Agent Monday: The Big Conference Question

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Here I am, hydrating at a panel talk with fellow Liars Club authors at the Princeton Public Library.

Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  As you writers set new goals for the new year, you may be stewing over whether it’s worth including writer’s conferences as part of your plan.  Why, exactly, should you go to a conference. Is it worth the money? Couldn’t you just spend that time writing and then learning what you need to know via online research? These were some of the questions writers in my own critique group were chatting about at our last Rebel Writers meeting.  So today, I thought I tackle The Big Conference Question: should you go?

I’ve been to a ton of writer’s conferences by now. First as a writer, and now as a literary agent as well.  Some have been amazing. Some have been, well, eh, in value. But I’ve always learned from them and I’ve never been sorry to attend.  In fact, I landed my own agent, the lovely Jennifer De Chiara (who still reps me, and now I also work as an agent for her firm…yeah, we talk a lot!) and secured my first book deal as an author through conferences, and you can read about all that here in my post WHY CONFERENCES.

Go ahead. Give that one a look.  I’ll wait…

Taps foot…

Done reading that? Okay. So that shows how all the stars could align through attending conferences, and how it did for me. In today’s post I want to go a little deeper into what you might look for in a conference and truly expect, and point out some of the not-so-obvious ways you can benefit beyond the “I landed an agent!” and the “I got a book deal!”, which, truthfully, does not typically happen first time out of the gate. With me, for example, those things were achieved after years of conferences, tons of learning on my part, and tons of polishing of my own writing in between…and then the contacts I made via conferences led in a lovely straight line to my goal.

So, what is YOUR goal. Yup, getting your book published, and published well.  But those who are most successful understand that takes a bunch of intermediary steps. So those who dive into a conference with the sole hungry purpose of getting published will probably blow the many opportunities offered to them at a writer’s conference.  They’ll be too focused on landing an agent to absorb what an agent, who may not be asking for their manuscript after a pitch, is offering in the way of advice on how to improve that pitch. I see that as an agent a lot.  The writer flies across the country and spends mucho bucks on hotel and conference fees to pitch face to face with agents. That writer pitches to me, and the pitch is confusing. I pass, and offer advice on how the pitch is unclear, how, perhaps the writer could focus it better.  But the writer, herself so focused on landing an agent, has shut down the moment it seems like our conversation is not going her way. She hears NO and is done with me and dashes off.

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Here I am studying opening pages at a pitch session held during the Push-to-Publish Conference in Rosemont, PA

Do you see why that level of single-mindedness is a fail when it comes to conferences? If the writer had listened to what I said, she might have discovered a way to improve her pitch, and the next agent she’d pitch to that day, might have said yes.

So, again, I ask you to think about YOUR goal. Here’s a good one: to learn.

At conferences you can figure out the best way to present yourself and your work, whether in a query or in a live pitch. You can hear agents speaking and find out if they are looking for the sort of writing that you do, or not. If not, cross them off your list of submissions, but still listen and take notes – they might offer you a tidbit of advice that’ll help you when contacting agents who are into your type of writing.  Also, it does give you the opportunity to see what a particular agent is really like. You want someone who will represent you well to editors.  Does the agent speak well? Do you like the impression they give off? If the answer is no, then do you really want them to be the face and voice of you and your career? 

You can learn so much about the business side of writing through conferences – the sort of stuff you can’t glean just through reading magazines and books and blogs. Sit in on a panel of editors, and you’ll discover how the acquisitions process works, what they like and don’t like taste-wise, what they will expect from authors they are interested in. And that will all help you.

And then there are elements of craft. Over the years, I’ve learned amazing plot techniques from picture book authors (even though I was writing YA at the time), and research ideas from non-fiction authors (which I used for my historical YA fantasy DRAWN), and gathered so much inspiration from many presenters that kept me chugging along as a writer even when chugging along was pretty tough.

But here’s the most overlooked benefit of attending a conference: the people sitting beside you there!  Talk to the folks around you, and on breaks between sessions and at meals. You’ll find your peers. Swap info on the writing life, and the sort of writing you’ve done. You’ll meet people who get you. Who are doing what you do. Some will have book deals and agents and endless wisdom to offer. Others will be up and coming and be able to offer bits of info you can use, and you can do the same for them. Collectively, all of this will propel you closer to your big goal.  Friends, critique partners, contacts, a bit of info about a writing organization you should get involved with. These are amazing stepping-stones to your success.

So, looking ahead to writer’s conferences this year, which should you choose? I say start with smaller ones closer to home if you can, for starters. Ones with several decent editors and a few agents. You’ll have a lower price tag, more face time with everyone, and a great start.  If you find one farther from home, look carefully at what you’ll get out of it. Are you one of thousands? Do you have opportunities to learn in smaller workshops and have more personal time with fellow writers as well as industry professionals? There are a ton of writer’s conferences out there, with more popping up every day.  Know your goals for attending, and keep an open mind as you go from event to event at a conference. Keep your focus on learning however you can, and you’ll find endless ways to do just that. And remember, that knowledge will help you get where you want to be in the end!

To see where I’ll be this year, check out my Appearances page, which I continuously update as needed.

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

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11 thoughts on “Agent Monday: The Big Conference Question

  1. As someone who has also attended conferences as both a writer and as an agent, I agree wholeheartedly. We never know where we may find ourselves on this journey called “life,” as a human as well as a writer (as well as a human writer). Connecting with people, learning from others, and sharing with others, are all things to propel us into the future we create for ourselves. Well said! (and see theblabbermouthblog.com for where I’ll be in 2014!)

    • Thanks, Linda! Yeah, conferences got a whole lot more meaningful for me as a writer when I started talking to not only the presenters, but also the attendees. Our fellow scribes have a ton to offer.

  2. Marie, this is SO timely for me right now as I am looking at which conferences to attend in a different light this year. Now that I’m a published author with an agent and transitioning from writing dark adult fiction to MG/YA – how do I figure out which conferences to attend and why? Most important I think now is the craft (still need to keep learning!) and the people (love to network and build new bridges!). And also, in a new light, take notes on the workshops authors give about what and how they present so I can start formulating my own talks and start to build experience presenting in a small venue (such as a library talk). Then someday I can work up to be a presenting author at a conference. Marie, any additional advice on attending a writing conference when you have an agent and books to come out already? Thanks!

    • Hi Donna!

      All great points. Yeah, many conferences do focus on the basics and are geared at getting an agent, getting a deal. But what about once you have that deal?

      Some conferences are addressing that, especially SCBWI ones, where they have what they call a professional track – a range of workshops for the pro writers who are looking for more in-depth info. Also, you might seek out programs that offer great workshops on promotion or more focused craft. And of course, there is the inspiration that comes from a conference – a boost to us all.
      :)

  3. Wonderful post, Marie! Though I have yet to land an agent, EVERY conference I’ve attended has been beyond valuable and has improved my writing. And yes, best of all, I have made great friends and connections. I look forward to seeing them all in the future, including you! Our last MD/DE/WV SCBWI was the best!

  4. Marie, I’ve gone to a lot of writers’ conferences, and while I didn’t get an agent – not everyone wins the jackpot – I met up with Jonathan Maberry’s Writers Coffeehouse group, Marguerite Press, and other authors’ groups. The contacts I made led to a published book and my running the Night to Dawn magazine. The conference offers lots of opportunities for networking, and I have my sights set for attending Philadelphia Writer’s Conference this year at the very least. Thank you for a great post. :)
    Barbara of the Balloons

  5. When attending a conference and receiving a critique, are there any questions we should be sure to ask our critiquer? I will be attending one soon and while I want to know if my story was entertaining, if they stopped reading and if so where, and all of the obvious things they want to point out, I also don’t want to forget to ask something important. This critique is on a Picture Book and I hope next time to submit a Middle Grade Fantasy. As a writer is there anything you always ask?

    • Hi June,

      Actually, the more important thing you should do is listen. Listen carefully without interruption and take notes, then if anything is unclear, ask questions about that. I think we writers are anxious to explain why we did such and such that the critique-person is commenting on, but I always try to remember as a writer that my piece of writing must stand on its own without me defending it or explaining things. So listening is really numero uno.

      Have a great conference!

      • It’s funny you say that. I already put a post it in my critique folder that says ‘Mouth Shut’. I know its easy to defend or explain our work. Plus, I ramble when nervous.

        Thanks for the advice!

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