Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Crash Course on Conferences

At some point in your writing career, you'll probably find yourself indulging in a writer's conference. I hope you do: the experience is both dipped in Awesomesauce AND wrapped in bacon (yes, that's for you, Anthony & Doug). I've posted previously about conferences, but it occurred to me that I've never provided any "advice" on attending one. It's all well and good to jaunt through life with an adventurous and curious spirit, but it does ease the journey if you've a road map of sorts.

I do not pretend to provide the road map. But I do have some observations I'd like to share with you.

Things for the newbie to keep in mind:

1. Business cards: many conference attendees will have business cards. You can make your own or have them made for cheap or free through various on-line businesses. Tip: scribble pertinent details on the back of each business card as you receive it regarding the person you've met. After you get home, faced with a mountain of cards, you'll be thankful you did.

2. Prepare your pitch: Conference attendees are a friendly bunch, mostly comprised of people who hope you succeed. Success comes with practice in the field, and often you'll be asked, "Pitch me!" Tip: You may be asked for your "elevator pitch" -- which is about 30 seconds long -- or your two-minute pitch. Take advantage of the opportunity to practice; this way, if your pitch is unclear, your new friends can help you tweak it.

3. Network: The purposes of conferences are many. You can meet and pitch agents and editors; you can attend informative workshops; and you can meet many talented and knowledgeable writers. The friendships I've made through conferences, however, have been the most important part. I've learned so much from these extraordinary people, and it's awesome knowing people "in the trenches" who can critique a query letter or provide needed feedback. Tip: Avoid negativity or agent-bashing or whining about the industry. You never know who you will meet -- or how your attitude will impact their view of you.

4. Agents are human, too: Remember that if a conference has agents available, they've generally paid them to come and listen to your pitch. That being said, remember that not only are agents human, but they are not the enemy. They, too, want to discover the "next best thing," and they're not dedicating their lives to stopping you from finding success. Treat them with respect; give them the benefit of the doubt. Tip: Do not follow an agent into the bathroom or slip pages of a manuscript under his/her hotel door. It only marks you as an inconsiderate boor, and regardless of how brilliant your writing is -- you may well be written off completely.

5. Follow-up on manuscript requests: Oddly enough, after all of the hours dedicated to writing and all of the agony involved in pitching an agent, only 1 in 10 writers actually follows up on a request for pages. Sure, it's important to make sure you send in your best -- but darn it! Polish it, pitch it, send it! Tip: Make sure you mention in your query letter that you met the agent at Acme Writing Conference. Many times an agent will ask that you put the name of the conference in the subject line of the email; follow directions explicitly.

Conferences can be an exhilarating experience if you have a basic idea of what to expect. What positive or negative conference experiences have you had? Do recommend attending them? What are your favorite conferences? This is hardly an exhaustive list of tips -- what advice do you have to add to this list?


  1. Hi Alex, your tips on conference attendance are great. Much of it I already knew, but you added a few that I didn't. The one about writing on the backs of cards I receive is priceless! I can't tell you how many times I forgot what I swore I'd remember. Conferences are an awesome shot in the arm. Where else would you find a group of people who totally get the painfully difficult road to publication, not to mention the networking. Thanks again.

  2. Great suggestions. The positive attitude is a must! I'd also add to this not to monopolize an agent or editors time during the meals. Let everyone at the table have a chance to converse with the faculty member.

  3. Thanks. There are so many great tips here, and it reminds me of when I first attended a multi-day conference and did not have a clue. Here's another tip. Do not drink the free coffee the whole day. I did not realize how much coffee I was drinking on the first days of my first conference. The result was that I could not sleep, which made my eyes blood shot by the end of the thing.

    I've had a couple of favorite conferences. The Whidbey Island conference is great because it is more low key than one of the big ones, but they pulled in some big names: Christopher Vogler and Elizabeth George, to name a couple. Also, I really liked the conference in Wenatchee that we attended. I'd say I got the most bang for my buck out of that one. Here's another tip. Go with the big names when you are picking sessions. I've attended sessions that have been less than satisfying before, but if you have the opportunity to hear one of the big stars in the indsustry go for it. The lesser known people can be good, but it's like rolling the dice.

  4. Alex, this post is so timely for me. I leave for New York on Tuesday for Thrillerfest. Check out the website www.thrillerwriters.org for how wrapped in bacon this is going to be for me.

    Not only are some of the best thriller writers going to be putting on sessions, but there's going to be over 40 agents from all over the country in attendance, looking specifically for thrillers.

    Business cards - check
    Pitch - almost
    Partials - in a couple of days

    One thing that an agent might ask for is a partial. It varies in length. It might be 1st chapter, 10 pages, 50 pages, 80 pages, whatever they feel like.

    I plan on making a few copies of the first 80 pages to take with me, that way if they really, really want to get a copy now, I can pass one along.

    I wondered if the agents might actually like to have a CD instead, because they are smaller and lighter, but when I asked the agents on Twitter, they said no. Bring paper.

    Wish me luck.

  5. First - good luck Doug!!

    Second, Alex what a great post. Thanks for this information. I attended my first writers' conference (San Francisco WC) in February and it was a great experience, and I attribute, at least in part, getting signed with an agent to the information I gained by attending the conference. Your advice is spot on, particularly about elevator pitches, my own pitch went from very shaky to great through practicing on writing buddies I met at the conference, and these writing friends are still some of the people I rely on most for even after having met them a few months ago for just a few days. Writing conferences are amazing for putting you in contact with like-minded folks who are wonderful to share ideas with.

  6. Good luck Doug. I will look forward to hearing how it goes!

  7. Hello. My name is Tess and I am a conference junkie.

    Honestly, it really is a shot in the arm. My favorite thing is the critique. I always sign up for that. I mean, a chance to have an agent/editor/uber talented writer review your work and give you one on one feedback? Priceless.

  8. I need to get going on the business card. I'd love to see what other writers' cards look like! If any of you have yours, you should really let all the rest of us take a look!

  9. Okay, I just had business cards made. I felt a little silly but what the heck. I've had business cards since I was 15, just nothing I have paid for myself. I got fancy cards too. With stars. Any my website URL.

    Other Conference Tips from Anthony:

    Wear comfortable shoes.

    The conference is not the time to learn your new medication has side effects.

    The conference is not the time to learn your spouse canceled that particular credit card.

    Bring cash.

    Bring Purell.

    Bring a pocket camera.

    Bring extra pens.

    Did I mention wear comfortable shoes?

    Turn your gosh darn ringer off yer fook'n phone.

    Bring ibuprofen.

    Bring Imodium AD.

    Bring breath freshener strips. If your tongue does not go numb after use, it's not strong enough.

    Did I mention wear comfortable shoes? I think I did.

    Have fun.

  10. With the Los Angeles Writer's Conference coming up, this topic has been on my mind. I've never attended one and no very little about them. Thanks for the advice. I really appreciate it!

  11. @Stephanie, PQW: it was someone at a conference who told me about it (Jennifer McCord, I think), so I'm glad to pass it on! And you are so right: i come home from a conference pumped and excited. It's a good thing.

    @Eileen: great advice! attention hogs are not only annoying, but they also do damage to their case. An agent wants a client he/she can work with -- not compete for attention with ;)

    @Dave: I am SO going to take your advice about attending sessions with the big name stars. Every time I haven't done so, I've regretted it. Every time I have, I've walked out amazed at the amount of timely information I've received. Great point.

    @Doug: congrats! I am so thrilled for you, no pun intended. I know you'll have a kick-butt time. As for paper, I've been at conferences where they said not to bring any, citing carry-on or checked luggage weight for agents returning home post-conference. I've heard other places that it's always important to bring the first 30 or so pages. Who knows -- but I think I'd error on the side of safety and have pages with you just in case. Have an awesome adventures and best of luck!!

    @Andrea: thank you -- and congrats on the agent! very exciting :) I must say that the writing life is one that's hard to understand from the outside -- and it's wonderful to have advocates and accountability buddies and back-slappers and commiserators in the writing world who truly understand the ups and downs. One of the best places to hook up with these delightful people is the writing conference, and it sounds like you've found some awesome ones!

    @Tess: ha ha! You have much thicker skin that I do :) This is embarrassing to admit, but at my first big conference, I'd go back to my room, have a cry, freshen up, then trot back out to network & pitch. Everyone was so kind, but it truly is emotionally draining at times. I've never had a critique done, so I'll have to sign up for that next time: I'm practically one big callous these days ;)

    @Jody: Great idea -- I'd like to see the others that are floating around out there too (Anthony?). In the past, I just handed out ones I already had that are associated with my writing project work -- but I am now looking at getting new ones made up. Especially ones that have my blog address and this one, too! :D

    @Anthony: oooooh excellent advice, all of it, esp the comfortable shoe part. I'm a teacher in the Pacific Northwest, so I only wear comfortable shoes, but I know a lot of people who buy new shoes for new occasions. Good point. And congrats on the new business cards. I think you should scan one & post it for us!

    And the have fun part? Vital! You are spot on, friend. Uptight and miserable wins few friends -- just loosen up, kick back, be friendly. Other people are nervous too, and they gravitate to someone who looks natural and like they're having fun.

    @Davin: no problem! Have fun at the conference and enjoy every single moment -- and feel free to email me w/ any questions or thoughts. I know little, but between the team, I'm sure we can come up with some pithy little gem for you :D and best of luck with your writing endeavors!


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