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4 Tips for Surviving a Writers Conference

by Steve Laube

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With author Lael Arrington at The C.S. Lewis Conference.

I’ve had the fun of teaching at nearly 150 writers conferences over the years. In that time I’ve noticed a number of common things that all writers face. Let’s explore a few tips that may help you survive at the next one you attend.

Relax
The most common mistake is viewing the conference as a make-it-or-break-it evetn. The stress folks place on themselves is palatable. I’ve had people so nervous to meet with me that they burst into tears before they can even begin to talk. (I don’t think I’m THAT hideous to look at!)

Better to plan on going multiple times, like you would to an extended college course. The first time get the lay of the land and the language spoken there.

It is a Safe Place to Fail
Where else can you practice your pitch with a professional? Where else can you get a first impression reaction from a professional? Fumbling your words, pitching in the wrong genre, or to the wrong editor are not fatal mistakes. We have a number of clients who we represent who failed over and over again…until finally figuring it out.

Use the opportunity to sit with an agent, an editor, or a freelancer and see how they react to your idea.  Watch the body language. Listen to the voice for that crackle of excitement. Learn from the experience.

Beware of the False Positive
It is not fun to tell a writer that their idea won’t work and watch the light go out in their eyes. A terrible thing. Thus many editors or agents will give a word of encouragement hopefully wrapped in an honest evaluation of the work at hand. Unfortunately all the writer hears are the words “this is pretty good,” and they ignore everything after the word “but.”

However, when an editor or agent says, “I’d like to see it, please send it to me.” Believe them. BUT do not take that as an “I’m only one step away from a book contract!” I’ve see this reaction far too often. Put the positive response in the right perspective and you will save yourself a lot of grief.

The editor or agent genuinely wants to look at your material but can’t really evaluate fully during a 15 minute conversation or in a hurried glance in a hallway between sessions. Back in the office it will be judged against everything else already on their desk, as it should be. A fantastic proposal will survive every gauntlet, including this one.

I once had a person literally kneel by my chair at a conference banquet pulling at my sleeve and desperately cry, “You absolutely must become my agent because that editor over there said they liked my story idea!” This person was over-reacting to a cordial request and turning it into a false positive.

Follow Through
Don’t get me wrong. Your book has a much greater chance of being accepted if you do indeed send it to the requesting editor or agent than if you don’t. Surprised at this advice? You would be astounded how many people never send us what we ask for.

And one little hint? If you do follow through, include your picture in the proposal in the bio section. It helps us remember which person we met and where. Earlier this year I received a query letter from an author who opened with, “We met in 2007 where I pitched an earlier version of the attached story.” But there was no photo, and no indication of where we met. I have to admit, I don’t remember that meeting.

Ultimately, try to enjoy yourself. As you can see from the below photo Randy Alcorn thinks he is hilarious. And Malcolm Guite wants to talk about his book! I am an innocent bystander.

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Photos taken by Lancia Smith

When You are on the Bench

by Steve Laube

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The NCAA Basketball Tournament is upon us with lots of drama accompanying March Madness.

As you watch a game, of any team sport, the focus is on the players in the contest. The camera follows the stars and their every move. What you rarely do is watch the bench or the players on the sidelines.

I find this to be a fascinating metaphor for the writing and publishing “game.” There are mega-stars with household names. There are the “up and comers” carving out their place. And with each publishing release a new name steps forward displaying their talent.

But what about those who are left on the bench? What do you do when someone else takes what you think is your place in the spotlight? Or what if you used to be on the starting team but can no longer get a new contract or the attention your books deserve?

I observe at least three types of writers who sit on the bench:

The Intentional Critic

I have often observed the sneer of disdain when a famous author is being discussed. “Oh their books aren’t that good. I couldn’t finish even one.” “I can write so much better than so-and-so.” You understand what I’m saying? And I have likely willfully participated in the criticism.

There is a legitimate place for critique and published reviews (both online and print). They provide a valuable service in helping us discover whether a book is worth the time to read. And yet I once looked up every review written by an individual on Amazon out of curiosity (it is easy to look those up). This particular reviewer did not like a single book they had reviewed. Not one. It made me wonder if they were being intentional about their criticism in order to bring other writers down.

If you are on the bench be careful not to let the jealously bug bite and infect you with bitterness. Caustic words tend to burn the giver as well as the receiver.

The Student

Teams practice nearly every day. It creates a “muscle memory” for certain plays and for the interaction with other team members. They learn from each other and from their coaches.

It is the same in the writing world. This season may be one where you are on the bench. Use that time to improve your craft. Watch how other authors market their new books and keep a notebook of ideas. Make note of promotional things that don’t work as well as those that do. Read widely in your genre and outside. Your non-fiction may improve after reading a great storyteller. Or your fiction may have a new layer of fascination because of some non-fiction piece you read.

I have met a number of very famous authors in our industry who have attended a writers conference as a student. They were not there to teach or speak. They were not there to mentor. They were not there to critique. They were there, paying their own way, to sit quietly in the back and learn how to improve their craft.

So even if you are on the bench you can still learn something. And be prepared for the day when your name is called.

The Cheerleader

The video at the end of this piece is absolutely delightful. See how the bench celebrates the success of the other players. It is inspiring. Why?

Because it is a lesson to the rest of us. No pasted smiles on our faces when our friend gets a contract and we don’t. You’ve seen the smile that doesn’t travel up to the eyes. No empty words like “I’m so happy for you” said with gritted teeth.

Instead bring unbridled enthusiasm to the game. This is about changing the world. The non-fiction piece inspires and instructs thousands of people in far flung places. That novel warms a heart or challenges a reader through a character who has come alive on the page. This miracle of the written word is something to celebrate, truly celebrate.

Of course not every book is made equal. That is why there are so many and why our tastes are so varied. But if you find yourself on the bench for whatever reason. Take the chance to send a note of encouragement to that author. Not just gushy fan letters, but a note that only another writer would understand. Use your blog or Facebook page to celebrate those new releases. Let your network know there is an alternative to the drivel found on most TV stations and in movie theaters.

Meanwhile, enjoy the rest of March Madness and this video. Next time a new book hits a home run or scores a touchdown or sinks a buzzer beater or gets past the goalie, celebrate like these guys:

A Weekend with C.S. Lewis and Friends

by Steve Laube

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This past weekend I had the privilege, once again, to attend and participate in the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s Fall retreat in Houston.

Not a typical writers conference it focuses on the extraordinary contribution of Lewis and his fellow Inklings and ultimately a celebration of the Arts in light of the incarnation of Christ. The speakers were extraordinary. They included:

Devin Brown (one of my clients), professor at Asbury University and author of The Christian World of the Hobbit
Diana Glyer, professor at Azusa and author of The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community
Malcolm Guite, Chaplain and Fellow, Girton College Cambridge and author of The Singing Bowl. He is also an accomplished musician
Louis Markos, professor at Houston Baptist University and author of Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C.S. Lewis
Max McLean, president of Fellowship for the Performing Arts and is best known for his audio recordings of the Bible and for his theatrical presentations of The Screwtape Letters

I sat in two workshops on writing given by Malcolm Guite, the first appropriately titled “The Word and the words.” (the capitalization is intentional). During his presentations I heard more extemporaneous quotation of Shakespeare, Gerald Manly Hopkins, George Herbert, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Bob Dylan than I have ever heard in my life. I felt my mind and soul swell as they were slowly filled with so much art and incarnation that I could barely stand it.

Five Myths About an Agent’s Rejection

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1.) The agent hates me. Unless you approached her and said something along the lines of, “You and your kids are ugly and you have lousy taste in manuscripts,” a rejection shouldn’t be personal.

But if you are worried that you unintentionally offended an agent or other publishing professional, take action. Email to let him know you have been worried about why you may have been the cause of offense, followed by an apology. Chances are good the other person had no idea he should have been offended, and has been enjoying the beach, not thinking a thing about the “incident” that has you worried. Or, if he really was offended, he should accept your apology. Then you can make a fresh start.

2.) The agent was making up an excuse to reject me.  Except when writing blog posts, we don’t have time to wax long and poetic. But if an agent says anything beyond a catchphrase such as, “This work is not a good fit for me,” then I would consider the advice. Those phrases might include allusions to the quality of writing, slim market for your type of work, or other hints as to why your work was rejected. This hint could help you learn what might work better for you in the future.

One Word to Increase Your Conference Enjoyment

by Tamela Hancock Murray

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The past couple of conferences I attended felt more relaxed. Of course, “relaxed” is a relative term in relation to conferences. I am so very grateful that people want to see me, talk to me, meet with me, dine with me. Don’t go away! Without you, I wouldn’t be blessed with this career. Thank you.

But I talked to a couple of people at ACFW who admitted to me that they had turned down one or two meetings and obligations so they could recharge. And though I didn’t intentionally do this, I found myself with a couple of unfilled time slots. I took a deep breath and used those times to recharge, too.

No one understands the urgency of the conference experience more than I do. We all only have one chance to meet and greet people who can be key to our careers. Five minutes can be lifechanging. But are we really doing ourselves a favor if we cram every moment for several days to the point we can hardly think? Will we be our best at key meetings — or any meetings — if we appeared disorganized and incoherent simply because we overscheduled?

Granted, we are all going to be tired, a bit bleary, overly excited, and inclined to misspeak or make other mistakes during any conference. I can’t recall a single conference where my hair did what it was supposed to every day, all my shoes felt great, and I gave the perfect answer to every question. But feeling a little less tired gives us all that much more confidence as we go out into the conference world. And for that matter, in our world any day.

I’ll speculate you have guessed the word. The word is “No.” Turn down the non-essentials so you can be at your best at the essentials. You’ll be healthier and happier for it!

Your turn:

What is the do-not-miss activity for you at conference?
What is the one obligation you may now consider saying “no” to?

The Drama of the Unexpected

by Tamela Hancock Murray

John and Tamela

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After such excitement, I was ready to go home and relax, then get back into my office routine and the new adventure of living as an empty nester with my husband, John. He has worked as a civilian at the Department of Defense for 33 years and is now the Deputy Director of Contract Policy for the Naval Sea Systems Command.

I am writing this post on Monday night, the day of the Washington Navy Yard shootings, where John works. This morning, my flight leaving Indianapolis was on time. I was sitting on the plane and just about to turn off the phone when John called. Apparently a shooter had entered the building. John had exited the building with his employees shortly after the shooting began.

Fueling Creativity

by Karen Ball

Coffee beans surrounding the word coffee stamped on burlap sack

As many of you know, we just finished up the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. Almost 5 days of being surrounded by writers, agents, editors—people steeped in the business, work, and love of words. Each day overflowed with conversations about writing, from workshops to mealtimes to moments in the hallways sharing experiences and insights. And through it all, one place reigned as the stopping point—the place to meet and greet, to refuel and connect.

Starbuck’s.

Oh yeah. Almost every moment the place was open, there was a line stretching out the door. And in that line, creativity flowed! I heard so many great ideas being bounced back and forth, so many answers to “How do I handle this?”, and so many impromptu meetings. I met Frank Peretti for the first time as the two of us stood in line, eyeing the display of rich, tempting pastries. Before I realized it was the Frank Peretti, I leaned forward and asked, “What say you? Brownie or chocolate chip cookie?” He glanced over his shoulder, eyes twinkling: “Chocolate chip cookie. You can’t go wrong with a good chocolate chip cookie.” Me, I prefer the brownie, but what was even more delicious was the chance to meet and thank a writer who prepared the way for so many.

Can’t Go to the Conference? Don’t Despair!

by Tamela Hancock Murray

Upset Young Woman Sitting Alone with Her Head in Her Hands on Bench Next to Books and Backpack.

Because there so many excellent conferences, we all miss out on a few. I like to joke that if I didn’t love my husband, I could arrange to be away from home 80% of the time just by going to conferences!

But when you’re missing out on what you think is an especially good conference, you might wonder if you’ve blown your career — or at least a major opportunity. I submit that while conferences are wonderful for many reasons, including networking and fellowship, a conference shouldn’t make or break your progress and missing one won’t end your career. Why? Because before signing authors to partner with us, agents and editors perform due diligence.

When I was a newly-minted literary agent, I attended my first conference and proceeded to sign an author on the spot. Well, I didn’t have the contract in hand, but I promised one. The author was charming and presented herself well in appearance and speech.

Top 3 Reasons Authors Don’t Get Asked to the Prom (or Invited to ICRS) – Reason #1

by Karen Ball

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It’s just around the corner. That time of year when publishers, retailers, agents and yes, some authors, descend upon a select conference center (this year in St. Louis in late June) to attend the International Christian Retail Show (ICRS).

ICRS. The trade show formerly known as CBA (Christian Booksellers Association). Where publishers gather with their editorial, sales, & marketing folks in shiny and grandiose booths to regale retailers with their offerings. This trade show has been around for a lot of years. In fact, I attended my first ICRS in 1982! Oh, how I remember standing there, staring at aisle after aisle of impressive booths and sparkling product; seeing famous authors I’d only heard of walking by or signing books; attending nightly extravaganzas that rivaled anything you could find in Nashville, Branson, or Vegas. It was, in a word, amazing!

And so it remained for a lot of years. Which made ICRS a coveted destination for authors. For years, the standard thought has been if a publisher takes you to ICRS, that proves they look on you as a rising (or established) star. A crowd pleaser. THE author whose products the retailers should carry in their stores. And so every year as the time approached for the annual event the excited buzz would begin…

The Beauty of Community

by Karen Ball

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As I write this blog, I’m sitting on a bench beneath towering California Redwoods. There’s a gentle breeze blowing, carrying with it the fragrance of evergreens and sunshine. But it carries something else. Something wondrous…

The sound of community.

All around me, people are walking and sitting and standing, and as their voices drift past me I hear a number of things:

Excitement
Shared laughter
Commiseration
Exploration
Instruction

But most of all, what I hear is passion. Pure, unadulterated passion. For writing. For words. For sharing God’s truth and wisdom on the written page (or, as the case may be, on the Internet). For the gift that is writing.

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