Conference Insider: SDSU Writers’ Conference

Choose from craft talks, career insights, or publishing advice – both traditional and indie – at this decades-old conference in San Diego.

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SDSU Writers' Conference
R.L. Stine delights conference attendees during his keynote address at SDSU Writers’ Conference.

San Diego State University Writers’ Conference director Erin Quinn starts her invitation letters to potential speakers for the three-day January event in this way: It’s likely to be 70 degrees, with sunny skies when everyone else is under snow.

But the weather isn’t the only star attraction at this 30-year-old conference held at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel San Diego Mission Valley, with its palm-tree lined swimming pool and cozy patio seating area lit at night by sparkling lights and fire pits. Top agents and editors read manuscript pages ahead of time, the better to participate in informed discussions with writers. Professional and emerging authors enjoy three days of presentations and breakout sessions, networking mixers, and inspiring keynote speakers.

“The conference opens your eyes to so many possibilities, to questions you didn’t even know you were asking yourself, and you’ll often find the answers here,” Quinn says. “On their evaluation forms, participants say that it’s a life-changing experience.”

SDSU Writers' Conference
Participants network at the SDSU Writers’ Conference.

What you’ll learn

Conference staff stays current with publishing and writing trends. Traditionally, the event focused on the business of writing, but – as Quinn notes – publishing has changed dramatically over the past five years. “Getting published is no longer the hard part, though getting traditionally published might be,” she says. “We want to offer a holistic view of what it’s like to be a writer, right now, in all its glory and dirt.”

To that end, staff offers four tracks. A traditional publishing track gives writers information on how to craft a “breakout” book, whether fiction or nonfiction. A do-it-yourself track helps writers demystify independent publishing. A career track offers an insider’s perspective on the professional author’s life, and a craft track offers courses on how to structure a book. “How do you get theme into your story? What are the elements in a Pulitzer Prize winner? We take a deep dive into these questions,” Quinn says.

Pitch sessions allow participants to talk with editors and agents about their creative projects; many writers have signed with agents at this conference, including Los Angeles Times best-selling author Neal Griffin and Marjorie Hart, who attended the conference in her 80s and pitched a memoir manuscript based on her experience of working at Tiffany jewelry store during World War II. Directly after the conference, an editor bought her book, Summer at Tiffany, which was published in 2010.

Featured presenters

Each year, SDSU’s conference hosts top agents and editors in the industry, as well as best-selling authors. Past keynote speakers have included novelist and short story writer R.L. Stine, urban fantasy and paranormal romance author Sherrilyn Kenyon, suspense author and editor Jonathan Maberry, and mystery author J.A. Jance.

On the last night of the conference, agents and editors sit at specific tables during a reception so that participants can move through the room and visit different tables and talk in an informal setting. “One of the things we pride ourselves on is making arrangements for faculty and staff to be able to mingle and have casual conversations on top of the more nerve-wracking pitch sessions,” Quinn says.

Advice for first-timers

Many writers are introverts, Quinn notes, but conferences require them to step out of their comfort zone and network. This, she adds, requires some attendees to learn how to think of themselves as writers.

“Some will qualify their work when they introduce themselves at the conference,” she explains. “They’ll say, ‘I write, but I’m not published yet.’ Stop making that the marker. Anyone who can upload a document can publish now. Learn to think of yourself as a writer and know what that means to you.”

Participants sit according to genre at a networking luncheon, so that they can meet people with similar interests. “Writing is such a solitary existence,” Quinn says. “If you don’t have a network, you could go nuts. Creating that network with people beside you at the conference is critical to your career. Come out of your introvert shell and put yourself out there and start meeting people,” she concludes.

Not such a daunting proposition – even for confirmed introverts – when they’re sitting poolside in January under sunny skies.

 

Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and Better with Books: Diverse Fiction to Open Minds and Ignite Empathy in Children (Sasquatch, 2019). melissahart.com