At the beginning of a new year, we plan to exercise, set our professional goals, and then often spend the rest of the year backsliding and lamenting how it all went wrong. When it comes to our writing careers though, one thing we can commit to early and guarantee is our participation in writing conferences and retreats. Application and registration season is here now so if you want to snag a spot and grow your craft and publishing knowledge, this is the time do it.
In several of my writing communities, people have asked for recommendations on the best conferences. That’s a tough question because it’s really about which opportunities will serve your needs at this moment in your career. Over the last five years, I’ve participated in a variety of writing events that have bolstered my skills, fed my flagging spirit, and broadened my network. These are just a few of the vast options available to you as well.
- Juried Writing Workshops: One of my journalist friends raved to me about a conference in sunny South Florida founded by the legendary crime fiction writer Dennis Lehane. It’s Eckerd College Writers in Paradise and I’m now a three-time recidivist, the nickname we give to multiple attendees. This is a juried conference, one where you submit an excerpt of your novel, short story, memoir, or poetry to be considered for admission.
For the first time, I workshopped my novel-in-progress with eleven other writers and learned the delicate dance of giving and receiving critique. Every workshop discussion is led by a successful, published author and I had the privilege to study with Ann Hood, Laura Lippman, and Lori Roy. Half the day is spent workshopping student manuscripts and the rest of the time you’re attending lectures and author readings. For those of you who want an immersive, deep-dive into character development, scenes, plotting, and sentence-level work for your manuscript, these workshops are invaluable. The best kept secret is that you learn more from analyzing your classmates’ work than you do from the critiques of your own manuscript.
- Large Writing Conferences: Last year, I attended Grub Street’s The Muse and the Marketplace in Boston for the first time and will return again in April. It was literary nirvana! While it’s a conference of more than 800 attendees and presenters, I sat in sessions next to bestselling authors and top literary agents and editors. Besides the plethora of sessions on everything from novel revision to book promotion, there were unique opportunities at this conference. For an additional fee, I participated in Manuscript Mart where two literary agents critiqued an excerpt of my manuscript and met with me on-site to discuss it. We ended the conversations with both agents requesting my full manuscript. I also participated in Shop Talk, a happy hour event where I joined two literary agents and two writers for an intimate cocktail reception chat about books and the inner workings of the publishing industry. If you want to hone your writing craft and gain exposure to industry insiders, this is the perfect conference to achieve both goals.
- Writing Retreats: For the past three years, I’ve traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, an area steeped in culture and history, to join more than 70 writers for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s annual retreat. Starting before sunrise, we sit on the patio writing on our laptops and conversing, surrounded by lush gardens. We participate in workshops on topics ranging from craft to publishing and the writing life. Published and unpublished writers share the joys and frustrations of this journey we’ve chosen. The informal bonding experience defies description and I marvel at the relationships that develop there. I’ve made lifelong friends in this writing community and these are the people I turn to when I need someone to read one of my scenes, talk me off the ledge when I want to give up, or cheer me on when an agent requests my full manuscript. Retreats like this one are small and intimate enough to nurture you for the long haul and that’s why many of us return to New Mexico every year to re-charge and renew.
Right now, I’m evaluating my options for writing experiences this year. I plan to return to the Muse and to the WFWA retreat but I’m exploring a new juried writing workshop, one where I can study craft with other writers under the tutelage of authors I admire. You really have to think about where you are on your journey and decide which opportunities will help you take your writing and your career to the next level.
Nancy E. Johnson is a senior communications leader with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning journalism background. She contributed to O, the Oprah Magazine which published her personal essay. Nancy is an active member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and she served as secretary for Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter. When she’s not reading, writing or pontificating about politics, she’s running and eating chocolate, sometimes at the same time. The Chicago native is writing her first novel.