One of the best experiences for a writer is a writers' conference. It doesn't matter if you're new or more advanced, published or not, being among other writers who share your passion is inspiring. No more strange looks (you're writing about what?), no more sneers (so where did you say I can buy your books? nowhere yet?), no more guilt trips (what do you mean - you can't come to the beach/mall/playground with us, you're writing?), no more questions from family like "When are you going to get a real job?"
At a good writers' conference you'll get the following things:
1. You'll meet lots of other writers who feel just like you. You'll share experiences, the lows and highs, pass on good advice, re-inspire each other and make life-long friends. I know because that's happened to me!
2. You'll listen to other well-published writers speak and realise their paths to publication were long and tough, and what got them there was perseverance and hard work, not some magical, mystical talent. You'll realise that a little bit of talent goes a long way if you're prepared to listen, learn and practise, practise, practise. They'll inspire you too. I still remember Linda Sue Park and her two pages a day, no matter what. They'll also remind you that part of being a writer is to read, read, read.
3. You'll hear editors and publishers talking about what they might be looking for, what makes a manuscript stand out, what fads and trends are passing or passed, what their house publishes. They'll add to your market research (that you're already doing - right?) and put a human face on the rejection letters. They'll remind you that competent and pretty good doesn't cut it in the world today, and that you need to work hard to find your own story and tell it as only you can. They'll also remind you that they love books as much as you do, and they really are looking for new voices.
4. You'll also hear agents, hopefully two or three, talking about their business, how they work, what they're looking for. It'll sound a lot like editors, only more so.
5. You'll find new ideas springing into your mind, from things people say, things you see, things that pop into your dreams each night as you sleep after a long day of talking about writing and books. You'll take lots of notes, write down every idea that occurs to you, buy books that appeal to you, make a list of others to borrow from your library.
6. At a lot of conferences, you'll have a manuscript consultation option. If you've been working on a project and it's not ready, you may pass on the consult. But if you decide to take it up, you'll prepare the best submission you can, and think about what you want from the consult. No editor or agent will give you a contract on the spot, based on ten pages! But they might ask you to send the whole novel. They might ask you to talk about it more. They might ask you questions, about the novel and about you. Be ready. Make the most of it.
It's a good idea to "take stock" before a conference. What do you want from it? What can it give you? Why are you paying this money? Where do you sit in the row of writers that spans "complete newbie" to "well published". What advantages does that seat give you? What is going to be most useful to you in terms of sessions and talks? If you are published, is there a professional stream for you? (otherwise you are going to be bored by sessions that tell you what you already know). Are there agents and editors there you are interested in?
It's also a good idea to make a list of the things you are NOT going to do. 1. Drink too much and make a fool of yourself. You can almost guarantee that when you do, an important editor or agent will be in the audience. 2. Pitch yourself to agents and editors in their down-time when all they want is a drink and some peace and quiet. 3. Whine. It doesn't help, and it makes you look like a total amateur. 4. Show off, even when you have something to show. Say no more.
We have our second international SCBWI conference coming up in February in Sydney, and the program looks terrific. I love conferences, I love getting together with other writers, and I love coming home inspired all over again.