What makes a conference right for you?

Well, it’s that time of year again, folks: spring is in the air (at least in my neck of the proverbial woods), those of us in the Pacific Northwest get to see the sun in brief, blinding glimpses after our long annual bout of being locked in a closet by Mother Nature, and a writer’s thoughts begin to turn to literary conferences.

Or is it only me?

I suspect not; this is the season when most of our mailboxes, literal and e-mail, begin to break out in conference brochures — that is, if you’ve ever subscribed to Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, or The Writer, taken a writing seminar, entered a literary contest, or attended a conference before. One of the plagues of modern civilization is the sale and resale of mailing lists, and the let’s-help-writers market is not immune.

Why pay attention to all of this recycling bin fodder now, rather than wait until the weather warms up? Simple: the summer conference season actually starts in the spring, running through October — and, since there is quite a bit of competition amongst conferences for attendees, early registration often carries some tangible benefits.

Commitment incentive, if you will. For instance, as I have mentioned before, the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association’s conference is offering an extra pitching appointment to the first 150 registrants. Not a bad reward for the ability to put a stamp on an envelope or log onto a website faster than other people, eh?

The benefits of conference attendance are, of course, clearly spelled out on the brochures and websites — masses of informative classes, famous keynote speakers, perhaps the opportunity to meet a favorite author or two in the flesh. But let’s be honest about it: most writers go to conferences primarily to pitch their work in person to agents and editors.

Why is this a good idea, given that books are acquired based not upon how well their authors can speak about them, but rather upon the writing, plot, etc.? Well, essentially, in-person pitching allows you to skip a step of the process. A very annoying step, as it happens, and well worth skipping: the querying stage.

It is really, really helpful if you walk into a conference understanding that: you are there not to be discovered by the agent or editor of your dreams, signed instantly, and swept off to literary stardom, but to garner invitations from agents and editors to skip the otherwise-requisite cold querying step and move right on to the send-me-the-first-50-pages step. You are there, in short, to grab at a chance to have your work judged on the merits of the writing, not on how a screener reacts to a 1-page letter.

And that, my friends, is not an opportunity at which to sneeze. Pitching at a conference can speed up a book’s journey to publication by years. So, as investments in your writing career go (especially tax-deductible ones, as a literary conference can be for a writer who files a tax return for a writing business), it can be a doozy.

Provided, of course, that you work the conference well.

For those of you who have never pitched at a literary conference before, here is how it works. Most conferences invite one or more agent(s) and/or editor(s) to speak. At some conferences, like the PNWA or the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, to name two of the best in my neck of the woods, every attendee is given, as part of the price of admission, a brief pitching appointment with an agent and/or editor. 5-15 minutes is average, but at some conferences, it is as little as 2.

At others, such as my favorite small conference, the Flathead River Writers’ Conference, only a limited agent and editor appointments are available. These appointments are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, so it pays to register early.

Thus your first step in considering a conference as an investment should be to ask yourself: realistically, how likely am I to get face-to-face time with an agent or editor? Will I be able to register in time to get an appointment?

If you can land one of those coveted appointments at a smaller conference, it tends to be very worth your while to attend. Usually, in venues where every attendee is automatically booked for face time, the agents and editors will not have read any of your work prior to the appointment, but in a smaller, more seminar-like environment, attendees are often asked to send excerpts of their work beforehand, so the agents and editors can read prior to the appointments. (One of the few larger conferences where everyone gets an appointment AND the agents and editors read work first is Words and Music.)

At a larger conference, however, it substantially easier to pitch outside your scheduled appointment time, and thus to more agents and editors, for the extremely simple reason that there are more of them wandering the hallways. If you are brave enough to attempt the high dive of the conference circuit, the 1-minute hallway pitch, a larger conference will give you more opportunities.

Don’t worry; as we get closer to conference season, I shall be going over how to prepare both a standard pitch and the swifter hallway variety. (You didn’t think I was going to send you in there unprepared, did you? Perish the thought.) Right now, all that is important for you to do is think about the kind of environment likely to be most conducive to your presenting your work well. Not every conference venue works for everyone.

For instance, I have noticed that in conferences in the South, personal appearance is far more important than it is at conferences in other parts of the country — a bit odd, since most of the agents and editors trolling there for new writers tend to be Manhattan-, Los Angeles-, or San Francisco-based, where different standards prevail. (In New York, they notice whom you are wearing; in LA, they notice the body under what you’re wearing, and in San Francisco, they’ll notice how friendly you are. Seriously.)

As a Westerner born and bred, it took me several forays to Southern conferences before I figured out why relative strangers kept asking me if my luggage with all my high heels had been lost in transit and offering to loan me their hair dryers: where I come from, looking good without apparent effort is prized.

Suffice it to say, I now wear heels, and even — sacre bleu! — nylons to Southern conferences, suits in the Midwest, sleek black in the Northeast, and whatever happens to be clean in the Pacific Northwest.

Just as not every outfit is appropriate for every conference venue — leave the Mickey Mouse ears at home, unless you happen to be pitching to Disney executives — neither is every book, or every writer. By giving some thought to the kind of conference experience you are seeking before you send off that check, you can maximize your investment in your writing career.

Tomorrow, I shall delve into the thorny issue of how to decide whether the array of agents and editors scheduled to attend any given conference is right for you and your book. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “What makes a conference right for you?”

  1. I wonder if we get a little shy about talking about successes because it is so hard. And then these little miracles come along (really one’s hard work coming to blossom) like being asked to submit to an exclusive publication and being only one of three accepted. I know that I’ve worked hard to make this happen. Some other writers are still tearing down the publishing process or don’t know the realities of what happens to their precious work (it gets edited) so it’s hard to burst out and tell the good news.
    I just keep plugging. No secret here. Shall I repeat? “Keep up the good work.”

  2. I suspect that you’re right about the shyness, Janet — when you’re looking into the eyes of some sweet, talented soul who has been querying for years, it can feel an awful lot like boasting.

    But actually, I think it helps other writers to hear about the successes. It’s SO easy to start to wonder if success is even possible, especially if you don’t happen to know anyone who has gotten published, landed an agent, published a book, etc. It’s a great restorative to faith, seeing others succeed.

    Especially those who have been part of the writing community, those we have seen plugging away.

    It’s sort of like when an actor who has been doing excellent character work in small roles for years suddenly starts getting recognition and leads (say, like Kevin Spacey, Don Cheedle, Forrest Whittaker, Hope Davis…). That’s SO satisfying, isn’t it, to see years of good, hard work rewarded?

    More satisfying, at least for me as a spectator, than seeing an overnight star. An overnight star, no matter how talented, is lucky — and luck tends to generate resentment. Slow climbers, though, even if they do start experiencing luck, don’t make one feel resentment, because they deserve to be lucky, after all that hard work.

    So I say let’s hear it for the pluggers-away! A win for you is a win for the team, as far as I’m concerned.

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