I’m thinking about writing conferences today. This is a good time of the year for it, since there are a ton of great conferences coming up in the spring.
Let me tell you a story about why I believe so strongly in writing conferences.
Back in 1996, I was feeling pretty frustrated with the whole cursed writing game. I had been writing fiction at that time for eight years. I thought I was writing pretty well.
But I hadn’t sold a thing. Not one blasted word. Hadn’t even had a nibble. I had an agent, but he hadn’t sold anything for me.
I decided something had to change. Since I couldn’t change what the publishers or my agent were doing, I decided to change what I was doing.
I decided to go to the biggest writing conference in my niche market. I decided I was just going to spend the money and see what happened. I decided I was going to keep going every year until I sold a novel or until I died. I figured I still had about 50 years of life expectancy, and there was no way the publishers could hold out on me for 50 years.
So I signed up for the Big Enchilada in my niche (which happens to be Christian publishing. If I was writing for another niche, I’d have chosen the Big Enchilada in that niche).
I signed up for the Mount Hermon Christian Writing Conference in the spring of 1996. Mount Hermon has long been the best conference in Christian publishing (plus I heard they had great food, which is always important).
I flew up to San Jose that year, got on the shuttle van, and immediately found myself immersed in a world of other writers. And I knew I was home.
That was one of the best weekends of my life. I had been to writing conferences before, but never with so many big-shot editors and never with so many opportunities to get my work in front of their eyes.
But the best thing that happened to me that weekend had nothing to do with impressing any editors.
The best thing that happened to me was meeting John Olson. John is a Ph.D. biochemist and I’m a Ph.D. physicist. We both had a similar vision of what we wanted to do with our fiction. We were both weird. The nerd-herding instinct runs deep. We became instant friends.
We kept in touch over the following year, and spurred each other on to get some real writing done. That was the year I began work on a novel I called “Avatar.” I sent the first chapter to John and he gave it two thumbs up.
The following year, in 1997, John and I went back to Mount Hermon loaded for bear. We both came with several proposals and submitted them to editors who we just knew would love them. John got quite a bit of interest in his work, especially from a big-shot editor who was quite sure he wanted to buy John’s idea for a young-adult novel.
I spent the conference in John’s shadow, wondering if I’d ever find anyone interested in my work. None of the editors showed much interest in “Avatar.” So I submitted it for a critique to a professional writer, Lauraine Snelling. At the end of the conference, I ran into her and her first words were, “YOU’RE Randy Ingermanson? Wow! Your manuscript is good!” I only wished some editor would say that, but those words gave me the confidence I needed that someday, I was gonna break in. After the conference, John’s big-shot editor lost interest in his book. We commiserated together, and then vowed to do better next time.
The following year, 1998, John and I went to Mount Hermon with high hopes. I had both a nonfiction proposal (for a book analyzing the alleged “Bible code”) and a fiction proposal (for “Avatar.”) I attended a major track on writing nonfiction, taught by David and Heather Kopp.
Once again, I was in John’s shadow for most of the conference. He had brought along a proposal for a vampire novel and submitted it to editor Steve Laube, who returned it with the words, “I wouldn’t touch this with a sixty foot pole.” John instantly became famous as “the vampire novel guy” and he was sure he’d blown his chances of ever getting published. But I told him that this was brilliant publicity. His notoriety would be gold someday.
One of the editors, Karen Ball, heard about John’s novel and got very excited. She met with John and told him she loved his story. She couldn’t buy it, but she loved it. And John won an award as “Most Promising New Writer.”
My novel proposal didn’t get much action, but my nonfiction proposal did. I came away from the conference with a fistful of business cards of editors who wanted me to send them the proposal. And my nonfiction teacher, Dave Kopp, liked my proposal so much, he asked me for permission to photocopy it for his entire class. And after the conference, he offered to show it around to a few people he knew. (This is something you should NEVER ask faculty to do; but if they offer, then you should definitely take them up on it.)
John and I left Mount Hermon after the 1998 conference wondering if it was ever going to happen. We were close, but neither of us had won that pesky cigar yet. What was wrong with us?
As it turned out, the only thing wrong with us was that we should have started sooner. It just takes time to break in to the industry.
In the year that followed, I sold my nonfiction book to WaterBrook Press (thanks to a good word from Dave Kopp). And I sold “Avatar” to Harvest House (to an editor who turned down the nonfiction book but liked my writing).
When John and I returned the following year, I was working on TWO contracts, one for a nonfiction book and one for a novel. In the meantime, John had come up with an absolutely killer idea for a novel about some astronauts on the way to Mars who survive an explosion but are left with only enough oxygen for one of them to survive to the Red Planet. Just before the conference, John asked me if I wanted to coauthor the book with him. Who wouldn’t? I said yes, and we spent the conference brainstorming.
On the last night of the conference, we pitched the idea to the perfect editor for the project, Steve Laube. (Mr. Sixty Foot Pole from the previous year.) Steve hadn’t forgotten John’s vampire book, but he didn’t care. (We had to assure him no vampires would go to Mars.) Steve told us to send him a great proposal and he’d see what he could do. And I even won an award at the conference, “Writer of the Year.”
After the 1999 conference, John and I realized that we had turned the corner. There were still years of struggle ahead of us, but we were on our way.
That was eleven years ago. My book on the alleged “Bible code” was published and did well. My time-travel novel “Avatar” was published under the title “Transgression” and won me a major award. The following year, Steve Laube published our Mars novel “Oxygen” and we won a major award for it. John and I wound up writing two books together, and several others independently. I was invited to teach at Mount Hermon, and a few years later, John was too. John’s vampire novel eventually got published (by editor Karen Ball, who liked it from the very beginning, and who switched employers twice before she finally found a publisher willing to let her buy it–from John’s agent, Steve Laube. Yes, really, Steve “Sixty Foot Pole” Laube.)
This coming year will be my 14th time at Mount Hermon, and my 7th time teaching. I’ll be doing a mentoring track in fiction. John will be teaching a major track for teens. And we’ll be rooming together again, so there will be Geek Humor Alert out for the weekend. (Google “Shaving Babbitt” for a horrific example of what can go terribly wrong when geeks are allowed out of their cages.)
I’m convinced that every year gets better. There are more editors, more agents, more talented writers, more fun.
Looking back, it seems almost absurd to remember how much I sweated going to the first conference. I was scared to death of meeting people, talking to big-shot editors, and possibly looking foolish. I worried about spending so much money.
Yes, it was a big chunk of change. But Mount Hermon turned me from a wannabe writer into a gonnabe. And it was the place where I’ve become friends with hundreds of writers and dozens of editors and agents.
Sometimes I ask myself what would have happened if I hadn’t decided to start going to Mount Hermon. I don’t even want to think about that. That’s an alternate universe that I don’t want to visit.
A writing conference is not a magic carpet to publishing stardom. A writing conference is a place you go to learn the business, and then to do business. I believe a conference is the best possible place to do both of those.
That’s why I consider conferences almost essential for writers. I know a few authors who sold their first book without ever attending a conference. But most of my author friends broke in the same way I did–by going to conferences, year after year.
Is this your year to go to a conference? Now is a good time to think about it. Now, when you have the whole year ahead of you.
If you’re going to a conference this year leave a comment to tell us all which one you’re going to and why. I’d love to hear about it.
Adam Heine says
This is good information. It makes me less scared to go to a conference.
Unfortunately, parenting 6 kids in a far-off country on missionary support presents too many obstacles for me to plan on going every year. To the cost of the conference, I have to add about $1,000 for a plane ticket and the immeasurable cost of leaving my wife alone with all the kids for over a week. I can’t say it’s worth it yet.
Maybe this is just a lack of confidence, but I’m not sure I’m yet at a level with my writing where attending a conference would actually be helpful.
Or is it something that’s helpful regardless?
Sina'i Enantia says
I’ve been wanting to go to a writer’s conference for a few years now, but kept putting it off because of time and money (after all, I’m still a student). Plus, I’m still not really sure what the premier fantasy writing convention would be – I know of a few sci-fi/fantasy conventions in general, but I don’t think any of them focus on writing.
Last year, I went to my first conference, The Muse Online Writer’s Conference. It’s free, and takes place on the internet, so I don’t have to worry about taking time off for travel (though I did end up taking a few days off from class, so that I could get more out of the conference). I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I didn’t have a live, physical conference to compare it to, but I was very pleasantly surprised.
There were several authors teaching a variety of subjects, and dealing with several genres, along with some editors and publishing houses with their own forums. The online chat and forum workshops covered a lot of information – it was really hard for me to choose which workshops to focus on – I wanted to take most of them. I learned a lot from the conference, and I’m definitely doing it again this year. I hope to be able to make it to another conference this year as well (at least once I have a job to pay for it), but it was a great experience, and it encouraged me to continue my pursuit of writing.
Now if I could just finish editing my manuscript…
“It turned out, the only thing wrong with us was that we should have started sooner. It just takes time to break in to the industry.”
Being a prison chaplain I try to encourage people not to break in to anything. But I’m prepared to make an exception now and then.
My own take on conferences is that you meet people who are unobtainable elsewhere. This is my own experience, although there’s probably a bit more serendipity in my story than in Randy’s.
Go to Google Earth and look for Condobolin, NSW. Australia. That little town in the middle of nowhere is where I spent my first fifteen years. Nothing happens there unless you make it happen. From there I went to live in a boy’s home. A bunch of toxic teenagers thrown together, it’s like waiting to see who lights the fuse first.
Many years later and I have a first novel about a boy in a school for toxic teenagers. He’s dealing with some heavy stuff. I reckon it’s a good story.
My wife and I go looking for somewhere to spend a long weekend and we find that Condobolin has a writer’s festival. How it happened to be out there in the middle of nowhere is beyond me, but we sign up.
Special guest for the weekend is one of Australia’s most prolific children’s and YA authors. We meet at dinner the first evening and she offers to read my manuscript overnight. She likes it, but it needs work and she takes on the role of mentoring me. Her time at the conference is funded by a government arts grant and there’s money built in for extras like mentoring. The book starts to blossom as I follow her advice.
The next year the conference doesn’t happen because the energetic community development officer has moved to greener pastures. But with the enthusiasm of my mentor I continue to submit the manuscript until a publisher picks it up.
The conference not only brought me into contact with somebody I would never meet in normal life, and who sifted a good story out of my writing, it also gave me confidence in my own work.
I’ve come to see that if an established author is on faculty at a conference it is because he/she is willing to take part in the struggles of beginning writers. That in itself is enough to spur somebody on. We should not let such a resource escape us.
Richard Mabry says
Great post (as usual). My first conference was at Glorietta, and I was ready to leave before the first day ended (scared to death) but energized by the time I left. The next was Mount Hermon, where I met my current agent (Rachelle Gardner, who was an editor at the time), learned a whole bunch (including how little I knew) and was introduced to a slew of folks who became friends (and you’re in that group). It’s as much about networking and friendships as it is about opportunities, but there are opportunities for both.
Conferences are good. Conferences are our friends. Conferences are worth the money and effort if you’re serious about writing.
I’m signed-up for Mt. Hermon and have a mentor called Randy something. This will be my second year. Last year I figured since I was a newbie no one would speak to me the whole time. But I made friends before I’d left San Jose airport!I endorse this conference. Also, for those who cannot attend a conference I found that the Muse On-line’s was good. It cannot take the place of face to face contact, but it is interactive and has forums on a wide variety of subjects.
A J Hawke says
Thanks, Randy, for the post on attending
Writer’s Conferences. I am scheduled to attend my first writer’s conference in three weeks, Writing For the Soul in Colorado Springs.
I am going with two proposals and trepidation. I’ve never put my children on display before, and that is how I feel about putting my novels out there for strangers to judge. However, I know that is part of the process toward writing adulthood.
I appreciate Kim’s encouragement that it is an opportunity to meet industry people whom I would otherwise never meet. Because if I am realistic with myself, I will never get my work in front of anyone just sitting at home at my desk.
As for the cost, I plan to think of it as what I would pay for the chance to talk about my work with someone who can move it forward toward publication. When I consider it from that angle, it becomes very cost effective. I would pay two or three hundred dollars for the chance to meet an agent/editor.
If I may, Richard, I’m going to take your comment and make it my mantra for the next couple of weeks: Conferences are my friends. Conferences are my friends.
Debbie Thorkildsen says
A writing friend and I are going to Write! Canada Christian Writers’ Conference in June in Guelph, Ontario. It’s the only one I know of here in Canada.
Andra M. says
Conferences are worth your while regardless of your writing expertise. Meeting editors and other writers is only part of it. Most provide classes and/or workshops to help you improve your writing.
If you don’t feel your writing is up to par, don’t worry about it. Still meet with editors, because at the very least they can give you pointers. Make friends with other writers, because they are either where you are in your writing career or have been there and can help you grow.
But the classes alone can be worth the price of admission.
This year I’m attending the Christian Writers Guild conference in Colorado Springs for the fourth time. As usual I hope to wow an editor or two, but I’m mostly looking forward to reconnecting with friends and (insert a little terror here) Jerry Jenkins (co-author of the “Left Behind” series) critiquing the first two pages of my novel in his “Thick Skinned Critique” workshop. Gulp.
I’m not a writer so I’m not going to any writing conferences this year. (Interested in the publishing industry, though – that’s why I’m here.)
But I wanted to say that I love hearing your stories about how your books came about. I’m currently reading John Olson’s vampire book, Shade, and really enjoying it. And the reason I picked it up was because I heard the back story about it.
andie mock says
At my first YA conference, two years ago at Big Sur, I met my mentor, Ellen Hopkins, and have been going strong ever since. I haven’t sold yet but I can see I wasn’t nearly ready and that I still need craft improvement. Apparently it takes 10K hours to master a complex task like novel writing. I’m at about 4K hours but I’m still learning ALOT and having a blast doing so, working at it 4 to 6 hours seven days a week while holding down a part-time job and caring for my family.
I’m going to four writers’ conferences this year, Big Sur YA(run by the Andrea Brown Agency), two that are included in the Nevada SCBWI Mentoring Program which I got into the second year running, and SCBWI at Asilomar. I’ve met and will see great friends at all four of these. My gut sense is that publishing will happen when I’m ready unless the whole business collapses. I don’t fret about it like I did the first year because, while I’d love an audience, I’m so focused on being a master novel writer that publishing is just not in my brain’s upper register anymore.
There is a political problem with the arts in America that I know personally and deeply. You have to “pay to play”. I’ve been a professional performing artist for 30 years, frustrated about not being able to afford to pursue my art like my trust fund colleagues. So I KNOW the pain of not being able to afford these conferences where the social and business side of writing happens. It’s unfortunate for America because then mostly the rich or well-off voices get heard. The economic range of voices are lost to us as a people. There are exceptions, of course, and writing is way easier to get one’s work out there than the performing arts which is one reason I switched careers from playwriting to novel writing. My two political cents.
Liz C says
I’d love to hear from someone who’s been to a big sf/fantasy writing conferences. Which one(s) really shine?
If 10K hrs is the goal, I’m still in the first few K, but I’m thrilled about the journey ahead.
Carrie Stuart Parks says
I’ve attended several conferences (Murder in the Grove, Boise, Wisconsin’s Writers Conference, etc.) I’ve had huge take-away value from every one I go to.
I’m fearless when it comes to talking to people–that’s what comes of living in isolation in Cataldo, Idaho (famed for being saluted in the “corn patch” of Buck Owens’ TV show “HeeHaw.” Hard to beat a reputation like that.)
I’ve looked at Mt. Hermon for several years, am looking at the ACFW Denver conference, but the next one I go to will be to pitch my novel. Yeeeeeeeehhhhhaaaaaaa!
I’m not afraid of rejection. I’d like to modestly point out that I’ve been rejected by both an art show and an editor in the same day. Heck, my dog took second place in his class at the dog show.
He was the only dog in the ring.
What I put into the conference is what I come away with. I attend with an intense desire to learn. I come home with a lifetime of lessons.
Randy is right, Mount Hermon is the best conference around. I’ve been going for as long as Randy has and know that I wouldn’t have books with my name on it otherwise.
Okay, time for a little shameless promotion (I hope I don’t get in trouble). I just happen to coordinate a buddy program for first timer’s. If any of you plan to attend Mount Hermon this year and are going for the first time please e-mail me (email@example.com). I’d be happy to assign you to a conference veteran who can answer you pre-conference questions. If you HAVE attended before and plan to return this year then consider being a buddy to a first-timer. For more information on how it works just e-mail me.
Thanks for the great post Randy!
Sonja Hutchinson says
Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll be attending the Northwest Christian Writers Renewal conference in Seattle on May 1 and 2 – for the third year in a row. I was hoping to see your mug in the brochure… maybe next year?
I’m hoping to attend the ACFW conf in Sept this year, too. I met you at the ACFW in Dallas two years ago, along with your buddy, John. I gotta say, that was the highlight of that conference, following you and John around like you had candy in your pockets. (Some might call it stalking, but the English language is full of much better words.) At that conference, John told me all about Shade, then I had to wait nearly two years to get my hands on a copy! Bottom line: it was a ton of money, but I loved every minute of it and I met a ton of great people. Thanks for being a part of that.
Cheri Williams says
I LOVE writers conferences!!! Last year I attended the Christian Writers Seminar, the Mount Hermon Christian Writing Conference, and the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop. Each brought me a step closer to fulfilling my writing dreams.
Money, or the lack thereof, is a problem for me too. I’ve taken to selling our leftovers on Ebay and Craigslist for tuition funds. Time away from the family is a hardship, but my hubby and kids are in this gig with me—we make it work.
At conferences I’ve been affirmed, encouraged and educated. I’ve seen what the writing life looks like first hand and what it takes to succeed. I’ve learned that writers are regular people too.
Most importantly though, I’m now surrounded by a group of people who get it. They get me, what I’m doing, and why. They get how to encourage me and keep me on track. There’s no way to put a dollar value on that.
Next up for me is the Christian Writers Seminar. James Scott Bell is the keynote and Randy’s buddy John Olson is teaching the Advanced Fiction track. I can’t wait! You can check out the website at http://www.christianwriter.org. There’s also a Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=51075156021
I’ll be at Mt Hermon again too, and have my eye on the annual SCBWI conference in August. I’d love to see you there!
Cecelia Dowdy says
Randy, I enjoyed reading your writers conference experience! I always encourage unpublished writers to attend conferences. Like you said, it’s no magic carpet to getting published, but it sure does help! My first two books were contracted due to meetings I had with editors at Romance Writers of America (RWA) conferences. This conference really helped me since it specializes in romance, and my focus is Christian romance (I started this whole journey before ACFW existed). I attended this conference for five years before I landed a book deal. I haven’t been to an RWA conference in years since I’ve been going to ACFW, however, I will be attending RWA this year since it’s practically in my own backyard (Washington D.C.)
Mary E. DeMuth says
I can’t echo Randy’s encouragement enough. And for those interested in watching Mount Hermon promo videos, here are two.
For the conference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AwIt9u0G9zc
For the mentoring opportunity prior to the conference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0e4iMoN8Ko
Amy VR says
I will be attending the Christopher Newport University’s Writers’ Conference in March in Newport News, VA. ( http://writers.cnu.edu/ ) It’s under 100 bucks and is 15 minutes from home! I will just be taking classes and hopefully making some new friends. I don’t have a big goal of wowing any editors or agents this year, but if I happen to meet a few, I figure it can’t hurt.
Kat Heckenbach says
I’m going to the Florida Christian Writers Conference next month. This will be my second time attending, part-time. I’ve found that even one day at a conference–if you haven’t the time or money to make the whole thing–is worth the trip.
Last year I met Bryan Davis in the Teen Track class he taught, and I also made an appointment to talk to him. He left with my first few chapters. He was releasing a new book right after the conference, so he wasn’t able to read all I gave him, but he did read the first several pages and emailed me with comments. He told me I had “talent and real potential.” That was a super boost to my confidence!
I wasn’t able to have any official appointments with big-time editors, but I did ask gobs of questions during and after classes with agents and editors. None of them led me to a book deal (not that I was ready for that back then anyway), but it sure helped me get over my nervousness. They’re people, just like us, and much easier to talk to than I expected.
I’m more prepared this year, having spent the last year editing my novel and tweaking my hook. Since I’m part-time, I still can’t make an official appointment with an agent or editor, but the FCWC allows submissions of partials to two editors. I am taking advantage of that, which I could not do last year (because I had registered too late). I’ve already mailed the partials. I’m trying, really trying, to not chew my nails to nubs right now.
I’m also looking forward to taking a class on marketing. I probably won’t hear a word of it, though, as I’m sure I’ll be too star-struck by the teacher :).
I loved my first conference at Mt. Hermon. Had a class from some guy named Randy something – all about writing fiction, and gosh, I learned a bunch. In fact, that’s how I got hooked on this blog.
Like Randy mentioned, while there, I made contacts – not with editors, but with another columnist (a rare breed, numbering somewhere in the single digits) and we have encouraged each other and proofed each other’s work, etc., etc.
I’m still writing columns, freelanceing nonfiction, and working on my fiction. However, this year’s nonfiction event in my life is my daughter’$ wedding. And even though I had hoped for another Mt. Hermon experience, when $he $aid, “I do,” it tran$lated into “Mom i$n’t going to the conference.” But there’s always next year. And this blog.
Pam Halter says
I went to Mt. Hermon last year for the first time. It was great! I hope to be able to get out there again sometime. Sandy Cove was my first conference in 1997 and the Greater Phila. Christian Writer’s Conference has been my “confererence home” since 2000.
If you feel your writing is not up to par, then that’s THE reason to head to a writer’s conference. That’s what a conference is for! You take workshops to help you improve your writing and you meet friends who are in the same boat as you … they are writers. People who are not writers can’t begin to relate. 🙂
I met the people in my writer’s group at a conference. We’ve been together since 2003 and if it weren’t for them and our mentor, I would have given up writing.
So, what are you waiting for? Get thee to a writer’s conference!!
Jessica Thomas says
Well, you convinced me. There are two American Christian Writer’s Conferences that come to my area every year, and I’ve never gone. I suppose since neither are the “Big One”, I decided to skip out. Perhaps not too bright. Not ready to do the plane ride across the country yet. Wait. Where is Mount Hermon? California? (Just checked.) Bummer. Yep, that’s definitely across the country!
As a side note, I read Oxygen a couple years ago, and that’s when I realized science fiction can be Christian based and still be good! Haven’t read the sequel yet but it’s on my list. Great job and thanks for sharing your journey.
Kirk Kraft says
Like Sonja, I will attending Northwest Christian Writers Renewal conference in Seattle on May 1 and 2. This will be FIRST writers conference so I am a bit nervous and excited at the same time. I also hope to attend the ACFW conference in the fall. It goes without saying that I hope to not only meet a lot of fellow writers but also learn about the business of writing. I am pumped!
I’m late with this, but I wanted to say how envious you all are making me! In Italy, we have nothing like writing conferences. Editors are reclusive creatures who don’t go out to look for new writers (but then, every single aspiring writer heartily distrusts the very idea of an editor, and few published ones will admit to having one). And agents… “there was this book festival, you know, and they actually wanted me to meet people with manuscripts there!” Er…
So, it would seem times and publishing world are not ripe for writing conferences in Italy, wouldn’t it? 🙁
Debbie Maxwell Allen says
My first conference was the Colorado Christian Writers Conference, in Estes Park, Colorado. http://www.writehisanswer.com/Colorado/ Besides being a great conference, you get four 15-minute appointments with the faculty of your choice at no extra cost.
One of my fellow attendees (who slept in his car during the conference–a true starving writer!) is coming out with his first book in May, mainly due to the conference. He has one of the most awesome book trailers out there–check it out! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwYPiQDnYu8
fyi: I sold my first book on a 20 min pitch at a writer’s conference.