Publishing Industry

First Conference Tips | Jill Willis

A conference veteran in a brand-new world

I’ve attended a ton of conferences—consumer electronics, telecommunications, volunteerism—both as an attendee and as a host. You could ask me anything about a conference and I’d have a ready, accurate answer. I was an expert.

Ha! Those pages of my life quickly blew over the Blue Ridge Mountains when I attended my first writer’s conference.

I should not have been caught off guard. Driver, fashion consultant and mentor-extraordinaire, Hope Welborn, had blanketed me in past experience stories and helpful tips. I should have been prepared to calmly embrace the writer’s conference experience.

hope and jill

Drinking from a fire hose

Instead, I didn’t sleep for four nights. I scurried around the campus in an attempt to attend as many sessions as possible and pass out my shiny new business cards. I was beyond excited about absorbing all-things-pertinent, interviewing with potential agents and meeting other young adult writers. I agonized over whose agent/author/publisher table to sit at for each meal, constantly updated my schedule in the nifty conference app, and stayed up late friending all my new buds on Facebook.

Praise God the place had a latté machine.

I returned home with a To-Do scroll and have been skittering around my study like a water bug across a pond ever since. My plan of action includes about a hundred items of equal value.

This is not the way to attend and return from your first writer’s conference . . . unless you enjoy drinking from a fire hose. Note to self: audio of all sessions is available for a reasonable price.

Here’s what I recommend for first-time conference attendees:

  • Listen to your mentor and pack accordingly. Carry an umbrella every minute, even if the skies are blue.
  • Stay in a hotel room by yourself. You’ll need the peace and quiet.
  • Start and end each day with personal devotion time. Focusing on Him calms nerves.
  • Attend only two sessions a day. Any more and you’ll have info overload. Spend your free time getting to know other writers. Everyone’s so nice!
  • Prepare for the appointments you may have with agents and publishers. Ensure you have a one sheet, business cards and a WIP summary. The agents and publishers will be overjoyed.
  • Take notes on your laptop. Transcribing chicken scratch is time-consuming.
  • Yell your heart out at the awards ceremony when someone in your local ACFW chapter wins big. Congrats, Lindsey Brackett!

When you return home:

  • Prioritize your To Do list ASAP. Not everything is of equal value.
  • Listen to the audio sessions. Yes, more To Do items, but now you have the time to take good notes without the distraction of sitting next to a popular YA writer, who’s probably wondering why you’re using a yellow legal pad to take notes.
  • Write thank you notes to those who interviewed you. Your mom will be proud.
  • Organize the business cards you received. If you can’t figure out what to do with them, put them in a bowl and pray over them.

Last, thank our generous Father for the opportunity to attend the conference, learn from industry professionals and fellowship with other writers. There will always be more conferences, but none will compare with your very first one. Smile as you cherish those memories.

Jill WillisJill Willis writes redemptive young adult speculative fiction. She lives on a lake in North Georgia with her husband and a one-eyed orange cat. She’s a scuba diver, amateur photographer and volunteer cook at Atlanta’s USO. You can connect with her at or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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