How to Make the Most of a Conference

Dabney HedegardGuest Blogger: Dabney Hedegard (@dabneyland)

I’m not a writer, per se. I’m a speaker who learned the craft of writing and secured a contract by her second writers’ conference.

But intense work was involved; especially since I didn’t know how much longer I had to live.

Let me explain.

At age 36, my cardiologist predicated a heart transplant was in my future. Nothing ignited my inspiration like a failing organ.
I put a hot pink sticky beside my bed that read:

“If you had six months to live, what would you do with your life?”

Documenting my four near-death experiences was always the answer. And since writing made my throat constrict, I thought if I pitched my story at a conference to a publisher during a one-on-one meeting, surely they would purchase my memoir and pair me with an editor.

Only that didn’t happen.

But what I gathered at my first three-day conference changed my vision. A new plan emerged once I learned what publishing houses were looking for:

• standout writing
• a compelling story
• strong following/platform

For a new writer, conferences are the perfect place to hear firsthand from an editor if your vampire trilogy based in Amish country has a great storyline. We all want to know if our idea is sellable. That’s why these fifteen-minute appointments with editors and agents are worth the full ticket price.

Here’s the good news.

Most editors offer candid feedback. If they see raw talent, they’ll encourage you. They might think your memoir won’t sell because you’re not a celebrity, but the storyline is interesting enough for a YA novel, and you can run with it. And if they slip you their card and offer hints on what direction to rework your piece, then you have the perfect formula for your project.

The editors I met at my first conference told me my storyline intrigued them, but I needed to:

  • Improve my writing
  • Get published in magazines or newspapers (they wanted to know I was serious about the craft)
  • Develop my platform
  • Find an agent

A few said to dump the idea since inspirational memoirs typically don’t sell, but that simply primed my competitive spirit. I decided to let their opinions spur me to work even harder.

Not knowing how much time I had left, I immersed myself in following:

  • Attended two critique groups a month and reworked my piece based off of honest feedback
  • Enrolled in a writing course
  • Studied bestsellers in and outside of my genre. I wanted to know what sold — and why?
  • Read books and blogs and magazines on writing, every day
  • Picked up a volunteer-job-turned-paying-gig and was published in 20+ newspapers
  • Hired two different editors to rework my proposal
  • Started blogging
  • Prayed daily for guidance since my story really wasn’t mine

Two years and a second conference later, three publishing houses handed me their business cards. I contacted my top pick. And they didn’t want the proposal, but the full manuscript. Two weeks later I signed the contract, gained a nice advance, and a pretty swell agent.

Can I offer one more observation for encouragement? Sitting in the audience during both of my conferences, the emcee asked for first-time attendees to stand. 70% of the participants rose to their feet.

What’s my deduction? Most people who attend conferences are first-timers learning the craft of writing.

Which is wonderful.

But put yourself in the editor’s seat. After six hours of interviews, reading potentially mediocre work, who stands out? The 30%. The second and third and fifth-time attendees—they’ve done their homework and shown they’re serious about this profession.

A writers’ conference can open doors to your publishing dreams. Attend. Listen. Learn. Grow. Write like never before. Then return to the next event fully equipped, and increase your odds of publication.

Better yet. If you’re new to this scene, do the homework beforehand and be that standout newbie nobody sees coming. And if you need a little fire to get you motivated, I’ll even lend you my hot pink sticky and a disparaging comment to spur you towards success.

Have you found conferences to be beneficial? Why or why not?

Comment below or by clicking: HERE.

* * *

When God IntervenesDabney Hedegard is a writer, speaker and professional patient. Her memoir, When God Intervenes (Tyndale House Publishers, July 2013), is a fast-paced medical drama surrounded by miracles.

At twenty-five years old doctors discovered a football-sized tumor embedded in Dabney’s lungs. But the greater fear stealing her focus grew inches below the mass: a six-week-old baby. Her cancer and her decision to keep her child began her battle with nine life-threatening-illnesses, four of which were near-death experiences.

Dabney lives in South Florida with her husband and four children. She blogs at


“How to make the most of a conference.” Tips from @dabneyland. (Click to Tweet)

“Are writers’ conferences really beneficial?” @dabneyland shares. (Click to Tweet)

“Can a writers’ conference increase your odds of publication?” @dabneyland theorizes. (Click to Tweet)

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Carlos Santana on August 8, 2013 at 3:28 PM

    I find this advice from editors disingenuous at best, though I’m willing to accept that many of them swallow the Kool Aid because their jobs depend on it. A compelling story with good with good writing? Is that how Twilight got published? This is the reason any editor who isn’t in a coma will take a phone call from Nick Sparks or Dan Brown? Meanwhile nearly ever novel that eventually won a PEN/Faulkner or a Man Booker was rejected by every publisher s/he showed the work to, for years or decades. I’m not just citing outlying examples. Literally almost every one. Then they say get published in Newspapers or magazines first to establish a name. Well, I work in the newspaper field, and do you know what our first criteria is for a guest publication of any sort? That they already have to be a name–have a published book. There is one comment I think tells the truth, and that is that they must have an established fan base. That’s because their publicity departments don’t want to do any work themselves beyond choosing a cocktail at the local watering hole. These conferences are designed to do one thing–separate a wanna-be writer from his or her money–and they do it brilliantly. Name me one well-known, not to mention famous writer, who struck gold at a writer’s conference. Now ask me for famous writers whose spouses worked in the publicity departments of magazines owned by the same conglomerate as the publisher, or who was best friends in college with a board member of the communications company that now owns the publisher, and I can recite a fairly long list of names. Some of them have written great stuff too (Deborah Eisenberg, Joseph O’Neill) but don’t tell me they got published because stories about depressed types contemplating their miserable lives in rent-controlled apartments got some editor at Knopf excited over their “compelling” qualities.

  2. Elaine Jackson on July 27, 2013 at 5:49 AM

    Thanks for sharing your story, Dabney. I’m coming to the end of my first writing course, have enrolled on a Self-Editing one, and will attend my first writer’s conference in little over a month’s time. I have yet to join a writer’s circle in my area, but since I also work full time I have limited hours in which to write. It’s something I might look at later, though. Yes, writing every day is an absolute must – I’m a ‘ten minutes turns into an hour’ person too! Time ceases to exist when I’m writing…

    I have to say that sharing my work with others learning the craft has been an eye-opener and a marvelously helpful experience. I’ve made new friends, been able to help (I hope!) others in the same boat, and look forward to meeting some of those friends at the conference. I’ve been writing my story for about eighteen months now; it has undergone some radical revisions and I know that I probably have another year before it might be even close to being ready for publication (assuming I find an Agent of course) but I’m really enjoying the journey. These things cannot be rushed if you want to do the best by your creation.

    Best wishes to you,

  3. Bill Sweeney on July 26, 2013 at 1:52 PM

    Thank you for sharing this great advice, Dabney! BTW: I loved your book!

    • dabneyland on July 26, 2013 at 8:04 PM

      And I love, Bill! Keep blogging. Your message helps many of us hurting and searching for hope.


  4. Krista Phillips on July 26, 2013 at 12:03 PM

    Ohhhh, love this! And want to read your book– I’m a momma of a little 3 year old who has defied death at least 4 times herself and received that heart transplant at 8 months of age, so your story rings so very close to my heart!! My own writing journey ran concurrent with her heart journey… received a call from an editor the same day they gave us the blowing news that our child would die without a new heart… semi-finalled in a contest the day before we got the “call” that a heart was available… and was offered a contract just a week after she was finally out of the hospital after 10 long months. I’ve always said that God loved using Annabelle to keep my mind on the ground and perspective in place as to where the importance of publishing lied in the grand scheme of life. And yeah… conferences were definitely what set the ball rolling!!! Great post, and will be getting your book!!!

    • dabneyland on July 26, 2013 at 12:21 PM

      Wow! Wow! Wow! (I know, Rachelle just did a blog post about exclamation marks, but come on. This is amazing.) What an incredible journey you have been on. Your little girl is a walking miracle, and it sounds like God strengthened your faith during this difficult time. Thank you for sharing a piece of your story. You’ve blessed me today.

  5. Heather C Button on July 26, 2013 at 10:50 AM

    I’ve been debating attending conferences due to time and financial constraints, but I think it’s time I start to attend. Think next year will be the year though!

    • dabneyland on July 26, 2013 at 12:36 PM

      They price can be a deterrent for sure. I enrolled in the conferences months in advance and made monthly payments. This helped spread out the fee. Also, any money I received from paid articles I put towards the event, or I even asked family members that in lieu of a gift for the holidays, maybe they could contribute to my registration fee. Creativity is the key. I certainly did not have the funds (hello medical bills). But with prayer and ingenuity, all the funds came together. Finding a roommate (or 3) can also help to off-set the cost.

      Can you tell I highly recommend attending a conference? They changed my life.

      Good luck!

      • Heather C Button on July 26, 2013 at 12:54 PM

        In general, I am a conference junkie, especially for my day-job (architecture) where I need to maintain CE hours. That’s why I’m currently volunteering for a professional one in my city in September: free and feeds my addiction. They’re always so inspiring. But I really like the idea of asking for help in lieu of holiday gifts.

        • dabneyland on July 26, 2013 at 10:57 PM

          “Free and feeds my addiction” love that!

          Best of luck!

  6. Anita @ on July 26, 2013 at 10:10 AM

    I almost didn’t read this, Dabney; now really glad I did. The information you’ve given here (by the way, in a very personable and interesting tone), are suggestions that I’ve heard here and there over the years; however, reading your story resonated. Just goes to show that the advice you gave – doing things over and over and over – may some day lead to the that dream goal. Best wishes to you and your family and for your continued writing and speaking success.
    Thank you, Rachelle, for posting Dabney as your guest host.

    • dabneyland on July 26, 2013 at 12:56 PM

      Thanks for admitting you almost didn’t read this post. I love honest people (said in a non-weird way).

      You’re right. Doing things over and over (like writing everyday…which I’m sure you do because you sound rather smart) gets us a step closer to our goals. IMO, if you add your motivation behind the why you’re doing what your doing, you’ll get there faster. Promise. What’s your motivation to write? To be published? Financial gain? To form a platform for speaking? Because that story line for your book won’t leave you alone and you’re jotting notes down on the back of crumpled receipts at stop lights?

      Find your passion and feed it every morning by writing ten minutes a day. Do you have a critique group you attend? Attending a group was the game-changer for me. I knew I would have to show up with a chapter written and I didn’t want to look like a fool. I’d spend two weeks refining one chapter, knowing that the second it was my turn to publicly read, my voice would wobble. Since I was putting on a pretty good freak show, I at least wanted my words to make sense. I craved honest feedback. I wanted to know what was working with my piece and how I could clip the story along. I’m a get-to-the-point kinda gal. (Although you’d never know it by all the blathering I’m doing right now…geesh!)

      All of this to say, keep at it. Follow your dream. Write everyday for at least ten minutes. Ten minutes typically turned into an hour for me. I just needed to get started. I’m sure you’re already doing all of this.

      Thanks for posting.

  7. Connie Almony on July 26, 2013 at 9:53 AM

    Absolutely, Writer’s Conferences are beneficial! The people you meet–including the newbies on the same road with you–the stuff you learn, and the fun. I’ve learned so much from the small moments with various writers, agents and editors I’ve met at the ACFW Conference. I have lasting friendships who have been invaluable both personally and professionally. If someone wants to be a published writer, they MUST go to writer’s conferences.

    • dabneyland on July 26, 2013 at 12:59 PM

      I so enjoyed meeting aspiring authors. I was a nervous wreck at both conferences and the newbies (like me) and established writers kindly offered encouraging words and drugs–the over-the-counter kind. I was horribly sick at my last conference and in great need of a decongestant. But that’s another story for another day.

      You’re right. Conferences are a must.

  8. Beth K. Vogt on July 26, 2013 at 9:51 AM

    Motivating story, Dabney, with lots of practical advice. I especially like your reminder to work on getting published in magazines/newspapers while we’re writing our book manuscripts. This helps polish our writing, perfect our voice, and gives us something to show agents/editors when we show up at conferences — besides our book proposals.

    • dabneyland on July 26, 2013 at 1:01 PM

      I think that was the main reason a publisher even considered my work. This clips are so important to show you’re serious about the craft.