Monday, November 27, 2017

When is the best time to go to a writers conference?

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

I am often asked by writers, "When is the best time to go to a writers conference?"

My answer is always, "Now."

Now is the best time, because no matter where you are in your journey, there are conferences that are a great fit for you.

Writing conferences are all unique from each other, but most offer a combination of teaching, socializing, pitching, and writing time. Some of the larger conventions like Comic Con have writing tracks as well. These days, many conferences even have a teen writing track or are specific for young writers, like the Minneapolis Young Writers Workshop, Teen Author Boot Camp, and OYAN Summer Workshop, for those who have done the curriculum.

If you've been taking writing seriously for a year or two, then I suggest starting with an inexpensive, close-to-you conference. I've gone to smaller conferences twice before and here's what my experience was like:

Conference #1: The first time I went to a writers conference, I was 17. It was hosted by a community college, and I took my dad with me. I didn't know a thing about what to expect, how I should dress, or what I should bring. I paid to go just one day, and that was perfect for my level.

What I got out of it: This was my first exposure to literary agents, editors, and other writers. I don't remember learning a ton in my classes (though I certainly had plenty to learn) but I did leave with this sense of, "This is a real thing. People actually do become professional authors."

Conference #2: At my next conference, I was 22, and it was a few hours away from where I lived in Orlando. This conference was a little bigger, and I was a bit more savvy. I knew I would be pitching to agents and editors, plus I had to turn in chapters ahead of time to be critiqued.

What I got out of it: One of the editors really liked what I wrote and invited me to submit to her publishing house. I was encouraged by many who were there, and I learned A TON about the craft of writing. I had thought I was ready to be published, but after a few hours of a fiction writing class, I knew I wasn't. I also met my first writing friend, Erica Vetsch, who has now published approximately a gazillion books.

After going to a multiple day conference on my own and surviving, I felt like I was ready for one of the national conferences. I wrote Christian fiction at the time, so I joined American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and set my sights on going to Dallas the next year for their annual conference.

Which I did, despite being in my third trimester of pregnancy, and in the middle of a move back to Kansas City.

What I got out of my first BIG conference: I think it's beneficial to know how many other writers are out there, and being at one of the big conferences drives that home. When I wanted to slack off, I would remember how many other people had been in line to pitch to the same agent as me, or how the seats had all been full in the YA class I took.

I also met Roseanna White at my first ACFW conference, who has been my best friend for ten years now. (We were two of the youngest people there, plus we were sporting pregnant bellies and carrying around the exact same red leather bag.) Our friendship began with critiquing and encouraging each other and grew over the years.

I also met my first agent at that conference and signed with her several months later.

So the conference was definitely worth it for me, but unless one of these national conferences happens to be close to you, you should expect to spend at least a thousand dollars to go to one. The cheapest registration at ACFW this year, for example, was $575. That's if you are a member of ACFW, if you signed up four months in advance, and that doesn't include any extras like paid critiques or an early bird session. (Here's a full chart of their pricing.) On top of that, you're paying for hotel and travel, and probably several meals, although most are included.

When I was first starting out, my $99 day at the local community college writing conference was more than adequate for where I was on my journey. ACFW would have overwhelmed me, many of the classes would have been too advanced, and I wouldn't have been able to put to use the appointments with agents and editors, although I'm sure I would have found lots of value.

So if resources are limited for you like they were for me, I think it's best to save the big conferences like SCBWI, RWA, and ACFW until you have been writing several years, and you have a manuscript that you think is ready. Or is at least as ready as you can make it.

To figure out the best conference for you, think about your goals. Are you wanting to make friends with other young writers? Get critiques? Are you there to learn? To sell? To network within your genre?

And then turn to your good friend Google and start running some searches for writing conferences close to you. Or if you have an editor you like, check and see where they're going to be. There's a good chance you can find something close-ish to you that would offer some benefit.

Any questions about conferences that I can try to answer for you?


  1. Thank you so much for this post, Stephanie! I've attended the OYAN Summer Workshop five times and just attended the Ohio Christian Writers Conference in the beginning of November.
    I've really wanted to go to one of the bigger conferences, but as a teen, I've had a hard time justifying the expense when I am still uncomfortable pitching and working on my novel. I think I'll definitely finish my novel and be ready to pitch it before attending a larger conference.
    I had a question about being a teen at a larger conference. Do you think publishers and agents look differently at a teen author because of their age? Or would a teen author's age color the agent or publisher's opinion of them?

    1. In my experience, you have a greater chance of standing out as a teen, particularly if you're polished, polite, and professional in the way you interact. My editor was at the Minneapolis Young Writers Conference last year and had the chance to meet several Go Teen Writers people. The next time I saw her, she went on and on about how lovely they all were and how impressed she was by them.

      So even if the meeting doesn't lead to a contract, it can still lead to an encouraging and enlightening conversation, and it can be a good contact in the future.

  2. I went to my first SCBWI conference this fall (at age 16), and it was amazing! It was in Kansas City, the same weekend as the conference you were at, Ms. Morrill. I actually stopped by the library and picked up a copy of The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which was SO. GOOD.

    I guess I have the same question as M. R. Shupp, plus a small addition. I know editors and agents will look differently at us because of our age (I experienced that at the conference!) but do you think it would tend to be in a positive or negative light?

    1. I'm bummed to have missed out on meeting you, Emily! Thank you for getting Lost Girl! I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

      I'm so proud of you for going to SCBWI! And I answered your question in my response to M.R.

  3. I would love to go to a writing conference someday! Just need to find one that doesn't have events on Sunday...

    1. Yeah, that can be difficult since weekends are convenient for most people. A lot of them wind down on Sundays, and you could always opt out.

  4. I think RealmMakers was a great first conference. I learned so much... but it wasn’t really a place I’d want to go to again, as I’m not that much into speculative fiction. I really want to find a conference with contemporary/ historical Christian fiction... and short stories. But I haven't really started to look yet. Would you have any suggestions?

  5. I went to Realm Makers last summer for the first time and yes, I can attest to spending $1000. (Actually more, but I flew from Canada, which wasn't cheap.) It was worth every penny! I learned lots, had a great critiquing session, met crazy cool people, and pitched for the first time. :D The best part was feeling refreshed, affirmed, and equipped by the end.

    1. So glad you came, Tracey! Sorry it was so expensive, but very glad to hear it was worth it. It was a great conference. :-)

    2. It was an incredible experience for sure! And meeting you there was one of my highlights! <3

  6. Ever heard of the Atlanta writing conference? And when I go, is it okay to bring a parent or does that look unprofessional?

    1. I haven't. And it depends on how old you are, I think. My dad came with me to my first conference, but he didn't come in with my agent lunch or anything. If you're thirty and bringing your mom into all your meetings, that probably doesn't send the best message :)