I was told by several members of my chapter that Moonlight and Magnolias, a conference held near Atlanta, GA, was a great first romance writers' conference to attend.
I have to say, I whole-heartedly agree.
The Georgia Romance Writers (GRW) subchapter of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) hosts the Moonlight and Magnolias conference every year. This year, the conference was held in the Decatur Hotel and Conference Center in Decatur, GA (a suburb of Atlanta, pronounced "Deck-ae-tur"). If romance is not your genre, I would skip it, because it is targeted for romance writers. Many of the workshops would still be applicable for other genres, but you wouldn't get the full benefit.
The conference offered a number of writing panels, such as Writing Between the Genders for writing convincing characters of either sex, Killer Romance: Creating Romantic Thrillers for dissecting the elements of a romantic thriller, and Worldbuilding for your Werewolf, Duke, or smalltown Doctor for creating in-depth worlds appropriate to various characters. There were also craft panels, such as a Pitch Workshop to help writers hone their pitches before pitching to an agent, a first-five-page critique for writers to critique each others' first five pages, Software Programs for Writers, and a couple of marketing panels for both self-published and self-marketing authors.
Also attending the conference were several agents and editors from various agencies and publishing houses. These agents and editors come in part for the purpose of recruitment: writers can sign up for the chance to pitch a work to them, and have seven minutes to describe their story and catch the agent's interest. Both published and unpublished writers will sign up for these sessions. (It's not uncommon for an agent to not sell every genre a writer writes, or for a writer to seek a new agent if she doesn't mesh well with her current one.)
When registering, you have the option to indicate on your badge whether or not this is your first time attending Moonlight and Magnolias. I highly recommend doing so if it is your first. Everyone in the GRW is very friendly, and they make sure to welcome you and to be extra helpful if they notice that it's your first. And I mean 'nice' in the "incredibly helpful, ask if you're enjoying yourself, give directions at the drop of a hat, know what they're doing and are more than willing to help' form of 'nice.'
I heard mention that the Moonlight and Magnolias conference was also one of the agents' and editors' favorites, and given the number of lead agents, I believe it. This year, in attendance were the distinguished agents Nancy Knight (Sullivan-Maxx Literary Agency and member of GRW), Diedre Knight (the Knight Agency), Michelle Grajkowski (3 Seas Literary Agency), Laura Bradford (the Bradford Literary Agency), and Jessica Faust (Bookends, LLC - she's currently closed to unsolicited submissions, too, so pitching in person or getting a direct reference are pretty much the only ways to query her). In the editor side of things were Holly Blanck (St. Martin's Press), Victoria Curran (Harlequin), Leah Hultenschmidt (Sourcebooks, Inc.), Wendy McCurdy (Executive Editor at Berkley Publishing, Penguin Group), and Charlene Patterson (Bethany House Publishers). If you've been researching any of these agencies or publishers - well, let's just say that's quite a powerhouse to have in residence.
This being my first time to pitch in person to a real, live agent, I was relieved to find that they were much less terrifying than I'd imagined. (Note: I have pitched to several imaginary agents for practice, but I have never yet pitched to a dead agent. I'm sure that needed clarifying.) None of them asked to eat my brains, and they smiled, were honest, and seemed very much like friendly and normal people. They did seem to appreciate professionalism, but were forgiving of things like stammering and inexperience. (Not so forgiving of stalking, rudeness, or contagious undeath, though, except as part of the book being pitched. Some things are just better read than experienced.)
We also attended the Maggie Awards, in full fancy regalia. This is one of the red-carpet events of writers, and as such, most of us took advantage of the chance to dress up in our when-else-will-I-ever-wear-this dresses and then danced the night away after the awards were handed out. (Three days later, I am still sore. Totally worth it.)
Of course, there was a book signing. You don't become a writer without first being addicted to reading. I spent much more than I probably should have (again, worth it), and now have several more signed books for my collection (also, much less shelf space. I need a new bookshelf.) Part of the profits from the book signing went to a charity (Literacy something-or-another). There was also a raffle for some very nice gift baskets, and I was excited to win not one, but two! 0.0 (I got some signed books, a beautiful acorn-patterned quilt in a matching tote bag, and some jam.) I also entered a drawing for a critique, since some agencies and editors were offering critiques as prizes.
As a side note, this was the hotel's last conference before closing to let new management renovate it (really, they were locking the doors the moment the last of us walked out the door!) Most of the staff had been laid off, to the point that our breakfast servers were also serving us dinner. The hotel had also ceased purchasing items (like new towels), so there was a lot of things they were short on. They were quite thrifty with what they had, and tried their best to keep everyone supplied. Considering their limited resources, they did an amazing job, so kudos to the hotel staff for hanging in there.
Grade for Romance writers (including other genres with romantic elements): A++ The conference was terrific, everyone I met had a great attitude, I really benefited from a couple of the workshops, and there were some big-name agents present.
Grade for non-Romance writers: B-. Some of the workshops and panels are still very helpful for any genre, but just as many are romance-targeted, and most of the networking wouldn't be as helpful.
Please note that I am not differentiating between self-published and traditionally published writers. There were several classes open for self-publishing crowd, and a fair representation of the writers present had gone that route at some point or another (some have done both traditional and self-publishing, the latter for harder-to-sell genres.) I believe both traditional and self-published writers would benefit significantly from this conference.
Storytime: Tell me about your M&M adventure! Or, if you've never been, do a little time-travel and tell me about the time I pitch to a dead agent instead of a real, live one. Do I need to take zombie repellent with me?