>Choosing, Prepping & Networking: The Why and How of Writing Conferences

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“They are too expensive.”
That’s the number one reason I hear as to why folks don’t attend one. Sometimes beginning or emerging writers don’t take themselves seriously enough. If you were in a different line of work that offered professional educational opportunities, you’d probably save and budget for them. Writing is professional work.

“I’m afraid to show anyone my work.”
That’s probably number two. But unless you don’t plan to ever show your work to anyone (just keep a journal) you’re going to have to put yourself “out there” eventually, and the faculty and other attendees at writing conferences really are there to help you, not to put you down.

Writing conferences and workshops can be intimidating, until you get one or two under your belt. But they can also be inspirational, educational, and a treasure house of networking opportunities.

I’ve been promoting the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference since I got together with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes back in April for our initial planning meeting. But I’ve been excited about the prospect of Bringing Lee Gutkind back to the South, as well as a plethora of other terrific authors, editors, agents and publishers, since the first time I attended one of his one-day workshops, back in 2007.

But today I want to share something a little different about these workshops and conferences. I’ve been to about eight or ten of them over the past four years, (and served as presenter and panelist at one) and now that I’m one of the co-organizers for the CNF Conference in Oxford this coming November, I decided it’s time to put on my organizer hat and write about the WHY and HOW of these conferences. Especially since I’ve received a few emails and Facebook messages asking my advice about which conferences and workshops would best fit certain emerging writers’ needs. So, here goes:

CONFERENCE vs. WORKSHOP

A writer’s conference (like the CNF Conference in November) is usually a 3-day affair or longer, and often includes workshops within the conference. A conference will offer panels organized around certain themes, like writing short stories or magazine articles, getting published, working with editors, etc. If it’s a fairly large conference, there could be the opportunity to meet dozens of authors, editors, agents and publishers. Some conferences include a “pitch session” which offers an opportunity to pitch your book to publishing industry representatives. Choose a conference when you want the broad spectrum experience of the writing world.

A writing workshop is usually a one-to-three-day event where works-in-progress are critiqued by faculty and students together in a workshop format. Usually each writer is asked to send in a certain number of pages of her work in progress, and this work is made available to the other writers as well as the faculty leading the workshop. Each piece is “workshopped” at some point during the event—usually with 30 minutes to an hour to focus on each piece. The writer goes home with red-pencil marks from everyone, and her own personal notes taken during the workshop. My experience in these manuscript critique sessions is that I often learn as much from the suggestions made for others’ work as for my own.

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS? A conference that includes one-day manuscript critique workshops, like we’re offering in Oxford in November.

FICTION vs CREATIVE NONFICTION

Good writing is good writing, whether it’s fiction, creative nonfiction (which includes memoir, essay, and other forms), magazine feature articles, journalism/reporting, travel writing, or whatever. A writer can improve her skills for any genre at a conference/workshop no matter which genre is being featured. So, even if you’re working on the great American novel or short story, you can come and learn more about your craft from the faculty at a creative nonfiction conference. My work-in-progress is fiction (although I still write essays) but I know I’ll learn a great deal from all the professionals we’re bringing in. Conversely, I have submitted chapters of a memoir (nonfiction) at a fiction writing workshop in the past, and the critique sessions were just as helpful.

CHOOSING THE BEST WORKSHOP DURING THE CONFERENCE

If you aren’t familiar with the faculty, Google each one and learn about what kinds of books they write, where they teach, and try to get a handle on their style, to help you decide which workshop to attend. Also check to see if they have a “theme” for their workshop. For example, in the 2010 CNF Conference, the 6 pre-conference workshops include manuscript critique workshops with two very diverse writers, workshops on personal essay, journalistic reporting, making words cinematic, and a workshop with two agents. I was having a hard time choosing, so Neil White (fellow co-organizer) suggested I participate in the agent workshop, since I’ve attended many critique sessions and craft talks. This will be an opportunity for me to learn to pitch my work to the publishing world.

PREPPING for the CONFERENCE

In addition to sending in your excerpt for the manuscript critique session, you can prepare yourself to get the most from the conference in several other ways. Be sure and read and red-pencil the other manuscripts submitted for your session, and be prepared to offer constructive comments during the workshop. If you plan to participate in a pitch session, write and practice your pitch—which should be a three-sentence “ad” for your book. It takes some work to get your book title, hook and basic premise down to three sentences. Reading blurbs by authors on favorite books helps, as do the inside book cover descriptions. Bring business cards to trade with new friends, and also to hand off to publishing industry professionals you will meet.

NETWORKING

Attend all the social events at the conference. Join others for “lunch on your own.” Be genuine—don’t network just for the sake of promoting yourself. When you get home, whip off a few emails to some of the people you met (you got their email address from their business card, right?) or friend them on Facebook. Sometimes those acquaintances develop into lasting friendships.

Want to read 10 other conference organizers’ advice on making the most of any writing event? Read “Conference Scene” by Linda Formichelli in the September 2010 issue of Writers Digest Magazine.

Check Writers Digest and Poets & Writers Magazine for ongoing listings of conferences and workshops.

If you decide it’s a good fit for you, we hope to see you at the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford in November! Feel free to contact me with any questions, either by email or Facebook message. I’d love to hear from you and help you decide which workshop is a good fit for you!

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