By Laurel S. Peterson
First, thanks so much, Thonie, for having me on your blog. I’m delighted to be here.
The number of conferences available to writers is legion, and figuring out how to choose among them can be overwhelming, especially if you’re at all like me: an introvert who prefers the company of close friends and family, work and the big brown eyes of my Labrador Retriever! I offer the following comparison among three types of conferences as a way of thinking about what might work for you.
The Literary Conference
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) holds the mother of all literary conferences once a year, usually in the spring. It has grown so large that it now takes a convention center to host, and it brings in major literary writers from all over the U. S. Recent featured speakers have included Jaqueline Woodson, Azar Nafisi, and Colum McCann.
Its size makes it both intimidating and approachable. As an introvert, you can get lost in the massive crowds, going from panel discussion to presentation to book fair without anyone noticing—which can be either lonely or a relief. On the plus side, the panel discussions are often intimate, and provide opportunities to talk with both the writers on the panel and the conference attendees. Large conferences also offer fabulous speakers; it’s fun to listen to writers talk about their own work and to get insight into their creative processes. AWP also has an incredible book fair. Focused on small presses, it’s a football field’s worth of interesting books to explore by wonderful writers you might never have heard of. If for no other reason, the conference is worth this.
In addition to on-site events, there are lots of off-site readings and presentations, frequently hosted by MFA programs or small presses. The conference fee is cheaper if you join AWP, and joining gets you access to a great website with interesting articles and resources about writing, job postings in creative writing, editing, etc., and places to send your work.
The Genre Conference
Genre-focused conferences, like Bouchercon or Thrillerfest, are useful for genre writers, in the same way as the literary conference. They provide an opportunity to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise encounter, give you a chance to hear writers talk about their processes and publishing issues, and to peruse books by authors you might not see in your local bookstore or on Amazon. I have also found genre conferences to be much friendlier than literary conferences. The writers are more willing to talk to anyone—regardless of pedigree. Perhaps this is due to the difference in market; that is, the market for genre works is so much wider that genre writers perceive everyone as a potential reader.
Their panels are also focused specifically on the craft you are practicing, so the tips are immediately applicable to your writing efforts. while I’m often too tired to write during a conference, I do find myself jotting notes about how to approach my work once I recover!
The Working or Experiential Conference
My favorite conference is The Writers’ Police Academy, which is run by ex-police officer Lee Lofland. Everyone who attends is writing (it’s not a mixed fan/writer conference, like Bouchercon), so they are all interested in the information provided by the experts: firefighters, police officers, federal enforcement officers of various flavors—even canine officers—as well as forensics experts, psychologists, and so on. Because it is small and everyone stays in the same hotel and eats together, it is easy to make friends and to talk to the professionals, who join in with the festivities. Sisters in Crime (SinC) offers a discount to its membership, and SinC offers so many other benefits besides this that the membership is worth it whether you go to this conference or not.
Other conferences focusing on craft are also useful. Attendees are usually united in their desire to help themselves and be supportive of each other. My graduate alma mater, Manhattanville College, holds a Summer Writers’ Week that is grounded in a daily morning workshop. Afternoons are comprised of craft talks, publishing panels, and time to write before one returns to the workshop the following morning. Of the three, I find these working conferences the most useful, although I recognize that the other two are useful in terms of marketing one’s work once it has made its way into the world.
The other factor, of course, is money. None are cheap, and without employer support for professional development, I probably would not have attended nearly as many as I have. Even so, I always end up spending more money than I get back. So, the question is whether you get value for your money. I would suggest deciding beforehand what you want from the conference: is it to network? is it to connect with your market or a publisher? Go to AWP or Bouchercon (or its kin). Is it to work on your own writing or voice? Then an experiential conference is probably what you’re looking for. Being open makes a difference, as the surprise interactions, meet-ups, and discoveries are part of the fun. No matter which you finally choose, it’s an investment in your writing career.
Getting some great ideas about your next conference? Leave a comment, let us know!
Laurel S. Peterson is a Professor of English at Norwalk Community College. She has written a mystery novel, Shadow Notes (Barking Rain Press), two poetry chapbooks, That’s the Way the Music Sounds (Finishing Line Press) and Talking to the Mirror (Last Automat Press), and a full-length collection, Do You Expect Your Art to Answer You? (Futurecycle Press). She currently serves as the town of Norwalk, Connecticut’s Poet Laureate. You can find her at www.laurelpeterson.com, on Twitter: @laurelwriter49, or on Facebook.
You can purchase her mystery novel Shadow Notes here: Buy and her poetry, Do You Expect Your Art to Answer? here: Buy.
Other useful links:
Writer’s Police Academy: http://www.writerspoliceacademy.com/conference/
Sisters in Crime: http://www.sistersincrime.org/
Manhattanville College Summer Writer’s Week: https://www.mville.edu/summer-writers-week-manhattanville-college