How to Make the Most of Your Conferences or Die Trying
by Erin Brown
Okay, so hopefully you won’t actually die trying to survive and thrive at a writers’ conference, although if you corner an agent in the bathroom to make a pitch, you’re playing with fire. So how can you make the most of your conference experience so that you walk away at the end with your head held high, with a wealth of new knowledge, and with some key contacts? Oh, I’m so glad you asked! As a veteran speaker, panelist, critiquer, and connoisseur of hotel-catered pastries, I’ve attended my share of conferences, and I think that the following are some worthy nuggets of wisdom to remember as you prepare and attend your favorite conference (if you don’t think these are precious wee nuggets, don’t send any emails. I officially don’t like you).
1. Do your research. Know who’s speaking, what agents and/or editors are attending (what and who they represent), as well as fellow writers you want to meet. Read books by the featured writers. You can strike up a conversation at any time, so it helps to know whom you’re speaking to and be able to discuss their work. In other words, come armed with knowledge.
2. Write and practice your succinct pitch. Again and again and again and again. It should take only a minute or two to pitch your book. That’s it. Make it sound natural and compelling.
3. Bring a notebook, pens, etc. You’ll want to jot down all of the nuggets of wisdom you receive (just like I’m sure you’re doing now)!
4. Dress comfortably, yet professionally. Dressing as your main character or sprinkling glitter in your hair or attaching props to your body will get you noticed, but probably not in a good way. I’ve never heard an agent say, “I don’t even care what he wrote, I must sign that bedazzled warlock over there!”
5. Don’t burn any bridges. If you get a bad critique, or someone doesn’t have time to talk to you, or you just don’t get the response you want from someone, be respectful and kind about it. Don’t freak out and tell anybody off. Then you’ll soon be known by every agent and editor there as “that nutcase.” It’s a small world and everyone talks.
6. Leave your manuscript at home. There’s no need to lug it around because an agent or editor will not ask to see it. If they want a query letter or manuscript, they’ll ask you to send it to their office. Simply know your pitch.
7. Attend every workshop and speaking event you can (that interest you), and sign up for one-on-one meetings. Get all you can out of the professionals.
8. Find some friends! Talk to your fellow authors and discuss writing, life, and the writer’s life. Maybe even the last season of Mad Men.
9. Bring lots of business cards. Hand them out to authors, editors, and agents.
10. Speaking of editors and agents, it bears repeating: do not, do not, I think I said, do not harass, corner, surprise, or stalk any agents or editors. Be cool, calm, and collected and start up a conversation during an appropriate moment and time—perhaps a cocktail party—and only make your pitch when they ask, “So what do you write?”
11. Think of some good questions to ask speakers and featured editors and agents. But make them relevant, and not about your novel. There’s nothing worse than someone standing up and asking, “Let’s say there’s a writer who has a novel about magical horses and vampires, and let’s say they want to find an agent, would you be that agent and can I pitch to you in the middle of this Q&A session?”
12. Follow up. After the conference, write thank you notes to agents and editors who took the time to meet and/or speak with you, and definitely send out any requested material.
All in all, you want to enjoy and learn at conferences. If you come prepared, professional, and enthusiastic (but not crazy), you can accomplish this every time. And please, please don’t be “that guy/girl” that everyone at the conference is talking about, and not in a good way. “Wow, did you see the pirate in the glow-in-the-dark body paint lurching around over there?” Don’t let it be you. Happy conferencing!
Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com