A Bit More On Writing Conferences

I enjoyed reading through all the comments today by my loyal blog readers about their experiences at writing conferences. Kim’s tale of going to a writing conference in a small town in the middle of Australia was fascinating. You just never know when you’re going to meet somebody you’ll “click” with and gain a friend, a mentor, a writing buddy, or whatever.

Sean asked whether it’s worth going to a conference if you’re not yet writing at a good enough level. This is a good question, and deserves a sane and balanced answer from a sane and balanced person. When I find someone like that, I’ll see if they can give an answer. In the meantime, here’s mine:

There are several good reasons to go to a writing conference:

  1. To learn more about the publishing industry
  2. To learn more about the craft of writing
  3. To meet other writers and make friends to help you along the journey
  4. To get your work critiqued by an industry professional (editor, agent, or writer, but writers are often the best for this because they will critique your work, rather than just tell you whether it’s of interest to them as a business opportunity)
  5. To see editors and agents and learn that they are just regular people whom you can approach
  6. To begin building relationships with editors and agents
  7. To make appointments with agents who might be willing to represent you
  8. To make appointments with editors who might be interested in buying your work

For novice writers, #1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are the most appropriate sorts of goals. For intermediate writers, #1 through 6 are quite appropriate. For advanced writers with a book that is ready to sell, #1 through 8 are all appropriate.

The problem comes when you try to jump the gun and go straight to #8 as a novice. This doesn’t work, any more than jumping straight to calculus as a high-school freshman. If you’re a freshman, work on algebra or geometry first, then move up to trignometry, then go to calculus. It’ll be a smooth and easy journey (if you have the talent for math) and the only disadvantage is that it takes a few years. But if you try to go straight to calculus, then it’ll take forever.

I actually began going to small conferences in 1989, 7 years before my first adventure to Mount Hermon. So I spent about 7 years going to a small regional conference in San Diego, which was a fine conference and radically moved me along the path toward success. But after a few years of that, I needed to move up to a bigger conference with more editors and agents. I never abandoned the San Diego conference, which was an excellent regional one-day conference which was inexpensive and always was well-run. I kept going to it along with the Mount Hermon conference.

But the fact is that a large conference is really necessary when you get to the stage where you’re ready to sell a book. Selling is a numbers game. The odds of selling to any given editor is small. You improve your odds by talking to more editors. You get those at a large conference. At a small conference, you often get excellent instruction in a nice and intimate setting and you get a great chance to build friendships.

So there is no one best strategy to choosing a conference that works for every writer. Many writers prefer to get their feet wet first at a small regional conference and then move up to a larger conference. Others jump right into a huge conference. A lot depends on your goals and expectations going into the conference, and on how well you know your own level as a writer.

This reminds me, I highly recommend Meredith Efken’s e-book on writing conferences, the Writer’s Conference Survival Guide, which is conveniently available here on my web site at an outrageously low cost. Meredith is my own freelance editor (she’s worked on all my books since RETRIBUTION) and is currently on the home stretch of writing the first draft of her own novel #4.

One last thing, Mary DeMuth posted a comment yesterday with a link to a YouTube video she made on “23 Reasons You Should Go To Mount Hermon.” It’s pretty good, and while I have never taken time from the conference to go to the beach or go swimming, the other 21 reasons are all part of my experience. (And I have been to the beach near Mount Hermon many times, because my high school was right on the beach of the Monterey Bay.)


  1. Mary Hawkins January 28, 2009 at 4:42 am #

    Have been following your blog whenever time has permitted in between projects, Randy, and want to thank you for so much invaluable advice ever since I bought your great Fiction 101 studies. So sorry time hasn’t permitted me to more active here on your blog but couldn’t resist a comment on this current topic – conferences. One word sums them up for me: Invaluable!
    But then, being a writer of course I can’t just use the one word! There are so many, many reasons to attend them and some already mentioned here.

    Hi to a fellow Aussie, Kim. I sure know what it was like writing in isolation in the country. It was way back in the ’70s when we lived not that far from Condobolin in Central New South Wales that this nervous, frustrated wannabe writer went to a writers’ Day Conference in Sydney. Meeting other writers for the very first time simply overwhelmed me and was the Lord’s nudge in those days that this was indeed the path HE wanted me to take.

    It still took me many years to have that first novel published but only after I joined Romance Writers of Australia, went to their conferences and became active in a local writers’ group. Nothing I’d been to before could compare to the RWAmerica National in Chicago in 1999 where I met writers just commencing the Faith Hope Love chapter. Exciting, fantastic and learnt so much – as well as meeting my Barbour editor for the very first time.

    My 18th title is being released in March and I am so excited to again be able to attend a conference in the U.S. but this time the ACFW one in Denver.
    Hope to meet some of you there!

  2. Judith Robl January 28, 2009 at 6:00 am #


    Forwarded yesterday’s post to a young writer who’s going to be at Mt. Hermon. It got her all excited about the conference. I hope today’s post doesn’t discourage her.

    I did my first conference at Glorieta. Three hundred attendees. I was a little overwhelmed, but I hadn’t had any coaching on what to expect and my expectations were somewhat out of line.

    The second time was better. I’ve been to large and I’ve been to small. Each has its strengths. And one can learn a lot from each.

    Have fun at Mt. Hermon – and try not to let the green in my eyes dull your enjoyment.

  3. Amy VR January 28, 2009 at 7:02 am #

    I lived in Monterey for a couple years while my husband attended the Naval Postgraduate School there. It is a beautiful place!

    I mentioned in the last blog comments that I will be attending a regional conference this year. But I also should have mentioned that two years ago I went to a writing workshop offered by my local library. There I met a woman who was part of a writing critique group and I have been with them ever since. This group has done more for my writng than any other single thing I’ve done. There are five wonderful women who encourage and critique each other’s work. Two have been published multiple times so the others benefit from their wealth of knowledge and advice. Earlier this month we all rented a house on the Outer Banks in NC, and spent a long weekend writing. It was wonderful! Honestly, I do not remember what was taught at that library workshop… but the lifelong friendships I have made with these women was the most important thing to have happened.

    I hope to go to SCBWI in California next year… with a completed manuscript in hand!

  4. Andra M. January 28, 2009 at 8:08 am #

    I concur about Meredith’s handbook. A definite must-have.

    Thanks for highlighting it, Randy.

  5. Kat Heckenbach January 28, 2009 at 8:12 am #

    I’m going to expand on a couple of Randy’s answers for the benefit of Sean and other novice writers–because, yes, it is most definitely worth going to a conference early in the game.

    First, though, I might suggest going to a smaller, less costly conference, so you are not overwhelmed–that’s just my humble opinion.

    Randy said to go because you’ll learn about the craft of writing. Yes, and you will learn from real published authors with years of experience. I mentioned that I sat in on Bryan Davis’s class. I learned enough in that one class, just one morning, to completely transform my first three chapters. He also recommended a book (“Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne) that now has a prominent place on my desk–it has been one of the most valuable investments I have made toward improving my writing.

    And unlike reading web articles or books on writing, being in a class allows you to ask questions. You may even have a chance to have a sample of writing read during a writing exercise that will show you specific issues in your writing that need to be addressed and how to deal with them.

    I know critique groups can do some of this, too. But often, they are made up of newbie, unpublished, struggling writers, with no real professional to contribute. Having that professional writer as a teacher makes a big difference.

    Randy also said you will learn about publishing. For a novice writer, what this means is you can get an idea of what agents and editors are looking for in manuscripts. The web and books are great tools, but the information can be conflicting and overwhelming.

    I was panicked about writing a synopsis. Everything I read online and in books had me freaking out. My novel has a lot of sub-plot, and complicated turns. I was able to ask Jan Stob from Tyndale flat-out what I should put in there. Her answer calmed me down :), and helped me shave off all the unnecessary information.

    FYI–she said the purpose of a synopsis is simply to show the editor you can take your character from point A to point B. Do not try to fit the whole book in three pages–stick to the major, major things that drive the plot forward and/or change the character. It does not have to read like your novel. It is a summary, that’s it. Whew.

    Queries, cover letters, synopses, market analysis–it had all become this huge swirl in my head. The conference helped to de-fog it. And it gave me a chance to make connections with authors who have written all of those things (successful ones!), and get real advice on how to tackle them.

    Another thing it did was make me see how not ready I was at the time. I could have taken that as a discouragement, but I chose to focus on what I had learned and apply it. That is key. If you go, and leave feeling wet behind the ears, take that as an opportunity! The conference will improve your writing, which will make the next conference a whole different experience for you. I’m hoping that, if nothing else, these early conferences will get me confortable with the process, so when the time comes to really pitch my novel I’m fully ready.

  6. Ben January 28, 2009 at 10:40 am #

    Yesterday’s post got me thinking once again about attending a conference. Things simply had not worked out in the past, but I did a little research with the hope that I could attend a few this year.

    The information I found on Mount Hermon has me really hoping I can attend this spring. It looks like an incredible experience.

    I do have a question, though:

    My current novel is still in the early stages (I have almost 100 pages of a rough draft and a skeletal outline of the rest of the story). What should I focus on getting done if I do end up going to the conference? Should I try to polish the first twenty pages for critique? Pull a proposal/summary sentences together (not to pitch to editors, but as a way of having the elements of the story in a concise, easily discussable form)?

    Any recommendations? I have limited time to work on it due to a full-time college schedule, but I set aside a little time each day to write.

  7. Lara January 28, 2009 at 8:29 pm #

    I’m up for a writer’s conference now! And I appreciate how you spell out realistic goals for us. I’m one of those freshmen who was pitching book proposals at my second conference. Yikes! It would have been much more enjoyable if I’d taken the approach you recommend.

  8. Tim January 28, 2009 at 10:25 pm #

    I am very interested in going to my first writing conference. I want to go to a small one, but I need to find a conference that fits my niche. Do you know of any secular writing conferences for young adult/ independent reader?

  9. Pam Halter January 29, 2009 at 7:22 am #

    I got a ride to the Pacific Ocean last year from Mt. Hermon. I really wanted to do it because I live in New Jersey and who knows if I’ll ever get out to the West Coast again? But I made plans to arrive a day early, so I had all morning on Friday before the conference started. I’d encourage people who are traveling a good distance to any conference to do that – arrive a day early. It will help you get settled and you’ll feel less rushed.

  10. Sean January 29, 2009 at 8:21 pm #

    Wow, this is great stuff. This is why I like this blog.

  11. Lynn Rush February 2, 2009 at 9:54 am #

    Great stuff. I’ve been lurking for a while now.
    I just attended my second writers conference this past weekend.

    It was great. I’m all set to attend ACFW in September up in Denver. It’s gonna be great.

    Thanks for a great blog!!

  12. Avily Jerome February 2, 2009 at 1:53 pm #

    Thanks for the great tips, Randy!
    I’ve been to one small, local writers conference so far, and am looking forward to more.

  13. Morgan February 2, 2009 at 2:11 pm #

    Missed out on yesterday’s blog, but wanted to give my two cents on Conferences;P My first conference was a one day sponsored by the Oregon Christian Writer’s Association where I first met Randy (I don’t know about other small conferences, but this one was only $30 and it introduced me to a world where other writers lived).

    After listening to Randy, I went to his site afterward and learned loads more about writing. At that point, I had been writing for 3 years and wanted to see just how far I had come in my writing, along with wanting to learn more about the publishing world.

    So with added encouragement from my husband, I signed up for Mt Hermon last year and specifically for Randy’s mentoring track. And my writing life has changed ever since.

    What especially made the conference worthwhile is that I had set reasonable goals for myself:
    1)where am I at with my writing?
    2)I wanted to make friends with others writers
    3)what is the publishing world like?
    And most importantly for me 4)is publishing for me as a young mother (could I do it while raising 4 little ones)?

    I came away with answers to all 4 questions and more. I found encouragement, friends, learned so much about writing, and realized (though it is hard) that writing for now must remain a hobby, something I do while the kids are napping. But was it worth it? Oh yes! And I hope when my kids are older and I can commit more time to my writing to go back to Mt Hermon, only this time with a couple proposals in hand 🙂

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