F. Paul Wilson, the author of six New York Times bestsellers, continues to attend writing conferences for one reason: the people.
“I have a lot of friends that I only see at these things,” he says. “After fifty years you get to know a lot of your fellow writers. A fair number of them don’t hang around…but there are a bunch of us who have been around forever.”
If you’re nervous about meeting other authors, you're not alone. But remember that people want to meet you. Everyone is looking for their community, and this is a prime place to find it. So let's talk about writing conferences -- and what to expect from your first one.
Rocky Colavito, an English professor and aspiring horror writer, has been to over 100 conferences. During his time at these events, he found the community very open. “People are easy to talk to,” he says. “I was sitting outside waiting for a panel and I heard this guy talking to another group. He casually mentioned a place I know in western New York, and I piped up something. Then he was like, ‘Where you from?’ and it turns out we’re practically neighbors. They’re very open and they’re very supportive. It’s not competitive.”
In other words, don’t be afraid to speak up! If you don’t reach out, you’re much more likely to spend the weekend alone. This comes into play even more in the evening.
The social element of conferences extends beyond business hours. According to F. Paul Wilson, the publishers throw parties in the evening – an excellent opportunity to connect with other writers.
“That’s where you meet, where you talk,” Wilson says. “Then you see each other in the early part of the day. You hang out after the panels. You just have to let it happen naturally. Just hang out and listen, or you could offer to buy someone a drink.”
Writing conferences tend to follow a standard structure, the differences relying on the size of the event. Larger conferences have multiple tracks, where writers choose between panels that are happening at the same time. Smaller conferences have one panel at a time.
Panels allow participants to hear from professionals in their field. These professionals often include agents, editors, and a keynote speaker – usually a successful author who lives in the area of the conference. They sit in a row before the audience and answer questions posed by a moderator. Each session lasts around one hour.
Ginjer Buchanan, a retired editor from Penguin Random House, served as a regular panelist for writing conferences across the nation. She worked for Penguin for 30 years and left as the Editor in Chief of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Imprint.
“I was going [to the conferences] as an editor,” she says. “The companies considered it part of your job. So if you’re invited to a conference, there’s no question of getting time off. And of course, the writer’s conference always pays to bring in authors and editors. I did the Pacific North West, the Southwest Writers Conference, several smaller ones in the Midwest, a couple in the South, a big convention in horror – I usually attend all the major ones.”
After the panels, writers are given the opportunity to connect directly with agents and editors in brief work sessions.
“You sit down with the potential authors, the fifteen minute thing,” says Buchanan. “It’s hard to get a real sense of a person in that, but that’s the way they’re structured.”
Then, following these meetings, larger conferences may hold a banquet. “Everybody wants awards so they have the awards banquet on Saturday night or Sunday afternoon,” says F. Paul Wilson.
An enormous incentive for attending writing conferences is the professional opportunities. This is due to the presence of career-boosting figures such as editors and literary agents, but conferences also provide valuable instruction in the craft.
Christopher Smith, an aspiring horror writer, favors that aspect. “I always thought that I understood character and point of view,” he says. “I didn’t think I needed to learn anything. It wasn’t until [the instructor] started talking about it that the light flipped on in my head: I have been doing this wrong for years. I’m still processing so many different aspects that I’ve picked up, that I’m excited to try out.”
Author F. Paul Wilson and Penguin Random House editor Ginjer Buchanan emphasize the networking opportunities at these events.
“When I joined Science Fiction Writers of America, they would have an editor-author reception every year in November,” says Wilson. “I would just hang out with some of the editorial assistants who were really nobodies – but they hung in there and twenty years later they were running science fiction. Then I could always just call up the EIC [Editor in Chief] who was someone I knew from way back and say, ‘I got a new novel! Can you take a look at it?’ Or if I know a writer who I think is really good, have them take a look at their first novel. I’ve gotten a lot of people published that way.”
“That’s part of how you get submissions,” says Buchanan. “A part of the process is actively, as an editor, going out and trying to find things. Of course, that can be as simple as going to lunch with an agent to see what they have, but the writer’s conferences – that’s a part of trying to actually find authors. We don’t necessarily depend on just getting submissions from agents. And agents do the same thing! They go to writer’s conferences. They go to conventions. They’re looking for people.”
“A big part of success as a writer is showing up,” says Wilson. “You’ve gotta keep showing up. If you’ve got talent, you’re gonna make it. There are a lot of talented people who stop showing up and that’s it – you’re never gonna make it if you’re not there.”
yours in haste,
kelsey day is a young award winning poet who grew up in the blue mountains of north carolina. she has received recognition for a collection of short stories, as well as two novels she published at the ages of 11 and 13. today she is studying creative writing in boston, massachusetts.