The Difference Between a Convention and a Conference

Click HERE for the Audio Edition!

It’s been two months since I attended the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, so I’ve had time to mull over the experience. Going somewhere new for the first time is always stressful, as one cannot know what to expect. The information I learned there was good, the speakers were engaging, and my fellow attendees were both kind and polite. I don’t really regret trying out this new opportunity when it arose.

However, I also don’t think I’ll be going back.

“But why, Kat? Aren’t conferences the best thing for burgeoning writers? You get to meet people in the industry, pitch your work directly to agents if you attend the Pitch Slam, and spend time surrounded by other writers! What’s not to like? How could that be anything but helpful?”

Those are all fair points and I deny none of them. I think that for a lot of people a writers conference may indeed be the best thing ever for them, so here are some caveats before we continue:

  • I’ve been to six different anime or geek conventions multiple times, but only one writers conference.
  • I was not in the best frame of mind while at WDC17 due to less-than-ideal personal circumstances.
  • I’m also a contrary introvert who resents being told how she should react to or feel about a situation or the people around her.

So, with those conditions in mind, here are the four main reasons why I probably won’t return to a writers conference anytime in the near future:

1) SKY-HIGH STRESS LEVELS

Most of the conventions I’ve been to have several things in common: it usually costs under $100 for a 3-day event (not including the hotel room and money for food and souvenirs), they’re within a 2-hour drive of my home (often in or near places I’ve been before, plus I have my car), and I have an escape plan in case something goes horribly wrong. In contrast, WDC17 was $400 just for the conference, plus another $100 to attend the Pitch Slam (which had its own special, raw bundle of nerves.) As for location, the conference was in New York City, a place so beyond my comfort zone that it might as well have been another planet. Being that far outside familiar territory gave me a constant low-level sense of dread, knowing that if anything bad did happen, my safe haven was over three hours away and I had no car. (And being only a few blocks down from Trump Towers left me with plenty of dread.)

This is a minor note, but I also was not feeling well the entire weekend thanks to the conference coinciding with “that time of the month.” It isn’t nearly as bad for me as it is for some women, but it was enough to impart a background irritation that made me more inclined to hide in my hotel room than to socialize. I think that influenced some of my reactions to the conference, like making the constant bubble of enthusiasm grating rather than welcoming or inspiring.

2) INTERESTING (BUT NOT EXCLUSIVE) CONTENT

Much of the information I got while at the conference was good and helpful, if sometimes contradictory. The panelists were engaging, and Writers Digest provided audio recordings for almost all of the panels after the conclusion of the conference. This was awesome because you can’t attend every single panel and sometimes you have two happening at the same time, but you can only go to one of them. So really, thank you for that resource.

However, much of the time I felt like the information was stuff I either already knew or could have easily found out by reading books, blogs, and message boards. (I’ve got two shelves at home dedicated to books by writers on writing.) Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to see professionals in the industry in the flesh and introduced me to some new names and faces. I really enjoyed the keynote speech by Lisa Scottoline and found two panels particularly helpful: “Crafting a Strong Short Story” by Windy Lynn Harris and “How an Email Newsletter Can Be Your Secret Marketing Weapon” by Jane Friedman. But as a whole, the information wasn’t exclusive enough, I think, to justify the expense of the conference. Granted, a lot of the info I learn at an anime or geek convention could probably be found online as well. But those cons cover a wide variety of interests and disciplines, ranging from how-to workshops on cosplay, to interviews with script writers and actors, to the history of the Japanese tea ceremony. There’s a lot more to engage the mind than just, “Writing, writing, and more writing!” with relatively small variations on the same theme. Some of that is just the nature of the beast; a conference is going to focus on a narrower range than a con. But the contrast still gave me a twinge of disappointment.

3) CONSTANT PRESSURE TO NETWORK

As a first-timer to anything new, I’m always a little reticent. It takes me time to warm up to people, to get to know the layout and flow of a gathering like this. I’ve been to geek and anime conventions before, but they have a very different feel to them. (More on that later.) At WDC17, we were constantly hammered with three messages:

  • Leave your introvert nature at the door.
  • Networking is paramount.
  • Go to all the things.

As someone who works with the public all day long while wearing an extrovert’s mask, you’d think I could manage that. But there is a key difference. When I’m at work, I have a script to follow and a set number of tasks presented in various combinations. I can anticipate and follow through on most situations that arise there and be able to still set aside enough energy to maintain the appearance of extroversion. But with a place as new and unfamiliar as WDC17, I had none of that pre-built support system. To keep from overloading, I reverted to introversion, which includes being a silent observer rather than an active participant. But it was heavily implied that a failure to participate in networking was a failure to “get the most out of the conference.” Granted, socializing adds a different or additional dimension to an experience. But I feel there shouldn’t be such high pressure to do so lest you somehow “fail” the conference, which you must avoid at all costs, given the time and money you’ve invested. (We writers have enough emotional problems; let’s not add to that, shall we?)

In addition, I’m a contrarian at the best of times, even though I may not be vocal about it. And from the very beginning, a repeated phrase rubbed me the wrong way: being told that the people around me were “my tribe.” This was meant to relax us, to tell us that we were all on the same page, as it were. That we could geek out over writing with fellow writers. But that attempt at reassurance only served to make me more introverted, less inclined to socialize, and feel more like an outsider. Unlike a convention, a conference has no visual cues about who actually is part of your tribe. At a conference, everyone wants to make a good, professional impression so we’re all “in our Sunday best,” so to speak, which hides a lot of individuality. At a con, you see the costumes, the accessories, and the geeky shirts advertising people’s fandoms. That makes a much easier conversation starter than a tiny genre pin on your lanyard.

4) PARADOXICAL PURPOSE & ATMOSPHERE

I think a biggest difference between the conventions I’ve attended and this conference is the purpose. I’m willing to bet that most of the people who attended WDC17 were there for professional reasons. They came to learn how to advance their career…and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there was an odd, conflicting message present at the conference. On the one hand, I kept hearing that my fellow attendees were part of my tribe. But on the other hand, I also heard over and over again that competition for publication is fierce… which would make my fellow attendees the competition. Of course, you can always go to the self-publishing route, but I’d say a lot of folk want to at least try for traditional publication first. It made the prospect of socializing feel awkward, forced, and even disingenuous. Everyone is trying to get ahead, so how do you know if someone is talking to you because they are being genuinely friendly, or if they’re trying to discover if you are useful? Maybe I’m just too paranoid or cynical, but that paradox of companion versus competition only increased my discomfort and whittled away at my self-confidence.

By contrast, the people at a con are there because they want to be there. It’s first and foremost to have fun. To learn more about your favorite fandoms and share that love with those around you. To show off your skills as a cosplayer, or to splurge on artwork and knick-knacks as gifts for your fellow geeky friends. There’s less pressure to perform and no sense of your future riding on who you talk to. You don’t feel like missing something could cripple your career prospects for life. There’s much less impostor syndrome at a con than at a conference. Granted, there are always going to be some creepers and some awkward conversations, but overall, socializing at a con feels more genuine, and the atmosphere is both more relaxed and energized.

In conclusion, I still don’t quite know how to feel about WDC17. It was good to step outside my comfort zone and I did gain useful intel. The missed networking opportunities that supposedly enriched the conference experience are entirely my own fault. I can acknowledge that such conferences can be beneficial, even invigorating, for writers. But for me personally, I cannot say if it was worth the cost of money, stress, and the unexpected but lingering blow to my self-confidence.

So… have any of you been to a writers conference? To a convention? What were your impressions and experiences? Does it get better or easier the more times you go? How do you justify the expense? Please comment with your thoughts; I’d love to hear your stories!

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2 responses to “The Difference Between a Convention and a Conference

  1. I’ve never been to a writer’s conference, although I’ve been to several for historians. It definitely gets easier over time, but it never gets EASY because all those pressures don’t really go away unless you become strongly established in your field. (As with writing, going to a history conference is supposed to be mostly networking but also you’ve heard your whole education how hard it’s going to be to get a job, so everyone you have something in common with is someone who probably has or will get a job you would’ve wanted.) That said, they really aren’t meant for educational purposes, much as they claim to be. It’s all the same repackaged information, like you said. It’s for networking and, in some cases, to get fired up about your project again in the company of likeminded individuals. So if those two things aren’t worth the money, it’s not worth the money.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Hannah! It’s interesting to see that a lot of the same trends are present in conferences across careers. (I had a friend say the same thing about teacher conferences they’ve attended.) I think for me personally the networking isn’t worth the money and I get more fired up about my projects when among a small group of friends rather than a hotel filled with strangers.

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