I do a lot of conferences, and I just returned from the wonderful four-day Tomales Bay Manuscript Bootcamp, one of several annual workshops put on by Writing by Writers in Northern California. Such events are most often exhausting, and I’m not saying this was any different in that regard, but it was also quite refreshing, at least from my point of view. First, I have absolutely no complaints with leaving the 104-degree heat of my hometown to live in a state park on the Pacific Ocean and be fed oysters and soft cheeses. But then there was the event itself, which had a different focus than the big, industry-centric pitch fests that usually populate my schedule.

Just as it’s important to know the genre you’re writing in, it’s important to keep in mind what you need to get out of a conference when you’re looking to sign up. It can be tempting to hit the big, flashy ones with dozens of agents and editors looking to snap up the next big thing, but getting that face time doesn’t really do you any good if your manuscript still needs work. Often times, and this conference being no exception, if you go to more of a craft-centric event, you’ll be able to get personalized, in-depth feedback and learn from not just industry folk but from authors who have navigated this pathway before. That’s brilliant as well–the sense of community and having someone who really gets your struggle and your passion.

The workshop atmosphere is a big plus if you’re looking to grow as a writer, honing the skills that will stay with you throughout your body of work. And unlike the pitch fest environment, you shouldn’t worry if you think you aren’t at a high enough level. Without fail, each workshop or conference will have writers of various levels, some needing more help than others. That’s OK. The goal at this type of event is to learn, not necessarily to impress people. Just over the weekend, I had consultations with students, retirees, published authors, agented authors, award-winners, debuts, etc. Lots of variety in the relatively small group of 15 attendees, and when it was all done, I had about the same amount of truly exciting manuscript requests that I typically get at the larger events. We’ll see what happens when they finally show up in my inbox, but from my perspective, that’s a damn fine ratio. Plus I already have working knowledge of how these people reason and communicate, which is arguably the most important part of the author/agent relationship.

As much as I freaking love the folks who run some of those giant conferences (and I thoroughly enjoy being faculty there), I highly recommend taking a good look at this type of workshop as well when you’re seeking out conferences. As much as a four-day intensive with little to no sleep can wear on you, every single attendee that I spoke to this weekend left invigorated, ready to delve into their revisions and really make a solid go at this. And that kind of fire inside is invaluable when you’re a new author looking to break out.