workshops vs. Talk-talk-talk. Some conferences focus on workshopping your work. At the extreme, you meet with the same group several times throughout the conference and read revised pages. Others are more lecture-based. Both have their advantages (though I prefer workshops), but be aware of what you are signing up for. How do you know? Take a look at the website, I'll bet there’ll be a schedule posted with exactly what to expect.

Craft or Business. With your handy schedule open, read through the topics. You’ll see pretty quickly if the topics are more about the nut’s’bolts of writing or more on the business side of things.

Living Situation. And not just if they assign you a roommate or not. The SCBWI-NY is held at a huge hotel in Grand Central, but most of the faculty agents and editors are native New Yorkers, so after they give their talk, they split. At SCBWI-LA, same type of big hotel…but same NY agents/editors, who now have to hang out in the bar with everyone else. It makes a difference. Another route: conferences that are intimate retreats. Attend these and you’ll find yourself eating meals at the same table with the faculty. These retreats may have fewer faculty members, but I think bonding with Mr. Big Shot agent over the fact that both of you are jacket whores is totally worth it.

Attendees. Are people screened to attend? As a “pre-pubbed” author, I look for conferences where there’ll be a level of attendees better than me. Selfishly, it’s important so I can up my game by soaking in the advice from those who’ve been in my shoes. But how am I able to determine the level of attendees? I return to the schedule again, but you’ll have to read between the lines. Lots of topics about why an agent is critical? Or how to write a query? While important, those sorts of subjects aim for people earlier on in their path versus a talk on how to effectively use social media marketing or creating high-concept fiction.

Faculty. This is the spot where most people fixate first. Obviously, it’s very important to hear who’s speaking, but based on all these other factors, it may weigh more or less into my decision. It’s amazing to hear a legend speak, but it might be more effective to sit down for two hours at dinner with an up-and-coming author.

In the end, though, the most important thing about conferences is connecting with other writers. Meeting the Muses at the Big Sur conference in 2010 is the sole reason I’m chatting with you today. But more than that, I’ve come as far as I have in my craft because of the help and encouragement given to me by my friends that I've met through these life-altering events.  

So sign up and prepare yourself to read your work aloud, sit next to a stranger, or take a seat at the bar alone. 


I'm going to get to one of these sooner or later. Even if you go cold turkey, I'll expect you to relapse ...

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