The Pros and Cons of Big and Small Writing Conferences

Our guest this week is Brittany Maresh, a fellow word monkey trapped in the icebox.  (Woot! Alaska!)  I met Brittany at a writer’s conference and have been internet stalking her pals with her ever since. *coughs*  Plus, she knows more about conferences than anyone I’ve ever met.  Brittany is a total geek with amazing hair, cranks out embarrassingly fantastic wordcounts during NaNo, and teaches archery. Archery!  Not convinced of her super-coolness yet?  Read on…

conferenceWith the vast array of writing conferences that exist in the U.S., picking which one is the right one can seem like a Herculean task. There are so many factors in picking the one that is right for you. Today, we’re going to look at big versus small conferences – the pros and the cons of each.

We’ll start with the plus-side of a large conference:

As you can imagine, large conferences are a lot of hustle and bustle, business cards and handshakes, and searching for the right panel room.  With so much going on, you have to approach a large conference with a plan. The schedule is posted ahead of time, so you can pick panels and figure out which ones you need to show up early for to guarantee a seat, plot out quiet room time, and figure out which nights you need to head to your room a little early to slip into your formal wear for the fancier receptions, or into your mask for the masquerade.

With so many panels and opportunities, it’s very unlikely that you’ll have much down-time with nothing going on and nobody new to interface with. There’s always another panel to attend, late-night reading, open write time, or open-mic. There are workshops, sponsored room parties, and a seemingly-endless sea of new people to meet, and typically at least once chance to get all dressed up in formalwear.

You’ll find a panel on every subject you can imagine – from YA to picture books, beginner writing skills to advanced-level marketing.  Pitch-sessions and workshops come in all genre-ranges and experience levels, from junior agents just starting to fill their list to the top agents from the top agencies in the U.S. If you’re a writer, there’s something for you – something new, and someone new to talk to about it.

On the social side, there’s never a short supply of other writers to sit down and discuss the craft with, and if you’re brave, there’s always a lost writer or two looking for a friendly face. Be brave – talking to the lost writers is a great way to meet a new critique partner, or future best-seller.

And now to the pros of attending a small conference:

If hustle-and-bustle is the name of the game for the larger conferences, intimacy is the word for smaller conferences.  They might not have as much going on, but there is more room for adapting to the audience they’ve got, rather than the audience they expected. This is a place where you can ask a question and get an answer, not hope that you get a chance to ask.

Workshop and pitching at a smaller conference becomes much more personal – after all, when there are only 40 or 50 people in attendance, and four presenters, they start to see a lot of the same faces, and get a sense of who you are, what you’re about, and what they’d like to recommend you read or work on.  There are more chances to have an in-depth conversation with the professionals, and a lot better odds that you’ll make a few solid friends – people who go to the same panels, have the same genre interests, and will be great contacts to have later down the road.  Though you won’t meet as many writers, you’ll spend more time with the ones you do. This can lead to stronger, longer-lasting friendships and an easier networking experience.

You might only pitch two or three times, at a smaller conference, but you’ll be pitching to someone you’ve had a chance to talk to, gotten a chance to know, with a pitch you’ve had a chance to refine one-on-one with a professional.  You’ll get honest feedback, and with a bigger time slot, you’ll more memorable if you end up submitting to them in the future.

While there are less people to pitch to, there are often more chances to get help with a tricky synopsis, a crumbling query letter, or feedback on your first five pages. There are often group outings, with a chance to really get to know the guests that are invited along. Trips to book stores, or a museum, or the funky buffet down the road.  And beyond the cost for yourself – your meal, your train ticket into town, and so on – there is rarely an extra fee.

As to the cons of a large conference:

Big conferences are big opportunity – but you’re just one of hundreds of writers, and there is always someone who is more poised, more polished, and with better-sounding premise. It can be a little disheartening, and people can be a little more cut-throat about talking to the pros.  You have less of a chance to be an individual, and less of a chance to get to know the pros that are in attendance. While there is always something happening, it can be hard to prioritize, and you always feel like you’re missing out on something. With the panel levels varying widely – from beginner to pro – you never really know what you’re going to get when you sit down at the start of it.  There’s also a tendency to nickel-and-dime experiences. Paid meal-with-the-pros, keynotes, and pitch sessions add to the cost, as do mixers and formal events.

Big conferences are intimidating, and with the focused, eye-on-the-prize population a lot of them have, they can also be extremely discouraging and make a new writer feel like they’re so far behind, they’ll never catch up.

And the smaller conferences:

Small conferences are cozy. Intimate. And sometimes a little cliquey.  The people who have attended for years all know each other and most of the new people came in through one of the old. They already critique for one another, have in-jokes, and read each other’s works.  Breaking in and making friends can be a struggle, but once you’re in, you’re in for life.

There can be a lot less to do, and everything hinges on the presenters that are in attendance. If they’re no good at panels, there will be very few good panels. If they’re terrible with feedback, you won’t get much professional feedback. If none of the three or four pros in attendance do your genre, there isn’t another professional that will.

Final Thoughts:

Whether you attend a large or a small conference, are a beginner or an expert, the thing that will make the most difference is how much you put yourself out there. Take the opportunities that are presented to you. Submit a first page, a query letter, or sit for a critique.  Talk to the shy writer in the lobby before check-in, and the out-going out-of-towner looking to make new friends. Focus on learning, experiencing, and actively engaging in the experience. And remember, whether you’re at a large or a small conference, you can’t be everywhere at once, so focus on the panels you do make it to, and not the ones you’ve missed.

Can’t get enough of Brittany’s wisdom?  Follow her on twitter!  And while you’re at it, check out these other conference-going Alaskan writers: @SummerHugsBooks @Kate_Dutton @kirstenupnorth @ChristinaSeine @Stataliasbooks @NikkiHyson and @jwintersak


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