1. Pajama parties with your fellow writers:
Other fabulous people I met but did not get a photo of: Barry Wolverton, Shana Silver, Ara Burkland and many many more. Gobs more actually.
So Dana, you meet these people and then what? With each connection you make, you learn one knew thing. Whether it be in the publishing industry, your writing or the process all together. The conversations you have give you a little more education about what you are doing, which spawns a little more confidence. With each connection, another door is open. Each person, whether it be writer, author, agent, editor, etc, you are furthering your career by opening up these opportunities you might not have ever had. But most importantly, these people "get you" or rather the writer side of you, more than your husband, your mother or your BFF. It's like one big writer brain converging into one.
2. You meet authors. Real live published people. Successful people even. Like:
Libba Bray...The photo kept coming up fuzzy (because a fingerprint was plastered all over my iphone's camera lens.) So Libba said to tell people "It turned out fuzzy because we were so hot, we melted the lens.)
Cindy Pon and Me :)
3. Go to learn about the publishing industry. I can not emphasize how important this is. There are so many terms, processes, and standards in the industry, that educating yourself is a must. You wouldn't get a job on a bomb squad without knowing your explosives. Or if you did, it would be a short career. Same applies to being a writer. SCBWI offers breakout sessions on the inner workings of publishing houses, hurdles editors go through, what agencies expect, etc. Knowing how to write a book is only a the beginning. Understanding how this industry works can take your manuscript from dream to publication.
4. Perfecting your craft. There are many workshops on refining your characters voice, how to write a plot driven MS, art of revisions, manuscript success and so on. These particular classes can be very helpful to a beginner. I've found most of this information from researching online but sometimes a basic writing workshop can be the reminder that conks you on the head or the reassurance you need to say "Yes, I'm on the right path."
5. Learn about the in-between stuff. How social media can help your writing career. The digital age of books and what it means to a writer. How to organize your writing time. Pretty much all the secondary aspects of writing you might not have taken the time to learn but realize how import it really can be for your writing.
Though the large conferences are fun (and expensive), the smaller ones can be just as beneficial, and more intimate. Which means make more meaningful connections. I hope you take the time to research what is offered in your area and decide what conference might benefit you. You never know, you may stumble on your dream agent at the next conference you attend. It's happened before.