Writing conferences are something that I think deserve their own post. There are quite a lot of them, and they are sufficiently dissimilar that one really shouldn’t just pick one at random to attend. Like everything else, each type works well for some things (and writers) and poorly for other things (and writers), so before you decide whether to spring for a membership, you really ought to do some homework and some thinking.
The first and most fundamental question you need to think about is “What do I need, want, or hope to accomplish by attending this conference or workshop?” Are you hoping to do some networking? Make some new friends? Get yourself and/or your work out in front of professionals in the field? Sharpen your writing skills? Have a lot of fun? Master some specific techniques? Promote your current novel? Learn production skills so you can self-publish? Get some tips on marketing and/or professional submission etiquette? Meet your favorite writing idol who is the keynote speaker? Tick off the “Goes to conferences” box on your “Things Professional Writers Do” list?
(Hint: if that last one is all you are trying to do, save your time and money. Or rent a cheap hotel room for a weekend and spend three days holed up there writing. It’ll do you a lot more good than ticking off the checkbox, trust me.)
If you can’t quite figure out what you want to get out of going to a conference or workshop, but you also still have the nagging feeling that you really want to, if only to see what they’re like and find out if they might be useful, that’s OK. Just be open to the possibility of changing your mind in either direction.
The next step is to look at what kinds of conferences and workshops are out there, what they do, and what the goal of the conference is. Also the cost, which includes travel expenses and hotel, as well as the actual membership fee, and the amount of time they take up.
What most people mean when they talk about “writing conferences” range from targeted one- or two-day workshops, to weekend conventions (which can last up to four or five days, if they are scheduled over a holiday weekend), to intensive courses that run full-time for up to three months straight. Some are professionally managed; some are put on by colleges, universities, or other educational institutions; some are provided by writer’s organizations like the Romance Writers of America or the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators; and some are organized by a dedicated group of independent volunteers.
Assuming you have some idea of why you want to go to a conference (and there are usually multiple reasons), and that you know what your budget, time constraints, and other resources are, you then have to pick the conference that fits what you want. A large part of choosing is asking around. Bigger is not always better; professionally managed or college-run does not necessarily mean higher quality than the ones put on by amateurs. In the SF field, for instance, of the top workshops/conferences put on specifically for writers, only one is affiliated with a university; the others are all run by independent non-profit groups of dedicated volunteers, some of whom are themselves established writers and/or editors doing this in their spare time.
Pretty much any convention, conference, or workshop that is aimed directly at writers (as opposed to teachers, librarians, booksellers, or other members of the literary community) will give you the opportunity to meet and talk to other writers, simply because that’s who else is attending.
If one of your goals is to do networking, keep this in mind: Some of the clueless newbies will turn out, in five or ten years, to be award-winning bestsellers or senior editors. Some of the rising stars that everyone crowds around in adulation will be a flash in the pan. Nobody knows which is which (if they did, there would be crowds around the nervous young woman in the corner who will, eight years in the future, have her small-press novel go viral and become a bestseller in twenty countries). Also, one of the best ways of networking is to volunteer to help put on a conference or convention. Again, you may not meet the Big Names this way, but you will meet and work with people, some of whom will be Big Names by the time you need them. It doesn’t do you any good to suck up to Super Big Name Editor and then find out that he retired the year before you finished your manuscript.
Skill-building workshops can be useful for nearly any writer at any level, as long as one is careful to choose a workshop that isn’t too far ahead of one’s current abilities. If a writer is still struggling with basic grammar and clarity, they may want to wait a few years before signing up for a workshop on managing subtext and subverting expectations in multi-genre-crossovers intended for a “high literary” audience.
The big trade shows – the ALA, the ABA, the NCTE, the IRA (and if you don’t know what the acronyms mean, you probably shouldn’t be thinking about going anyway*) – are mostly not things you can go to if you aren’t a member, unless you can get onto one of their panels. This requires you to either be an expert on something, or to have a book out that the group wants you to talk about (which means you have a publisher and/or publicist behind you). Regional and local conferences are often a little looser about their requirements for panelists, but they’re still not going to be terribly interested if you haven’t got an actual book actually available.
Writers’ professional organizations, like the Author’s Guild, RWA, SFFWA, MWA, and SCBWI, have their own conferences**. They are, again, usually limited to members, which for the SFWA and MWA means that you have to meet a minimum requirement of professional sales. The RWA and SCBWI both, to the best of my knowledge, allow unpublished writers to join.
The science fiction and fantasy field is kind of a special case when it comes to conventions. There is a whole community of people out there putting on fan-run conventions, many of which have a track of programming for would-be writers or which hold workshops or professional critique sessions in conjunction with the con. You could go to one of these every weekend, if you had the time, money, and stamina. They are a lot of fun, and they are a good way to meet and get to know local professional writers (and often a few out-of-towners). And there is almost certain to be one somewhere near wherever you live. [I spent last weekend at 4th Street Fantasy Convention 2015 http://www.4thstreetfantasy.com/2015/ and it was great…]
I do want to conclude by reiterating that none of this stuff is required. Different writers manage their careers in different ways. And this is especially not required if you haven’t finished a book yet. (In fact, there is a thing in the trade referred to as “workshop burn” – the manuscript that some nervous new writer has taken to 46 different workshops and re-polished every single time, until it’s been polished down to the dull steel under the copper and silver plate and every bit of shine and sparkle is long gone. Do not do this…)
* American Library Association, the American Bookseller’s Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association.
**Romance Writers of America, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.