Conferences: A Cheat Sheet

I’m a big fan of writer’s conferences. I went to two last month, have one coming up this month, and another in August. Last year I went to nine of them (which, I admit, contributed to my slight burn-out by the end of 2012). I like meeting writers from other parts of the country. I like seeing other parts of the country. And I like knowing that even in the smallest of towns far, far away from Big Literary New York City, there are tight communities that care just as much about the craft of writing as they do about the business of getting published.

No matter where and what conference I attend, there are always similarities among the writers. I’ve gotten quite good at knowing who is ready for publication and who still needs time to find their voice, as eager as they may be. Of course, the best times are when writers surprise me.

In 2011, I wrote a post on how to pitch to an agent at conferences, or rather, how not to pitch. Since then I’ve been to a lot more conferences and met a lot more writers. More than just pitching to an agent, here are a few tips to keep in mind when attending a writer’s conference:

1. You Will Not Leave a Conference With an Offer of Representation
OK, I’ll say you will very very rarely get an offer of rep at a conference because I’m sure there have been exceptions to this rule somewhere. But, 99.9% of the time, you will not get this offer at the actual conference. Going to a conference based on who the faculty will be is great, but keep in mind that even if your dream agent (which you should not have!) attends, he or she still needs to read your work before making an offer. Your pitch, premise, and overall demeanor could be perfect all weekend, and you may even make a personal connection with the agent of your choice, but that doesn’t mean we can magically pull a contract out of our back pockets. Your job is to pitch your project to an agent. Even if they say “yes,” that “yes” is usually followed by “send me your query and sample pages.” I’ve had writers stare at me blankly even after I told them to send me material, as if they expected more from me. Do you really want an agent who doesn’t even read your work first? No.

2. A Conference is For Learning
Meeting agents and editors is great, but the main reason to attend a conference is to learn. Conferences provide more than just pitch sessions. Agents and editors often critique work, and the organizers of the conference offer several excellent seminars and workshops for writers to attend. It’s about learning the craft, learning the business, and learning that just because you finished your novel doesn’t mean it’s ready for publication.

3. Writer-Friends Are Valuable
Regional conferences are the best way to meet other writers in your area. Your friends and family can provide all the support in the world, and a few of them may even be skilled enough to read your work objectively. But writer-friends? They are a special breed. They can turn into Real Friends, but unlike your non-writer friends, they know exactly what you’re going through. They’re going through it too. They know what writer’s block is; they know what querying is like; they know the hell that is the revision process. Having them in close proximity means you can also get offline and grab a drink (or a cupcake) with them, which is just as important as sharing your work sometimes.

4. No One is Forcing You to Attend a Conference
Conferences are expensive. Organizers need to pay for the location, provide meals, cover travel and hotel costs for faculty, and a lot of other minor expenses that add up. That means you, the writer, have to pay to attend. You get quite a bit for your money, but it’s still your money. Remember that you volunteered it for the opportunity to be there. It’s amazing how many writers yawn their way through seminars, become defensive over critiques, and ask questions such as “what good is an agent anyway?” during Q&A sessions. It makes one wonder, why are you even here???

5. Agents and Editors are People Too
Please treat us with respect. This post at From the Write Angle is one to bookmark and memorize about this point. Also, understand that the time to pitch your book is not when we are chewing our food or going to the bathroom. Thanks. 🙂

How many of you have attended writer’s conferences? What do you wish you knew about them before you attended that you know now?

15 thoughts on “Conferences: A Cheat Sheet

  1. What a helpful post. Thank you. I appreciate your comments and the post from “Write Angle” about seeing agents as humans. What's funny/ ironic/ irritating is I so see agents as human, I don't want to bother them because I respect their space. I see this poor, swarmed soul and back off. Obviously something to work on, so I'll do my best to say, “Hi” at a conference in May!


  2. Attending a writer's conference once a year is about right for me. Some people just click when they meet. You might even click with an agent. They may offer to let you send a manuscript to them when they don't usually accept submissions. Go there alert. You get all kinds of help from all kinds of places. I was once sharing with a peer (another writer) about what we were writing and an agent overheard the conversation and asked me some questions and finally said, “Send me that one. I'd like to look at it. It sounds interesting.” It was not the manuscript I was there to pitch. It was a fortunate coincidence that I was sharing about it when I was.


  3. Thanks for the pointers you elaborately shared. It is good to hear from experienced writer the insights for use now or as future reference. It is really important to have the correct mindset in attending the conference and your inputs will surely be guiding for many writers out here. Keep up on helping with others to cope with their chosen field.

    PhD in Finance


  4. I've never been to a writer's conference, but want to rectify that. There's a few writer's groups here in the Tulsa area (where I live) that meet to give peer feedback, but they always seem to meet when I'm otherwise busy. I've typically been very private about my writing and only recently starting sharing portions of my novel with friends. Having a blog helped me gauge what kind of interest people would have in my writing.


  5. I've been to one conference so far. I am amazed at the number of people who didn't have any way to take notes. In one workshop, the unpublished writer was arguing with the faculty, who had a bazillion books traditionally published. *shakes head*

    I've been to five Pitchapaloozas put on by The Book Doctors (you pitch to a panel of agents and publishers). There, people would leave as soon as they finished their pitch. Whaaa? Also, as soon as the event was over, they'd bolt for the doors. Fully three quarters have no stomach for the meet and greet afterwards.

    Hello! This is your great, grand chance to meet an agent up close, in person! You might get a chance to pitch a paragraph or so, or get a card, or ask a question. And you walk out! Some folks have spent serious coin to even attend–I want to be the last one out of there. When you attend any kind of writer/author event, suck all the wisdom you can out of the professionals there.


  6. Great tips here. So many people attend conferences without knowing what they want to get out of them–and that's key. Go with goals in mind, provided the goal isn't “have an agent contract in hand as I pull out of my parking space.” Good goals: make 3 new writer friends; share a brief chat with 2 agents you're interested in; attend and write up notes to sessions that can give you real information. And so on.


  7. Meeting the right agent at a conference sounds a bit like meeting the right girl at a bar. There may be a mutual attraction upon meeting, and they may like your overall presentation, but you don't leave that first interaction with a marriage contract. 🙂


  8. Hurrah! So happy to see this from you right before heading to MWW later this month! Luckily my main expectations from the conference are to learn and to have fun. 🙂


  9. Great points, especially about it being a learning experience. Critiques are a huge help at these events. One thing I didn't know going into SCBWI was how much of a difference getting involved and working events would make: writer friends, critique partners, being a part of the conference process. It really opened up an opportunity to build relationships and learn from others.


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