Monday, August 28, 2017

Inside Directing a Writers Conference

Editor's Note: So impressed by this article. This should be added to the Writing Conference Director's Bible. 

By: MB Partlow

Although many might think so, conference directing is not all tasting menus, telling people what to do, and sipping mimosas with the agents and editors.

I’ve worked on the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in various capacities for the past ten
years, with one turn in the hot seat in 2015 as its Conference Director.

What’s the secret to a successful turn directing a big, four-day conference without losing your nerve, your hair or your health? Pull up a chair and I’ll tell you the real inside secrets.

Surround yourself with good people. That doesn’t necessarily mean people who will agree with every idea you have, but rather people who will share your vision, make good decisions, rein you in when you get punchy, and are willing to admit when they need some help with a particular task. People who don’t freak out under pressure are a bonus. Treasure them.

That is not to say you need a conference committee made of your best friends, or full of people who are just like you. First, that would be boring. Second, and most important, if you’re all that much alike, you’re probably going to share all the same weak spots. You need people who can provide support in areas where you’re weak.   

A perfect example is social media. I know it’s important, but I also know very little about how to create it or manage it. So I found a couple of folks who knew what they were doing, and I listened to them. While I had veto power over, say, Facebook announcements, I didn’t exercise that by nit-picking. I made big picture suggestions and let them get their design on, because that was their strength.

Learn what the budget is, and what parts are flexible and which are not. Think long and hard about what’s important to you, and what’s going to be important to your attendees. All that swag in the conference bags? You have to pay for that. And for the bags themselves. Cute and kitschy doodads may look fun, and you may say $2.49 per item isn’t a lot, but multiply that by 350 people. Is it worth $871.50 of your swag budget?

Do. Not. Gossip. Not ever. Not about your conference committee, and certainly not about any of your faculty. You probably have a friend or a spouse who already listens to you vent, so they can probably handle a little more. While everyone should feel free to come to you, as director, to vent, it should all roll uphill. Disseminate vital information, but keep it professional.


That word, professional. You can’t go wrong with approaching everyone from the guy bussing the tables in the banquet room to the keynote speaker (and everyone in between) in a professional manner. Be friendly, and be yourself, but remember that you are setting the standard for attendees and committee members. Oy, it’s like parenting that way. You may need to lower your snark and/or sarcasm volume, which is really difficult for some of us.

The director bears the ultimate responsibility for the conference, and that includes the inevitable mistakes. No, you can’t throw a committee member under the bus. A conference director has to be able to apologize sincerely, and then move on. This is one thing I learned as director that has served me well in regular life. When you’ve wronged someone, apologize and mean it. Do what will make it right, then keep moving forward. No need for prolonged hand-wringing or self-flagellation. We’re all human.  


Keep all the lines of communication open. Be honest with your people, and provide as many details as you can, whenever you can. And for crying out loud, if you don’t know the answer, admit it and then find the answer. Your people want the conference to be as successful as you do, and they don’t need a load of baloney. Treat them like responsible, professional adults, or (gasp) the way you would like to be treated.


Enjoy the ride. A lot of people are putting a lot of time and energy into this project right along with you, and hopefully you’ll be buoyed and inspired by the energy around you. No mistake, this job is hard work and requires a lot of time and attention to detail, but putting it together and pulling it off is a rush.

Last but certainly not least, thank and praise all those people helping you. When someone congratulates you on a great conference (something we all hope for), your first response had better be, “I couldn’t have done it without my conference volunteers. They worked their butts off for this and did a fabulous job.” Because everyone I’ve worked with at conference? Does work hard. Does deserve more praise. And made being Conference Director one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

About the Author: MB Partlow tries to inject her off-center sense of humor into everything she does. She writes mostly in the speculative fiction world, with forays into mystery and women’s fiction. Her first paid writing gig was for the A&E department of The Independent. She’s also written a parenting column for Pikes Peak Parent and spent years writing restaurant reviews for the Indpendent and The Gazette. She’s a longtime volunteer for PPW, having done everything from stacking chairs to Conference Director to serving on the board. She reads voraciously across genres, and thinks making up stories for a living is the greatest job in the world.