Sunday, November 13, 2011

Secrets Revealed by a Writers’ Conference Junkie.

November is “National Novel Writing Month” (NaNoWriMo or NaNoMo). Many would-be writers make their first attempt. Congratulations. Yet, what’s the next step?

Recently, at a social event, a woman told me that she had “finished writing a novel” and was looking for an agent. When I probed about her book, I discovered that her “novel” was merely 30,000 words long (most novels run around 90,000-115,00 words.) I suggested that she study the business of writing and publishing—she could even start by reading articles on the Internet. “I don’t have time for that,” she replied.

Last week, after one of my speaking events, a woman cornered me in the ladies room and asked me to give her “a name of a publisher that will publish my memoir.” I suggested that she check organizations or university departments that focus on the main topic of her memoir. She stormed away as if I was holding back information. In reality, I could no more name such a specific acquisition editor, which is what she really meant, than I could give her the lottery's winning number.

There are no shortcuts in writing and publishing a book as there is no shortcut in any road to success. It is a long, arduous and lonely journey with a great reward that is more about expressing one's art than the star-dust of notoriety.

This post is for writers who are serious about learning to play the piano before asking to book a concert hall:

Earlier in my writing career I was a "writers’ conference junkie," attending as many workshops and programs as I could cram. It was my self-designed MFA in which I mastered writing skills, studied the tools of the craft, learned how to structure, revise and edit, and absorbed inside information about the publishing industry. I also met other writers and formed lasting connections with writing buddies who forever help with their constructive comments and support. I met agents who encouraged me and ultimately offered me representation.

There are over 600 writers' conferences each year across the country. Many—not all—are affiliated with English departments of universities, yet do not require that you be a student there. In fact, they draw a mature crowd that is quite different from their student body. If you've never attended a writers' conference, it's always easiest to start with one near you to get a feel, although they vary by programs and offerings as the people that organize and populate them, so you should plan to attend at least two or three... (See for a complete listing.)

To focus on the craft of writing and to venture into new fields of writing, my favorite is IWWG's summer “Remember The Magic” (for women only) that offers the most classes and workshops simultaneously than any writing conference I've been to. The warm and supportive environment nurtures writing free of judgment.

The most prestigious conferences ones are Sewanee Writers Conference, (TN) and Breadloaf Writers Conference (Middlebury, VT) where you must submit your work to be accepted, and the competition is fierce. They focus on the writing craft, not marketing, but Breadloaf also offers democratic access to visiting agents who scout the conference for yet-undiscovered talent. Iowa Writing Workshop also offers numerous week-long writing programs that can be stitched together into a summer-long studying. Their instructors, though, may vary in strength and teaching abilities.

APW conference (this February in Chicago) is intense and is tightly related to MFA programs in contents and in atmosphere. If you are not affiliated with an MFA program, you may find yourself floating unanchored in a horde of thousands of strangers…. But there is a huge amount of lectures and panel discussions, though not hands-on instruction.

But if you are past the stage of learning and it is time for you to focus on meeting agents, Writer's Digest Conference in New York City this coming January does that. Also IWWG has "Meet the Agent" program in NYC in April and October, (open to men, too!) It is an excellent opportunity to pitch directly to agents who are looking for new authors. In addition, many conferences across the country are attended by agents who travel far to present there; some make particular conferences their "home" as they return every year. It is especially true for genre-specific conferences that focus on sci-fi, romance, fantasy, etc.

If your manuscript is ready and you want to pitch directly to publishers, the NYC Pitch Conference is the place for you. You need to apply and show that your manuscript is in a good shape to pitch to the visiting editors from main publishing houses. While only 5% of all pitched books have ended up with a publishing contract, this event is an excellent place to evaluate where you stand in the publishing journey and what you must still do to get there. I found that honing my pitch through the methodical, thoughtful process was extremely valuable in eventually landing an agent and a publishing contract.

There are many other good writers' conferences and workshop. I admit to not having traveled to either the West Coast or overseas. As you start searching for the right event, here are some suggested steps:

1) Your budget: Registration, travel and housing—as well as number of days and time of year— are obvious considerations.

2) Check how long an event has been around. The poorly organized ones do not last, as attendees do not return. If it is a new conference, check who are the organizers and what is their track record. But don’t overlook those. A small, new conference with excellent instructors may offer the intimate, comfortable environment you need.

3) Start with a local writers’ conference, knowing that you will attend more.

4) Take your time to evaluate the stage of your manuscript or your idea (for non-fiction) and set your goal for the conference accordingly.

5) Google writers or industry professionals you particularly like and check which conferences they attend.

6) Be prepared to be friendly and make contact with fellow writers. They are an equally important benefit of your conference experience.

If you have attended good writing workshops and events, I invite you to respond to this post with your own suggestions.

Talia Carner

Talia Carner’s latest novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, (HarperCollins, June 2011) details the struggles of a young woman between passion and faith. Please check


  1. Hi Talia: Good advice, all of it. As you have done, I gave myself an MFA this way and some other programs I would recommend are Wesleyan Writers Workshop, Tin House Writers Workshop and conferences in whatever genre the writer is working in. There are boatloads of mystery and romance workshops. But, and it's a big but, beginning writers should be aware that the number of manuscripts actually bought out of writers workshops and conferences is almost nil, no matter how many the agents and editors ask to see, and that's a reality. It's a good place to learn your craft, but novice writers expect too much from the agents and editors end, I think.

  2. talia, it made me smile as you described the situations where folks asked you for advice and proclaimed they had comnpleted a novel...writing is a job and requires discipline and dedication but it appears to be one of the few professions that everyone feels they are good at (or could be good at, *if* they could ever get the time to do it) -smile-

  3. Moose, I agree that many writers find it hard to imagine how hard it is to have a manuscript accepted by an agent--or sold to an editor. Hence, many are disappointed from these encounters.
    Andy, a reader asked me in an e-mail to tell her how to write and publish a novel. I responded that I no more could teach her via e-mail how to write and publish a novel than I could teach her to be a concert pianist....