Seven Tips for Your Next Writers’ Conference

I attended my first writers’ conference in 1989. Yes, I am that old.

I was a magazine editor at the time, and knew absolutely nothing about writers’ conferences. Since then, however, I have served on faculty more than a hundred times, and have learned a thing or two about writers’ conferences, knowledge that I am happy to impart—for the right price. Today, since we are approaching the height of the Christian writers’ conference season, that price is “free.” Lucky you.

So, let me share seven tips for your next conference:

  1. Prioritize learning at your first conference, selling and networking thereafter

Every writers’ conference has a plethora of workshops on practically every writing and publishing subject you can imagine, from “writing personal experience stories” to “building a brand” and “don’t write about zombies; write for them” (I might have made up that last one). You will learn something new at every writers’ conference you attend. But you’ll cheat yourself if you don’t also begin developing relationships with other writers and pitching your work (devotions, articles, books, etc.) to editors and agents. That’s why most writers’ conferences provide the opportunity to schedule appointments with the pros, so seize the opportunity.

  1. Choose your conference strategically

There are so many good conferences, and you can’t possibly attend all of them. So carefully peruse the brochure or website according to your budget and priorities. Consider location; will you be able to carpool with someone or commute from Aunt Iphigenia’s house? Review the classes; do the topics address your top needs as a writer? Study the faculty; will you be able to show your work to editors and agents who publish the sort of stuff you write?

  1. Plan (and print) ahead

Even for your first conference, take a sample of your writing to show to someone and learn from their feedback. Have quality business cards printed and ready (preferably with a professional-looking photo of you). Write and print query letters addressed to specific editors you plan to meet. Prepare one-sheets for a book or two. Take along copies of a book proposal in case an editor loves your idea and wants to take it back to the office after the conference.

  1. Don’t try to do everything

If you’re anything like me, you want to get your money’s worth from a conference. But resist the urge to do everything you possibly can at the conference. You’ll exhaust yourself and exhausted people don’t usually make great decisions or first impressions. Include recovery time in your schedule, as your head will probably be spinning after the first day.

  1. Leave the introvert at home

Many writers are introverts, but I suggest that you leave the introvert at home and try to function like an extrovert at a writers’ conference. That doesn’t mean you have to be the life of the party, just that you work a little harder to introduce yourself, strike up conversations, and ask questions. Your fellow writers (and even editors and agents) like to talk about words, books, writing, and themselves, so invite them to do so at every opportunity. If you do, I promise: you will make lifelong friends and develop rewarding connections.

  1. Consider writers’ conferences an ongoing part of your growth strategy

Don’t imagine that you will attend a writers’ conference and then go home knowing everything you need to know to succeed. Rather, consider regular writers’ conferences (I recommend two a year, if you can afford it) to be an ongoing part of your growth strategy as a writer. Over the next few years you will be amazed at the ground you’ve covered and the progress you’ve made. 

  1. Follow up

Editors say it all the time: a small percentage of the manuscripts they invite from conferees actually get sent. Don’t be a dunce. When an editor invites you to send a proposal or manuscript after a conference, move heaven and earth if you must, but send it! Even if you don’t get such an invitation, you can still follow up your conference experience with a thank you note to the director or a faculty member or an editor with whom you met. And one of the best ways to follow up your conference is to set goals and schedule your writing between that conference and the next.

There you have it. I could easily list seven more suggestions, but who has time for that? We have packing and preparing to do.


45 Responses to Seven Tips for Your Next Writers’ Conference

  1. Janine Rosche January 24, 2018 at 4:56 am #

    Wait! You know my Aunt Iphie? I understand meeting with agents at conferences. Can you explain why an unagented, unpublished author would hope to meet with an editor or publisher? That seems too far down the road for someone like me.

    • Jennifer January 24, 2018 at 5:59 am #

      Because you never know what a publisher is looking for. An agent may have several authors in your genre. An editor or publisher may evaluate your work and yours could be the very manuscript they’ve been waiting for.

      For example, I don’t have an agent. Yet. I sat down with an acquisitions editor who evaluated a sample of my work. Not only did I receive much needed encouragement, I was also received a mentor in the industry. We keep in touch regularly and he will get the first look when I am ready to submit.

      So yes!! Meet with EVERYONE! Your new mentor could be that next appointment.

    • Bob Hostetler January 24, 2018 at 6:35 am #

      Not at all, Janine. An editor may offer you valuable suggestions for your manuscript. He or she may take your proposal back to the office to recommend it for publication. He or she might become a lifelong friend. Or suggest an agent or other editor or publishing house, etc.

      • Bob Hostetler January 24, 2018 at 6:35 am #

        And what Jennifer said.

        • Janine Rosche January 24, 2018 at 6:53 am #

          So you don’t always have to pay $250 an hour for mentoring? I need a mentor to mentor me about mentors.

          • Bob Hostetler January 24, 2018 at 7:26 am #

            Sorry, Janine, can’t help you there. I only mentor mentoring mentors.

            • Shulamit January 24, 2018 at 4:19 pm #

              Where’s the upvote button?

    • Carol Ashby January 24, 2018 at 8:08 am #

      Don’t set your sights too low, Janine. At my first full conference (Colorado Christian Writers Conference in 2016), it was the two editors I talked with who asked for full manuscripts. One passed it on to one of their imprints. The imprint editor read the whole book and sent me her marked-up copy, even though she rejected it. She did tell me it would have to drop from 110K to 80K words to be the right length for them, which I couldn’t see how to do for a historical romantic thriller set in 1925 Colorado without gutting the plot.

      Funny thing was I told the editor at the conference that it was significantly longer than their standard length, but she asked for it anyway. Maybe editors always ask even if they know it’s a non-starter for them? It does make an author feel really good and doesn’t cost them anything to request the manuscript.

      I let the second editor know I’d decided to go indie to keep the rights before their committee informed me of their decision. That manuscript became the first volume in my current Roman series. I got an official rejection shortly after I sent that email.

      How can you know if you’re going to get a similar response if you don’t try? If you can’t fill your schedule with appropriate agents, don’t be shy about including the editors. You can get an agent to represent you after they say they want to publish your manuscript.

  2. Katelyn S. Bolds January 24, 2018 at 5:25 am #

    Great tips! Thanks for posting

    • Bob Hostetler January 24, 2018 at 6:35 am #

      Thanks for commenting, Katelyn.

  3. Carla Pollard January 24, 2018 at 6:33 am #

    Great practical advice. Your knowledge and humor never disappoints, Bob Hostetler. Thanks.

    • Bob Hostetler January 24, 2018 at 6:36 am #

      I’m waiting for the punch line, Carla. 🙂

      • Carla Pollard January 24, 2018 at 6:45 am #

        And there you have it! ?

  4. Bryan Fagan January 24, 2018 at 7:29 am #

    I’ve been to two writer’s conferences. My first was in my hometown, Eugene, Oregon. I considered that practice. My second was last summer in Portland, Oregon. That was the big league for me. I pitched to agents, I spoke in front of a large group, I was part of a late night comedy skit (think SNL) but most of all I met the most amazing people in the world.

    The key to your article is to leave the introvert at home. Do not sit alone taking notes. Do not eat lunch alone. In fact leave the word ‘alone’ at home. Conferences are an event. Think of them as broadway and we are the performers. Take the stage and make it your own.

    Good stuff!!!!

  5. Katie Powner January 24, 2018 at 8:32 am #

    Her name is actually Aunt Babs, and she lives in Nashville so I’m hoping to stay with her and attend ACFW in September!

    Leaving the introvert at home was difficult for me at my first conference last year. I just wanted to sit back and soak it in and listen. Luckily, other attendees wouldn’t let me do that and I made a lot of friends. 🙂

  6. Carol Ashby January 24, 2018 at 8:57 am #

    One of the nicest things about going to the ACFW conference in Dallas last year was meeting face-to-face with many of the folks I’ve gotten to know here and at another writer’s blog. I met my super critique partner through this blog, but I’d never met her in the flesh before Dallas. Plus I met even more kindred spirits there. For me, meeting fellow writers was definitely the highest point of the conference.

  7. Joey Rudder January 24, 2018 at 9:17 am #

    I’d love to attend the ACFW conference this year, and I’m praying for God to make a way. If He opens that door for me, I’ll be the one running in shouting, “Whoo hoo I made it!” And if anyone questions my sanity, I’ll just say you told me to leave my introvert at home. 😉

    All kidding aside, I’m extremely nervous about attending. There’s so much I don’t know that I don’t even know! But your tips are extremely helpful and I hope to put them to good use. Thanks for this post, Bob.

  8. Elaine McAllister January 24, 2018 at 10:53 am #

    Thank you for this GREAT post which served as my early morning motivation to re-explore an upcoming conference I’d heard about, checked into, then crossed off my list as an impossibility.

    Thanks to your blog this morning, I checked flights again, talked with the director, and am earnestly praying and seeking God’s direction….I’ve been to a few conferences, most of which were nearby and some, very small. THIS ONE I’m considering is a BIG one!

    So, I’m praying IN EARNEST, and have prayer partners doing the same….AND, I’ve already given notice to my introvert that she is staying home! Wow, that was the BEST suggestion EVER!!!

    Thanks for your post!!

    • Elaine January 24, 2018 at 10:39 pm #

      Update: answered prayers and wisdom shared by praying friends (as well as things shared unknowingly by two friends) have convinced me that God WANTS me at the conference. So my flights are booked and my registration is done! Now I’ve just got a LOT to do in the next few weeks!!! Ohhh soooo excites to be where God leads!!!!!

  9. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D January 24, 2018 at 11:10 am #

    Thanks so much for the tips, Bob. I went to a writers’ conference two years ago and it was fabulous. My schedule didn’t allow me to go last year, but I am already planning to attend the ADFW conference in Nashville this year. Last time, I actually ate lunch at a table with Steve Laube, who addressed me as “the woman who has been stalking my blog” or something like that!

  10. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 24, 2018 at 12:02 pm #

    A few boringly practical thoughts –

    1) Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll be on your feet a lot.

    2) Altoids, particularly if you like to drink coffee. Don’t make an elevator pitch an ordeal for the agent.

    3) Get feedback on your handshake. No one want to feel like they’ve just been handed a freshly-caught trout, nor do they want their glove size drastically and painfully reduced.

    3A) Practice the Royal Handshake; up, down, and away. Don’t be a clinger, and for Pete’s sake don’t be a both-hands-gusher….”Oh, it’s SO nice to meet you!”

    4) Check yourself in the mirror when you can. You don’t want that bit of lettuce from the BLT you had at lunch to be your brand.

    5) Take every opportunity to use the lav. You don’t want hopping from foot to foot – or worse – to be your brand, either.

    • Janine Rosche January 24, 2018 at 12:12 pm #

      Andrew, armpit tickles when meeting an agent: yea or nay? What about photoshopping the agent’s face over your hero’s body on the mock-up cover and handing them a copy? What about legally changing your name to Karen L. Kingsbury? Finally, should you offer the agent an altoid or make suggestions on how they can improve their handshake? Asking for a friend.

      • Joey Rudder January 24, 2018 at 12:31 pm #

        Andrew and Janine…you guys crack me up! I dare you to go with the armpit tickles, Janine. Please let me be a fly on the wall to see that! And the “worse” brand, Andrew…uh, yikes.

        Thanks for the laughs. 😉

        • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 24, 2018 at 12:39 pm #

          Joey, I figure smiles are good for the soul. I have the ‘Laughing Jesus’ print prominently displayed, and take cues from Him!

          • Joey Rudder January 24, 2018 at 3:07 pm #

            They sure are, Andrew. And you have that print?! I love it! 🙂

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 24, 2018 at 12:33 pm #

        Janine, yes to all!

      • LK Simonds January 24, 2018 at 1:23 pm #

        Funny stuff! Made me smile.

      • Carol Ashby January 24, 2018 at 2:33 pm #

        Love the agent’s face on the hero’s (or heroine’s) body idea, Janine! Most of those would come under the print-ahead category that Bob mentioned, but do conferences provide on-site printer access to attendees so you can make the covers for the extra agents you might get to sign up for during the conference? Is it WIFI, or do you have to bring your own printer cable? (I always like to plan ahead for the right hardware!)

        I think you can offer the Altoids as long as you haven’t turned your face away with a grimace at the agent’s first words.

  11. Vanessa Burton January 24, 2018 at 12:04 pm #

    Thank you so much for this! I’m attending my first Realm Makers conference in July and had questions of all the topics you discussed. I appreciate it! 🙂

  12. Ashley Schaller January 24, 2018 at 12:23 pm #

    These are great tips, especially now that I’m trying to decide what conferences to attend this year. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Bryan Fagan January 24, 2018 at 1:24 pm #

    Hate to tool my own horn but here is a link to an article I wrote on pitching to an agent:

    • Connie Clyburn January 27, 2018 at 5:55 am #

      Bryan – this is so helpful! Thank you for sharing.

  14. Bryan Fagan January 24, 2018 at 1:27 pm #

    I meant ‘toot’ not ‘tool’. Darn spell check. 🙂

    • Bob Hostetler January 24, 2018 at 3:27 pm #

      Who were you calling a “tool” when you typed that, Bryan? Hmmm?

      • Bryan Fagan January 24, 2018 at 4:46 pm #

        Oh Oh… we go….:)

  15. Kathy Nickerson January 24, 2018 at 3:57 pm #

    And sometimes you hear an inspiring message from a speaker that stays with you in the tough times. When I start thinking I should quit because we have enough books in the world, I remember you at Writing for the Soul. Something along the lines of “What if John hadn’t written his gospel because we already had three?”

    That still keeps me going.

  16. Jaime January 24, 2018 at 8:07 pm #

    Very timely topic. I’ve been hesitant to invest in a conference I’ve been looking at, mostly because I have to fly in from Canada (no nearby relatives for me). But my husband has been pushing me (nagging me, even) to hurry up and enroll already. I hate it when everyone takes his side, but I think it might be time to go bigger than the local conferences up here in the frozen north!

    And now I’ll show up prepared.

  17. Bryan Fagan January 24, 2018 at 8:32 pm #

    Jaime – Go. You will not be disappointed. You will spend time with people who are passionate with the same interest as yours. Out here in Eugene, Oregon the conference was nice but in no way did it compare to Portland. The bigger ones have better speakers, more classes, more agents to meet and of course a lot more writers. It is worth the money and travel.

    • Jaime January 29, 2018 at 8:47 am #

      I signed up! Even Steve Laube will be at this one. How’s that for big names? If I was going to go, I was going big!

      Thanks for the advice!

      • Janine Rosche January 29, 2018 at 3:39 pm #

        Which one will you be attending? Some of them have great first-timers groups that make the journey much easier and offer more mentoring.

        • Jaime February 1, 2018 at 8:17 am #

          The one at Northwestern this summer. It’s the closest and easiest for me to fly directly there, and it’s only two days. I’m a non-fiction writer, so some of the good ones that people talk about on here wouldn’t really benefit me. I did sign up for an extra track on the Friday, and the one-on-one meeting, to fit in as much learning as I can!

  18. Esther Thompson January 25, 2018 at 10:33 am #

    Thanks for your advice. I’m attending a writers conference in February and will take your suggestions with me.

  19. Connie Clyburn January 27, 2018 at 6:03 am #

    Thank you, Bob, for sharing your wisdom! I’m seeing visions of me at all the Blue Ridge conferences I’ve ever been to.?

  20. Kirsten Panachyda March 12, 2019 at 6:25 am #

    Okay- new quotation to hang in my workspace:
    “Don’t be a dunce.”
    – Bob Hostetler

  21. Maco Stewart March 12, 2019 at 8:10 am #

    Are you a wizard? [insert goofy image here] I came to this page directly from Vistaprinting business cards for the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference. To say this is a timely post is to understate its timeliness. Thanks, Bob!

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