Recently I was asked about what to consider before attending a writers conference. I have attended, volunteered, managed and been an instructor at conferences for over seventeen years, maybe longer, I’m old, I forget. Anyway, two Pacific NW conferences that I recommend are the Edmonds (WA) Write on The Sound (October) and the Willamette Writers (August in Portland OR) conferences.
To enjoy a conference you must first do your homework; what classes do you want to attend, what agents do you want to pitch, and most important, what do you want to learn? And I’d like to add to that list, how can you get out of your writerly comfort zone? Like if you only take workshops about utopian world building, this time take a class on how to craft a great sex scene. You’ll be amazed how widening your skill-set will enhance your writing. So give these things some serious thought and design the kind of experience you want: if you set your intention before you attend a conference you position yourself for success instead of disappointment, because who likes that.
Every conference has a personality, a theme and a culture unique to that conference. In Portland the Willamette Writers (WW) is a fairly large conference that takes place in hot August, hundreds of people from all over the country gather in an air-conditioned Portland hotel and cohabitate like college dorm mates. The focus is heavily on screenplay and fiction writing master classes and workshops where the amount of note taking can be exhausting – I mean seriously try to keep up with Larry Brooks or Eric Witchey at 8:00 AM after a late night pitch session – Don’t worry, there’s always coffee in the lobby.
WW is a great place to pitch your project; novel, memoir, or screenplay. I hosted one of the sessions a few years ago and had a blast. We had 60 nervous scribes pitching a panel of literary or Hollywood type agents. Even if you just watch and learn, it’s a priceless experience. The late night pitch parties, cocktail parties, or hanging out in the lobby bar or café are surprising places to garner tips and make connections. And let’s not overlook fun, I mean how often do you get to hang with your tribe, right….
Conversely, Write on the Sound (WOTS) is a smaller conference of maybe 350 participants from all around the country because it’s so easy with the train depot within walking distance. WOTS has an overall atmosphere of art and fall writing, education and the mentoring of like-minded souls – it’s like going back to school. It’s always in October, the sky is (more often than not) blue, the leaves are red and the wind off the Puget Sound is jostling through the streets. The classes are mostly in the old school turned arts building called the Anderson Center where the weekend is spent, writers as pupils in old fashioned school rooms, and breaks in the hallway where cookies and drinks await the rush of trading one classroom for another before the bell rings. One of my favorite things is the walk from the Anderson Center to one of the coffee shops or restaurants a few blocks away – the streets are filled with walking, talking writers in search of fuel, or cutting class to hang with a new writer friend. During WOTS the serene city of Edmonds is overtaken by enthusiastic and boisterous writers. The Friday workshops are roll your sleeves up and get to work events with (past) master instructors like Robert Dugoni or local celeb, Rick Steves – See this years line-up here. The Saturday night book signing and happy hour event is a great time to network, meet people, make contacts and then walk to a local wine bar and continue the evening talking about favorite authors or how to best write that elusive sex scene.
So, my best advice is to do your homework before you go, sign up (early) for the classes you want to take or the agents you want to pitch, get out of your comfort zone and attend a class or event you normally would not, talk to people, and have some fun. These are two PNW conferences where the quality of instructors, the organization of the conference and bang for your writing conference buck is always a good deal, time well spent, lessons worth learning, contacts worth making, and most importantly, unforgettable.