Writing Life — An Aspiring Writer’s Guide to Conventions and Conferences

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Dragon*Con, Atlanta’s humongous science fiction and fantasy convention, takes place this coming weekend, and many of us MW-types are planning to attend. I’ll be on several panels and will also be doing a reading and book signings. My (still incomplete) schedule can be found here. Faith, Misty, A.J., and Kalayna are on the program as well, as are big names from the worlds of television, movies, science, and literature. It should be a blast, and we hope to see many of you there.

This struck me as a good time to return once more to the subject of conventions and conferences. Over the next two months I will be attending not only Dragon*Con, but also the annual conference of the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop, and World Fantasy Convention, which takes place this year out in San Diego. Each of these events, as well as other conventions I attend during the course of the year, offers unique benefits to the aspiring writer. Each also has its limitations. So perhaps an overview of the convention and conference types would be helpful.

Small Regional Conventions: There are a ton of these — you can find them in just about every good-sized city in the country. Each has its own charms and traditions, and I couldn’t begin to list all of them. But I can offer some general points about this type of convention.

Benefits: They are convenient; chances are there is at least one regional con occurring annually in your area. They tend to be small, with perhaps 250-500 attendees, including both guests and fans. They usually are located in a single hotel, making them manageable and easy to navigate. They’re fairly inexpensive — $25.00-45.00 gets you a membership for the entire weekend. And because they are small, the attending professionals expect to interact with fans. You will be able to chat with the author guests, maybe even buy them a drink or see them at a room party.
Drawbacks: On the other hand, these conventions tend to have only a few professional guests, so while you will have lots of access to them, they may not be the authors you most want to meet. And there are usually fewer editors and agents attending these conventions, so your networking opportunities will not be as extensive as they would be at some other conventions. Programming tends to be fairly limited; dealers’ rooms are small, and the convention space can be cramped. Hotels, while inexpensive, are not all that great.

MegaConventions: There are far fewer of these, but chances are you’ve heard of most if not all of them: They include Dragon*Con, Comic Con International in San Diego, New York Comic Con, WorldCon (the World Science Fiction Convention), Romantic Times Booklovers Convention, as well as others.

Benefits: The benefits and drawbacks of these mega-conventions are tied to the same thing: Their size. These conventions attract thousands of people — in the case of the Comic Cons and DragonCon, tens of thousands. The biggest names in genre fiction and popular culture attend. If you want to meet your favorite bestselling author, AND your favorite actor from Star Trek or Star Wars, AND your favorite comic book artist, chances are you can. You can also find editors and agents and perhaps make that key professional connection you’ve been hoping for. There are multiple programming tracks, so if you just want to hear interesting people talk about interesting things, chances are you could schedule your whole day and never get bored. The convention facilities will be top-notch, the hotels will be very nice, there will be good restaurants, and chances are you’ll be in a large city, so that if you want to escape the con for a while you’ll be able to make good use of your time. You can also meet lots of other aspiring writers, and perhaps find that far-flung, online community you’ve been looking for.
Drawbacks: They tend to be more expensive — memberships alone can run you anywhere from $125.00 to $400.00 or more. The hotels will be pricier too, as will your meals. Also, because there aren’t that many of them, chances are you’ll have to travel some distance to attend. Even WorldCon and RT, which move from venue to venue each year, probably won’t get much closer to you than the nearest big city. While there are lots and lots of guests, all of them exciting and interesting, you’re competing with thousands of other people for their attention. Your chances of getting more than a brief exchange of pleasantries and an autograph from the person you want to meet are slim. These cons can be overwhelming — it’s easy to feel lost and, ironically, lonely amid of sea of people.

Professional Conventions: Professional conventions, for instance World Fantasy Convention and Romance Writers of America, are smaller than the mega-conventions but larger than your typical regional con. They also tend to be less fan-oriented and more geared toward professionals and aspiring professionals. Programming tends to be less “fun” and more academic or industry-oriented.

Benefits: The size of these cons hits a sort of convention sweet spot. They are large enough to attract a galaxy of professionals — you can find bestsellers, award winners, mid-listers, and beginners. You can find agents and editors, big-name publishing executives and the owners of small-press houses. Yet these conventions are small enough to facilitate the kind of intimate interaction you usually find at the regional cons. More to the point, professionals come to these conventions expecting to talk shop, and they are usually welcoming of those who are still trying to break into the business. In the same way, agents and editors come to these conventions expecting, even hoping, to make connections with new writers. Compared to the cons described above, these cons offer the best chance you might have to make your well-rehearsed pitch to the right person. The possible rewards of attending one of these conventions are significant. The programming tracks are narrower than in the mega-cons, but they tend to be interesting and informative. They are usually held in good-sized cities, in nice facilities.
Drawbacks: Again, the cost is the biggest drawback here. Memberships are similar in price to those of the mega-conventions. There are few of these conventions and so you’ll have to travel to them, and the hotel is probably going to be fairly expensive. These conventions, and their attendees, take the events seriously. There are fewer fun diversions than at a mega-convention. There is less spectacle. Again, the word “academic” comes to mind. I’ve been in academia and have attended my share of scholarly conferences. That’s what these cons feel like at times. Also, because the community of professionals is fairly small, most of the pros who go to these conventions year in and year out tend to know one another. Breaking into conversations as a beginner can be difficult, even intimidating. As you might expect, those rewards I mentioned earlier don’t come easily. You have to be self-assured, poised, polite but also assertive, without being overly aggressive. It’s not easy.

Writer’s Workshops: These may seem like the odd-men-out in this discussion, and in some ways they probably are. But a writers’ conference like the SCWW conference I’ll be teaching at in October, can be the best of all worlds for the writer with a bit of time and some financial resources.

Benefits: For a weekend, you are the focus of attention for industry professionals. You’re not competing with hundreds or thousands of people for the attention of agents, editors and professional writers. You’re not trying to cut in on their private conversations. They are there to teach you and to critique your work. There is almost no other situation in which you can expect so much from professionals. You can attend workshops, get one-on-one critiques of your writing, ask questions to your heart’s content, discuss writing with them over drinks or meals. You WILL make connections with editors and agents. You WILL have that opportunity to pitch your book. You WILL get to talk to successful authors about the business. Workshops and conferences are without a doubt your best networking opportunity. Chances are, even at big workshops, you’ll be one of, at most, a few dozen people wanting to work with these pros. And there’s a strong possibility that you’ll find fun, like-minded people among your fellow students. Conferences tend to be held in nice places with decent food and good conference facilities.
Drawbacks: These make mega-cons and professional conventions look cheap. You can expect to pay between $800.00 and $1,200.00 at least for a weekend, just to attend. Sometimes that will include your lodgings and food, but not always. And then you’ll have to pay to get wherever it is you’re going. They can be competitive, meaning that you might have to apply, and send a writing sample, in order to be accepted into the workshop. (That’s not always the case, but it is fairly common.) You have to do some prep work. You’ll need to submit a piece of writing in order to be critiqued, and, in order to take full advantage of the connections you’re going to make, you ought to be familiar with the professionals who are on the faculty.

There are conventions that don’t fit precisely into any of these categories, though not many. Generally speaking, these are the options you’re going to find. Only you can decide which of these opportunities best suits your needs, your budget, your time constraints, and your ambitions. As a professional, I enjoy all of them, though, of course, in different ways, which is why in the coming year I will attend at least one of each kind. Hope to see you at one or another of them.

Next week: A report on Dragon*Con!

David B. Coe
http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net
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24 comments to Writing Life — An Aspiring Writer’s Guide to Conventions and Conferences

  • This is a great compare-and-contrast, David. No one can possibly go to every convention or workshop out there, but how to know which to attend and which to pass on? Now it’s all right there in one place. Great idea for a post.

    Looking forward to seeing you at DragonCon next week.

  • Thanks, Ed. Looking forward to seeing you, too. You do realize, though, that it’s THIS week, right…?

  • Thank you so much for this post! I asked Faith this very question at a book signing/panel a couple months ago. I really wasn’t sure which venue would benefit me most as an aspiring writer trying to network with not only other writers but agents and editors as well. Does the MW site have a page with links to the various cons and conferences in different areas that you all recommend? I think that would be helpful for any of us trying to decide where to attend.

    Thanks again for all you do here at MW for us!

  • Great quick and easy breakdown, David! See you at D*C. (four more days!)

  • David, Cons are so important, and I used to attend as many as I could. Next year I am limiting it to 5 max, and would like to trim that to 4. I hope we may see some con prices dropping (which would be great!) with the economy so iffy.

    See you at D/C. We can talk about the weather! ;->

  • This is interesting and helpful… but I’m still on the fence. I had been anticipating attending Dragon*Con… until I found out how expensive it would be. Now I’m scrambling either to come up with a firm rationale for why Dragon*Con is worth a day-pass and a full day away from my wife and toddler, or else to say to myself again “well… maybe next year.”

    So… it sounds like Dragon*Con is actually a poor place for networking, if that’s my goal. And I’m not entirely sure that networking is a fruitful activity at this stage. I’ve started writing a novel that I’m very excited about, and can’t wait to talk up. Except… it’s a long way from being in a marketable state, so I’m unsure how networking, at this stage, would advance my publishing prospects if I’ve got nothing to show for it.

    I also don’t feel like I’m in a state where I would benefit much, in terms of advancing my craft, from writing advice panels (and so far I’ve found no details about what the writing track actually consists of).

    So when my wife asked me what I’d be doing at Dragon*Con… I was left without an answer. I’m not really looking to waste a day on fun and entertainment… so if there’s no business purpose for me, personally, I’m not really sure I should be going?

    Any insights on Dragon*Con, specifically?

  • Hey Stephen. I’ve been attending Dragon for years, so I’ll add in my 2cents. Dragon*Con has a Writer’s Track that is four days of writers talking about tips and tricks of writing. (It also has a writer’s workshop, but those have limited seats and cost extra, so you’d have to look into the availability of that, but I’m told it is intensive.) As far as the writer’s track, when I first started attending cons as an aspiring author, I learned a TON. These days, I might pick up a bit here or there in an hour long writer panel because, well, a lot of what I hear I’ve heard before or I’ve actively experienced (which isn’t surprising as I’m now often the one on the other side of the table).

    You said are still in the process of writing your first novel, which means you don’t need an event where you pitch or get people saying “yeah please send that to me”. At this point, panels and classes are your best resource, so I do think there is a lot you could learn by hanging out at the Writer’s track. As far as networking, professionals do a lot of networking at huge cons (my weekend is full of meals and events with my editor and my agent, and hopefully the magical words gang will find time to grab drinks) but such networking at dragon is a newer development for me. I didn’t do a lot of networking at Dragon when I was prepublished. Of course, I’m obnoxiously shy, so if you have that special gift to take the initiative without coming across as pushy, you might end up having drinks with your favorite authors and maybe even agents and editors. Here’s a tip though, don’t talk extensively about a novel that isn’t finished. Most writer’s will gladly encourage you and offer any tips they can, but if you start describing an unfinished book (or even a finished book that’s unpublished) in great detail, you’ll probably notice they’ll get big eyes and start trying to escape without seeming rude.

    Hope that helps.

  • Lauralee, that kind of database info is the type of thing we hope to add to MW in the near future, so that this site is not only a place for discussion, but also a source of information. I’m glad you found this post helpful and look forward to seeing you at lots of cons in the future.

    Thanks, Kalayna! Looking forward to D*C!

    Faith, my plans for next year are just the opposite of yours. I expect that I’ll attend more conventions next year than I ever have before. Hopefully it will help propel the new series.

    Stephen, I think that Kalayna’s response is spot on (thanks for stepping in Kalayna!). You’re not quite ready for a business con. You are ready for some networking, and I think you can do that at DC. On the other hand, a lot of networking takes place after hours, in rom parties and the bar — during the day, people tend to be pretty well scheduled. As for the writer’s track, it’s extensive and should be quite good. It alone could be worth the expense if you’re willing to attend several panels. In short, I think there is lots to justify the money and time you’d have to spend. On the other hand, it is a good deal of money (even for a single day — Saturday membership is $50.00) and no one knows better than I the value of time spent home with the family. Tough call.

  • I should clarify that the novel I’m working on isn’t my first novel, but the first that I expect to be of a publishable quality.

    The reason I’m skeptical of finding much value on writing discussion panels is that over the past decade or so I’ve absorbed a lot of writing advice – about as much generalized writing advice as I think can be absorbed. I feel I’ve reached a stage where I’m learning best (a) by doing, and learning through doing what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong and (b) through application of specific examples. In particular, what makes a panel difficult to learn from is that the content of the panel isn’t really searchable – so when I run into a problem in my writing that’s addressed by the content of a panel I’ve attended, I can’t really access that information easily unless I have a perfect memory of it – and I don’t trust my memory…

    Thanks for the comments, though. It gives me something to think about in deciding whether to make it to D*Con this year…

  • I’ll pick up on something Kalayna said – namely, that she’s shy. I am too and that makes networking very hard for me. Over the years I’ve found that going to smaller cons and working up to bigger events has helped me adjust and get better at the networking part. I’ve also found that I need practice – I was a long way from being ready to pitch my first book to an agent or publisher when I went to my first con and now that I’m there I’m much more comfortable with cons which takes one element of anxiety out of the process. I think that alone made all the con-going worth it.

    I was really hoping to go to World Fantasy this year, but they sold out before I could register in April!

    Finally, are the MW writers still thinking about having a writing Workshop/Retreat? I would still love to see that happen.

  • I just got back last night from a mega-convention, Penny Arcade Expo. Another thing I’d add about the drawbacks to mega-cons is the lineups you have to deal with. Such as, for the Wil Wheaton panel, my husband and I had to line up two hours in advance for slightly-decent seats. (It was worth it, though! He’s very entertaining, and he had a few great things things to say about writing, too.)

    Sarah said, Finally, are the MW writers still thinking about having a writing Workshop/Retreat? I would still love to see that happen.

    Me, too! Given a choice between ConCarolinas and something specifically-MW, I’d choose the latter. (But if there’s nothing this year, you’ll be at ConCarolinas, right?) *coughs* #ifibookearlyicanaffordtheflight

  • Stephen, no problem. One thing to remember is my point about meeting others in your same position. Some of the best networking you can do is with people who will be your cohort for years to come. Something to consider, perhaps. We hope to see you there.

    Sarah, that is a great point. Starting small and working your way up to the larger cons can be helpful for all of us, but especially for those who are shy or leery of crowds. As to an MW Conference, that is still something we’re thinking of doing, but it remains in the planning stages as we continue to work on the direction in which we hope to take the site and the community. Thanks for your expression of interest.

    Laura, yeah, the lines can really suck. No way around that. But I’ve heard that Wil Wheaton is terrific. As to the conference, see my response to Sarah above.

  • Stephen and Dragon Con> Dragon Con is way expensive. I also had a fabulous time when I went–just people watching is amazing. It also inspired a scene in my novel. And I got to hang out with writer friends of mine. But that’s all beside the point. I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t go, but I admit that I’m a little troubled by your sense that you’ve learned all that there is to learn from other folks. I can’t quite imagine actually getting to that point. I get your “I’ve got to write now, and learn that way…” and that’s cool. And, really, that’s where the rubber hits the road. All writers have to actually write. That said, I sat in on some of the pay-to-play panels the year I went. I listened to this one guy (I literally cannot remember his name–he’s an author of a famous Star Wars book, and as soon as I hear his name, I’ll remember it.) He did a “how to write a novel in 30 days” thing. I thought “yeah, right.” But I listened, took notes, and did what he said. And I wrote a novel in 30 days. I’ll admit, it was 30 discrete days over about 6 months, but it worked. One of the most useful things I’ve EVER been to in terms of a workshop. And it cost me about $50.00 over the entrance fee (which, yeah, is ridiculous.)

    All that said, though, if you don’t know why you’d go, then don’t go. Don’t spend the money. Don’t waste the time. Stay home and write. If you don’t think you’d learn anything useful (and if you don’t think you will, then you probably won’t), then don’t go.

  • Pea Faerie: I didn’t mean that I’ve learned all I can learn… far from it. I meant only that there’s a limit to the value I can gain from generalized advice – which is mostly the kind of advice you’re going to get in a large, panel-discussion format. Like I said, I’ve been absorbing generalized advice over the past decade, and it’s gotte to the point where most of it is something I’ve heard before. Hearing it all again is fine and good… but the difference, for me, seems to be made when the rubber hits the road.

    Maybe I know or am aware of something “in theory”, but practice is a whole other ball game… and I’ve got a lot to learn in practice. Also, as I pointed out… my memory is not a highly efficient, indexable resource. When I run into a problem in my writing (and I do)… it’s easier if I can look up some specific advice that regards that problem, rather than trying to remember something (or search through pages of catch-as-catch-can notes taken at a panel). A site like MW is a great resource in that respect because I can search the archives when problems arise… I feel like those things are how I’ll best be able to internalize the writing lessons and actually improve.

    So yeah… didn’t mean to sound conceited on that subject. If I didn’t have room for improvement or space to learn I’d probably be dead anyway… or at least published. 😉

  • I’m still in the honeymoon period when it comes to cons. My first was Rustycon early this year, and I attended every writing session I could fit in, forgoing lunch and even coffee. Shudder. I’m from Seattle, and forgoing coffee is serious business.

    I’ve attended a number of regional cons out here, from Spocon (most recently) to Norwescon (pretty big), and they’ve varied. With Norwescon, I found it hard to get any time with any pro writers, or other folk. They tended to be either swarmed by people just like me, or hiding in a corner with a shocked, deer-in-the-headlights look after said swarming.

    Spocon, Radcon and Rustycon, however, were great for chattin’ with pros. The sessions were relatively small and there were plenty of pro-folk there. I did chat about my WIP in some of the sessions as those sessions were somewhat workshop related. And some of my favorite authors came up to me afterwards, which was a really great feeling. It’s always great to be personally acknowledged by people you respect.

    The large cons intimidate me, a bit. I like real, personal interaction. I don’t want to be one in a line of 600 people wanting to say hi. I guess I’m not enough of a fangirl for that.

    Workshops, well, I’d like to take part in some when the time is right. Clarion would be grueling yet awesome…if I quit my day job. Probably not realistic until I win the lottery, but hey, a girl can dream.

  • pepperthorn

    I have been going to D*C for years now and I learn tons every year. It’s not all from the Writer’s Track either. One year the Goth Track (I think they call it Dark Fantasy now) was awesome. One year the YA Lit Track was really informative. The Alternative History Track has writing panels and the Armory has weapons demos targeted towards writers. Also many publishers have panels to talk about their line up and what books they are excited about. I find that sort of thing really educational. Pyr’s Lou Anders has been very vocal about D*C being the con writers, editors and agents should attend.

    But all of that is just icing on the cake. For me D*C is all about recharging my batteries by spending time with cool, interesting, great people. D*C is not just a con, it’s an experience!

  • Roxanne, I love cons, too (mostly) and I’m WAY past the honeymoon stage. They are great for catching up with friends, getting energized, and reconnecting with readers. But they are also a time commitment and they take a lot of energy (even as they energize — weird dynamic, I know, but I come home from cons both exhausted and eager to get back to work if that makes sense). Workshops are the same way. I guess the bottom line is, you have to pace yourself. Hit the ones that really will help, but don’t overdo it. For a while I was going to too many cons, and I started to get burnt out, which I really did not want.

    Pepperthorn, glad to know you’ve enjoyed D*C so much. I really am looking forward to it. As for Lou’s remarks, he’s a great guy and a good friend, but I think it helps that he’s located in the Southeast. I’m sure there are people out West who feel that Comic Con is THE one indispensible convention. My favorite happens to be World Fantasy. That’s the one where I get the most done from a business standpoint, and where I usually have the best time. We all have our favorites for one reason or another. That’s why there are so many good cons out there.

  • Alan Kellogg

    Dave, about the World Fantasy Convention

    First; the Town and Country Hotel (the convention hotel) sort of grew by taking over other resort hotels. Around here it’s often referred to as the Borg of hotels. Architectural styles are distinctive and you’ll be able to identify where one hotel ended and another began

    Ask the locals for directions to the near by groceries. You can get fixings for parties and meals there.

    Depending on what I get called upon to do at Conjecture this year, I might be able to wrangle a gopher job or something at WFC, so wish me luck.

    Now if you happen to be located in San Diego, and you haven’t heard of it, may I recommend Conjecture. A small relaxacon centered around literature, with people such an Vernor Vinge and David Brin showing up. This year our GOH is Allen Steele. All the bennies Dave wrote about, and a few of the drawbacks alas.

  • I started gong to regional cons regularly a few years ago, plus one Worldcon and a NY Comic Con. General tips from panels at the regional cons was fine, though, not earth-shattering. In that sense, I’ll agree with Stephen’s comment. Still, there were other benefits these cons.

    The people I met year-after-year, namely a bunch of mid-list pros, have become real friends. People you make trips to visit outside of cons. One of them has given me critiques in the last year and helped me advance beyond the advice I was getting through online workshops like OWW (Online Writing Workshop for Science-Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror).

    So in the short-term, regional cons were about meeting people, experiencing the community of writers and fans, and making friends. In the long-term, they have helped me over another plateau in development, something I wouldn’t have been able to achieve on my own or with the help of other unpublished peers without, at least without greater time and struggle.

    Cheers,
    Pre-publishedGuyDave

  • I’m looking forward to D*C to listen at panels, drink at bars and hobnob with other writers. I’m probably going to do some of the pay-to-play workshops that Michael Stackpole teaches (Those are the ones PeaFairie mentioned) because his blog touches on a lot of things that are specific to me as a self-pubbed author, and if I can suck knowledge from his brain I’ll happily pay the $10 or so per workshop for it. But mostly I’m excited to go hang around creative people that don’t look at me funny when I say I write vampire novels. :).

  • John> Yes! Stackpole! I knew it had something that sounded like “sack” and “poole” in it, but I wasn’t about to try. He’s “How to write a novel in 30 days” if he’s still doing it, is totally worth it. I mean you write a lot very fast, so I don’t know if it will say anything new to you, but it was great for me. It’s how I wrote Mary, and I used it later in bits and pieces for other things I was working on.

    Have fun ya’ll. I’m terribly, terribly jealous. Maybe next year. :)

  • Alan, thanks for the tips. I’ve heard good things about Conjecture, and would love to attend at some point. Hope to see you at WFC.

    NGD, I think that the more cons we attend, the better we become at figuring out for ourselves what we get out of each experience. It sounds as though you have a good handle on that and can make an informed decision when faced with the prospect of attending one con or another. That’s a good thing.

    John, Im looking forward to seeing you again at D*C. I might look at you funny, but you’re welcome to look at me funny, too. Sound like a plan?

    “Maybe next year.” Hope so, Emily!

  • Hope to see some of you in Atlanta this weekend. We actually leave tomorrow due to a side trip to Alabama.
    Networking at DragonCon is very much an after hours thing. Baen sometimes even throws room parties, so if someone is interested in that contact me. We will see Toni on Friday and have found out the scoop for Baen events for the weekend. I would also suggest the panels where the publishers talk about what is coming out from them soon. Baen calls theirs a roadshow and they give out free books. Del Ray and Pyr also have them and I think Pyr has a booth. Baen and possibly the others as well, encourage their writers who are at the con to show up and talk about their own books. This is very cool, because you get to see all of them so you know who to try to talk to later.

    You never know where you might someone who will turn out to be important. We met our mentor (he writes for Toni) at a small regional con. He had a few books published, but we had not read but one of them at the time. He and Gerald got to talking about RPG books and we did not even realize he was a guest (we were all waiting for Hal Clement to come open the door and start the writer’s workshop). When Hal got there and we all got sorted out, he was helping Hal with the workshop. We are close friends now and since he retired and is writing full time, he and Gerald send bits for each other to read by email regularly.

  • @NewGuyDave: Thanks for the additional insight.

    Unfortunately, on the networking front – despite having made it through the MBA mill, I’m terrible at cold networking. I’m even terrible at warm networking. Large crowds intimidate me, and I tend to glom onto familiar faces. Since if I go, my Dear Wife won’t be attending… that means I won’t have any familiar faces, so I’m not entirely sure how my particular type of introversion will manifest in that situation, but I can bet it’ll be annoying to anyone I might potentially tag as familiar. And that’s not something I think would be helpful…

    I’m contemplating spending the day across town from D*Con at the Decatur Book Festival with my wife and toddler instead… I promised the wife I’d figure out my plan by tonight. Some of the panels there look at least as useful to me, learning-wise, as any I saw listed at D*Con…