Monday, May 16, 2016

Writer's Conference Basics, Part I - Overview

As I've mentioned, I attended Pikes Peak Writers Conference in April. I was also staff, faculty, and a volunteer, putting me in a semi-unique position to see a single conference from four different points of view. I also worked in a position that gave me access to the anonymous surveys filled out during and after the conference, which gave me yet more insight into the process, so I thought I'd pass along some tips in a multi-part series told from these different points of view.

Part I will focus on a general overview of conferences, and the people at them.

Conference or Convention?

First, I should define what a conference is. A conference tends to be a professional gathering, intended for writers, not fans (although we're all fans, too). There are workshops (where someone teaches on a specific topic), panels (where several people present and answer questions), and other types of programming and activities, though workshops are the primary focus. There may be pitches, critiques, open mic sessions, and more. You may or may not get food as part of your registration. Often, registration must be in advance, especially if food is involved. These can be anywhere from a day to a week, but are most frequently over a weekend. They usually cost more than conventions, but often involve some sort of food.

A convention is more geared toward fans in many cases, and has a more carefree feel, even if the programming is for writers. There will still be scheduled programming, usually more focused on panels than single instructor workshops, and they may have parallel programming that focuses on something fan related. They will also have sessions that are focused more on fun stuff, such as the tea dueling session at Anomaly Con. Chances are, there will also be people in costume. These usually cost less than formal conferences, but they don't feed you at all.

Attendee, Volunteer, Staff, or Faculty?

Now let's go over the difference between attendees, staff, volunteers, and faculty. Bear in mind that my familiarity is with a writer's conference run by a nonprofit, so not everything I say will be true for all different types of conferences or conventions.

Attendees are the people that have paid to attend (or won some sort of comped conference via a giveaway, auction, scholarship, or some other means.) They go to workshops, but do not have to work in any way. They are there to learn and to network.

Volunteers are attendees who have volunteered to help onsite, but do not take part in advance planning. They will be in positions that allow them to help for brief periods of time without missing much in the way of workshops and programming.

Staff consists of the volunteers running the conference. They hold a position title, though that title is likely not known to attendees or even faculty unless it's someone like the director. Their work starts anywhere from days to months (to years) before the actual event. These are the directors, the registrars, the planners, etc. There are staff members who do not have to do any work in advance, but miss a chunk of the conference due to their jobs. Some staff don't get to attend any workshops, because their jobs are that involved. Staff are not paid (again, at least at the conferences I'm familiar with, which are run by nonprofits.) They may receive a comp toward the conference (a comp is getting a percentage or amount off the price of the conference,) but this is by no means guaranteed.

There is also venue staff. Our conference is held at a Marriott hotel. Their staff are not conference staff, and our staff are not hotel staff. They're paid by the venue, and that's who they represent. They have nothing to do with the actual conference.

Faculty are the speakers running the workshops, sitting on the panels, etc. They're the teachers. They're also the editors, agents, experts, and illustrators. They can be brought in from outside the area, and may also be staff members. Some may be paid, some may not be, depending upon the conference and what or how much they're doing at conference. They are likely getting some sort of comp to conference, whether partial or full, and whether they're being paid or not.


The cost is all over the place. Conventions will be anywhere from $20 to a couple hundred. Conferences will usually be $100 to above $1000. The longer the conference, and the more food provided, the more expensive the conference.

Both may have optional extra costs. For instance, conventions may offer pictures and/or signed autographs from faculty at an additional charge, or t-shirts. They may have parallel programming with its own cost. Conferences may offer recordings of the workshops or an additional cost to pitch or get a critique. They may also offer extra programming, such as a specific separate track or an extra day of programming, at an additional cost.

You also need to take into account hotel, food, and travel costs. If the conference is local, this isn't an issue. Otherwise, these are necessary costs unless you have an alternate way of handling these, such as a friend who lives nearby. Often, a conference or convention will have a special discounted hotel rate if you let them know you're attending. This will be at a specific convention/conference hotel. Be sure to check the convention/conference website to find out if there are specific discounted hotels or meal plans.

Note: Book your hotel rooms in advance! If you are staying at an event hotel, the rooms may sell out fast. And if you plan on bringing your own food, ask to reserve a room with a refrigerator.

And, of course, books. There will always be books for sale. We all know this is a big cost for writers!

How Do They Work?

I don't want to make this post too long, so I'm going to go over this very basically, and will cover more in the attendee portion.

Registration - Find their website and they will have instructions on registering, (because they want you to attend). Conventions will usually have a fairly short registration form, while a conference will probably have a longer registration form. In addition to your general information, there may be questions about food choices, class choices, merchandise, pitch and critique choices, and more. You will be expected to pay when you register, not at the venue (although many cons have onsite registration available.) There may be payment plans for the more expensive ones. You should get an email confirming your registration.

Check-In - You will have to check in at a registration desk when you get to the event. These are usually clearly marked, but the front desk at the venue can direct you, if not. At that time, you will receive materials like a badge with your name on it, a schedule, meal tickets, appointment cards, and swag. You must have the badge to have access to the programming, so don't lose it! If food or appointments are involved, you will either find the information for that in your badge or in a registration packet (if you were given one.) My advice is to always take a moment to go through the materials you're given at the registration desk to be sure you got everything you should have, and so you can ask questions then and there. Read through the program. There is often important information in there.

Workshops/Panels/Programming - Now you choose what you want to go to! Look through the schedule. If there are workshop descriptions, look through those, too. A title might be misleading, so make sure you've read what the workshop or panel is really about. You'll likely have some session times where there are multiples you want to see, while other session times won't have anything of interest. It's the nature of the beast.

I'll have more information on this in the next post, but this should get you started. Please feel free to ask any general conference or convention questions in the comments, and I'll answer them the best I'm able.

Do you have any questions about conference or convention attendance? Have you attended a con? Have you worked at one? Taught at one? Have any advice of your own? Are there any terms in this post you need defined?

May you find your Muse.

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H. R. Sinclair said...

Very nicely detailed. I'm interested in hearing from all you're POVs from the conference.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You covered all the details. Thanks, much of that I didn't know.
Now I can say yes, I've been to a con, but it was a convention not a conference.

Christine Rains said...

You covered all of it wonderfully. I've been to conventions but not conferences. One day I'd love to attend a conference for writers, though.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

We have our state-wide writing conference next weekend. I guess I'm staff, helping run the thing. It's an exciting three days.

Nick Wilford said...

I've never been to either so this is all really helpful information. Thanks for putting this together!

Susan Kane said...

Excellent compilation of a conference! I have been to many teacher conference and one writer conference. One thing is very clear: wear very comfortable shoes.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Shannon - I can imagine most of this - but you've set it out for us and defined various aspects ... fun to be a part of - hard work too ...

Susan's note is a good one: wear comfortable shoes ... very sensible.

Cheers Hilary

Chrys Fey said...

Awesome info! I've never been to a conference, but it's on my list of things to do as a writer, and what you shared here is great to keep in mind. I already feel more prepared. Thanks! :)

Pat Garcia said...

I think you have covered everything about attending a conference. Last year I attended the women"s fiction festival in Matera, Italy. It was closer to me than flying back to the States and it was much cheaper. The year before that I attended the Atlanta Writer's Conference. Both of them were fantastic. I learned a lot and look forward to attending a conference this year. I also attended a online Writer's conference with Backspace and it was great. We had telephone call in with our instructors who were agents from different agencies. It was an excellent experience for me.
Shalom Aleichem,

Arlee Bird said...

I've never been to a convention or conference in regard to writing. I'd like to, but I'd rather be there in the capacity of someone who was paid to be there. Unless I had a lot of excess money, I doubt whether I'd spend much to attend such an affair. It's a good thing that everybody doesn't think like I do or these things would not be successful.

Arlee Bird
A to Z Challenge Co-host
Tossing It Out

S.A. Larsenッ said...

It's so cool you got to partake in the conference from so many different angles. I finally attended my first writer's conference in April, NESCBWI in MA. It's about a four hour ride for me one-way, which I'm not a huge fan of. I stayed in the hotel two nights. It was a wonderful experience, especially meeting so many cyber writers in-person. I'm just hoping to attend with someone else or a group next time. I found most people go either with their writer groups or CPs, etc...

Shannon Lawrence said...


Shannon Lawrence said...

What kind of con did you go to?

Shannon Lawrence said...

You need to be faculty at a conference!

Shannon Lawrence said...

I'm hoping it will help take some of the nerves out of conference attendance.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Yes! Always wear comfortable shoes. I think I forgot to add this tip. I see people in heels and just shake my head. I wear my hiking sneakers!

Shannon Lawrence said...

Yes, her note is incredibly sensible. I only made the mistake once of not wearing comfortable shoes.

Shannon Lawrence said...

You would make a fantastic faculty member!

Shannon Lawrence said...

I'm glad you've gotten to attend some. I'm hoping to visit Georgia for the first time this fall, though not for a conference. I've always wanted to visit Savannah.

Shannon Lawrence said...

You're right on that! At this point, I'd be loathe to pay full price for a conference, but I've become accustomed to working them. I'm hoping to be faculty at an upcoming one in October.

Shannon Lawrence said...

I hope you get to attend with friends next year! That is also a different experience. I went to my first two writer's conferences alone, not really knowing anyone. It's good to have that support system around you, though not necessary. Admittedly, I got a lot more work done before I started attending with friends. ;)