In praise of small conferences

Big conferences provide excellent opportunities for brush-with-greatness stories. Sitting behind that famous agent, saying hello to a dream editor, sharing an elevator and small talk with a big-name author: these are certainly moments to remember.

Small conferences offer more than moments.

In 2009, I attended my first little gathering and ended up having a long chat with Lin Oliver, one of the two founders of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).  She listened while I awkwardly described my book and then assured me I belonged. Remembering that conversation still brings tears to my eyes.  It would have been a thrill just to hear her speak.  At the local gathering, she changed the trajectory of my career.

The next fall, I traveled to Utah for the SCBWI conference in Salt Lake City.  Not only did I have wonderful conversations with Laurent Linn, Elizabeth Law, and Royce Buckingham, but I also attended my first workshop with Terri Farley, an author I now count among my writing friends.

You're seeing the pattern, yeah?

At bigger conferences, I've been thrilled to see wonderful authors across the room.  At these smaller events, we talk.

A couple years ago I talked with Chris Crutcher at a local conference in Boise.  This last winter he was keynote speaker for the big SCBWI conference in New York.

That same year in Boise, I met Kelly Milner Halls, Jill Corcoran, and Cheryl Klein.

Does it seem like I'm name dropping?  Because it should. There may not be a surplus of big names at each conference, but the quality of time spent with each guest and the cumulative effect over time?  Wow.  Just wow.

Last weekend, I attended at my 4th local SCBWI conference and my teenage daughter attended her first.

We learned so much from Alane Ferguson's workshop and from talks given by Gloria Skurzynski (Alane's uber-talented mom) and Matthew Kirby (who looks like Alane's son, but we're assured the Edgar-nominated author is not). We talked with Kate Kae Myers and Sarah Tregay. We sat at a table with Kate Testerman, Amy Cook, Miriam Forster, and maybe the most important person there:  Neysa Jensen, the new Regional Advisor for the Utah-Idaho Region of SCBWI.  Together with Sydney Salter, Neysa has been instrumental in bringing all these iconic authors, agents, and editors within driving distance of my Idaho home.

If you write for kids or young adults, you owe it to yourself to find out what's happening in your SCBWI region.  If you write romance, find out what Romance Writers of America has to offer in your region.  If you write mysteries, check out Mystery Writers of America.  Whatever your genre, there's probably a professional organization that's right for you---and they just may have a conference coming up in your area. You should go!


  1. Every time I read about these conferences and Neysa's work in helping pull them off, I consider attending the conference. I don't, of course, as I'm not sure I've a smattering of skill in terms of more youthful readers. I am, however, reminded of what a talented group we have here in Idaho. Thank you Johanna and Neysa!

  2. I agree networking offers a wealth of moments. Very inspirational.

  3. Conferences are wonderful - great ways to meet other like minded souls and come away rejuvenated and inspired.

  4. Neysa is remarkable! It was a pleasure to share the day with you and all the members of the Utah-Idaho Region of the SCBWI. Attending is the one sure way or reminding ourselves, we all started at the beginning and we can all work our way to the top, if we work hard to learn from people who've made their way down the path. We're in this together, and the regional conferences help us all feel a little less alone.

  5. Great article, Johanna. I've loved the conference I've attended. I learned so much and met many new friends.

  6. great post , Johanna ... it gives me a different perspective of what smaller conferences can offer. Also, it's good for those wanting to get their "sea legs" as it were. Thanks :)

  7. Made me smile to read about all the SCBWI group has done for you. I have especially enjoyed when the CBC group had some day conferences in the past. Thanks.

  8. I was able to attend the SCBWI conference here in Boise last year, and loved it. I sat down at my table to eat lunch...and then realized that the agent-guest was a seat down from me. She didn't represent what I was writing, but I very much enjoyed getting to chat with an agent as a person, outside the business/query letter scenario.

  9. It was so awesome to meet you! And the conference was great. :)

  10. Clarissa SouthwickMay 2, 2012 at 8:48 AM

    Great advice, Johanna. I haven't been to a local conference in a while. I guess I should start looking :)


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