Are writer conferences a worthwhile investment?

January 9, 2013 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Someone asked, “Are writers conferences worthwhile for a beginning novelist? If so, how can I get the most out of a conference?”

I think a writing conference is one of the best investments a newer writer can make. (The best other ideas? A class that forces you to write, reading great writers, and participating in an active critique group.) A writers conference allows you to meet other writers and find out how they do things. It’s a great chance to network with authors, meet editors, get introduced to agents, and discover what’s going on in the industry. Consider a writing conference an introduction to publishing — something that’s hard to get anywhere else. Talking with several published authors might be one of the most effective ways of learning the process of moving from pre-published to published. You’ll find workshops on specialty topics that you would be hard-pressed to find a book on, as well as people who have walked the path ahead of you. Besides, a conference is usually a fun time, hanging out with other people who love words. 

There are good conferences all over the country, and spread throughout the year. Some organizations sponsor conferences (Romance Writers of America and American Christian Fiction Writers have two of the best writing conferences in the country), many universities have writing conferences (check your local colleges), and there are plenty of independent conferences at hotels, retreat centers, and on campuses. Simply googling “writing conferences” will get you enough information to get started. I think every new writer will benefit from a conference.

Some thoughts on getting the most out of a conference… Plan out a schedule before you get there. Make selections about the workshops and classes you want to attend, and if it turns out not to be great, feel free to change to another class. Set some basic goals for what you want to accomplish at the conference — who you want to meet, what you want to learn. Make sure your expectations are realistic before attending. If your goal is “to sign with an agent and land my first book deal,” you might be setting the bar a bit high. (You can’t really expect an agent to sign you up after a ten-minute appointment.) Instead, think about taking steps forward — learning things, meeting people, improving your craft. Make appointments with editors and agents, but feel free to simply ask them to review your work and make suggestions for improving.

If you’re bringing a proposal to pitch, spend time polishing it. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so make your words sing. The majority of stuff editors will see at a writing conference isn’t really done — it’s started, and the author assumes editors will be able to recognize true genius amidst the half-completed words on the page. You can stand out by having a well-done proposal and sample chapters. And by all means, when you’re at a conference go talk to people. Even if you’re the shy, creative type, make a point of introducing yourself to people at meals, talking over coffee, being part of the discussions in the classes. Finding like-minded writers is one of the best aspects of a writing conference. 

If there’s a conference you particularly enjoy, I’d love for you to post that in the “comments” section and tell us why. Thanks!

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33 Comments to “Are writer conferences a worthwhile investment?”

  1. Chip, Excellent advice, especially the part about not setting the bar too high. For me, the most important things I got from the writers conferences I attended early on were networking (including a number of writers who were later endorsers) and learning how this writing thing really works.
    My first conference was at Glorieta, NM, a conference that is no longer held. I’ve been to Mount Hermon as an attendee and a faculty member, and the same can be said for ACFW, and both are among the best ones, in my opinion. But there are lots of good ones out there.
    As always, thanks for sharing.

    • chipmacgregor:

      I’m not a big fan of Mount H, which tends to cost a fortune and be the same thing year after year. (And they don’t pay for agents to attend — the act as if they’re doing us a favor by deigning to let us in.) But I know lots of people go every year, and many love it. For almost two grand, you can find a much better deal, IMHO.

  2. Tonya:

    I have my eyes out for conferences. I know that I will have to travel to one and that makes it more of a challenge. I want to find one with the best value and most to offer.

  3. Jan Cline:

    I will leave a shameless pitch for my regional conference. We are fairly new with our third event happening this coming March. Dr. Dennis Hensley is keynote speaker and we have been blessed to have many good speakers and teachers present for us. I appreciate your encouragement for writers to go to conferences. It’s a great way to network, learn and grow. I am always amazed at how many first time attendees we have. There are so many great conferences…find one and go! Here is our website for the Inland NW Christian Writers conference: http://www.inlandnwchristianwriters.com.

    • chipmacgregor:

      I think we’re going to see more of these crop up, Jan. People just don’t want to spend huge dollars to attend a conference far away if they can get good info close to home. Thanks for this. Good luck with the conference.

  4. Jodie Bailey:

    I’d have to say my favorite is Blue Ridge. There’s just something about being up there in the mountains that takes some of the “edge” off and makes the whole experience–especially for a first-timer–a little less stressful. I totally agree about expectations. If you’re a first-timer, go with the goal to learn and meet, not a must-get-contract-or-die agenda. It lets you observe and learn and get to know without the pressure of performing. Talking to Chip at Blue Ridge is how I Iearned that agents and editors are there to help, not there to put a big ol’ pass or fail on your “baby.” And that conference is also where I met some of my best writer friends. I’ve been to others–equally wonderful–but that combination of setting, classes, and people remains my favorite.

  5. Patricia Bradley:

    Conferences are a great way to meet editors and agents…I met you, Chip, at the 2007 Christian Writers Renewal held at SPU in Seattle. The smaller conferences offer an intimacy and a slower pace while the larger ones offer more opportunities.

    • chipmacgregor:

      I don’t think the SPU conference exists any more, Patricia. But I always remember it because it’s the place a guy tried to show me his manuscript while I was standing at the urinal. True story.

  6. Thanks, Chip. I completely agree with you. I’ve been to three different conferences (Blue Ridge, Greater Philadelphia and Re:Write) and loved all of them — but each for different reasons.

    I’ve learned that each conference has its own tone or vibe. It extends from the faculty to the workshops and even the attendee interactions. Some present a casual, social atmosphere; others are formal, professional and rigidly scheduled. You can certainly get something out of any conference, but thorough research can direct toward the best fit. I recommend hanging out on conference blogs and forums before going. This helps solidify and correct expectations.

    • chipmacgregor:

      Good advice, Tanya. Writers tend to like everything about a conference, so the best thing may be to check out the faculty and schedule ahead of time, to make sure it’s a fit.

  7. Amen to all your points, Chip. My first writing conference exploded my brain with an abundance of information that I had not realized I did not know. At my second or third conference I sat in on a workshop totally unconnected with what I was writing at the time–and it led to writing several magazine stories for that editor. It’s hard to overemphasize the boost a quality conference can give.

    • chipmacgregor:

      Appreciate you mentioning magazines, Rick — often in attendance at writing conferences, and a great way to connect face to face.

  8. My word for the ACFW conference in 2012 was the same for my life this year: Connect. I was totally intimidated at my first conference, in 2011, with all the talk of elevator pitches and grabbing an agent’s attention (when they weren’t aware enough the run the other way to get some peace). I felt like I was supposed to be on the prowl, and prowler I am not. So, knowing
    this business is more journey than single goal, I decided to make this year about people, not pitches. I just wanted to meet them, tell them how they inspire me, and find out more about them. It was great! No, I did not get a contract with this tactic. But that was not my intention. We all want to work with people we can connect with. This, for me, was step one.

    • chipmacgregor:

      Thanks, Connie. The thing about ACFW is that they’re always trying to bring in a top-notch faculty, make the content different each year, but still provide people with a great conference experience. Appreciate your words.

  9. Kay McCall Chandler:

    I agree with Jodie Bailey:The Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference. It was the first writers conference I ever attended, but I’ve continued to go back each year. I was quite intimidated at first, but it didn’t take long to feel at home. It was affordable, the classes were good, the faculty was outstanding and it was an overall great experience. I’ve met so many wonderful writer friends through the BRMCWC, that I now go back for refresher courses and to reunite with friends. It’s like a family reunion! It’s there that I met my awesome agent, who is truly a super neat guy. I won’t mention his name, since I’m not sure he wants the world to know what a nice guy he really is.

  10. My first couple of conferences were local — ACW and Oklahoma Writers Federation. A local conference can be a great place to meet and network with industry professionals. You have more access to the faculty at local conferences than at the larger ones.

    I’ve attended ACFW twice, and I loved it. What a great way to put faces to the names we see on the loops. But it’s not a great place to get to know agents and editors. There are just too many attendees for them to have time to spend with people they don’t know.

    I have been considering skipping ACFW in 2013 and instead attending the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Conference. Reading the comments on this blog has me more interested. Thanks, Chip.

    • chipmacgregor:

      I love Blue Ridge as an overall conference, Robin, but ACFW is where it’s at for CBA fiction writing. And great point about local conferences — they’re a fine place to connect with people. Thanks.

  11. Carla Anne Coroy:

    Most of these seem to be for fiction writers. What about a great conference for non-fiction? Any suggestions?

    • chipmacgregor:

      I noticed a lot of people are talking CBA, Carla Anne, and for CBA I like Blue Ridge. But there are a bunch of good general market writing conferences all over the country. There are almost too many to mention.

  12. I have to agree, Blue Ridge is the best conference I’ve attended. This will be my fourth year in a row, and it’s only gotten better for me each time I set foot on that mountain. The networking is my favorite part. I enjoy meeting like-minded people and have made many friends there. It’s also a great time to don my big-girl bell-bottoms and step up to the challenges one of those shy, creative types faces. The welcoming, non-competetive atmosphere of that particular conference is probably what gave me the courage to step out of my comfort zone and trust God with my chosen career. I’ve never walked away from Blue Ridge disappointed.

    • chipmacgregor:

      I really like Blue Ridge (I think it may be the best general writing conference for CBA writers). Al Gansky does a great job of running it. And last year I won “Win a Dinner with Alycia Johnson Morales,” so I was incredibly lucky!

  13. Julie Surface Johnson:

    I have to admit to being partial to Oregon Christian Writers (OCW) Conference because it brings in top editors and agents who are accessible to attendees. The teaching is great and the atmosphere is intimate and friendly. I’d been considering ACFW for this year but think I’ll also consider Blue Ridge because of all the positive comments.

  14. I remember Glorieta with great affection, Richard. I was there five times, the first two as an attendee, and the rest as part of the faculty. Very much life-affirming, recharging events. And it was great to interact with like-minded scribes, no matter where they were (are) in the journey. *S*

  15. Lee Thompson:

    I attended Bouchercon (The World Mystery Convention) last October and loved it because I got to meet John Connolly, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Michael Koryta, Michael Sears, and Stanley Trollip. The panels were a lot of fun and everybody was very friendly, too. I also met Les Edgerton there and we had an awesome time hanging out, and Les ended up reading my work and giving me a referral to Chip!

    Can’t wait until this year’s Bouchercon in Albany, NY!

    • chipmacgregor:

      LOVE Bouchercon, Lee! (Don’t love Albany, however. Will miss it this year, as I’ll be in Scotland for a family wedding.)

      • Lee Thompson:

        Have a great time in Scotland, Chip! That’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. My mom’s family is Scottish and I write wearing a kilt.

  16. I’m a huge fan of the Breathe Writers Conference in Grand Rapids, MI. I frequently tell people it’s the best value of any conference.

    • chipmacgregor:

      Why is that, Peter?

      • Chip, the list is long:

        1) It’s not too big or too small, but just the right size.

        2) The atmosphere is open and sharing abounds.

        3) There is time for one-on-one meetings with all the speakers, including agents, publishers, and editors.

        4) It is well organized.

        5) They feed us well!

        6) It is inexpensive.

        7) It’s within driving distance for me and for those who fly, it’s close to the airport.

        It’s my “must attend” conference every year.

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