This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the University of Wisconsin – Madison Writers’ Institute. I’ve attended a couple writer’s conferences over the years, but then I went to grad school and had to put fictional writing on hold while I focused on academics. So, getting to attend the conference this weekend felt like stretching my wings again.

The event lasted three days, but I could only attend the Saturday sessions. The day began with a keynote by Hank Phillippi Ryan who spoke on what she wished she had known when she began writing. Like, Most books start out as horrible first drafts. Or, Everyone has doubts, so before you throw out your book, make a copy. She sprinkled her advice with good humor and stirring stories.

Writers attend conferences like these for several reasons, one of which is the chance to pitch our books to literary agents. Basically, it’s an 8-minute interview during which an agent decides whether he or she is interested in reading any or all of a writer’s book. It’s a mutually helpful situation in that an agent is there to look for potential clients and the author is looking for someone who can connect them to a publisher.

If a writer is rewarded with a thumbs up to send a few chapters or a whole manuscript to a particular agent, the process is just beginning. If/once the agent reads the writer’s work – which can involve more back and forth – the agent decides if he or she is interested in representing the author’s book to publishers. The author, then, must accept or decline the offer. It’s the age-old artist dilemma: we must have a benefactor for our creations. Agents are there to hopefully help this process.

Another reason writers attend conferences are the workshops. I attended a couple of the workshop sessions at the Writers’ Institute and especially enjoyed the small group atmosphere of the Agent Q & As. Having an hour to discuss the industry with an agent and a handful of other writers allowed us to ask our questions, even ones we might think are silly, like, What’s up-market fiction? (It depends on who’s using the term, but it’s likely a cross  between literary and commercial fiction, like The Help) or, What is the general feel regarding a specific genre within the industry.

Perhaps the biggest reason to attend a writers’ conference is to meet fellow writers. Ryan talked about it during her keynote: writing is a solitary activity, but writers are never alone. Being in a roomful of people who create alternate worlds or having an elevator conversation about ways to kill off characters, or chatting about the benefits of the Big 5 vs. Indie publishing over fresh cookies – it’s a good feeling. It reminds us that perhaps we aren’t as weird as we might think (okay, maybe us writers are a bit strange, but at least we’ve got each other).

Overall, my day at the Writers’ Institute was a full and beneficial one. I’m glad I went and am looking forward to perhaps going again next year.