I meant to tell you guys that if getting to a writers conference isn’t doable, either from a money standpoint or because of a scheduling issue, or if you’d like to get an idea of what a writing panel might be like to see if they’re useful or not, you should check out your local nerd convention.
Scifi/fantasy and comic conventions often have some writing panels, since several have authors as guests. The guests tend to skew toward science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors, but it depends on the convention and the year.
These can be very hit or miss. I have gone to some truly terrible and useless panels on things that sounded interesting, like publishing or networking. I have been to some that gave me a lot of good information. Some of these panels are aimed at local resources, which can be good for helping you find writing groups and other help in your general area. Others are more industry-based or genre-based than craft-based, which can be good for beginning writers or people interested in seeing where the market seems to be going.
Author and writing panels at comic/scifi cons are generally culled from the authors and publishers attending the conference, so bigger conventions are probably going to have bigger/more experienced people than smaller ones. It does depend, though. Kevin J. Anderson is a local author, and he tends to hit all our cons, even though I would consider him a “bigger” speculative fiction author. You may have big name authors near you that like to do the same. You can check your con’s website and schedule to see who’s coming. Look at both the guest list and the vendors.
Some places specifically have scifi/fantasy literary conventions. These are, of course, a little more specialized, so in theory the panels might be more relevant. But it still depends on who’s going to be there. And that’s not to say that a smaller name author can’t have a ton of useful information to share, or that a big name author won’t be completely useless. As you become aware of your local author community, you’ll learn who’s a good bet.
It also somewhat depends on how the convention is run. In some cases, panelists submit their own panels to con staff. The panelists typically prepare for these, so you get more coherent information. At other cons, guests or vendors may show up to discover they have been assigned to panels they were previously unaware of. At least one con I know of, you just tell the panel person you’re interested in doing panels, but you don’t know which ones (or when) until you arrive.
So if writers conferences aren’t going to work for you for whatever reason, give your local cons a look too. They’re cheaper, you might learn something, and, if nothing else, you can network with local authors.