I get questions about conferences quite often, ranging from "which conference should I attend?" to "what do I do once I get there?" Since I attend as a speaker, not as an attendee, my perspective might be a bit skewed, fair warning.
WHICH CONFERENCE SHOULD I ATTEND?
You need to figure out a few things, like, what are your budget, time and travel constraints? Some conferences are one-day affairs, some last a couple of days or even a week. There might be one in your hometown, or you might prefer to spend some time away from home. Do you want a small, craft-oriented workshop type environment where you really get to work on your manuscript? OR do you want to attend large seminars where editors or agents give talks the whole time?
Personally, I adore the craft-oriented small workshops like the Big Sur Children's Writer's Workshop that my agency puts on twice a year, or the Oregon Coast Children's Book Writer's Workshop. At these conferences, there is a low ratio of faculty (agents, editors or well-published writers) to attendees. That means everyone has a chance to get to know everyone else, if not in the workshops, then over meals. Faculty meets with authors in small groups or one-on-one and give feedback, and there is lots of quiet alone-time in a gorgeous location for the authors to actually write without the distractions of internet and TV. All this can really help writers figure out how to focus their stories and where to go with revisions. It seems like a short time, but I have to tell you, the changes that I've seen authors make to their work in just a few days can at times be quite shocking, and magical!
That said, larger regional SCBWI conferences like NE-SCBWI or SCBWI National can be great fun, particularly if you have lots of friends in the region. Going to conferences like this, where there are big rooms full of writers listening to expert presentations and panels (and lots of fun times going on in the lobby after hours!) can be like one big invigorating party for writers and an opportunity to learn more about the business. And often, for a small fee, attendees can meet one-on-one with editors or agents as well. I feel like these conferences might be better for people that are good at schmoozing and "putting themselves out there" - if you aren't quite there yet, you might consider starting with a smaller one-day SCBWI event in your area.
HOW DO I PREPARE FOR A CONFERENCE?
First of all, RELAX. You don't NEED to do anything, or prove anything to anyone. Conferences should be fun, and you should learn something, and you should meet lots of great people, but everyone is nice. They aren't going to judge you or torture you. There shouldn't be anything scary about this experience. Especially at all-children's writers conferences... we all love children's books, after all!
Read the conference materials. Look up the editors and agents online, just to get an idea of where they work and what they are interested in. Send in material if you are supposed to send it in, and/or bring materials with you if you are asked to. (For example, if there will be workshops). Bring a copy of your query letter - why not? Somebody might ask. But DO NOT, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, expect to hand your query or manuscript to an agent or editor at the conference. We don't want them there. We'll give you submission guidelines if we are interested in getting material, and you can email or send it after the show.
I suggest you go in with your ears open. Bring a notebook. Bring some business cards with your web address and email address to share with other writers (again, if you hand material to faculty it will likely get lost or thrown out.)
Dress neatly but comfortably. Wear comfy shoes. Stay hydrated. Don't drink too much booze, even if it is free, and don't stay up too late, no matter how much fun you're having. Talk to people. Yes, even scary agents. :-) Here are some more great conference tips from SCBWI-conference veteran Linda Joy Singleton.
Up next time: HOW DO I PITCH MY BOOK?