Gorgeous beaches. Stunning mountain trails. Legendary taquerias and farmers markets and elegant outdoor shopping plazas…Santa Barbara, California, has it all, and attendees at the city’s annual writers’ conference in June enjoy six days of exploration both in- and outside the classroom.
The conference, founded in 1972, offers workshops and panels and evening keynotes by prestigious authors, plus manuscript consultations and agent meetings and a poolside cocktail reception. It’s a small conference, with just 200 attendees, and director Grace Rachow watches deep friendships form year after year.
“There’s a real sense of family at this conference,” Rachow says. “Whether you’ve sold a million books, or you’re just beginning and have scratched out a few things on a cocktail napkin, everyone takes off their status. If you’re wise and you know something, you’re there to help someone else, and if you’re there to learn, you understand that it’s mutually beneficial.”
What you’ll learn
Participants may opt to study literary or genre fiction, memoir and creative nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, travel writing, and promotion. Daily panel discussions include topics such as building an author platform, working with literary agents, and trends across genres. Many faculty members return year after year. One of these is John Reed, whose newest book is a sci-fi novel titled Mountain of Ashes. He runs one of the Pirate Workshops, a read-and-critique session each night of the conference.
“I’ve been teaching at the SBWC for more than 10 years, and I love it,” Reed says. “It’s my favorite conference because it focuses on helping writers polish their craft and develop their full potential. You’ll rub elbows with professional writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, all dedicated to nurturing student writers.”
Morning workshops in 2019 included “7 Deadly Sins of Novel Writing,” “Dramatic Fiction/Screenwriting,” “Submitting to Literary Magazines,” and an experiential workshop on the right-brain experience designed to inspire your creativity. Afternoon workshops included “Finding Your Voice in Memoir” and “Story Structure for All Genres,” as well as classes in humor writing and how to write a query letter.
“We used to be 100% craft. If you learned how to be a good writer, then you could go out in the world,” Rachow says. “Now, you have to be a good writer and promoter and have a platform and know social media. We have a lot of emphasis on that in our workshops, but we don’t neglect craft.”
During the day at the conference, participants can take a variety of workshops with faculty members who – in 2019 – included writer/producer Walter Halsey Davis, who taught screenwriting for novelists, authors Jervey Tervalon and Ginger Swanson teaching creative nonfiction and memoir, and Perie Longo, who offered instruction and moderated workshops in poetry.
Participants can meet with, and learn from, numerous literary agents at the conference – among them, Liz Parker from Verve Talent and Literary, Eric Myers from Myers Literary Management, and Mary C. Moore from Kimberley Cameron & Associates.
Evening speakers in 2019 included award-winning novelists Lisa See, Steph Post, Stephen Markley, and Taylor Jenkins Reid. Jeffery C. Stewart, National Book Award winner for the nonfiction book The New Negro, spoke in 2019. “We have quite a legacy of literati who’ve taught at Santa Barbara Writers Conference,” says Rachow. “But no matter who they were, they were always willing to sit down and talk with beginning writers.”
Advice for first-time attendees
If you live near Santa Barbara, or you’re visiting and unsure of whether you want to commit to the entire six-day conference, you can attend a single panel or listen to one of the featured speakers for $15 at the door.
Those who do register for the full conference may send in 10 pages of a polished manuscript by mail. Staff match participants with a manuscript consultant – an author who also teaches writing or works as a professional editor – who meets in person to offer advice on craft issues and make suggestions for where to submit a final draft of a story.
The price of manuscript consultations with faculty authors is included in the registration fee. Those who want to make a paid appointment with an agent – or several – should register for the conference early and send the first five pages of a manuscript. Participants receive their agent consultation schedules upon check in.
Along with an anticipation of the stunning Santa Barbara scenery, Rachow believes the number one thing participants can bring with them is an open mind. “This conference welcomes people at any stage in their career,” she says. “It’s not just about workshops and panels. It’s about the connections you make and the relationships you establish that help you take your writing to the place you want to be.”
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). melissahart.com