In this case the keynote speaker was local writer Beth Kephart. Full disclosure, I often skip the keynote speaker at conferences especially when they start very early. This time, as it took place on a college campus I thought it better to arrive at the same time as everyone else, making it all the easier to follow the other cars in order to find the building. The speeches usually run along the same lines––I've been rejected just like you––only their rejections were followed by great success. Otherwise they wouldn't be asked to speak. Nothing against Ms. Kephart, who was as good as others I've heard, but I could have skipped this one too.
Many conferences offer 10 or 15 minute meetings with agents and publishers for those with books or book ideas to sell. The best prepared arrive with a synopsis and an excerpt. This conference included magazine and journal editors in the speed dating and provided one free pass with additional passes going for $2.50. I decided on only one speed date, because getting three different opinions in thirty minutes promised to have my head spinning.
Of course, when shopping a novel the goal isn't so much to get feedback as to have the agent ask you to send your manuscript. As an editor myself, I knew no one would commit to accepting a story after just perusing it, and even with the piece I brought that was under 1500 words, ten minutes was not enough time to read it, let alone provide good feedback. I did learn that the "type" of story was selling, and did get useful feedback on a quick transition paragraph. So it was helpful, but I'm glad I didn't spend the extra $5.00.
The remainder of the day, after lunch, was devoted to three break-out sessions. There were about four topics to choose from during each time period. As often happens, not every session offered a topic that I found useful, and the one that did was, of course, the last. Meaning I had to pick discussions for break-out #1 and #2 that only marginally interested me. In the end though, as also often happens, I did learn something.
The topic of the first session was, "Is the short story collection dead?" I'm still trying to get individual stories published. A collection doesn't even come up in my dreams, and I suspect I was not alone among the audience. However, it eventually morphed into a session about submitting to magazines and how to get published.
The topic of the second session was "Marketing yourself," which, again is most useful to those with books to market. The panel comprised a lively and knowledgeable group of women, so I enjoyed it even though I am not a novelist. In fact, it confirmed for me all the reasons I don't want to write a novel.
The final session, and most useful to me, "How to succeed in submissions." I almost chose another topic, because I feared a rehash of the usual writing mag fare. Make sure to send a clean copy, format correctly, don't send a romance to a literary journal. There was some of that, but there was also some useful and more targeted information, like using submission services. All the editors were connected with well-respected but small, local publications, and their advice was extremely helpful.
In general, I've come to view local conferences (as opposed to workshops) as something akin to a professional convention only shorter. The greatest value is meeting and talking to other writers in your area and some networking where possible. You are not likely to come away with any guarantees for publication and you won't improve your craft. Writing is a solitary existence and especially for those of us who reside in the suburbs, it's nice to get together from time to time, with those who share our interests.