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Where aspiring writers go to learn the ropes

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There are similarities in the schedules of the various conferences. Usually about half of the time is spent in workshop sessions dealing with the literary genre one has selected. In these the author-instructor shares insights and asks students to read from their work and to criticize material from other participants.

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At Simmons College, where the conference lasts five days, workshops are held each morning. On three days this year, the afteroon sessions (for all the participants) featured well-known authors. Ann Beattie (''Chilly Scenes of Winter''), Dan Wakefield (''Under The Apple Tree''), and award winner John Updike (''Rabbit is Rich'') talked about their writing and answered questions. On alternate days the afternoon sessions consisted of panel discussions, one of which included a literary agent, an author, a director of subsidiary rights from a publishing house, and an editor from the Boston Globe Magazine. The second panel included the chief editors from Atlantic Monthly Press, Houghton Mifflin Company, and Little, Brown & Company, all located in Boston. There were impromptu reading hours, when the participants read their works for those outside their genre, and a daily social hour provided for more interaction between speakers and participants.

Traditionally conferences are held away from the noise and busyness of the city. The Bread Loaf Conference, where the participants, staff, and writers work and live together for two weeks in late August each year, is held on a remote campus surrounded by the Green Mountain National Forest. The participants use a Victorian inn, a large barn with a fireplace, and a cluster of cottages with porches and wicker chairs. This helps promote informal dialogue between the novice and professional, free of distraction, say the sponsors.

The Cape Cod Writers' Conference meets in an open wooden-truss building called ''the tabernacle'' located on the highest point of the 60-acre Craigville Conference Center, which has a private beach on Nantucket Sound.

Tuition for the conferences varies from $35 for a single course and $20 for a private session with an instructor at the Cape Cod Writers' Conference, to $250 for non-credit participation at the New England Writers' Conference, and $450 for the two-week, all-day and evening sessions at Bread Loaf. Living costs at each conference are extra.

Is it worth it? Without exception, the participants interviewed at the closing session of the conference at Simmons were enthusiastic. ''The instructors were so knowledgeable and interested in helping me as an individual, '' said one beginning poet who lives in Cambridge, Mass., and who works at a publishing house. ''The criticism and enthusiastic support of my writing from fellow workshop members makes me even more enthusiastic about continuing to write,'' commented another from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. ''The knowledge gained from the authors and speakers at the general sessions will be an invaluable help to getting more articles published,'' said another participant, an engineer from Texas. ''I'm rewriting my whole manuscript, using what I've learned here,'' remarked still another, a recent college graduate, from Stowe, Vt.

While the conferences can't guarantee the literary success of a single participant, they find that serious and talented writers do enroll, and some of these do meet with success. Beatrice Gormley of Duxbury, Mass., might be called a triple success. After being rejected by one conference, she applied to the New England Writers' Conference after seeing an ad for it in The Writer magazine. Ms. Gormley attended the 1979 session with her completed children's book in hand. After the conference, she revised her manuscript, incorporating some suggestions from her instructor, Jane Langton, an author of numerous children's books, including the 1981 Newbery Honor Book, ''The Fledgling.'' Ms. Gormley submitted her manuscript to an editor at E. P. Dutton, along with a personal recommendation from Mrs. Langton.

Three months later, Mrs. Langton ran into the Dutton editor in London and said, ''You didn't like the book?'' The editor responded that she liked it so much she intended to publish it, but just hadn't found time to get back to Ms. Gormley. After three more revisions, using the Dutton editors' suggestions, ''Mail-Order Wings'' was published last fall. Ms. Gormley's second book, ''Fifth Grade Magic,'' will be released this month, and she has just put her third book, to be released in the fall of 1983, under agreement. Ms. Gormley credits the instruction and good advice at the writers conference for opening the doors of publishing to her.