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Thursday, July 03, 2014

Writers Conferences - Worth the Expense?

Dan Walsh is the award-winning and bestselling author of 10 novels, including The Unfinished Gift, The Discovery and What Follows After. He has won 3 Carol Awards and 2 Selah Awards. Three of his books were finalists for Inspirational Book of the Year. Dan is a member of ACFW and Word Weavers. He lives with his wife, Cindi, in the Daytona Beach area where they love to take long walks. You can connect with Dan on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest through his website at, or get a sneak peek at all his books.
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I've got writers conferences on my mind today. Guess that's because I'm preparing for my next one, the Oregon Christian Writers Summer Coaching Conference in Portland, August 4-7th. I'll be sharing the final keynote message there, as well as teaching 3 coaching sessions and a workshop. My friend and fellow Novel Rocketer, Allen Arnold, will be the featured keynote speaker for the first 3 main sessions. Quite a few other Novel Rocketers will serve on the faculty. If you live on the West Coast or in the Midwest, you should seriously consider attending. I'll spend the rest of this blog post explaining why.
Do you need to attend writers conferences if you hope to be published? Is it an absolute necessity? I'd have to say no. I didn't attend my first conference until after I'd already signed with a literary agent and received a publishing contract for my first two novels. In fact, my first novel, The Unfinished Gift, came out the same month I attended my first conference (ACFW, Sept 2009).
Having said that, this is also true: I've interacted with countless writer friends who've helped me realize my publishing journey is very unusual (2 of the first 3 agents I contacted wanted to represent me; the one I picked had a contract with a major publisher within 2 months). But I've been attending writers conferences ever since that first one in 2009. Over the last 2 years, I've been invited to speak and teach at several of them. I'm now a firm believer in their value to a fiction writer's career. I've listened to the publication journeys of so many writers who'd say a writer's conference was directly responsible for getting their book into print. Many met their agent or grabbed the attention of an editor during one of those oft-dreaded "15 minute appointments."
Benefits I See in Writer's Conferences
  • You can read and get a lot of help from reading how-to-write craft books. I certainly did. But you can't ask questions of the author like you can after every workshop or seminar you attend at a writer's conference. I find the Q&A sessions to be some of the most valuable learning experiences at a conference.
  • You can't get a personal critique of your work from a craft book or reading a blog. Many conferences offer paid personal critiques from published professionals. You send them a sample of your work, which they edit before the conference. Then you meet and go over their suggestions. Sometimes you can learn enough from these insights to fix problems laced throughout your book.
  • It's hard to place a value on the specific kind of fellowship you experience meeting with dozens, even hundreds of other people who totally "get you." Writers are peculiar people, fiction writers maybe even more so. We look at life differently than most, and feel this inner compulsion to express our thoughts and observations by telling stories. But we're not content to simply tell these stories out loud. We must write them down. I find it very encouraging whenever I'm around others born with this same compulsion. There is an intangible benefit to this fellowship that, almost by itself, makes it worth the price of the event.
  • Critique groups can certainly be a good thing, but I would see them as a complement to, not a replacement for conferences. Jesus said, "If a blind man leads a blind man they will both fall into a ditch." There can be a danger receiving input from someone who doesn't quite know what they're talking about, but imagines they do. At a writer's conference, you will be taught by and surrounded by people who actually do know what they're talking about. That's a very valuable thing in itself.
I'd like to wrap up with one piece of "foundational" advice (if I have persuaded you to attend a writer's conference). Don't go fishing for compliments for your work; go with an expectation to receive correction and valuable advice. God honors that kind of humility.

Imagine that your work, even if it reflects your very best, is only 90% there. The missing 10% that will make it acceptable for publishing lies in the correction, advice and insights you will get from others. You will find that writers conferences are filled with people who can help you with that last 10%.

I'd love to hear from some of you who've attended writers conferences already. Share some of your stories, things you learned, fond memories, other benefits I haven't mentioned, even things newbies should watch out for.


Iola Goulton said...

I've attended a Christian writing conference in Australia for the last two years, and it's been great. I'm going again this year.

The best thing for me is meeting with other Christian writers, editors, illustrators and publishers. A lot of us are members of the same Facebook group (Australasian Christian Writers), and it's great to meet those online friends in the flesh and realise we aren't all just thumbnail pictures!

Ane Mulligan said...

One caveat to your statement abotu critique partners: if a new writer gets crit partners who are also new, and they both read books on craft, then they aren't "blind." That's why I always advocate the ACFW crit group, "Scribes." In there, the member can be part of a large group until they form bonds with 2 or 3 other writers and then form their own small group. That way, they avoid the maverick.

Dan Walsh said...

Iola, sometimes someone will come up to me and start talking as if we're friends. I'll realize they look vaguely familiar. Then suddenly I see their FB headshot in my mind, and the mystery is solved.

Dan Walsh said...

Guess I'll add a caveat to your caveat, Ane. I do believe in crit groups. I've been attending one every month for 3 years. But I have to say, several times I've heard one writer tell another writer about a "serious concern" with something they've written (based upon something they've read or heard). And I'll hear them share bad advice, very strongly. Things I know my editor wouldn't even care about, yet it is shared as a necessary fix. That's more the concern I was getting at.

Greg Miller said...

I'd like to see more columns on this site talking about "those oft-dreaded "15 minute appointments."

Mary Connealy said...

I credit the ACFW writer's conference and the contest I won there with the fact that I'm published today. I also got my first contract presented to me from the stage by Tracey Peterson at the ACFW conference. I've also attended two RWA conferences now. I like them

Mary Connealy said...

On the flip side, these days I mainly get together with friends and it's a chance to meet my agent and editor, beyond that I'm not sure what the purpose is for me. The classes for a published author are mainly about...oh...'how to use pinterest effectively'...stuff like that.

Ron Estrada said...

That's like my wife asking me why I go to deer camp if I never get a deer. There's much more to it than tangible benefits. Writers always learn most when in the midst of other writers. I've been to big and small conferences, Christian and secular. It's hard to justify the expense (well over $1000 after registration, travel, and room for ACFW), but for me it's like a vacation. I feel much more refreshed after a conference than any vacation. Yes, even deer camp (but the beer is better).

Dan Walsh said...

That would be a good post, Greg. I wouldn't be the guy for it, though. Have never had one. But I've talked with many who have and watched them with interest at conferences.

Dan Walsh said...

Thank Mary. Certainly confirms the point.

Dan Walsh said...

I get that, too. There is such a thing as saturation point. I view the workshops, when I'm not the teacher, as a chance to sharpen the blade.

Dan Walsh said...

Kind of reminds me of the cost/value of fishing. I like to fish, if someone invites me on their boat. But one of the spousal complaints about getting to eat all that "free fish" is adding in the actual costs of the trip and gear. Makes the free fish more like $50/lb.

Ane Mulligan said...

I agree, and I've heard the same thing. That's why I advocate getting to know a writer well before becoming a crit partner. I knew what you meant, but had to toss in my two cents. ;o)

Tina Radcliffe said...

I dare say you have probably not been to an RWA conference. Most ABA conferences are very overpriced and time consumptive and a day late on the hard topics that really affect the publishing industry today. If they address them at all. They are mostly social conferences. Which is fine. We all have different needs. But I find RWA to be a hard hitting conference with the pulse of the industry center focus. With 12 workshops an hour they really provide bang for your buck.

Tina Radcliffe said...

OOPS, that should have said most CBA conferences are overpriced, Actually most RWA chapter conferences are very reasonable falling into the 200 dollar range and RWA is 385.

Dan Walsh said...

Have never been to an RWA conference. But the only pricey CBA conf I've been to is ACFW. Most of the regional ones I've spoken to seem more in the $200 range, done at retreat centers vs high-priced hotels.

Bonnie Leon said...

My first conference was the OCW Summer Conference. I learned more than I could have imagined and was encouraged to write my first book, which I did. The following summer I returned, had one of those 15 minutes, gut wrenching, appointments with an editor and soon had a contract for my first book.

I love conferences!

This year I won't be able to attend the OCW Conference, but I will be thinking about and praying for all the conferees and the guest teachers and speakers.

I will miss my many writing comrades.

Grace and peace to you.

Dan Walsh said...

Thanks for stopping in, Bonnie. Looking forward to OCW Summer, sorry I'll miss seeing you.