To Conference or Not To Conference…

Conference Badges Galore

Whoa, that’s a lot of badges you have there.

As we’re in the midst of conference season, I’ve been seeing a lot of opinions on the pros and cons of going to them. It seems people are as passionate about this as they are about either traditional or self-publishing. But here’s the thing—it doesn’t have to be all or nothing (with publishing or conferences!). Since I just came back from Spring Fling, a mid-size writing conference held in Chicago, I thought I’d share a few tips and tricks on how to decide if going to one is the best for you and your career, how to choose which one(s) to go to, and how to get the most out of them while you’re there.

Do I have to go to a conference to get ahead in this business?

I’d say that’s an unequivocal nope. Sometimes it helps, especially if you’re a fairly new writer who is interested in pitching an agent or editor. In person pitching, while terrifying and vomit inducing, is a great way to stand out in the slush pile. So, yes, it could help you get ahead, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

Is a conference the best use of my time?

So this seems to be the hot-button issue that I’m seeing discussed everywhere. Some people believe it’s never the best use of your time and you should instead be writing. I’m not one of those people. While, yes, writing the next book will always be the single most important step you can take for your career, going to conferences can give you a boost in many other ways. Liiiiiiike:

It connects you to people who are in the same boat as you. Sometimes these connections will lead to long-lasting friendships, CPs, betas, or bitch partners (every writer needs at least one). Cling to them, because you’ve found your tribe.

It also connects you to people who aren’t in the same boat as you, who are much smarter than you, and who know what the hell they’re doing in this business. Sometimes these connections will also lead to long-lasting friendships, or they might lead to a mentor, or a person with which to bounce ideas off. At the very least, it leads to a new Twitter or Facebook friend, and you’ve soaked up some real life knowledge you could never, ever find on the Internet.

You can also learn a shitton at conferences, if you go with that goal in mind. If you go in knowing you’re not going to get anything out of it, you’re probably not. And, depending on where you are in your career, that might be fine for you! If your goal is only to hang with your tribe, that’s a totally plausible use of a conference. I always go with the hope I will learn new things, but I’m also cool with walking away having only had casual conversations with fellow authors. Me now is very different than me circa 2013, when I attended my first conference and went to ALL THE THINGS! My goal at that conference was to learn every.single.thing I possibly could, and my body and mind felt it. Since then, I’ve learned to tailor my conference experience a bit.

Depending on the conference(s) you attend, it could also be when you meet your agent/editor/publicist for the first (or fifth) time. Getting that face-to-face time with any of those people, while unnecessary, is nice. If that’s the only reason you’re going, though, I’d maybe rethink.

Bad Girlz Laura, Elizabeth, Jeanette, and moi at RWA 2014.

Bad Girlz Laura, Elizabeth, Jeanette, and moi at RWA 2014.

And finally, for those rare few of you who are fellow extroverts, conferences are like brain, body, and soul fuel for this ENFJ. I get revitalized being around all those people. I get pumped up to work, to discuss, to plan with others. There is absolutely nothing else that I’ve found that gives me this sort of juice straight into my writer veins. And I need it. Just like the introverts who crave silence and solitude in order to function/work/live, I crave the energy that comes from a conference. Plus, yay for getting time with your tribe!

How do I get the most out of a conference?

This is a tricky question to answer, because it will vary for each writer at each stage of their career. Maybe your strength is character building and your weakness is plotting. Obviously going to a workshop on character building isn’t going to be the best use of your time. My advice? Take a gander at the listings of the workshops that are being offered. Have a tentative plan on which ones would benefit you most where you are right now. (<—— That’s important, folks. That workshop on military men might be great, but not if that military series plot bunny you have isn’t going to be in your writing queue for three years.) Then talk with your conference buddy. Probably, there will be at least one session where you’d like to attend two or more workshops. Split up, cover more ground, and share your notes (speaking of which, AJ, I need to get you some notes!). If, alternately, there are sessions when none of the workshops look good, use that time, too! Hang out in the lobby/main area of the conference venue. Find new people to talk to, or find friendly faces. Maybe there’s a plot point you’ve been stuck on, or a question you had about Facebook ads or a particular publicist. Use this “down time” too. Oftentimes, these down times are when I get the most out of a conference.

Should I give a workshop?

If you have a topic on which you’re qualified to speak, this is a great way to get a bit of your conference fees knocked off. It’s also a great way to spend the days leading up to it terrified you’re going to lose every meal you put in your mouth. No? Just me? Honestly, this is just as much of a personal choice as all the others. If you’re good with public speaking, put your thinking cap on and figure out what topics you could talk about. Or grab some friends and put together a workshop with multiple people. Best case scenario, people hear your workshop and get something out of it, and they buy your book(s). Worst case scenario, you got some fees knocked off and lost your lunch prior to the workshop. Kidding.

How do I know what conference is best for me?

Again, this depends on where you are in your career, where you live, and what your financial and family/life situation is like. Maybe you can’t take off a week to go to a conference, which means the big ones are probably a no-go for you. Maybe you hate flying, so traveling from Florida to Seattle for the Emerald City conference is going to be out. You just have to do a bit of research here. Talk to other writer friends, look at blog posts, take a peek at previous years’ schedules if they’re still listed, and see what would be a good fit for you, this year. It may change from year to year, and it probably will. In fact, I’ve not once gone to the same conferences every year since I started. Shake things up a bit and see what sticks. But also, don’t write a conference off after only going to it once. It might have been an off year—for you or for them.

Bottom line? Take a look at your circumstances, where you are in your career, and what you want to get out of it, then set forth and pick and choose the perfect conference(s) for you!

Are you a conference goer? Do you love/hate them? What do you get out of them the most? And what’s your favorite one to attend?

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