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.

Gifts for Writers

Writers are like Black Sheep. Everyone knows a writer. In the family, a friend, a giftkooky coworker… we’re common. And in one way or another, we’re all loved. That means with the holidays screaming around the corner, everyone has a writer for whom they need to buy at least a small gift. Here are some gift suggestions for writers (including ones to avoid).

Paper – Reams and reams of it. Because we go through that much. Either for brainstorming, rough drafts, character sketching, revisions (*raises hand*) or querying. We use a lot of it.

Ink – See paper. (With one caveat: it is essential to know the kind of printer the writer has, of course).

Coffee – Most writers need this fully stocked in IV bags. But don’t get them needles- that requires a prescription.

Dragon Dictate Software – For writers on the go, moving around a lot, this dragonwill help. You’ll need to find out if they have a PC or Mac. Downside: it’s a bit pricey.

scrivenerSrivener A fantastic new software that most writers love, no matter what they write (fiction or non fiction).

Pens – Like paper and ink, we use these a lot, and therefore run out of ink in the middle of jotting down a great idea, and then chuck the pen across the room, chipping our favorite coffee mug while we desperately search for lipstick or marker to write down said-great-idea before we lose it.

Coffee Mugs – To Replace said-broken-mug from above.

 The Latest Edition of Writer’s Market – This may be baffling for those of you who are not in publishing, but this is the first step to a golden ticket in the Willy Wonka’s Factory of Publishing.

Elements of Style from Strunk & White  – See note above.

Books – Duh. Bonus points for knowing which genre they prefer, but they’ll pretty much take anything. Especially books on writing or autobiographies from serious writers. (FYI- Snooki’s recent book does not count).

Comfy Clothes – Any funny shirt or pants specific for writers. There are so writershirtmany websites offering screen-printed quotes on shirts like ‘Don’t Piss Me Off Or I’ll Kill You In My Novel’ or ‘Grammar Snob.’ We need something comfortable to write in and what better way to be motivated to write than to wear the reminder. CafePress has some great ones.

Slippers or Socks – See clothes. No writer can write with cold feet.

Computer Accessories – A laptop case, wireless mouse/keyboard, thumb drive. Again, helpful to know what kind of computer they have to make sure the case fits. But a thumb drive is universal. As are screen cleaners and cans of air to blast out the dust from our keyboards.

The Writer’s Block – Nuff said.writersblock

Lap Table – A bunch of different kinds, depending on whether they like classic wooden, or contemporary chic, or funky bumbo style. But a cup holder is essential.

Air Fresheners or Wickless Candles – For writers who spend hours sitting in one spot desperate to get the dialogue out of their brains, sometimes we tend to forget to shower. Something to mask the stench in the air is helpful (Scentsy is popular). But nothing that includes a flame where we’ll forget to blow it out and burn down our masterpieces.

Massage – To force us out of the house and relax our writing muscles. Spa gift cards are a great way to achieve this.

Magazine Subscription  – Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Journal, The Writer (any of these are precious jewels in the mailbox).

Don’t bother with these:

Journals – Every writer has a million of these shoved away in drawers and closets. Don’t add to their clutter. Plus, it’s a cliché. Lesson #1: all writers hate clichés.

Laptop – Come on! These are so freakin’ expensive, with way too many variables that are too personal to each individual writer. Unless you want to take them to the store to pick out their own, don’t do it. They’ll just end up exchanging it for something that suits their query personality more. It’s like women and shoes. We’re just too picky.

E-Readers – See laptop. Though gift cards to purchase e-books are good.

Thesaurus – Again, every write already has one. And every good writer knows not to use it.

Digital Voice Recorder – Every phone has something that meets this need. My iPhone came with 3 of them. And there’s about 30 more apps they can download for free.

Hopefully this gives you some ideas. Have a great holiday!