A Dozen Questions about Writing Conferences
June 14, 2009 | Written by admin
I've been going over the questions people have sent me recently, and several have asked about writing conferences…
1. Dylan asked, "Are you a fan of writers' conferences?"
I'm a huge fan. I think writing conferences are a great place to network with other writers, learn about the craft, and meet people in the industry.
2. Sarah wants to know, "Is a writing conferernce worth the cost? What should I get out of it?"
The value of a conference depends on your expectations. If you're going to meet people in the industry and get connected, you'll probably find it worthwhile. But if you're going with the thought that "an agent will have a ten-minute conversation and want to sign me" or "an editor will take one look at my proposal and offer me a contract," you're probably going to be disappointed. I suggest an author sit down and look at the list of faculty and the list of workshops being offered. If you need craft help, go to a conference with really strong craft seminars. If you are most in need of talking with agents, look for one with a long lineup of literary agents. With travel, meals, hotel, and the registration fee, you could be spending more than a thousand bucks on a big conference — that's a lot of money, especially if you're a writer who isn't making a thousand dollars a year via writing. So you've got to think about what your expectations are and how well the conference meets them. A little research can go a long way.
3. Veronica wrote this: "I'm planning to attend a conference in September, and they offer appointments with agents and editors. I'm not really ready for an agent — should I sign up to meet some anyway?"
That depends on what your goals are. Sometimes you'll sign up with an editor just to let them see your work and get their perspective on it. If you're looking for direction in your writing, make that clear at the outset, so that you can get the most out of your fifteen minutes. You might sign up to talk with an agent about the industry — again, give them some sense of your expectation in the meeting. But be aware — sometimes an editor or agent will have limited times available, and we hate it when somebody is clearly wasting our time. I'll offer two examples… I don't represent children's books, poetry, or sci-fi novels. Ten minutes of research would reveal that to a prospective author. Yet I regularly have morons pitch me their sci-fi children's poetry crap during agent appointments. As though they expect I'm suddenly going to see the light, grasp their proposal, and shout, "Hallelujah! Poetry I love!" Geez. That's what you call "getting off on the wrong foot." A couple years ago, at a conference I did as a favor to the director, I could only be there for an afternoon. They made a big point of stating "Chip is here just for a couple hours, and we'd appreciate it if you would leave those appointment times for experienced writers." So who was my first appointment? A woman with her fourteen-year-old daughter, who began by saying, "I don't really have anything to talk with you about, I just wanted my teenage daughter to meet you." (And I was polite. I figure seriously stupid people require calmness in order to keep from getting violent.)
4. Danny asked, "What do you say at a meeting with an agent?"
That depends on you and the agent. If you were meeting with an agent who was a longtime editor like Janet Grant, you might ask about the salability of your work, or talk about your craft. If you're talking with an agent who is known for industry stuff, like Steve Laube, you might ask about how your idea fit with publishing houses. If you were meeting with me, you might ask career questions. In other words, do your homework. Be ready to talk about yourself and your book. Be clear about what you're hoping to get out of the meeting. Allow the agent to respond to your questions. Don't push too hard. Understand that agents are just people doing their jobs, so they may not have fabulous answers to every question you ask. If you're serious about writing, then you have to treat a conference as a business trip, not just a mini-vacation.
5. Sally said this: "I've met you at conferences before, and you never seem to take material with you. Why don't you take proposals?"
It gets worse, Sharon… I usually don't even take business cards. Why? Because I don't want to have to fill my suitcase with piles of dead trees. If I find your idea interesting, I might ask you to email it to me. But understand that I frequently say "no thanks" to ideas pitched to me at conferences. (I feel a need to say that, since I find some editors are total weenies and seem to tell everyone to "send it to me." That way they can just reject stuff with a faceless email.) Look, if I'm not crazy about the idea, or it's not a fit, or I don't think the person can write, I've got no reason to take their proposal. Or their card or bookmark, for that matter. I see hundreds of proposals each year, and I might take on a handful of clients. Do the math.
6. Mike wrote: "At last year's conference, I had a bunch of people ask to see my proposal… but no one made me an offer. Am I wasting my time at conferences?"
Not the way I look at it. I figure having people say "send it to me" is better than having them say "get lost." So it didn't sell — at least it got looked at. Get some people to help you improve it, and show it to them again. (Or ditch the old idea and move on to something better.) Remember, for most people getting published is a process. You start out taking baby steps, and move toward learning how to write as an adult in the marketplace.
7. Sharon asked me, "Do you actually read the stuff you ask to see?"
Again, I don't ask to have something sent to me unless I actually find it salable and have some interest in the project. So yes, if I ask you to send it to me at a conference, I'll actually read it. (And, to be fair, all the legit agents I know treat writers this way.)
But this is a good place for me to interject one clarification: I will regularly have authors come up to me and say something like, "Dave Long from Bethany House INSISTED I send this to him" or "Shannon Marchese at Waterbook said I HAD to talk with you about this one!" The implication is always something like "you'd better get on board, MacGregor, because this train is heading out of the station." Invariably when I check out those comments, the truth is somewhat less compelling. Dave maybe said this one didn't suck as bad as the rest, and since he had to leave, he invited the author to send it to him later. Or Shannon was talking on her cel phone, and muttered something about the author needing an agent. Um… don't oversell me. Don't read messages into a comment. Just be truthful with me. One of my pet peeves is when an author will sort of threaten me — "Wendy Lawton at Books-n-Such LOVES this one!" My answer is always to roll my eyes. I mean, good for you. Wendy is a fine agent. If she loves it, then by all means sign on with her. But don't use that as a threat, thinking that your telling me is somehow going to motivate me to immediately sign you as a client. Wendy and I have different client lists, and who she chooses to represent usually doesn't impact me very much.
8. Elizabeth wants to know, "How do you feel about people writing you ahead of the conference, to set up appointments with you?"
Um… Okay, truth be told, I'm not crazy about it. I figure I'm there, giving my time just to talk to authors (and anyone who has worked with me at a conference will tell you that I go out of my way to make time talking with authors). I have appontment times set up at every conference I go to, and I expect people to make appointments with me in those timeslots. Yeah, occasionally an author will not get a meeting with me, but I honestly try to make lots of times available, since I understand people have paid a thousand dollars to attend. Sometimes it won't work, and the two of us just won't be able to meet and talk. Um… that's life. But I make every effort to talk to people at meetings, at meals, in hallways, during down times. The only thing I ask is that people (1) keep it short, (2) keep it polite, and (3) not interrupt me when it's late at night and I'm clearly relaxing by drinking a glass of wine with friends.
This points to the weirdo factor, which happens at conferences. Sometimes Mr Strangeways will show up at a conference and act like a stalker. He'll insist on following me, or spend a half-hour regaling everyone at the table with his cool novel idea. (Remember the episode of Seinfeld where every time Jerry turned around, there was this guy standing right behind him?) It's joked about in the industry, but I really did once have a guy slide his proposal in front of my face while I was standing at the urnial. (No, I'm not joking. It was at a conference at Seattle Pacific University a few years ago, and I actually shouted at the guy. Had I been thinking, I'd have turned toward him and told him how excited I was.) You're not ever going to get an agent if you come across as Dr Weirdness and the Children of Doom.
9. James asked, "Can you pitch more than one idea at a conference?"
Sure you can. Just make sure you're ready to talk about all of the ideas you bring. Nothing seems more lame than an author who mentions a really cool idea, but when I ask for details, he starts mumbling about "um… well… I don't know… I haven't actually written anything on that one…"
10. Deborah asked, "How will I know when I've actually met the right agent?"
Beats me. Maybe you'll hear angels singing, or there will be a holy glow emanating from the agent's chair. You could speak in tongues, for all I know. But my guess is it'll all feel right — there will have been some good conversation, you'll both feel comfortable with each other, and there will be enough trust built up that you'll both feel good about partnering on books.
11. Several people have written to ask me what the best writing conferences are.
There's no easy answer. The Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing takes place every other year on the campus of Calvin College, and in my opinion it's the best gathering of writers and thinkers we have. Some people swear by the Iowa Writers Workshop, or Sewanee, or the Bread Loaf Conference. I think the ACFW conference that happens every September is as good as a conference can be. It's in Denver this year, always seems to be at a nice hotel, has superb faculty, and offers good craft info as well as great networking. I always think it's the best value for the money. The Write-to-Publish conference takes place on the campus of Wheaton College each summer, and it's also a fine general conference. Very good meetings, well organized, great food, easy to get to, and a reasonable cost (the only downside is that you sleep in college dorm rooms, which may bring back bad memories involving crepe paper, beer, and getting turned down for dances). The Blue Ridge conference under Al Gansky has turned into a major league gathering for Christian writers, and has great accomodations in the wonderful setting of Asheville (the only downside being that Asheville is expensive to get to, and the food is apparently cooked by guilt-ridden Southern Baptists). But all three of those would be on my "A" list for Christian writing conferences.
RWA puts on a fine, though pricey, conference that usually has the most industry professionals. The Colorado Christian conference takes place in gorgeous Estes Park, and Marlene Bagnull always seems to gather a solid faculty, which makes up for the fact that the rooms and food leave something to be desired. On the other hand, her conference in Philly has fine rooms and food, they're just a distance from the actual conference. Mount Hermon is a big conference with lots of industry professionals that consistently has excellent class and workshop options — it just costs an arm and leg between conference fees and travel, and sucks up an entire week. And there are other conferences around the country that might surprise you. Next month I'll be at the University of Georgia for the Harriette Austin conference, for example. Numerous college and regional retreats are very good – Sante Fe, Jackson Hole, Stony Brook, etc. I know there are conferences from Delaware to Southern California, from Florida to Washington State. In late July the Oregon Christian Writers are putting on a conference that has a great faculty lineup at a good value, even though it may seem a bit out of the way.
If you're a Christian writer who regularly visits this blog, check out some of the general market conferences in your area. If you're just starting out, consider attending one of ACW's two-day writing conferences, which Reg Foder runs in about 30 cities each year. They're a fine introduction to the business, at a very low cost.
12. I've had more than a dozen write to ask, "Which writing conferences will you be at this summer?"
I've been showing up at numerous writers' conferences this year — Colorado, Blue Ridge, Write-to-Publish. I'll be at Write Canada next week, then at the University of Georgia and the Oregon conference in July. Come September I'll be meeting with authors at the ACFW gathering in Denver. I'm trying to get to see people and talk with them about the industry as much as possible because… well, it's coming to an end for me. I've done well over 100 writing conferences the past few years, and I've decided to hang it up for a while. I feel as though I've said what needs to be said, and I've got authors who really need my full attention. I might still make it to ACFW each fall, since I have so many authors attending most years, but I don't see myself continuing on the conference trail very much.
Hope you find all this conference info helpful. If you have other questions, feel free to run them by me.