Spring is in the air, and while for most people that means gardening, the end of hockey, and that your local Tim Hortons is running out of Roll Up the Rim cups, for writers it means that the conference season is well underway. (We’ve added links to four biggies on our Resources page.)
As an eight-year conference veteran, the two saddest things I’ve seen are the first-timers who come but don’t feel like they got enough out of it to come back and the attendees who come every year but never seem to make any progress. I think the solution for both is the same—plan your strategy in advance.
Identify Your Long-Term Goals and Your Current Level
Writers’ conferences are like a buffet, offering something to appeal to everyone. If you just get in the first line you see, you might end up eating kung-pow chicken when you were really craving lasagna. Obviously you’re going to be disappointed, and you might even go away hungry.
You need to know where you are in order to know where you’re going and how to get there. Most people can slot themselves into one of three experience categories:
- Are you brand new to writing, trying to figure out where to start and if this is what you really want to do as a career?
- Have you built up a small body of work and are looking to expand your career?
- Are you a seasoned professional who’s now on the lifelong quest to polish their writing, stretch their limits with something new, reach higher heights, or give back to less experienced writers?
Identifying your long-term goals might be a little more difficult (especially if you’re just starting out), but it’s equally important. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I need to earn money from my writing or will I be happy writing for free?
- Do I eventually want to leave my current job to write full-time?
- What topics am I interested in writing about (e.g. parenting, current events, the arts, health)?
- Do I want to write fiction or non-fiction?
- What styles of writing am I interested in (e.g. poems, articles, novels, songs)?
- What age level do I want to write for?
Successful businesses all set long-term goals to keep them on track. Every decision they make is made in order to advance these goals. It saves them from wasting time and money on things that won’t benefit them in the long run.
With those things in mind, let’s take a look at how you can get the most out of a writers’ conference.
You either haven’t had anything published, or you’ve just started to get those first couple of valuable credits to your name.
Take advantage of pre-conference offerings like Mount Hermon’s buddy system or Write! Canada’s God Uses Ink Novice Writing Contest.
Get a manuscript critique or book a one-on-one appointment with a freelance writer or novelist rather than an agent or editor. Your work probably isn’t ready for someone from Revell/Baker or Faith Today, and a fellow writer will be focused on helping you improve your writing rather than telling you whether your idea is currently saleable. Ask them what you most need to improve on, and have them recommend books and websites based on your specific long-term goals.
When choosing classes/workshops, it doesn’t matter how interesting that option for marketing your book looks, at this point in your career, it’s not a strategic use of your time. If you choose classes meant for seasoned professionals, you’re more likely to come away feeling overwhelmed. You need to choose a class that’s going to teach you the basics and give you an overview of the different types of writing. Some conferences, like Write! Canada, will help by indicating which classes are best for beginners right in their descriptions.
And here’s the hard truth. Whether you plan to write for magazines forever or eventually want to write fiction or non-fiction books, you still need to take classes in how to write for magazines. Right now, you’re doing your apprenticeship. Regardless of how much natural talent you have, writing is a skill that needs to be learned, polished, and updated. Writing for magazines teaches you the tools you need for longer works, and book publishers rarely sign someone with no published work to their name.
The key to your strategy is going to be networking, which really comes down to building relationships.
Make appointments and get manuscript critiques with editors you don’t know. Conferences are an excellent opportunity to cut past the pile of unsolicited queries and make a personal connection. Use your meal times to sit with industry professionals as well. Look for a writer with similar skills that you can try co-writing with.
For classes/workshops, focus on specific areas where you know you’re weak. For example, look for classes on adding humor to your work, creating stronger query letters, or how to write captivating personal interest stories. No matter what your strengths, a class on new opportunities or editing your own work will be beneficial. A great way to cover even more is to find a “buddy,” take different classes, and swap notes, or to buy the CDs after the conference is over.
If your long-term goal is to write fiction, now is the time to also branch out into a few helpful workshops in that area. It’s also time to think about launching a website and using social networking sites.
You obviously already know how to work a conference, so my one tip for you is to watch out for the trap of taking classes that aren’t advanced enough. A few refresher courses won’t hurt, but marketing and promotion should be your primary focus. You may not even spend much time in class because, for you, this is really a time to continue building relationships and to start giving back to newer writers.
Do you have other tips for strategically planning your conference time?