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Going to a writers’ conference?

February 15, 2012

I hadn’t expected to intrude on the moment, but there it was in front of me, a snippet of a writer’s life. I was at the Killer Nashville conference last summer, hoards of writers bustling through the hallway on their way to the next workshops or stopping at information tables.

Some of us had signed up for slots to pitch our books to agents and editors and were seated and lined against the wall outside a small room, waiting in agony.

Then the scene unfolded, interrupting my fears about making my first pitch to an agent. A young man paced in the hall, near us, his face eager and hopeful. Tucked under his arm was a thick manuscript. I wasn’t sure whether he had signed up to meet an agent or not, so I continued to watch the clock for my appointed time and went back to mentally rehearsing the best possible “sell” of my book.

The agent appeared in the hallway to call the next writer when the man interrupted and approached her. “Here,” he said, handing her the bundle of neatly-bound paper. “I’ve brought my novel with me and would like you to read it.”

She was kind, but firm. She couldn’t. The reality was that she didn’t have the time to look at his manuscript. For that matter, no agent would have consented to lug it back to New York or Los Angeles or wherever even if she or he had shown interest in the book.

That incident left a mark on me for many reasons. For one, I saw etched on this man’s face the yearning of all writers. I resonated to his struggle. But I also realized that despite our universal desire to be published, the industry is just that – an industry, a business with rules. And to enhance our chances of publication, it’s best to follow the protocol, especially at writers’ conferences.

Many of you already know what to do at these gatherings, and most of it is common sense. Still, some of these pointers are always good to remember.

Like the poor fellow who attempted to hand his novel to an agent, do not take your manuscript to the conference. Agents and editors simply don’t have time. Sign up for a pitch session. If they want to see more, they’ll let you know.

You may be tempted, but never, ever corner an agent in a restroom, in the elevator or while he or she is trying to eat. Make sure you know what the protocol is for meeting agents.

Don’t burn bridges and attack an agent or editor for what you perceive to be their lack of foresight in not buying the next best seller. The writing community is small. You don’t want to be known for your lack of professionalism.

When you go there, talk to other writers. Learn from them. Ask about their work. They often want to help you in any way they can. For example, at Killer Nashville I met a retired English professor from a major university who volunteered to critique the first few chapters of my novel. And I met some amazing writers who are now friends on Facebook.

Go to learn more about the publishing industry. It can seem daunting these days, so attend panels and ask educated questions about how publishing works. And come prepared. Learn more about the agents and editors who will be attending the conference and research what genres they represent.

Finally, don’t expect to get a major book deal. It rarely happens, although an agent at Killer Nashville shared his story of writer Eowyn Ivey of Alaska (her interview is archived on our blog). This agent had met her at another writers’ conference and was so impressed with her writing, he signed her on the spot for her novel, The Snow Child. Many of us will not be blessed in this way, but we can do our part by making sure our pitch and our book are the best they can be.

Obviously, the young man who hijacked the agent in the hallway thought his novel was amazing. And it might have been. Wherever he is, I hope at the next conference he attends he’ll take time to sign up for a pitch session, ask questions, and learn more. Most of all, I hope he knows that the writing community is an amazing group of people, always willing to help other writers – especially at conferences!

Now, my question to you: What are some of your memorable experiences at writers’ conferences?

For writers  in Pennsylvania, “The Write Stuff” is scheduled for March 16-17:

For other conferences and writers retreats in the U.S.:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2012 10:16 AM

    What I remembered most about the first writers conference I ever attended (the Poconos SCBWI PA conference back in 2000) was the sense of belonging in a community that understood my passion to write.

    • February 15, 2012 10:21 AM

      Thanks for sharing your experience at your first writers’ conference, Carmen. My first conference was Killer Nashville and I was so grateful for the support and understanding I received there. The writing community is simply amazing!

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