The Virtual Conference…Great, Good & So-So

Last weekend, I attended my first virtual writers’ conference. Originally, the conference was scheduled to take place last April, until Ms. Corona came to town. This particular conference takes place every other year and this would have been my third trip to join my fellow romance writers in Chicago. So, attending the on-line version excited me. After a long three-day event, I have my sentiments about on-line conferences and hope that next year, romance writers will be meeting up again in person.

The Great

Instead of cancelling the conference, the organizers regrouped and planned the conference for writers to gather on-line using the platform, Accelevent. Most of the basic structures of the in-person conference remained in place and were simply transferred into an on-line format. The two keynote speakers stayed on board for the virtual event. The original line-up of agents and editors remained in place. There were multiple choices for workshops in each time block. There was a book sale, an auction and keeping with tradition, a dance party. All the good stuff for writers itching to escape from their day-to-day writing routine.

Going to an on-line format has plenty of advantages. The cost for writers is reduced significantly. Almost keeping in line with a writers’ true budget: slim to none. Travel, hotel, and food expenses have all been kicked to the curb. What a win! There’s an added bonus, since every workshop is recorded, if you attend one, you won’t miss out on the other great choice offered at the same time. You can go back and watch it later. And of course, the highlight of any romance writers conference, pitching to a professional is included in your registration fee. On-line, using Zoom, there were multiple time slots for writers to pitch their stories. The DJ turning the tunes on Friday night offered a fantastic selection of dance-worthy music.

The Good

Here’s the rub. As writers we crave human contact. Swapping ideas and sharing cocktails with other writers. A conference is a comfortable social gathering for writers, who most often root for Team Introvert. Sitting beside another writer in a workshop, we’re bound to make a new friend.

While waiting for your pitch, everyone around you is cheering for you and giving you a pep-talk. “You’re great. Your story is wonderful. You’ll knock off their socks in there!”

shallow focus photo of woman using game boy

In between workshops, strolling the hallways it’s inevitable that you’ll run into the author of the book you just finished reading.

The fan-girl moment is priceless.

Virtual disconnects us. It’s odd, we’re connected with our computers, but we are so disconnected. The lines of text in the chat bar feel hollow. We are putting more words out there and yet, again, the worst part of writing is never knowing who is reading it and if it resonates with them. The workshops are full of information, but so much is going into our heads it’s hard to keep it organized. Alone in front of a screen and the info overload, there’s no one around to share it with and to cast off a few of the extra “info” pounds.  

The So-So

As much as an in-person conference can be exhausting, a virtual conference can be draining and down-right grueling. Sure, we can wake up, stay in our pajamas, and roll in front of our computers to join the 1st workshop.


Except, then the dog needs to go out, or the kid has a question or there’s strange noise coming from the other side of the house and seconds later there’s an urgent-sounding knock on your office door. When you get back to listening to the presentation on your computer, the speaker is saying, “…and that’s what I really want you to take away from this workshop.”

Wait! What? I missed it! It seems as if when you’re alone and in front of your computer there are more distractions around the house than you ever dreamed. Goodness! Worse, you’re lulled into thinking there’s nothing to worry about, you can just watch the recorded presentation. So, you give up and do something else while waiting for the next workshop. Great, the workshop on dialogue is going without a hitch. You write down all your notes. That 1st workshop? Long gone. A bit tired, really hungry and a need for a break. The recorded workshop gets shoved off the to- do list as the virtual conference keeps moving forward.

Overall, an on-line conference is a fantastic opportunity to sharpen your writing craft, advance your marketing prowess and the most pertinent, dive into your social media and tech skills. An on-line conference parallels perfectly with the extensive information for social media platforms. Assuredly, romance writers will head into 2021 with a lot more knowledge about their craft thanks to on-line conferences. Here’s hoping that we can finally meet up, talk, and bond over all our newfound writing info, in person.  

Attending On-Line Writing Conferences

Last January, my critique partner and I had booked a train ride to Chicago to attend a writing conference. We looked forward to sitting back, relaxing and meeting all our writing pals. Then it was cancelled. In fact, all the conferences I had signed up for were cancelled. Some organizers tried to reschedule, but ultimately gave up.

The year 2020 wouldn’t work for gathering writers together. What a disappointment. In-person writing conferences are such a treat.

But conference coordinators kept dreams alive and started transforming in-person conferences into on-line experiences. I applaud all the hard work of the organizers. The hurdles they had to jump must have been high. So, thank you. Now I’m able to see writing buddies on my computer.

“I stumbled over my first 2020 virtual conference. Whether it was a blurb on FB or IG, I don’t remember, but what incredible luck! Thank you, Dana Kaye!”

It was a day-long series of speakers organized by publicity specialist, Dana Kaye. She pulled together a rockstar line-up that made me stop scrolling. Dana had scheduled five publishing professionals: an agent, an author website designer, a publishing expert, and an Instagram guru. Dana used Crowdcast as the platform.

Each presenter spoke for approximately 40 to 60 minutes long while Dana moderated with questions. On Crowdcast, registered attendees are not on camera and can comfortably watch the moderator and speaker engage on a split screen. Questions can be typed into a tab on the bottom of the screen and comments can be submitted during the presentation. Answers and responses to the questions are discussed at the end of the speaker’s presentation.

In between speakers, attendees take a short break and are able to digest all the information just fed to them. As well, Dana made sure to incorporate an integration session. Attendees had the opportunity to talk about points of interest. Dana encouraged us to develop an action plan to stay motivated after the conference had ended.

Dana Kaye’s conference kicked off at 9am, broke for a half-hour lunch, and ended at 4pm. This format introduced me to a fantastic and easy-going conference atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, by the end of the day I was exhausted. The amount of quality information that was provided by the publishing professionals was intense, but throughout the day we were able to digest and discuss.

For me this year, the wealth of knowledge gained at on-line workshops/conferences has been a fantastic learning opportunity. Escaping from my writing routine for a day or two has been enjoyable. The key, I believe, to a positive on-line experience is having a knowledgeable moderator.

Every Successful On-Line Conference Has to Have a Moderator

Moderators Are Necessary Because—

Someone needs to take the lead in the virtual world. There are a lot of pot holes on the inter-galactic highway. Someone needs to explain about all the gadgets and buttons, so we know where and how to fix any technical glitches.

Nimble Moderators Work Best—

When one interweb stumbles, another one races forward. Tripping and dodging during presentations, is inevitable in the virtual world. When one speaker has technical challenges, the moderator can hop around and direct viewers to another topic or answer questions until the presenter is back in action.

Moderators Care about Information Overload—

If there is too much one-way interaction or worse, no interaction, fatigue and boredom set in fast. Good moderators try to gauge the audience in the virtual world and attempt to keep them engaged. They ask questions, create a poll, or drum up a quick contest to win a prize. Sitting behind a screen for an extended period of time can be overwhelming. Conferences, once fraught with too much action, have a new challenge—connecting without face time or one-on-one dialogue or they risk having the audience turn into sloths! Moderators can, and must, keep the virtual world, real.   

The Call

There’s a rumor that floats around in the world of writers about the publishing business. It references some kind of a phone call. In whispers among word slingers they talk about the moment when an agent reads your manuscript, loves it, and then wants to represent you and your work. It’s the call of the wild from the publishing world.

The Query

It’s a heady concept to take in if you’ve been in the query trenches. Most authors, whose books are lining public and private library shelves, spent years in the trenches before finding an agent. Did you know that Debbie Macomber spent five years in the query trenches?    

What and Where Are Query Trenches?

To explain, most writers dream of getting published in the traditional way. This is when one of the Big 5 publishing houses gives a writer a high five and crushes on their manuscript.

Like when the teacher in A Christmas Story…gives Ralphie an A+++++ on his report.

But in order for writers who yearn to see their beautiful book baby in the hands of beloved readers by a publishing house, they have to dig down and enter the query trenches and land a literary agent.

Here are some pivotal steps that writers need to accomplish in order to find an agent who is a good match for their work:

Step A:

Finish the Darn Book – Easier Said than Done – Get to The End

Step B:

Write a query. What’s a query? It’s takes all your 80-90 thousand words that are in your manuscript and synthesizes them down to 250 to 300 words about your story. A short version. Like what you find on the back cover of your favorite read at the library.

Step C:

Write a synopsis for your wonderful story. Again, you take your manuscript and pare it down to 900 words. Sure, you get a few more words, but they have to be composed with your story’s beginning, middle and end in mind.

Step D:

Do your research. You know your story is fantastic, but not everyone likes to read about how Tinkerbell and the Hulk met and fell in love at the barn dance on Fantasy Island. So, look for an agent who adores barn dances and ogles over the Hulk. It will be a better fit than an agent looking to pitch a story about Peter Pan. Make a list of your dream agents and open a spread sheet.

Step E:

Follow the directions and read the agency guidelines. One page in the email really means one page in the email. Not an attachment.

Step F:

Read the guidelines and follow the agency directions. No attachments mean no attachments. Then hit send.

Step G:

Stare at your inbox? Check your messages hourly? Nope. Start working on your next story idea. Give in to your muse. Ignore your email messages. The publishing business operates at a pace of a glacier. Agents are busy with their established clients. Don’t expect to hear immediate responses. Just keep writing.


It may take a year, maybe two or three or more to get an agent to notice you. Hey, remember it was five years for Debbie Macomber! But while you’re waiting, you’re writing. You’re critiquing. You are becoming a better word slinger. So, when the day comes, and an agent contacts you about your manuscript and wants to talk to you about it on the phone…you are ready!


Tips to Keep in Mind from the Beginning

~Start Planning Early~

Get your planner out and look at the the next eighteen to twenty-four months. Your ideal location may not be available until two years in the future. Seems like a long time, but the decisions that are developed in the early stages will help to keep the conference plans cruising along smoothly.     

~Hand Pick A Mighty Team of Coordinators~

Four to six people is a good amount. If you have four people plus the lead organizer you’re good as gold. Remember to recruit volunteers who can commit to the hours involved. In the initial planning phases, the time commitment is small. Closing in on the date of the conference, each team member should be able to clock in a steady increase of hours until the big show kicks off.

~Get Creative & Invent a Theme~

This is the fun part. Brainstorm visions and themes for the conference. Celebration? Academic? Both? Collaborate with your team to create a vision and a mission statement for the conference. When the planning comes up against a bump or two or three, this fun stuff smooths them all out!

~The Plan-A Wish List~

Gather together, share a cocktail and write out all of your ideas for presenters. Who are your dream agents? What authors do you want to meet? Are there any editors who have worked with a writer you know? Are there speakers who you fan-girl over? Write them all down. Go over the top and dream big!

Every Planning Committee Needs an

~Amy Santiago~

Binders rock. There are plans, categories, sections, tasks and time tables. Find out who wants to do what for the next 18 months to two years. Ex: A planner who loves social media may not know how much writing is involved in this type of promotion. Bonus: There is a color tab for every single one of your sections.

  ~Money Makes the World Go Around and Makes a Conference Move Forward~

What is the budget? In many ways, planning a conference is like planning a wedding. There are down payments and expenses at every level of planning. Make sure to have a spread sheet lover on the team! Knowing what to expect when it comes to the dollars will be a huge stress reducer.


Ready for the Reveal?

Writing Conferences Are Getting a Makeover

In January 2020, quite a few weekends were blocked out on my calendar for writing conferences. During February, one-by-one, each conference was put on hold or cancelled. I was terribly disappointed. And, I had used a pen to mark my conference itinerary on my calendar.

The Lesson Learned? Remember to use a pencil.

As a contemporary romance writer, I have always believed in the strength that comes from writing a story with a good Happily Ever After. So, I turned my conference dismay into action by writing every day. On some days it was truly hard to concentrate, but my belief in the fact that we will get through this stressful time circled me back to the important stuff…keep writing stories.

So, I waited and remembered. There is so much information to be gained at a writers’ conference. Hobnobbing with other writers is close to nirvana for me. Be patient. Your pitch is ready. The story is finished. Will the agents still be there? Onward.

For any writer, an annual conference is a gathering of writer-like-minds. It’s where writers find their comfort zone by sharing with other—grammar geeks, book junkies, story-structure debaters: plotters versus pantsers, or lovers of sentence diagrams. We compare stories. The publishing world can be brutal, so it’s nice to meet others for support and motivation.  

Writers can’t succeed in a vacuum, so conferences are a necessity. We need to explore new places for creativity and talk to other writers for inspiration. It’s hard, almost tortuous at times, to write. Alone at your computer for hours can make a writer wonder if THE END is actually coming and even if it is, is it worth it? After all the hours, days and weeks spent on a story, writers need to talk to other writers to gain some perspective and to know that they are not really alone.

That’s when a writing conference becomes imperative for a writer’s well-being. Even if you’re on the same path as James Patterson or Nora Roberts, conferences continue to offer loads of fantastic information and good vibes for writers at any stage in their career.   

The Wait is Finally Over…

The conference scene has started to evolve to accommodate the pandemic. Most organizations have rescheduled their conferences into a virtual format. So now what?

True, we just saved beaucoup bucks on travel, hotel, and food expenses. Not to mention the last-minute wardrobe purchases. But even if you’ve navigated an in-person conference somewhat successfully (lost luggage, anyone?), how do we work the “virtual” room? 

There are definite plusses to a virtual conference: casual dress if not pajamas, yes or no to make-up, and bathroom lines don’t exist. Yet, it’s still best to plan ahead because of the hefty amount of information doled out at any writers’ conference: virtual or in-person.

Even by attending on-line workshops, writers can walk away from the screen, go into the kitchen, and still feel overwhelmed. As if a fire hose has just been turned on in their mouth…which happens often at in-person conferences.

To get the most from a virtual writing conference (and someday, in-person) let me help you plan and organize if you’re in the role of participant, presenter, or coordinator. I have first-hand knowledge from planning a successful writing conference. Having traveled to a multitude of writing conferences, I’ve gained critical info at each one that has helped me in my writing journey. If you’re a participant, I can give you tips so that by the end of the conference you’re inspired and motivated to implement all your newfound writing knowledge. If you’re a planner, I can give you some guidance and share my hard-learned lessons on organizing a successful conference.

Every week I’ll be here, blogging and sharing what’s happening at writing conferences in 2020.

Tip #1: Remember that conferences are critical for every author’s career.

Oh, and please jot your notes down with a pencil.