I’ve had the fun of teaching at nearly 200 writers conferences over the years. In that time, I’ve noticed several common things that all writers face. Let’s explore a few tips that may help you survive at the next one you attend.
The most common mistake is viewing the conference as a make-it-or-break-it event. The stress folks place on themselves is palpable. 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 observe 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 whom 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 seen this reaction far too often. Put the positive response in the right perspective, and you will save yourself a lot of grief.
More than once I have overheard someone talking on their cell phone with a family member proclaiming, “This is my first conference, and [fill in name of major publisher here] wants my book! I can’t believe it!”
The editor or agent genuinely wants to look at your material but can’t fully evaluate it 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 crying, “You absolutely must become my agent because that editor over there said they liked my story idea!” This person was overreacting to a cordial request, turning it into a false positive.
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 at 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 2017 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. The conference photo below (from 2014) is delightful as Randy Alcorn thinks he is hilarious. And Malcolm Guite wants to talk about his book! I am an innocent bystander.