You might have heard that a writing conference is the best place you can possibly go to make the connections you need to succeed as an author.
I’ve said this many times, and it’s absolutely true. There is no better investment you can make in your writing career than to go to a writing conference.
But you might have heard other writers with a different opinion. Here are some of the things you might have heard:
- “I went to a writing conference and it was awful. The editors and agents all stuck to themselves, and all the writers were novices who knew absolutely nothing. It was a complete waste of time and money.”
- “I went to a conference and I felt so intimidated, I spent the whole time crying in my room. The food was worse than rat poison, and nobody was at all friendly. I hated every minute.”
- “I made appointments with 2 editors and 2 agents at a conference. The agents shot me down and the editors both asked me to send them something, but then I didn’t hear anything for 6 months. When they finally contacted me, they sent form rejections. The whole thing was pointless.”
Yes, Bad Things Happen at Conferences
It’s true that bad things happen at conferences. Those terrible experiences I listed above really happened to real people. Not just once. Not just a hundred times. They’ve happened to tens of thousands of writers.
But great things happen at conferences too. Of my 5 closest friends outside my family, I met 2 at writing conferences, I met a 3rd through 1 of those 2, and I met a 4th through a writer’s email loop that I learned about at a conference. (I do have 1 close friend I met at work, so not all my friends are writers.)
And I have hundreds of friends I met at conferences. Yes, hundreds. They’re not all super close, but I’ve shared good times with each of them, eating meals, talking fiction, hanging out at the bar. (I’m famous for always ordering milk, but most of my friends can’t handle such strong drink and have to settle for something with alcohol in it.)
But yeah, I’ve been to conferences where I felt incredibly intimidated. I’ve been to conferences where it was super hard to get access to the editors and agents. I’ve been to conferences with awful food. I’ve been to conferences where every agent or editor I talked to wasn’t interested in my writing.
But every single conference I’ve ever been to has been a great experience. And I’ve left most of them thinking, “Wow, that was the best conference ever!”
What Makes A Great Conference Experience?
You may be thinking that I must be taking some sort of happy-chemical to make me think awful conferences are actually great.
Sorry, I don’t. Great conference experiences don’t come out of a pharmacy.
Great conference experiences come from aligning your expectations with reality and then acting appropriately.
Here are the 3 realities of a writing conference:
- All the editors and agents are overwhelmed with a flood of wannabe writers trying every possible trick to get their foot in the door. Which means that every agent and editor is playing defense every second, just to keep their sanity. They literally have to be on guard against manuscripts being shoved under the door of the bathroom stall.
- Most of the writers are at their very first conference. They are scared to death of the editors and agents, but at the same time, they’ve been told that this is their one chance to “network” with these bigshots and make a good impression. And they are intimidated by all the other writers, because they see other writers as the competition in a zero-sum game.
- A few people at conferences are seasoned writers who’ve been to a number of conferences and know some of the editors and agents. In fact, the editors and agents welcome talking to these writers because these writers are not acting desperate.
Here’s the secret to having a great experience at a writing conference: Make friends with writers you resonate with.
Yes, it’s really that simple. And yes, I said to put your focus on other writers. You will eventually also make friends with editors and agents, but that can take a few conferences, and it takes some luck. Whereas making friends with other writers is a sure thing.
So How Do You Make Friends With Writers?
You can make friends with writers in many ways. Here are a few:
- Ask another writer what sort of fiction they write and then ask intelligent questions about it.
- Ask another writer how their writing career is going. They will tell you it’s not going well and will explain at length what’s wrong. If you know something that might advance their career, tell them. Expect nothing in return.
- If you see somebody who looks miserable, take the time to talk to them and see if there’s anything you can do to help.
Your goal here is not to use other writers to advance your career. If you go in with that kind of attitude, other writers will see through you right away. Don’t be That Writer.
Your goal is to be a decent human being who helps others with no expectation of any kind of reward.
I guarantee that if you talk to even 10 people at a conference with the goal of helping them, 1 of them will resonate with you. You’ll discover that you have a lot in common. By the end of the conference, you’ll be friends. And you’ll leave the conference feeling happy at what a great time you had.
And I guarantee that if you talk to 50 people, you’ll find someone who will turn into a life-long friend. And you’ll leave the conference thinking it was the best time you ever had in your entire life.
“But I’m An Introvert!”
You may be thinking that you can’t possibly do all this. Because you’re an introvert. Introverts don’t reach out to others.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. About 95% of writers at writing conferences are introverts. I’m a flaming introvert. Always have been. Always will be. I’m probably more introverted than you. But nobody has to know that when I go to a conference.
Even an introvert can ask another writer how they’re doing. That’s all you have to do, and the other writer opens up.
No, you don’t have to become friends with every single writer you interact with at a conference. You can’t possibly do that. You’ll resonate with a few and you’ll not resonate with most. The ones you resonate with may turn into friends. But you can be a decent human being to everyone, even if they’re not nice to you.
This should go without saying, which means it probably needs saying. A writing conference is not a place to go looking for romance.
But Shouldn’t You Be Networking?
No, you should not be networking at a writing conference. You should not be networking anywhere. You should scrub the word “networking” from your brain. Never, ever, ever think of another writer as a person who can help you advance your career. That way lies dragons—and the worst of the dragons are envy, greed, and malice.
Always, always, always think of other writers as fellow runners in the grand marathon of life. Some are running too fast for you. Some are running too slow. But some are running at just your pace. These are your natural pack. Run wild and free with them. Howl at the moon together.
But What About Editors and Agents?
Eventually, you’ll meet editors and agents. This can happen at meals. In the hallway. In the lobby. At the bar. Or when you make an appointment with one of them to discuss your writing.
Treat editors and agents like anyone else at the conference. After talking with a few dozen or a few hundred writers, you’ll be comfortable doing this. It’ll feel like the most natural thing in the world.
You won’t resonate with most editors or agents. But some of them, you will. Some will even become friends. Be a decent human being to all of them, and when you find The One, you’ll know. And they’ll know. And at that point, your writing career will change forever.
How long will this take? That’s impossible to say. It could take a couple of conferences. It could take 10. Or 20. It might never happen. Not every writer is guaranteed a slot in traditional publishing. Some writers are happier acting as their own publisher.
But every writer can go to any writing conference and have a great, incredible, stupendously wonderful time. And all you have to do is treat other writers the way you’d want to be treated.