14 Takeaways from the Chicago Writers Conference

Chicago Writers Conference

On a rainy Saturday many years ago, I crept into the ballroom at a hotel in the Chicago suburbs where romance writers from all over had gathered to network and learn.

I wasn’t a romance writer. I was a closeted writer. I perched one cheek on the upholstered chair, ready to bolt if someone asked for my identification card.

My terror level was so high that my takeaways were few: 1. I was told repeatedly that my name would be great for a romance writer. 2. There was electricity and camaraderie oozing out of the tote bags and participants.

Last weekend, I attended the Chicago Writers Conference. Here are my top takeaways whether you’re just beginning and not sure what to expect; or whether you’re a pro who’s curious about this particular event:

 #1    Register early and sign up for any newsletters/updates

Got the early bird discount but didn’t understand how signing up for small sessions and other events worked.

Read everything. Follow on social media. Do pre-work.

 #2    Go to as many small sessions/intensives as possible

Most of the large general sessions were geared to the basics with explanations for standard terms, craft tips, etc.

The intensives and small sessions covered topics more in depth and allowed for information sharing, and connection between all the participants.

 #3    Beware absolutes

Experts shower you with do’s and don’ts for eight hours a day. Remember that in writing as in many other creative pursuits (or any pursuit), don’t get paralyzed by rules.

Trust yourself.

 #4    Go to panel discussions when offered

These are often shaped by audience questions and it’s useful to get as many viewpoints as possible from multiple panelists.

 #5    Follow the agents/publishers

Not literally. Like, not to the bathroom and stuff. Leave them alone there. Go listen to them speak.

They’re looking for good work. They’re direct. They’re specific. They’re not unkind. You will learn a lot.

Author Karen Abbott reading at the Chicago Writers Conference

Karen Abbott reading from her NY Times Bestseller “Sin in the Second City”

 #6    Go to at least one social event

By far, meeting other writers is the most energizing and positive outcome of a great conference.

The cocktail parties or dinners are the most relaxed environment for this. You will be tired. Your feet will hurt. Go anyway.

 #7    Bring business cards.

 #8    Don’t panic if you don’t have business cards. (You do have a  smart-phone, right?)

 #9    Dress professionally but comfortably.

#10    Volunteers run the show

Treat them well. Thank them. Ask them questions. Things will not go perfectly. Microphones will short out. Rooms will be too hot/too cold. Handouts will go missing.

Be patient. Be nice.

#11    Respect the authors and speakers

Remember they’re people. NY Times Bestselling authors get thirsty. They like to sell books. They’ve achieved and may or may not be getting paid for speaking.

Let them pee in peace. But do strike up a conversation elsewhere. Be curious. Be courteous.

#12    Writers are the nicest people

Numerous opportunities to help or receive help will pop up. Be alert. Recognize them. Do not squander them. Do not hoard them.

#13    Get out of your comfort zone

CWC encouraged writers to pitch to agents even if they weren’t 100% ready. DO IT!! If a different conference encourages you to be 100% ready, listen to them.

Make space at your lunch table for others you do not know. Offer someone a beverage, or an apple, or some cashews.

#14    Follow up with EVERYONE about EVERYTHING 

Pass on information to new writers you meet. Help someone. Use what you learned.


CWC was well-organized and featured professionals at the top of their craft including renowned authors Rebecca Makkai and Karen Abbott.

It was a total-immersion weekend for me. I deepened connections with writers from my small circle. I added writers to my circle. I pitched (successfully!), I learned, I cramped (there’s a lot of sitting).

Each conference will have its own vibe, protocol, successes and challenges. The best advice I’ve received and practiced is to go open to receive and willing to share.

Favorite quote from speaker: “Follow your ‘nah’ “

What feels like “nah, that’s probably not for me” is where you should be. Try something new.

Update: Speaker was Mare Swallow – Founder of the conference!

Favorite quote from a fellow writer: “No, you have. Yes, you get.”

By not doing anything, you’ve got a “no.”  Take a risk, you might get a “yes.”

Update: fellow writer was Maija Rothenberg (we met at a Ragdale retreat – fabulous!) Check out her writing here.







8 Thoughts on “14 Takeaways from the Chicago Writers Conference

  1. Great take-aways Suzanne…posting to my FB page 🙂

  2. Suzanne – Thanks for this great post. We’ll do a better job of explaining how to sign up for sessions in the future. And the “speaker” you’re thinking of is Mare Swallow. 😉
    Cheers, and Happy Writing.

  3. Amanda Claire Buckley on October 13, 2015 at 1:08 pm said:

    Love this post! Look for it to be featured in our upcoming newsletter!

  4. Mary Balice Nelligan on October 14, 2015 at 12:36 pm said:

    “No you have. Yes you get.” What a great quote! Wish I had said it. Thank you for this excellent recap! Meeting you in person was one of many highlights of this year’s CWC. A great event all around. I look forward to being in your “writers’ circle” for many years to come.

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