4 Reasons You (yes, you) Should Attend a Writing Conference

Deb Atwood, author
Deb Atwood, author

4 Reasons You (yes, you) Should Attend a Writing Conference

This week’s guest post comes from #StoryDam chat regular, Deb Atwood:
You’ve been thinking about attending a writing conference or retreat and are wondering if it’s worth the effort and expense.

You should do it. Seriously. Here’s why.

One: Just as Goldilocks did before you, you can find a place that fits just right.

I always come home from a writing conference with new friends, inspiration & TONS of new books! (photo by Tui Snider)
I always come home from a writing conference with new friends, inspiration & TONS of new books! (photo by Tui Snider)

Some conferences may be too big, some too little—you get the idea. My first conference was Squaw Valley. It was large and impressive and featured literary notables including a Poet Laureat. I’ve also been to the San Francisco Writers Conference with its dizzying array of workshops and intense agent speed dating. I attended the East of Eden conference, which was smaller but still somewhat impersonal. Then I found Better Books, and, for me, it was just right.

Better Books (http://betterbooksmarin.com/) is a craft-based conference of fewer than 25 middle-grade or YA writers “facilitated by three amazing editors and a top agent.” Topics vary year to year. In 2016, Heather Alexander provided interactive examples of show-not-tell (including when it’s okay to show), Kate Sullivan led a discussion of theme, Andrew Harwell offered insights into the role of family in middle-grade/YA, and Abby Ranger explored character transformation. We also gathered for insightful critique sessions.

So, there are many types of conferences/retreats out there ranging from large and noisy to intimate and quiet. In fact, if you really crave quiet, there’s even a silent writing retreat at Dominican University. If cost is a consideration, consider creating your own retreat with a couple of friends over a weekend. You’ll be amazed at how much writing and critiquing you can accomplish away from kith and kin. My friend Cynthia and I do this once a year. We call it the El Cheapo Writing Retreat.

Two: You’ll meet and interact with new people in your field. Connections will happen.

This is especially true if your conference has a genre focus or is on the smaller side. Better Books, with its intimate setting, is specifically for middle-grade or YA writers. Because of this, there was much commonality. Cards, bookmarks, and Twitter handles made the rounds at the lunch tables. One writer arranged visits with a couple of teachers and librarians. Small groups that meet during the year invited new members to future get-togethers.

In the evenings we gathered for talk and games. Wine flowed. I played my first ever Cards Against Humanity. I laughed so much my ears popped. (I’m not kidding. I actually worried that I had damaged my hearing.) I met many writers I hope to see again.

Three: In critique groups, you’ll receive feedback from people who don’t know you.

Why does this matter? People who don’t know you will read your work in ways your writing buddy (or mother) won’t. I suspected (but was in denial) that my novel contained too many elements. My protagonist had a life-threatening allergy, faced a hostile school environment, was an adoptee, and began a birth search. Oh, and her bestie was battling leukemia. Too much? I’d convinced my local writing buddy it all fit together like dovetail joints in a wooden drawer.

My critique partners at Better Books, however, were not fooled. They helped me understand I had two different books and offered advice about how to begin detangling the two storylines.

Four: You’ll hear important stuff you need to know.

Something happened on the second day. A writer from my critique group mentioned a publishing controversy. Candlewick Press cancelled a book, When We Was Fierce by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, just before its scheduled release. I didn’t know a publisher would remove a book, particularly this one, which garnered starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus. The writer had created her own fictional dialect and received accolades for her lyrical, free-verse prose.

Young readers affectionately call author Charlton-Trujillo Wexican (Whitest Mexican American). The characters of When We Was Fierce are black. Members of the Own Voices community objected, citing insensitive stereotypes, and the publisher pulled the novel.

When this topic arose at the conference, we all looked at each other. Almost all of us were white. What should we as writers make of this information?

We returned to this news again and again over the course of the week–in our small groups, in the dining hall, enroute to our rooms.

Without Better Books, I would not have known of this controversy, and thanks to the publishing industry professionals present, we learned of the current guidelines. They are:

If you’re a white writer, you should write a white protagonist. (Or be prepared to justify your choice.)
If you’re a white writer, you should include characters of color and characters with non-hetero sexual orientations in secondary roles. To ensure you do not fall into the traps of either stereotyping or tokenizing, you should avail yourself of numerous representative beta readers.

For me, this information is both valuable and sobering. The protagonist I conceived was multiracial. Will she remain so? I don’t know. I do know I have some deep thinking to do as I turn one book into two and create a new cast of characters. Am I still glad I attended the writing conference despite some setbacks? A thousand times yes.

Comments? Have you been to a writing conference? What has been your experience?

Deb Atwood, author
Deb Atwood, author

Deb Atwood holds an MFA and lives in California with her husband and rescue dog Nala. Her time-slip ghost novel Moonlight Dancer was selected as a front page Featured Review by Book Ideas. Her interests include ghost fiction, big dogs, Korean culture, quilting, and, of course, reading. Deb has purple hair and likes spiders but is afraid of yellow jackets (the insect, not the garment).

Book links:
31 Ghost Novels to Read Before You Die: https://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Novels-Read-Before-You-ebook/dp/B01D7XMQIU/

Moonlight Dancer: https://www.amazon.com/Moonlight-Dancer-Deb-Atwood-ebook/dp/B008XO9OCU/

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About Tui Snider 244 Articles
Tui Snider is an author, speaker, and photographer who specializes in quirky, haunted, and downright bizarre destinations. As she puts it, “I used to write fiction – but then, I moved to Texas!” Snider's writing and photography have been featured in a variety of publications, including Coast to Coast AM, FOX Travel News, LifeHack, Langdon Review, the City of Plano, Wild Woman Waking, Shades of Angels and more. Snider’s award-winning books include Paranormal Texas, The Lynching of the Santa Claus Bank Robber, and Unexpected Texas. Snider has several more books in progress, including a Field Guide to Cemetery Symbols and a book about the Great Texas Airship Mystery of 1897. Tui has worn a lot of hats in her life – literally – and is especially fond of berets. She enjoys connecting with writers and readers all over the globe through social media, her newsletter and her website: TuiSnider.com.


  1. Good points up until the last one and that’s only in regards to the controversy and so called guidelines. I certainly hope you won’t whitewash your character. That’s horrible and as bad as when authors get asked to turn gay characters straight. Diversity is good and if your character’s don’t match you 100%, fine. That’s why research is important.

    • Thanks for the support, Patricia. There were definitely some tense moments during our discussions. I’m working on my revisions now (and shifting some characters), so I really appreciate the words of encouragement.

  2. This is interesting and serendipitous. Another Storydam member, @George_McNeese posted a blog today that touched on diversity and who we should be writing about. I’m struggling with deciding how to have diversity in my middle-grader novel, and these guidelines help, but also feel…careful. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I find myself agreeing with Patricia. Thanks for sharing this, Deb!

    • I know just what you mean, Julie! I live in an ethnically diverse city, my kids are bi-racial, and diversity just feels natural. But I’m also a coward when it comes to people criticizing me. And, like you, I don’t want to do it badly.

  3. Fantastic post. I’d love to attend a writing conference! I believe I’d be like you and prefer something smaller. Connections and critiques are priceless. I do agree with Patricia about the diversity controversy, though.

    • Thanks, Christine. Yes, I was so happy with the small conference. It felt almost like family. Or that feeling you get when you leave your first sleep-away camp. Even if you can’t get away, you can always do an El Cheapo retreat at a friend’s house some weekend. That’s where I’ve done the most pages in one sitting.

  4. Wonderful and insightful post. I’ve read numerous articles outlining the benefits of attending a writer’s conference, but none that have felt so personal and authentic. I attended the San Fran Writer’s conference when I first began writing and I enjoyed meeting people and learned a great deal. I don’t think I was far enough along in my writing to get the maximum benefit. After reading your post, I think I would enjoy a smaller conference. I’ve also tossed around the idea of a writer’s retreat. I hope it works out for me in 2017. The smaller, more intimate groups sound like something I want to explore. Thanks for the tips.

    • I know just what you mean, Julie! I live in an ethnically diverse city, my kids are bi-racial, and diversity just feels natural. But I’m also a coward when it comes to people criticizing me. And, like you, I don’t want to do it badly.

    • Thanks for your comments, Melissa. I know what you mean about being at the right place and time to take full advantage of a conference or retreat. The good news is that there are so many different types to choose from. I think the silent one would be really interesting, for instance, but maybe a little intimidating. All that time with my own thoughts? What if I drove myself crazy! Horrid thought. I hope you can attend one this year!

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