Yesterday, I left off talking about what you should SAY at a conference, and moved on to what you should CARRY. While my last post’s advice was concerned with your comfort and welfare, today’s tips are all about networking.
Conferences are about CONFERRING, people: network!
Because you will be meeting some God-awfully interesting people, you will want to bring some easily transferable pieces of paper with your contact information printed on it: a business card, for instance, or comparably sized sheets from your home printer.
I mention this now, so you may prepare in advance. Having to scrabble around in your tote bag for a stray scrap of paper upon which to inscribe your vitals every time you meet someone nice gets old FAST.
Besides, if you file a Schedule C to claim your writing as a business, the cost of having the cards made is usually tax-deductible — and no, you don’t have to make money as a writer in every year you file a Schedule C for it. Talk to a tax advisor experienced in working with artists.
Seriously, it is VERY worth your while to have some inexpensive business cards made, or to print some up at home, for two excellent reasons. First, it’s always a good idea to be able to hand your contact info to an agent or editor who expresses interest in your work. They don’t often ask for it, but if they do — in a situation, say, where an editor from a major press who is not allowed to pick up an unagented book REALLY wants to hook you up with an agent — it’s best to be prepared.
Second, unless you make a point of sitting by yourself in a corner for the entire conference, you are probably going to meet other writers that you like — maybe even some with whom you would like to exchange chapters, start a writers’ group, or just keep in contact to remind yourself that we’re all in this together.
The easier you make it for them to contact you, the more likely they are to remain in contact. It’s just that simple.
I would urge you to avoid the extremely common mistake of walking into ANY writers’ gathering thinking that the only people it is important for you to meet are the bigwigs: the agents, the editors, the keynote speakers. It requires less energy, true, but it is a tad elitist, not to say short-sighted: in the long run, casting a wider acquaintance net will pay off better for you.
For one very, very simple reason: the more writer friends you have, the easier it is to learn from experience. Why make your own mistakes, when you can learn from your friends’, and they from yours? What better source for finding out which agents are really nice to writers, and which are not? And who do you think is going to come to your book signings five years from now?
Obviously, if you can swing a one-on-one with the keynote speaker, go for it — I once spent several hours stranded in a small airport with Ann Rule, and she is an absolutely delightful conversationalist. Especially if you happen to have an abnormally great interest in blood spatter patterns. But I digress.
But try not to let star-watching distract you from interacting with the less well-known writers teaching the classes — who are there to help YOU, after all — or the writer sitting next to you in class. I have met some of the best writers I know by the simple dint of turning to the person rummaging through the packaged teas on the coffee table and saying, “So, what do you write?”
Remember those magic first hundred words? This is the time to use ’em.
Believe me, it’s worth doing. Someday, some of your fellow conference attendees are going to be bigwigs themselves — realistically, can you rule out the possibility that the person sitting next to you in the session on writer’s block ISN’T the next Stephen King? — and don’t you want to be able to say that you knew them when?
And even if this were not true (but it is), writing is an isolating business — for every hour that even the most commercially successful writer spends interacting with others in the business, she spends hundreds alone, typing away. The more friends you can make who will understand your emotional ups and downs as you work through scenes in a novel, or query agents, or gnaw your fingernails down to the knuckle, waiting for an editor to decide whether to buy your book, the better, I say.
Even the most charmed writer, the one with both the best writing AND the best pure, dumb luck, has days of depression. Not all of us are lucky enough to live and work with people who appreciate the necessity of revising a sentence for the sixth time. Writers’ conferences are the ideal places to find friends to support you, the ones you call when your nearest and dearest think you are insane for sinking your heart and soul into a book that may not see print for a decade.
So stuff some business cards into your conference bag along with a folder containing several copies of your synopsis AND five copies of the first five pages of your book, as a writing sample.
Why five pages, specifically? Well, not all agents do this, but many, when they are seriously taken with a pitch, will ask to see a few pages on the spot, to see if the writing is good enough to justify the serious time commitment of reading the whole book.
They don’t like, you see, to buy a pig in a poke.
Having these pages ready to whip out at a moment’s notice will make you look substantially more professional than if you blush and murmur something about printing it out, or simply hand the agent your entire manuscript.
Don’t, however, bother to bring your entire book with you to the conference, UNLESS you are a finalist in one of the major categories. You will never, ever, EVER miss an opportunity by offering to mail it instead.
In fact, agents almost universally prefer it. This is true, even if they insist that they want to read it on the airplane home.
Why the exception for the contest finalists? Well, agents tend to be pretty competitive people. The primary reason that an agent would ask for the whole thing right away, in my experience, is if he is afraid that another agent at the conference will sign you before he’s had a chance to read it — and the writers who tend to be the objects of such heart-rending scenes of jealousy are almost invariably those sporting finalist ribbons.
So while I have known agents to read a chapter or two of the winners’ work in their hotel rooms, the chances of its happening in the normal run of a pitch day are roughly the same as finding the complete skeleton of a dinosaur in your back yard.
It could happen — but it doesn’t really make sense to plan your life around the possibility.
Otherwise, don’t hurt your back lugging the manuscript box around; the sample will do just as well. If you feel that an excerpt from the end of the book showcases your work better, use that, but if you can at all manage it, choose the first five pages of the book as your sample — it just exudes more confidence in your writing, as these are the first pages a screener would see in a submission.
From the writer’s POV, the sole purpose of the writing sample is to get the agent to ask you to send the rest of the book, so although I hammer on this point about twice a month here, I’m going to say it again: as with everything else you submit to any industry pro, make sure that these pages are impeccably written, totally free of errors, and in standard format.
If the fact that there is a standard format for manuscripts — and that it does NOT resemble the formatting of published books — is news to you, rush into the archives at right immediately, and take a gander at the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS. Seriously, this is not a moment when you want your pages to cry out, “The author’s unfamiliar with the standards of the industry!”
Oh, and clever and forward-thinking Dave wrote in yesterday to add another item to your book bag’s must-have list: a printed-out confirmation of your hotel reservation, if you’re not attending a conference that permits you to sleep in your own bed at night. For a fuller explanation of why, please see the comments on yesterday’s post, but for now, suffice it to say: it is not at all unheard-of for a hotel hosting a conference to over-book. Paper confirmation is still a good idea, even in this electronic age.
Tomorrow, I shall talk a bit about how to organize your time in order to get the most out of a conference. In the meantime, keep practicing those pitches, and keep up the good work!