The Writer’s Conference. The Ivy League of authors. And perhaps the one place where writers go out of their way to talk to people. For once, the ice is already broken. We’re all here because we like one thing: bars writing. In one way or another…
After Google Maps took me through some alley with a burnt down building in Tacoma with a 64° incline to shave off a few milliseconds of being boxed in on five sides by semis, I popped up at the Pacific Northwest Writing Association’s (PWNA) annual writing conference. I met people doing all sorts of writing from all around the world. There was even someone who flew from Minnesota (at least I think, it was one of those M states) just for the awards dinner because she was a finalist in the literary contest. I was too, but we could be friends because I write complex, intricate stories with deep, troubled characters and she does peppy Middle Grade with the long, kiddy titles, so we could both genuinely wish each other the best, hope the other won.
I didn’t win.
But that’s okay, I really wasn’t expecting to, not with that draft and horrid synopsis that went with it. Frankly, I was surprised to be any kind of finalist at all, and knowing I made significant changes let me meh off not placing because the story is so, so, much better now with so much more content, a double-supreme pizza over a pepperoni and pineapple. Anyway, while this is an important reason I went to the conference, there’s other things to look forward to, and for anyone who hasn’t been to one, it might be confusing what to expect. So, fellow wanderers, I shall share a brief portion of my altruistic enlightenment of why everyone who is able should be willing:
Get Noticed—This is the obvious one. More than half of us have edited our story to death and through several other reincarnations, and it’s ready to be seen. And then torn apart by someone else.
The hard way for most of us introverts is to go right up and talk to these gate guardians. Even though it was hammered into my brain until it went through and through, it’s true: these agents and editors are here because they want to hear stories from us authors. While they’re at a conference, they aren’t reading from the slush pile. They come to hear from us. This year, I tread the waters and found more dolphins than sharks. Some of my best information (and requests) came from these informal meet ‘n greets. So hype up on sugar or coffee or B12 or whatever the kids call it these days and try and talk to these people about the stories they want to hear. Just not through a bathroom stall.
The more straightforward way is the pitch sessions. At PNWA they call their version of pitching “Speed dating” because they’re brief, 4-minute pitches to an agent or editor, then on to the next. I’ve never speed dated, but I’ve seen it on TV. This isn’t the rotation style where when time’s up it’s straight to the next one. No, think of it instead as there’s a few of those super hotties and everyone lines up for a quick chance at a first impression, and each person in front gets four minutes out of the 90-minute session. I went to two sessions, and managed four in the first one. The second? Two. That’s it. Over an hour in line for one agent and one more that was a no. Which brings us to the next thing.
Research—Remember Seinfeld? “You can’t over-die, you can’t over-dry.” (Which can’t be true, because why would there be settings) The same goes for research. Do it. Really. I learned the hard way when I thought I did research this time. It wasn’t enough.
Probably the best thing to do besides looking up the agent’s bio on the agency website is to see what books they’ve sold. I’m cursing my own stupidity now realizing that I wouldn’t have to read their entire catalog but could look up the synopsis on Amazon and I paid for it. With money too. See, half of the money I paid for pitches went to waste because I’d do the pitch and get the same dreaded response “We don’t take books like that.” For me, it was because I have a speculative element and these agents only took books without any of those whatsoever. Now this wasn’t said anywhere on their bio or twitter, but I probably would’ve picked up on it by checking a quick summary of what these books were like. Half of my pitches ended like this.
At the same time, don’t over-dry. Because it can be done. It would probably be a bad idea to go up to someone and say, “Oh I know you’ll like this book because your nephew’s name is James and I flew down and watched his JV basketball game last week where he scored six points in the third quarter, so you can really appreciate middle school underdog basketball book.” Sure knowledge is power, but too much corrupts absolutely.
Workshops—Know the program schedule ahead of time. And have a backup. Because sometimes the speaker might sound like Ben Stein but without the humor. We pay for each of these workshops, so don’t waste time on one that sounded good but is as much fun as sitting through a 20-minute song to hit the triangle once. Or…
Network—Sometimes, none of the workshops at the time are appealing. I don’t need to learn how to ship Darth Maul and Xena together if I don’t write fan fiction (Which to me is like robbing First Street Bank, leasing the building across the street, and starting a crappier version called Firstest Street Bank. If that’s not clear enough, no I DON’T). This is mostly what the business cards are for. At first I thought these were for agents to remember me and have my information, but at least at PNWA they don’t want them. But it helps to have them for fellow authors. Especially for the ones looking for a critique group that live in the same town and write the same genre!
More!—There’s usually a few authors roaming about, sometimes as speakers or volunteers or for their own networking. What’s better than knowing a great author, seeing their book in the bookstore, and having them sign it write away? (Pun intended, aheh, heh.) The speakers they choose have always been charismatic so far, there’s lots to learn, and even dinner is provided—at least paid for in registration.
The way I see it, every author looking to do this as his/her career should try to make it to at least one conference per year. More is better, but these things cost a pretty penny. And a good amount of time. Probably don’t cancel the family’s vacation to Disneyland or the trip to Grandma’s funeral to make it, but it’s worth a few days off. While the conferences themselves aren’t too pricey, for those of us too far for the daily commute, the hotels are insane. Most conferences are near an international airport, so look forward to small rooms at big prices. $150/night is as low as it gets for PNWA, including Motel 6. Plan ahead.
So get out of the cave and drop the quill, once a year, the light doesn’t burn. Too much.
Here’s a few more posts that mention different aspects of conferences:
“Why you should go to a writer’s Confernce”by Nicole Starleigh
“Why a Writer’s Conference is Important” by W. Terry Whalin
And check out the Shaw guide for a list of conferences nearby at http://writing.shawguides.com/