There are three types of writers’ conferences:
Retreats, where you as the writer have personal time with successful, seasoned, professional authors who are experts in particular fields, who coach you on how to write. These are usually small affairs set in inspirational environments designed to put you at ease and let your thoughts flow without jarring interruptions that you get in your daily life. (Hence: “retreat.”)
There are amalgam retreats that are something of a cross between retreats and conferences wherein there are editors and agents as part of the deal, standing by to take a look at your novel once the teachers have taught you how to write your opening chapter or query letter, depending on various qualifications.
The second are the conferences for particular genres, sci-fi, romance, Christian writing, for instance. These are generally giant affairs with major authors, major agents, and major editors from the biggest houses attending.
The third category are the general conferences put on by writers’ organizations that take place all over the country that try to cover every writer’s need from fiction, to non-fiction trade and non-fiction technical/science. These, too, try to find/book the best of the best agents, editors, and authors to speak to and hold workshops with the attendees.
The biggest difference between the genre conferences and general conferences is that the organizers might tend to fill the general conferences with agents, editors, and authors more for their regional fame than for national fame, though certainly not always.
Otherwise, they are the same in purpose: to offer an opportunity to their attendee writers to meet and “sell” their manuscripts to agents and editors. These conferences have slowly come to replace the old manuscript submission-by-mail queries. (As has email, for that matter.)
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