So, uh, I’ve never attended a full-fledged writing conference before. I’ve gone to one-day workshops (I even wrote a post on the last one I went to, the 2015 Writer’s Digest Workshop!) But the real deal? Multiple days, in a hotel? I’ve… never done that.

And after many years of dragging my heels, I finally went to one. I attended the annual New England Society of Children’s book Writers and Illustrators conference (which I am now going to just call “NE SCBWI,” even though that’s only slightly easier to type.) I only went for one day and I didn’t do any critiques or queries, so I really just did the bare minimum one can possibly do. But I still learned a ton!

The absolute best part of the conference was the networking.

My favorite experiences happened during:

  • An after-hours regional meetup, where people could meet other authors who lived in their area
  • Breakfast
  • Lunch
  • The periods when were were waiting for the keynote speeches to begin.

Every time we were herded into the ballroom, I would hunt down a half-populated table, sit myself down, and introduce myself to everyone there. I usually found at least one person who I had something in common with–a similar genre, a similar location, or a similar place in my publishing career–and we’d have a nice chat.

The panels were neat and the speeches were cool, but my absolute favorite moments–the “Oh, I met someone who wrote steampunk!” or “I had an awesome talk with a career author!”–happened completely by chance.

Lesson Learned:

  • Bring loads of business cards. Lots and lots of business cards. Mine are old (I made them before I published Justice Unending, so they have very little meaningful branding on them) and I forgot to replenish my stash before I left… But holy moly, I threw those out like candy. YA writer? Lives within 20 minutes of me? We had a fun conversation? CARDS, CARDS, CARDS FOR EVERYONE
  • Speaking of business cards, it can be helpful to make notes on them. “Guy at lunch who wrote MG fantasy” or “lady at breakfast who wrote a steampunk” can help you with the next step, which is…
  • … Email every single one of those people when you get home to say how nice it was to meet them. It’s very hard to make a lasting friendship in the ~10 minutes you talk during breakfast. But if you connect with them afterwards, you may be able to meet up afterwards!
  • Be prepared to talk about your stories–not in a pitchy sort of way, but a one sentence, “It’s about a girl who gets possessed by an immortal…” kind of summary. You’ve probably prepared a 2-sentence elevator pitch for agents/critiques/pitch events, but your peers just want to know what kind of book you’re writing.

The panels were interesting, but not exactly life-changing.

I only attended one day of the conference, so I definitely missed out on some panels that would have been really cool. Still, the panels weren’t the best part of the conference.

They were interesting, yes. I met some cool people. I heard some inspiring tips. But I didn’t come away from the panels thinking, “Holy moly, I never thought of that before!” But when an experienced author or a well-established agent says, “This is what really gets me excited” and you think, “Hey, maybe I can do that!!” that’s pretty inspiring. And that’s the whole point of these things, right?

Lessons Learned:

  • Panels are hit or miss.
  • If you have time before the class, introduce yourself to the people sitting nearby. At least those people are likely to be interested in a similar genre and topic as you are, since they’re at the same panel as you are.
  • Consider using a notebook. I tried to take mine on a laptop, and I spent the entire day worrying about my battery life. It’s far easier to just take notes on paper, even if that means you might need to transcribe it to computer later.

You probably should have something ready(ish) to pitch.

I didn’t, and… I kind of regret that. Kind of. There were two (maybe three?) kinds of pitch-related opportunities at this event.

The first one–and the one I was aware of– was the good ol’ “pay money for an opportunity to pitch to an agent” thing.

But I was surprised about the other kind: the incidental, accidental kind of pitching. I was in a panel where an agent took volunteers to read their first few lines. There were casual pitch events where your peers gave you suggestions on how to improve it. There was a panel event where you put your name in a hat and got to pitch to a panel of agents if you were chosen. There were tons of free events where you could get suggestions, even if you weren’t directly sharing with an agent.

Finally,  some of the agents who attended the event said they’d accept pitches from attendees, even if they weren’t otherwise open for queries, which meant that attendees now have a limited, 3-to-6 month opportunity to query certain agents.

I figured, “Hey, I don’t have something that’s ready for an agent, so I won’t spring the $50 for a meeting!” And then I didn’t prepare a pitch at all. That was a mistake, because there were a lot of other ways to get feedback.

Lessons Learned:

  • There may be other opportunities to pitch your story, even if you don’t pay for one.
  • Even if you don’t pay for agent queries/critiques, it’s helpful to have a brief pitch ready.
  • If you do intend to query, it can be helpful to have a manuscript more or less ready to go around the time you go to your event–just in case, like with NE SCBWI, the agents say their inboxes are open for your pitches!

Overall, it was a super fun experience!

I got halfway through breakfast before I realized that I… should have signed up for more than one day.

It was a fun experience, and in all the most unexpected ways. It was very different than the one-day workshops I’ve attended in the past, and in a much cooler, richer way.

They’re definitely expensive, but if you can manage to attend one? It can be a great way to meet other authors.

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