Q: Loree, I've read so much about the benefits of attending writers' conferences, but even the local ones are expensive. How do I know which to spend my money on?
A: Start by asking your writer pals, those who are veteran conference-goers. Talk to writing instructors who routinely lead workshops at writers conferences. They'll direct you to the most popular listings...and the gatherings that provide the biggest bang for your buck.
At first, you'll be overwhelmed with the list that accumulates. Never fear; you can abbreviate it by sorting out the meetings that don't require air or train transportation, and reduce the list yet again by selecting gatherings whose advertisements promise to deliver what you're looking for:
Agent and editor appointments
If you have a partial or complete manuscript, you might be ready for a face-to-face meeting with an agent or editor. Most times, these pre-scheduled appointments are included with your registration fee. If you're asked to pay (and the fees vary) for this service, make sure to check out the credentials of the person you'll sign up to meet. (Does this person represent a recognized publishing house or literary agency? If s/he is a published author, getting paid to evaluate the salability of your work, what qualifications have been provided [# published books, teaching and/or editing experience, etc.].)
Networking is an invaluable thing. Writing, by its very nature, is a solitary profession. For the most part, authors work alone, so it's a wonderful thing, meeting with folks who have the same needs, ambitions, problems, and lifestyles. I can't say enough about the added potential of meeting people who can literally move your career to 'that next stage'. Writers are generous (sometimes to a fault), and will happily share learned the hard way lessons with you.
Workshops range in skill level, providing how-to information for a brand-new writer...or someone who's been in the business a long time. You can usually tell by workshop descriptions whether or not the material is tailored to meet your needs.
Whether you'll buy your own meals or the writing organization provides food as part of your registration fee, take advantage of every opportunity to commune with your peers. Laugh, share experiences (the good, the bad, and the ugly), and leave with a full stomach, a satisfied soul, a happy heart, and a few new friends.
You'll decide well in advance of a conference if you'll submit your work as a contest entry. The prize could be monetary...and it might be the glorious experience of having your submission reviewed by a professional editor or author, and the feedback can be invaluable! (Most contests do require an entry fee, usually between $25 and $50.) If the contest judges are members of the writing organization, there's nothing wrong with asking that your entry be read by someone with experience...rather than 'just another member' who is no more qualification to know a salable piece of writing than you are!
One-on-one critiques, like meetings with editors and agents, can also be a very good thing...provided your critiquer has the experience and the qualifications to give a thorough assessment of your work. If it seems I'm repeating that theme a lot, it's because I am. Too many authors have been led far afield by "teachers" who fabricate or exaggerate their credentials. Consequently, the information they provide is faulty, at best. I know writers who have literally lost years trying to fix the mistakes that were the result of bad advice from faux instructors. DON'T BECOME ONE OF THEM!
How do you check out instructors' credentials? Demand proof they are who and what they claim to be! If they say they've been teaching for years, find out where, and then check it out! (Too many so-called teachers are running their own private programs--some out of their own homes!--and are not unaffilitated with an accredited college, organization, etc. Still others claim to be members of legitimate faculties, but because of lack of enrollment, they've never actually taught a course at that school! You owe it to yourself, your future writing career, and your wallet to investigate the validity of instructors' claims.
Conferences can be entertaining and educational, and well worth any expense associated with them. If you do your homework carefully and completely, you'll come away satisfied that you met some cool people and learned a few things...which means your money was well spent.
I've been invited to speak at several conferences this summer, starting with the PennWriters annual get-together near Harrisburg, PA in May, 2006. For all they're offering, attendees will surely get their dollars' worth. I've seen the speakers' list, and except for a name or two, the faculty passes even my rigorous muster.
For a more intimate setting, try my mini-conference: The Leading Edge Writers' Studios. Maximum attendance is 40...perfect if you prefer a quiet, one-day event. (Visit http://writing.shawguides.com/TheLeadingEdgeWritersStudios/ for more information, and if you mention this Blog when you sign up, you'll get a discount!)
See you next time, when I'll go into more detail about what to do (and expect from) those important editor/agent meetings. Meanwhile, take care, and happy writing!