The Writer’s Desk: Writers Conferences

When I made the decision to pursue writing more seriously, I determined to call myself a writer. To make it feel more true and to psych myself about it, I began sharing my triumphs with the people around me, very few of whom were writers. This included announcing my awards during the Relief Society “good news minute.” I suppose these announcements (or the publications in The Friend, which continue to gain me more respect than any award for poetry ever could) were why a woman in my ward called me and asked if her son, who had written not just a novel but a trilogy, could talk to me about what he should do now.

When I wondered to myself whether I, who have yet to publish any book-length work, would have anything at all to share with him, I realized that I actually did know quite a lot about the journey he was setting out on–and I had gained this knowledge mostly through attending writers conferences.

I’ve really only attended two different writers conferences–AML’s (2 or 3 times), and BYU’s Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers (4 times)–so I can’t really speak in general about the conference culture, particularly for mainstream writers. But when I think about what I’ve gained from the conferences I’ve attended, I realize that my participation in them has been the greatest factor, other than discovering AML, in my decision to take myself more seriously as a writer and in the development of my aspirations.

The first and biggest gain I get from these gatherings is the sense of community I experience there. When I get done with a conference, especially the intense, five-day WIFYR experience, I feel a great bond with the other writers I’ve met there. I think of myself as one of them, as a writer. I leave having been buoyed up. There’s even a let-down during those first few weeks after the conference, a sense almost of homesickness for the conference high. I want to stay in contact with my new friends. We form critique groups and motivation groups (two different things, both necessary). This community is priceless to me because in my real life I’m surrounded by non-writers and quite a few non-readers who couldn’t care less whether I ever get a publishing contract or not.

Second, I gain information about what to do with my writing once it’s ready to go out into the world. The world of publishing is mysterious and the whole process, from initial query to paying taxes on earnings, is a new universe to the uninitiated. It’s easy for a writer, like my friend’s son, to think that he has jumped the hurdle when he finishes the book, and now all he has to do is sit back and watch the publishers fight over his manuscript. Not only did my time at WIFYR teach me the truth about the process, but it eased my impatience and insecurity, because I was surrounded by writers–some of them already published and many of them highly talented–who were just as discouraged, sometimes, with the frustrating system. The fact that it’s taking me a while to find an agent is less painful when I know I’m in good company.

Third, and most obvious, the conferences have helped my writing improve. I mention this third, though, because it really is one of the smaller of the benefits of writers conferences. Because every serious writer should already have a critique group, and that group will help her more than a conference ever will. (I happen to have the world’s best critique group.)  Of course, I’ve been able to be taught by some great writers and teachers, especially at the longer conference. But the greatest benefit of their teaching has been in other areas than improving my work. They have taught me process, critiquing, publishing procedure, how to stay positive. Most importantly, they have provided models for me by describing their own processes and roads to publication. I’ve been able to learn from Rick Walton, Janette Rallison, and Louise Plummer at BYU WIFYR, and from Michael Collings at an AML conference, where he sat down with me one-on-one and helped me through the revision process with one of my poems.

Finally, conferences often give students access to industry professionals. Sometimes you can get direct contact with editors and agents and your manuscript; other times you can learn from them in presentations or over a meal. As is the case with WIFYR, attending a conference where an editor or agent is presenting often gets you an “in” with an agency or publisher that is not otherwise accepting submissions. These are valuable contacts.

I wouldn’t be where I am (although I’m still not sure where that is–wherever it is, it is a much more confident place than where I was ten years ago) if it weren’t for the conferences I’ve attended.

What about you? Have you been to any, local or otherwise? Would you recommend them? How did they help?

Note on local conferences:

The AML no longer sponsors a writers conference, mostly due to a lack of resources (volunteer time being the most important) and also a belief that maybe we were redundant with all the other great conferences around here. What do you think–do you miss AML’s writers conferences?

As for WIFYR, it will not be sponsored by BYU this year but promises to be as good as ever. I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re interested in writing for children or teenagers–and, in fact, I’ve seen people who write only for adults also benefit from it. For more information about it, check out this website. I happen to know that there are still spots open in the picture book workshop this year, and maybe other workshops as well.

I’m very excited about Segullah‘s first writers conference, which will happen in June. I’ll be presenting there in the poetry workshop.

I should also mention the LDStoryMaker’s conference, which is coming up in April. I don’t know anything about it, but I believe several of you loyal readers have attended and could tell us more about it.

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6 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: Writers Conferences

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I, too, found conferences helpful. I received the best piece of writing advice I’d ever gotten from a small press publisher who made an off-hand comment about manuscripts he reads. But conferences have also made me feel like an alien in an alien world. And I don’t just mean that I’ve felt like a publishing outsider. Some of the conferences I’ve attended here in my state were peopled with some of the strangest ducks I’ve ever met. But strange ducks make interesting characters, so all is a study, isn’t it?

    I haven’t attended a conference in a long time. After a while, I realized that I had heard this stuff before, had read it, and that the people teaching weren’t any farther along the process than I was. Its good that Darlene recommends these she mentions so highly.

    Now a writer’s group…That I attend regularly. Strange ducks there too. :)[i]Quack, quack.[/i]

  2. Lee Allred says:


    A very nice and very informative post on writer conferences hitting all the key benefits of attending. Also key is something you show" not all workshops serve the same purpose (or the same audience — as Lisa’s comment confirms). Sometimes you can sort them out by nomenclature — and sometimes that same nomenclature can trip you up.

    I’ve noticed that in Utah we science fiction writers call a bunch of local writers getting together on a periodic bases (my old group Xenobia met every Saturday night) to critique each other’s manuscripts a [i][b]writers group[/b][/i]. Writer groups can be a godsend — they provide peer pressure to get you motivated to produce a manuscript for deadline (critique night), competition with your peers (if that’s what floats your boat) and the motivation that can come from socializing with other writers, but sometimes you can actually get some beneficial learning about the craft of writing in the feedback. The trick (with a nod to Lisa’s comment) is to get into a group at your level or better yet, higher.

    Outside of Utah, however, other sf writers seem to call such a group a [i][b]writers workshop[/b][/i]. Which confuses the heck out of me because what we Utah sf writers call a [i][b]writers workshop [/b][/i]– a formal class or series of classes (usually lasting several days) taught by an established writer or editor (usually for a sizable fee) — is also called a [i][b]writers workshop [/b][/i]by non-Utah sf writers. Yep, they use the same name for the both.

    [i][b]Writers conferences [/b][/i]– the type like AML with formal presentations and panel discussions but not much craft teaching — don’t really exist in science fiction. The closest thing there is to one is actually BYU’s science fiction [i][b]symposium [/b][/i](a few papers get presented and there are occasional formal lectures by faculty in addition to the writer panels). Instead, our conferences get sort of rolled into fan events called science fiction [i][b]conventions [/b][/i]or "cons" for short. Romance Writers of America, on the other hand, has a very conferencey annual conference. It’s all business. Very very profession. Dress code is profession business attire (or better). Dress code at a sf con is Labor Day weekend at Disneyland. A button down shirt is overdressing. (Romance Writers of America organizes local writers groups into what they call [i][b]chapters[/b][/i].)

    There are also [i][b]writer retreats[/b][/i]. These are usually weekend getaways where you go together in a group someplace neat and then sit alone in a room and write instead of seeing the sights. Often the group chips in to bring a guest lecturer to teach in the evenings. (I did one of these at the hot springs resort in Midway, Utah; Xenobia used to go camping in the Moab area.)

    Each of these writerly events has its own purpose and audience and not all of the same kind of event gives you the same benefit. I can speak a little about the science fiction events.

    Science fiction cons come in local, regional, and world sizes. Local and regional ones mainly offer the chance to hook up with other writers and talk to readers and fans, although they occasionally have agents, editors, and publishers as guests. BYU’s symposium is considered local.

    The big ones — Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention), World Fantasy Convention, and the Nebula Awards — are where they hand out the industry awards (Hugo, World Fantasy, and Nebula respectively). It’s also the best place to meet book and magazine editors, publishers, and agents. A lot of business gets conducted during these events.

    [i][b]Worldcon [/b][/i]is huge and run by and for the fans. Thousands of people wearing Spock ears etc, but if you can only afford one science fiction convention trip a year this is probably your best choice. I’ve been to several, enjoyed some, hated others.

    [i][b]World Fantasy [/b][/i]is smaller but ‘smarter’ at least in its organizers estimation — it was established to be more literary and owes much of its genesis to the sf world’s litcrit crowd. I’ve been to a couple and found it not my cup of Postum. I’ve good friends who swear by it though.

    The [i][b]Nebula Awards [/b][/i](aka the "Nebs") are quite smaller as far as attendance goes, but prestigious. It’s put on by the Science Fiction Writers of America to award the Nebula Awards — awards voted on by the SFWA member professional writers. The top writers usually are there (hoping to pick up their trophies) along with their publishers and editors (hoping to pick up their bragging rights). I found it a good place to start social networking when I started out in the field, but it can be intimidating for new writers. I picked up a short story sale networking at a Nebula — walking through a museum of all things with a writer I’d just met who, after he got home, recommended me to an anthology editor.

    Science fiction also has several long-running writer workshops (the charge a fee for lectures and personal critiques kind). The best known are [i][b]Clarion [/b][/i]and [i][b]Clarion West Workshops[/b][/i]. These are six-week long brutally intensive workshops that require a sort of audition screening process to get in. Did I mention brutally intensive? The six week length — identical to my stints to basic training and the MTC — isn’t coincidental. [i][b]Writers of the Future [/b][/i]has a very good week-long workshop for the winners of the Writers of the Future contest (I attended after my win). Occasionally WOTF holds mini-workshops in various local areas for aspiring writers. (BYU hosted a couple.) There are also some very good ones for established writers around that don’t advertise much.

    Writing is solitary but humans are inherently social animals — writing conferences help fill the gap. Even introverts like me enjoy them.

    – Lee

  3. Melinda W. says:

    I wrote my first novel in blissful ignorance of the publishing industry. It didn’t sell. Attending the AML conferences (back when they were a writing workshop) was my first introduction into the reality of publishing. I haven’t been to any writers’ conferences in several years. I registered for the Storymakers Conference in April, and am looking forward to it. I find the information very useful, and it’s great to meet other people who are trying to write too.

  4. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I would still like to see if it wouldn’t be possible to put on an LDS Readers’ Conference that would be similar to science fiction conventions, with LDS authors presenting panels on various aspects of writing and doing readings and book signings, so that readers and aspiring writers could meet and mingle with their favorite authors as well as with the various LDS publishers.

    If I can get my work load on AML down enough, I may just offer to serve as the AML liaison with LDS Storymakers and see if we can pull something together.

  5. That would be really cool, Kathleen.

  6. Thanks for the details about the conference, i would love to participate in a writers conference.

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