The Writers’ Conference

Guest post
by Marian D. Schwartz

The first week in January I received a brochure from an annual writers’ conference I attended over thirty years ago. Brochures from this conference have followed me from move to move, from the North to the South, and they have changed considerably since I first started receiving them. The staff fiction writers are no longer big “literary stars,” and the mention of editors and literary agents is done carefully, promising nothing other than their presence and some interaction with the people who are paying to attend.

The suggestion to enroll in the conference I had attended had come from a former professor, who had become my mentor. I had finished writing my first novel, Realities, less than two months before the conference was scheduled to start. I had also found an agent. By the end of my second day there, I had stopped taking notes at the lectures and had begun taking notes on what I was observing. I had never been in an atmosphere so intense, not even in graduate workshops I had audited when the professor/poets teaching them lost control of the discussion.

The experience stayed with me. I wrote a novel about it and sent it to my new agent, who told me that I couldn’t say the things I said in the novel in print. My first thought was that of course I could, I am an American. My second thought, which I articulated, was to ask for my manuscript back.

I knew the novel was too long, so I put it away, then took it out five years later to work on it again. This pattern continued every five years until I felt it had the right balance. The result my book, The Writers’ Conference.

During the years I was working on The Writers’ Conference, writing workshops and conferences proliferated. They are a multi-million-dollar industry now, and they have become creative in the ways they take participants’ money. Today there are “pitch sessions.” At a conference in Florida last fall, aspiring writers paid forty dollars for a ten-minute session to pitch their books to an agent. On a forum I follow, an aspiring writer who was appalled by this practice called pitching “begging.” You can decide.

Some agents attend conferences to sell their books, which supposedly tell how to write best sellers. They have sold thousands of these books, which I’ve noticed haven’t been followed by thousands of best sellers.

One of the lures of conferences is having one’s work criticized by a published writer. At the conference I attended, my manuscript was assigned to a brilliant, acclaimed writer who told me that I should re-write the novel, changing it from the first person to the third person. At the time, I thought he was wrong, but he was brilliant and acclaimed so I doubted my own judgment. In fairness to him, I had submitted three chapters from the middle of my manuscript. Perhaps if he had started reading it from the first chapter, his call would have been different.

I was lucky. Realities was accepted for publication three weeks later. I didn’t have time to make the change he suggested, which would have ruined the novel.

I am not against writers’ workshops. I think they can be beneficial if the writers conducting them are good teachers. But being a famous writer does not make that individual a skilled teacher. And teaching is a skill, just like writing. It has to be learned. Writers who can teach can show how to structure a story, how to develop characters, and how to write description and dialogue. Struggling poets can learn about rhythms and line breaks and the repetition of words. Some of the writers at the conference I attended were skilled teachers, but not all of them were.

Aspiring writers have another alternative. They can learn by studying other writers. Tillie Olsen, who wrote Tell Me a Riddle, which is a staple of women’s literature courses, was fond of saying that she got her college education at the New York public library on her lunch hour. It was there that she taught herself how to write. Her financial circumstances didn’t permit her to attend a writers’ conference, so she found the best teachers on her own.

Marian Schwartz is a novelist. Her first novel, Realities, was published in hardcover and paperback in the United States, as well as in England and Sweden, where it was a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. She is the author of two other novels, The Last Season, The Story of a Marriage, and The Writers’ Conference. Learn more about Marian from her website:

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21 thoughts on “The Writers’ Conference”

  1. Thank goodness you wouldn’t let that agent talk you into tossing your novel, Marian — I think the world need a good expose of writers’ conferences, lol. Forty dollars to pitch a novel?!? That’s outrageous.

        1. And I thought $40 a pitch was unbelievable!

          They’re hoping that their pitches will give them a leg up with agents, who will then agree to read their full manuscripts and represent them.

          1. A negative effect of this is that people see in the schedule that all these agents will be there, but if you’re not paying them to sit down, they don’t want to talk to you.

  2. A very good article, Marian; hinting at so much more than you actually say, you have tempted me to read ‘The Writer’s Conference’. I haven’t ever been to a writer’s conference – rightly or wrongly – I intuitively felt that they would be money making scams on the part of the organisers, inclining towards narcissistic endeavours, full of egotistical, self-important prigs and or poor, desperate authors.

  3. LOL! Great idea. I have mentioned for a few years that there is “niche fiction”, and that a good example would be a novel set at a writers conference.

    (Sex And Death At The Writers Conference would probably work better)

    Should sell well at conferences.

    My limit impression of conferences, have been to several, but never as a paid attendee, is that different ones do things differently.
    The Southern California Writers Conference, in San Diego and LA, is very oriented to workshops and all-night writing/critting/drinking sessions. People come back to it over and over.
    Some cons focus on close contact with some writing star. Others are more oriented to business issues.
    Which one you go to can make a huge difference in what you see.

    1. Linton, I haven’t heard the term “niche fiction” before. I think it’s a perfect fit for ‘The Writers’ Conference.’ Although I deliberately wrote the novel for aspiring writers (it’s dedicated to them), I wanted the book to be entertaining. Positive reviews from people who aren’t writers and who have no connection with the publishing industry have been gratifying. They have enjoyed the book. Other reviewers, people who probably have some familiarity with writers’ conferences, have clearly “gotten it.”

      There is a lot of sex and death at the conference, but I didn’t have the nerve to use your title!

      I agree: I think your choice in the conference you attend can make a difference in what you see. But I also believe that conferences do have some characteristics in common, and not all of those characteristics are positive.

  4. Great article, Marian … and congrats on your book!

    BotMC … wowsah! I think I still owe them money from when I was in high school. Ixnay on entioning-may that to them, okies? 🙂

  5. I loved reading this, than you Marian. I’ve had a love/hate reaction to the idea of conferences ever since I realised I might be a writer. One the one hand I expected them to be money-making scams, but on the other I berated myself for not having the chutzpa to go spend a bit of money and be pushy at all the lovely, helpful agents. Got to get the book!

  6. I’ve attended many writers conferences and I’ve never came away without learning something. A writer never quits learning about their craft. Maybe I’ve been lucky in the conferences that I choose to attend.

    This last year I was a presenter. I’ve never paid to pitch an agent, or a publisher. That’s what after hours time is for.

    And I am one of those authors who have given my time to comment on another’s work in progress. After writing and having published eight books, I think I have some insight that was valuable to them.

  7. Writers can always learn something about their craft at a conference, and a lot of solid teaching happens in my novel ‘The Writers’ Conference.’ But people who attend conferences often pay a disproportionate price for what they learn. The bottom line is whether or not it is worth it. And there are risks: some people who attend them leave with crushing disappointment. Not everyone is as wise in their choices as you were.

    It’s great that you are generous to other writers. We need more writers like you!
    Unfortunately, not all writers are as generous. An epigraph to one of the chapters in ‘The Writers’ Conference’ is from Mordecai Richler, who observed that “Envy is not unknown among writers…”

  8. Marian, I’ve read your book and enjoyed it very much.
    The conferences I’ve attended recently seem to be seriously out of touch with what’s really going on in the publishing world. In fact some of the more high profile agents and editors and even traditionally published authors seem to be in full-blown denial. And, don’t dare mention “Amazon” or “self-publishing” or the looks you’ll get will banish you to the back of the conference hall.
    Thanks for your thought-provoking article.

  9. Martin, I’m glad you enjoyed ‘The Writers’ Conference.” What you said about mentioning Amazon or self-publishing is so true: it can make you a pariah. I recently met a writer who has been re-writing a novel over and over and over again in the hope of getting it published traditionally. She desperately wants her book to be published, but she doesn’t want to be “tainted” by self-publishing. And her friends in the large, tight-knit writing group she belongs to feel the same way.
    Yet if it weren’t for self-publishing, my novel ‘Realities,” which was traditionally published, wouldn’t have the second life it can now enjoy.

    More about self-publishing: When I finally finished writing ‘The Writers’ Conference,’ the agent that I’d had for years had passed away, so I had to look for a new agent I sent the book to a high-powered New York literary agent. She and her assistant read the novel from cover to cover (busy agents usually don’t have time to do this). They told me that they both enjoyed the book, particularly the observations about the publishing world, but the agent didn’t want to represent me. I realized then that I would have to self-publish if I wanted to see the book in print. A dozen years ago I wouldn’t have had the ebook option, and I would have had to struggle to find an agent brave enough to represent me.

    I hope you will post a positive review of ‘The Writers’ Conference.’ I don’t like to ask, but it seems that reviews help make books successful. There is an audience I hope this novel will reach, and positive reviews will help me get to them.

  10. Hi Marian:
    Your post brought back memories (mostly unfulfilling). Before publishing my novel, Lime, in July 2012, I spent seven years (on and off) attending writer’s conferences in the Midwest and one out east. I will admit that I paid for my share of “pitch sessions” only to be told “send me the first three chapters.” A month or two later, the response was always the same “thanks but no thanks.” I wanted to ask for my money back.

    I remember one conference where the agents did a panel discussion and said they don’t expect to find “clients” at these conferences. I was appalled, but too timid (at the time) to ask why they were there other than to teach a basic course on some aspect of the publishing process that any of us could read in a book (like yours :-).

    With that said, I did make pleasant connections with other writers and aspiring writers and learned more about the publishing/writing world at lunch or dinner or during the Q & A in a workshop.

    I soon stopped subjecting myself to writer’s conferences with the hopes of being validated as a writer with a worthy story to tell. I’m not knocking writer’s conferences depending on your objective for attending, but I’m through with paying someone to tell me that I should change this or that or question me or give me indifferent nods about what they think of my story idea. The reviews I’ve received on Amazon and feedback from readers and established authors are much more helpful, and free!.

    By the way, my novel is also written in 1st person and like you, I contemplated changing it but felt that it would ruin the story.

    My point is that we (authors) have to trust our writing gut and if we choose to attend these conferences don’t attend seeking validation. That my friends comes from within.

  11. I appreciate your thoughtful reply. I have long known that agents don’t expect to find clients at writers’ conferences. Agents have a problem now. The traditional publishing world is very unsettled, and agents are finding it increasingly difficult to place books. They all want the next bestseller, but they don’t know what that is. Going to conferences and charging big sums for pitching sessions has become a way for some of them to survive. They get a cut and the conference gets a cut. The only losers are the aspiring writers who part with their money. Occasionally a pitch does work, but the odds are really poor. The people who pay for pitches believe that mentioning their pitches in their query letters will give them a “leg up” but that isn’t true. All the queries end up in the same slush pile. Last year I talked to a woman who has been in the publishing business for over twenty-five years. She believes that with all the changes that are occurring in the business, agents won’t be around in ten years. We’ll see…

    Conferences are good places to meet people. I made some wonderful friends at the conference I attended. A few days after I started taking notes on what I was observing, one of them said to me, “I know what you’re doing. Do you want me to tell you what I heard today?” We both laughed, and from that day forward I had “helpers” listening for me.

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