How To Choose a Writer’s Conference

*This article originally appeared in the GFWWriters June 2013 Newsletter*

CoWritten by author C. A Szarek.

So you want to attend a writer’s conference? First time? Even BETTER!HowtoChoose

There are so many great ones out there. Before you make any decisions, make sure you do your research, talk to others that have gone; listen to what they have to say.

Most conferences have their agenda listed with plenty of time to review it beforehand. Read over it carefully so you can plan your conference experience.

What do you want to accomplish? If you’re attending to socialize, you’re not maximizing the resources writers’ conferences offer. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with meeting other authors, but it probably wouldn’t be beneficial if this were your main attendance goal.

Authors attend conferences for many reasons, but here are a few main benefits that draw people.

*Pitching: This is a fantastic opportunity that is rather unique to writers’ pitchingconferences. Personal, face-to-face contact with editors and agents who want to give you a shot. Believe it or not, they attend conferences for some of the same reasons as authors, but the positive thing here is these particular editors and agents make time because they are actively seeking quality work.  No waiting in that pesky slush pile email box.  Here are tips on how to create a perfect pitch.

Sometimes these are what we would consider big deal editors from the coveted New York Houses that you don’t get into without an agent. This is a major benefit of a conference. On the same token, agents are not always easy to sign. Speaking to one face-to-face, whether from a big agency or not is a great opportunity. Even if your current project isn’t right for them, your impression can make them remember you.

This alone can be a great reason to attend a conference. But make sure you research well. Some conferences charge extra for this perk, though most don’t.

If you’re a conference virgin, even the thought could have you shaking in your boots, but don’t. Editors and agents are people, too. They enjoy talking to you. Just think of it like this: You can practice your pitch all you want, but if it’s not natural, it can lose appeal even if your words are awesome. So speak to an editor or agent as if you’re telling your best friend about your book. No one knows the book better than you.

Don’t let nerves make you miss out on this conference-unique opportunity.

*Workshops: Most conferences have a variety of sessions that cover everything from craft to marketing to industry trends. This should be a deciding factor in which conference you choose. No matter what stage your career is in, whether you’re pre-published or have several books out there, you never stop learning as an author. The more you write, the better you get.

So, look at the agenda (most will have it available beforehand) and see which would benefit you most. You shouldn’t have any ‘free’ blocks in your schedule. There should be so many interesting classes you just have to attend, how can you possibly choose between them. Research the presenters as well: are they experienced in what they’re presenting? Have they given it before and have others found it helpful? Workshops can be one of the best reasons to attend a conference.

*Book Signings: A perk of many a conference is a book signing that’s open to the public. Hopefully this won’t be your only reason for attending a conference, but it can be a nice experience as well. You get your name and your book(s) out to authors as well as the general public. Here are tips on how to have a successful book signing.

If you are going to take part in a signing at a conference, ask questions. Will they have a sponsor? Will you have to be your own cashier for the books you sell? Will sales benefit a charity? (This is very common at conference book signings) and research what turnout they usually have, if the conference is annual so you can plan the number of books and swag you need to bring.

*Networking: Another awesome reason for attending a conference! Read thevintage-social-networking brochure/agenda to see what headliners will be at the conference of your choice. Then, make it a point to speak to these people. Yes, you really can talk to famous authors! Just like editors and agents, they’re people, too! You never know what kind of friends you could make—for life.

Let your inner social butterfly come out and shine! It pays to talk to people. Writing, like any other industry can depend on who you know. So make contacts! Get business cards and keep them handy. Write down their email addresses or website, and get their Twitter handles.

Other authors, editors, agents, you never know who can be around the corner, at a meal, even hanging out in the lobby at the conference. Make use of free time by being observant. Read name badges. Don’t be afraid to ask other authors what they write. And remember, when someone asks what you write—they really do want to know.

You could end up with a fantastic critique partner or some awesome new reads.

Other factors to consider in choosing which writer’s conferences to attend are:

*Genre Specific: Make sure you pick a conference that includes the genre in which you write. If your stories are mainly thriller or science fiction, then attending a romance based conference won’t be as helpful. There are plenty of conferences that are more specific to a particular genre to which gears many of their workshops and key speakers. Pay close attention to those. But of course don’t disregard the broader conferences like the Writer’s Digest Conference, where many big editors and agents always attend, looking for new talent for their lineup.

*Budget: How much can you spend in a given year on these conferences? Between registration fees, airfare, hotels, food, books, contests, and other miscellaneous items, the endeavor can get expensive. The best conferences are those that do not charge extra for pitch sessions, specific workshops or even parking. Make sure you choose one that has all of those included (unless you don’t plan to pitch your manuscript).  Another tip is to choose conferences that are geographically close, saving you the cost of airfare and/or hotel. Or if you have several friends all attending, split the costs by sharing a hotel room and make a road trip out of it. Most conferences offer an ‘early-bird’ rate, so book early if you can. Some conferences also give out ‘scholarships’ to help ease the cost to a few individuals who present a financial need.

*Attending Agents/Editors/Authors: If you’re pitching a novel or just want to meet the experts in the industry, make sure the ones you’re really interested in plan on attending. Conferences will always list the names of presenting authors, agents and editors on their websites in advance, especially those that will accept pitches. They often include the kinds of stories the experts are actively looking for. So research the editors and agents attending and see if they cover your topic/genre. If you’re spending this much money, make sure it’s worth your while.

Conference Etiquette

~Dress appropriately. No one is asking you to wear an uncomfortable suit or dress or three-inch heels for an entire day of workshops, presentations and pitch sessions. But be professional. Don’t show up in ratty jeans, tank top and flip-flops.

~Don’t stalk agents/editors in the bathroom or just before they present. They are clearly focused on other things and they won’t give you their full attention. And it’ll annoy the hell out of them, and that’s not the kind of impression you want to leave.

~Networking is a must, but monopolizing conversations with constant reminders of your story is a turnoff. Give others a chance to talk, and LISTEN.

What to Bring

~Business cards with your email address and contact info (write the title and genre of your current work on the back)

~Notepad or Notebook and a good pen

~Synopsis/Query Letter

~A prepped 1-line ‘elevator pitch’ of your story.

~A small messenger bag to carry the ‘goodies’ you’ll get

~Cash- for buying books, the cash bar, raffles, tips for housekeeping

~Light Jacket/Sweater- you never know how powerful the air conditioner will be

~Extra Luggage Bag- to cart home the extra books and stuff you’ll get (if you’re flying, and if you don’t leave extra space in your original bag)

~Snacks- if you’re staying at the hotel overnight, do you really want to pay hotel prices for a bag of chips or granola bars?

What to Leave

~Laptop (leave it in the hotel room)

~A copy of your full manuscript. If agents ask for it, they all prefer email. (Why would you want to cart around the extra weight, anyway?)

~Shy or Wallflower Tendencies- this will kill your experience at conferences, and the whole point is to network and meet people who will help advance your career and/or skills

Hopefully this will help you in deciding which conference(s) to attend and how to prepare. More than anything else, remember why you write: what keeps you going back to that keyboard or notepad? Everything about a conference is supposed to help make you a better writer and be more successful. Good luck and keep writing forward.

Burning Bridges Clouds Your Path

The smoke from the fire you create with your words will always cloud your future. One way or another. And who wants to walk through the world blind, choking on smoke?

I recently read a blog post from a literary agent (whom I respect and follow regularly) that disturbed me.

He had attended a few conferences where he’d overheard several writers bash him and/or his agency in one way or another. Combined with a few other factors, he decided to close his agency to new submissions until further notice.

I think this a bit of an overreaction, but at the very least extremely disappointing.

Granted, publishing is subjective and everyone has his/her opinion. Not everyone is bound to agree all the time. It’s just the nature of the business. Heck, that’s human nature.

But even if you have a disagreement with an agent or editor, you at least need to be civil in parting ways and (more importantly) how you carry yourself in the future. This includes the comments you make about someone to others. AKA- gossip. (It’s so high school, and even when I was in high school, I hated gossip. So adults should definitely not partake.)

Remember the phrase:

“Be mindful of the toes you step on today, for they may be attached to the ass you must kiss tomorrow.”

Trust me- this will happen. It may take a week, a year, or ten years. But it will eventually happen. Be honest with yourself: don’t you remember something hateful someone said to you when you were in high school? Middle school? College? Your first internship? And don’t you agree the next time you see them you’d have those comments in the back of your mind?

If you’re in complete denial with the statements above, at the very least you should be mindful of the golden rule you should have learned in kindergarten:

“Treat others the way you would like to be treated.”

I remember the first Author Workshop I attended several years ago where the author spent the first half-hour bashing her former publisher, cover artist, editor, and anyone under the sun having anything to do with her experience. And my take away from that workshop: I won’t be buying any of her books.

Not because she turned me off to the publisher, but her bashing gave me a horrible impression of her. I refused to support someone who was so negative and had no care with the words she chose.

These are just my thoughts on how you create relationships, professional or personal. Granted, ‘keeping silent when you have nothing nice to say’ is easier said than done.  But I always remember that I don’t want to have smoke covering my path going forward.

Beta Reading Challenge

My writers group just started a new program called Beta Readers Round Table

Five of our members submitted their completed manuscripts to be reviewed by Beta Readers (myself included). Each Beta Reader critiques 2 manuscripts based on content (not line editing). Searching for plot holes, characterization errors, point of view switching, change of tenses, the bigger stuff (not grammar, punctuation, etc). And it’s a challenge.

This is what critique groups are for, in my opinion. Our meeting sessions normally focus on 10 pages at a time. The online critique sessions can be anywhere from a chapter to 5-6 chapters long. This is the first time we’re doing entire manuscripts in one swoop. And two manuscripts at that. This seems like a great opportunity to capture big plot holes and voice, flow, all the big stuff all writers want to know about their unfinished babies. A great opportunity, and a big responsibility.

When all of the beta readers are finished critiquing their ‘assignments,’ we’ll get together in a round table forum and go over everyone’s work. I’m sure this session will take well more than an hour, but it should be with gold-level content. Writers are supposed to walk away from the session feeling good about themselves and their stories. And feel like they’ve carried away a massive ruby or emerald in their pocket of exceptional critiques.

How many opportunities do these manuscripts get before a writer submits them to an agent or editor?

I’ve just finished the first of two, and I’m really impressed with the stories our members create. Truly original and completely new perspectives. But at the same time I’m also hesitant to be too critical. I’m not published, yet. I don’t have an agent, and no experience in what editors look for in submissions. But I’m an avid reader. I know what I like to see. I know the difference between ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ and I’m much more entertained by ‘showing.’ I love the emotion in stories. So those are the kinds of things I look for in manuscripts. When I give critiques, I try to give ideas on how to make something better (not just, ‘I don’t like this scene. Not realistic.”) I give a suggestion on how to make it more realistic, or better for the reader.

Don’t close a door for someone without giving a them a window they can open.

I hope the other Beta Readers do the same for my manuscript.

It’s challenging. Seeing a potentially brilliant story with vibrant and genuine characters in its most raw form- I want to help the writer make it better. I don’t want to ruin it with my suggestions that may not be the best ideas. Its challenging trying to help someone. But if it’s the right idea, I’m proud to say I helped make their story better.

First Writers Conference Fiasco

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Image by Krista76 via Flickr

My excitement for my first writers conference this past weekend (as I wore my proverbial red slippers) was dashed and I ended up missing the parties, the second half of workshops, and regretfully my pitch appointment.  The catalyst that made me miss the most anticipated event in my writing career for the last 6 months: an evil bottle of antibiotic pills with side effects from purgatory.  Yes, my yellow-brick road to glory, or at least to enlightenment, fell out from underneath me because of PILLS.

I won’t get into any specifics of what the pills were for or the details of the side effects, but they made me a useless human being who could barely stand.  Out of respect for everyone at the conference, I left on Saturday afternoon to wallow in my painful misery.  I hoped the symptoms would subside overnight and I could go back to the DFW Writers Conference and my pitch appointment on Sunday, but I was not so lucky.

However, an unexpected and gracious silver lining emerged from my fiasco.  My critique partner was also at the conference and she passed along the message to the conference organizers that I was sick and had to cancel my appointment.  And from the inner workings of the great Wizard of Oz, the agent whom I waited for months to meet contacted me via Twitter and conveyed her wishes that I feel better soon and hoped to hear from me.  In addition, she’s offered to still hear my pitch via phone, a week after the conference has ended.

This particular agent is now my favorite.  As much as I respected her before and hoped to become one of her precious clients, that’s only increased ten fold.  Whether she likes my pitch or not, she will still be my favorite and I will always hold her in high esteem.  The epitome of a class act if I’ve ever seen one.

The brief amount of time I spent at the conference on Saturday was wonderful! I heard Sandra Brown’s keynote address (she is hilarious by the way- if you ever get to hear her speak, GO!), attended 4 workshops that opened my eyes even wider than they already were, and braved the anticipated, yet dreaded, GONG SHOW!  This was so cool. A panel of 5-6 judges (all agents or editors) sat up front with their own personal oriental gong. The announcer started to read various query letters that attendees submitted.  The judges would ‘gong’ out whenever they would have stopped reading.  When 3 or more judges had ‘gonged’, they would explain why they didn’t care for it, and they’d move on to the next query.

This whole process was freakin’ brutal.  Anyone who submitted a query subjected themselves to a tremendous risk of humiliation.  Thankfully, the queries were kept anonymous, so if you were gonged in the first sentence, no one would have known it was yours.  And these agents were hilariously relentless.  This became next to a standup comedy routine on several.  But one of the great aspects of the Gong Show was how many partials and full manuscript requests came from it.  That part was incredible!

I missed when my query was read. But my critique partner said I was gonged after the third sentence.  Not terrible.  But not great.  I clearly have some work to do on my query.

So, *sigh* I have to wait another year to attend the next writers conference in my area. Medication chucked in the trash, I know better for next year. But it’s hard to handle the frustration I feel of how I missed my first beloved writers conference.  Have you ever missed a writers conference for something as ridiculous as medication side effects?

Gearing Up for Writer’s Conference

I AM a Writer

Image by hopeleslie via Flickr

I have the exciting and nerve-wracking joy of gearing up for my very first writer’s conference at the end of February.  The DFW Writer’s Conference, hosted by the DFW Writer’s Workshop, has dozens of agents and publishers scheduled to attend, and I have anxiously submitted my request for which agents I would like to spend my 5-minute pitch session with (I get 1 session).  And the keynote speaker is *drumroll* Sandra Brown!  That’s right, people.  THE Sandra Brown!!!

I have a lot of the big stuff already taken care of.  I’ve registered, paid, have a finished manuscript (woohoo!), and perused the list of workshop titles I’d love to sit in on.  But I begin the strenuous task of creating my ‘pitch.’  I have 5 minutes with an agent/editor.  They suggest you make your pitch no more than 1-2 minutes, leaving the rest of the session for questions and/or feedback.  Essentially, I need to create an elevator pitch.  All sales folks know what an elevator pitch is.  But for you non-sales-oriented-folk, an elevator pitch is simply this:  if you’re in an elevator with the 1 decision maker on something you need, you normally only have about 4-5 floors of their undivided attention.  So you have 20 seconds (or however long it takes to go up 4-5 floors) to make your point.  Summarize your story in a gut-capturing way that makes it impossible for them to turn away. (Meaning, you make your pitch irresistible, not physically hold them hostage in the elevator- that just makes you creepy.)

So I need to shove my 71,000 word novel into a 2-minute teaser.  Sound easy?  It’s not.  At least not for me.  One of my biggest attributes is using 40 words to say something that should only take 10.  So that’s what I will work on over the next few weeks- my pitch.  And try to keep my skin from itching all over the place with anticipation for my first conference.

Writers conferences are a priceless wealth of information for all aspiring authors (and current authors).  The advice and real-life stories we get from others who have broken into the cutthroat publishing industry is more valuable than any self-help book sitting on my shelf today (according to those who have been to a conference).  I’d really love to go to the Romance Writers of America conference in New York in late Spring, but there’s no way I can afford that.  But can you imagine all of the visibility available at that conference?  Where most of the publishing industry is headquartered???  Oh that would be so wonderful!

But alas, *sigh* my dreams are big and will take time.  Small steps… and keep writing.