Agent Monday: Digging for Buried Treasure

Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  I don’t know about you, but I’m so relieved that it’s March. A definite sense of “phew we made it-ness” has pervaded my mind.  A huge snow storm was predicted for today, so imagine my glee when I flipped up the shades this morning and discovered we’d gotten not 12 inches but barely an inch! HA! Take that winter. So instead of wasting time digging out mounds of white stuff I can devote a little extra time to digging for buried treasure. That’s right! It’s time to hunt through my inbox for that query that’ll tempt me to request a full manuscript. Wanna come along for the adventure? Pack your treasure map and your spy glass and follow me. Arrrrrr….

First query – science fiction. My guidelines say I don’t represent science fiction. Rejection sent.

Second query – non-fiction. My guidelines say I don’t represent non-fiction (aside from memoir). Rejection sent.

(Are you noticing a trend here? If so, here’s the link to my own treasure map, er, I mean submission guidelines.)

Third query – memoir. Something I actually represent. Yeah! Unfortunately, I found this one to not be unique enough, and the sample chapter was stilted. Rejection sent. (For what I think makes a memoir stand out, check out this post.)

Fourth query – YA, something else I actually represent. But this one is not at all ready for prime time. The writer needs to learn a lot more about the market and about writing before being at a professional level and ready to submit to agents. Rejection sent.

Fifth query – Women’s fiction, something I’m looking for. Length of the manuscript is right and the query follows my guidelines, but I’m not drawn in by the premise. I read a little of the sample pages pasted in below the query (something my guidelines allow for) and I’m not crazy about the voice or the writing. Rejection sent.

Sixth query – Category romance. My guidelines state I do not represent category romance. Rejection sent.

Seventh query – Women’s fiction. I found the query letter to be flat and it didn’t evoke anything for me. Rejection sent.

Eighth query – YA. The themes were cliché and the language used didn’t feel like it belonged to a teen. Rejection sent.

Ninth query – Middle grade fiction. Definitely looking for these. But this one didn’t sound unique, and the writing wasn’t up to snuff to me. Rejection sent.

Tenth query – YA. Strong query, except for a cliché tossed in. Opening pages have a nice voice.  I’m still worried about the cliché, though. Hm…  No rejection, but no request for more yet either.  I’m setting this one aside to look at again later, maybe after another cup of coffee.

Eleventh query – YA. I like the query and the plot hangs on an interesting hook. Encouraged, I read the opening pages, but quickly find myself skimming. Lots of back story. Pacing is way off. Rejection sent.

Query twelve – Fantasy. While I like fantasy elements, full-on fantasy is not my thing (as I say in my guidelines). Rejection sent.

Feeling a bit discouraged here.  Will there be any treasure in them-thar hills or not? Shall we shoot for lucky thirteen? Okay pirates, take a swig of rum (or coffee) and let’s journey on to one final spot.

Query thirteen – Horror. Guess what? I’m not at all into genre horror. Plus, I’ve seen this plot before in a very famous novel. Rejection sent.

MP900341872Ah well, fellow treasure hunters. Be not discouraged. The majority of my clients have been found through the query process, so treasure hunting does pay off.  And for you writers, know that crafting an interesting query plus a fascinating manuscript is what it’s all about. And here’s a takeaway that is simple, yet pure gold: read an agent’s guidelines and follow them!

Until next time, me mateys, Arrrr!

*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.

Agent Monday: It’s all about Priorities

conceptHappy Agent Monday, people! This weekend was all about stepping outside while the sun was finally shining and the snow was starting to finally recede. Plus there were all those weekend-ish priorities intruding from vacuuming, to food shopping, to doing taxes, and reading queries (I do like to do that with my first cuppa Joe first thing on weekend mornings). But Monday’s priorities are entirely different. Ah, where to start? It’s all about being organized even as things are being tossed at me left and right. At the end of the day, and especially at the end of the week, I want to have moved forward on goals I’ve set for myself.  So in today’s post, I thought I’d shed a little light on just what this agent might be doing in a typical week. And for this agent, it’s all about priorities.

What are my priorities?  Let’s start with my email inbox. My inbox pings dozens of times. So many emails. How to keep it straight? My eye zooms over the list and if there is an email from a client, I open it immediately. Makes sense, right? And I respond as quickly as possible, even if it’s just to say, hey, I got this and I’ll get back to you later today. In most cases, I follow up on that email as soon as I see it. They are my clients, after all. Next to be opened? Any emails from my fellow agents within our agency, and from editors. They are top priorities, too. This is the core of my business, true?

Okay, then there are dozens of queries. They continue to spill into my box. When I’m taking breaks throughout the day, I may zoom through a bunch of them just to preview them. Preview? Yeah, I’m just seeing if this is a query I need to read immediately, or if it can wait till another day. What’s a need to read immediately query? Something that I’ve been particularly waiting on. Something from an established author. Something that grabs me by the throat and I just have to read RIGHT NOW. But most can wait till I have more time. I do want to take time to consider them, so I set them aside to do that, probably over a weekend.

One kinda surprising thing to note is that if I get a query that I’d requested from a pitch at a conference, or through some other personal connection I’ve had with the writer, it might actually take me a little longer to read and respond. Um, huh? Wouldn’t that person be in the VIP track and get a faster answer? Well, yes and no. This is a query that I know I need to take even more time with. Even if I’m not interested as soon as I start reading it, I’ll need to offer a more personal response. So I slot those reads into when I can spend that sort of time on them. But, mind you, all queries take time. That’s why you might get a form response from me if I’m not interested. Try not to be hating on the form replies from agents. Think about it this way: If I didn’t use this form letter, most writers would never get a response because there simply isn’t enough time to read and personally respond to every single query. As a writer myself, I know how important it is to get any answer. You want to know your status, you want to find your agent. If I’m not the agent for you, then you want to know and move on. That’s your priority, and I try to respect that and be as quick as I can.

Okay, so that’s just my inbox, which, let’s face it, also has a ton of other things popping into it. Like follow-ups for conferences I’ll be participating in. And questions from our film agent that need answers. And interactions with our foreign rights rep. These are all top priorities, too.

What else do I have cooking in a typical week? Well, let’s pull out my client spread sheet and take a look. My clients are productive and they are keeping me BUSY! Let’s see…I have two new manuscripts I’ve never read to look at and respond to. I’ve got six manuscripts that have been revised based on my notes and that I need to read through for final edits. I’ve got two manuscripts that I’ll be pitching this week, which means I need to tweak my pitch and finalize my list of perfect editors, and get on the phone to call those perfect editors…plus, then I’ll have to follow up by sending out the manuscripts to the editors, and updating my files and my clients related to those submissions. Phew, right?

AND, I’ve got a phone appointment later today, a meeting with an author tomorrow. An interview to do for a publication… Oh, and I also have some requested full manuscripts awaiting response. Not such a bad week, actually. It’s tougher when you have to leave the office for a length of time for a conference or a number of meetings.

That’s why I try to be smart about how I use my time. And this is all why you the writer should be careful with time when it comes to agents. If you are subbing queries, don’t waste time sending to agents who don’t rep your sort of work. Don’t waste time sending out queries for work that isn’t polished to perfection. Don’t waste time within your query talking about irrelevant stuff – get to the point and convey your idea quickly, and agents will be appreciative and responsive. If you have an agent, be mindful of his time. You want your agent tending to your career, so don’t waste time chattering on the phone, for example, when you can send him a quick email instead. I’m not telling you all of this just to make an agent’s life easier (but, hey, that’s a nice perk), but to make your writing life more productive and fruitful. It’s your time and your career – important priorities for you!

So, onto my priorities for the week. Agent Monday Post? Done. Desk organized with pens, my reading glasses, notepad, sticky notes and highlighters. Client spreadsheet open. Client files I’m tending to today, stacked to my left. List of my top priorities for the week – front and center.

Ready? Set? And go!

*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.

 

 

Agent Monday: Everyone’s Different

SnowflakeHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  Hopefully you are making it through the winter okay.  Not letting the relentless snow get to you… Washing your hands and not letting the germs get to you…  And feeling hopeful all around. Days are getting longer and longer. March isn’t too far off (do NOT tell me about big snowstorms that tend to happen in March, please). And nothing can stop you from writing, not even a power outage. Ha!  Take THAT, winter. But sometimes we writers can fall into the doldrums. It can happen at any time of year. We feel this way when we don’t get validation. Our critique group gives us some harsh advice. Our agent isn’t 100% on board with our newest manuscript. Our efforts to get an agent isn’t met with the roaring praise and success we’d hoped for. Our manuscript on submission to editors isn’t an instant sell. They like it, but… And WHAM! Just like that we doubt ourselves. We see others having success. What’s wrong with our writing? What’s wrong with us? So, today I’d like to just remind everyone that writing and publishing (and agenting) isn’t an exact science. EVERYONE’S DIFFERENT.

A few weekends ago I spent an awesome weekend as a guest agent at the SCBWI conference at Asilomar, CA. Hey, it was in California, so I’m allowed to say awesome.  Not only was it a blessed escape from the hell-hole snow and ice storms that have fallen upon the Northeast every other day, but it was also yet another reminder of just how different every person truly is in this business.  And how important it is to remember that as a writer, no matter what stage you are at in the biz.

Nowhere was this more obvious than at the agent pitching roundtable that we held.  I was the agent sitting at one table, and Jennifer Unter, who is lovely, was at the other. Jennifer and I met and clicked earlier that day. We seemed to have the same sense of humor and passion for great books, so you’d think we’d like the same sort of things, right? Nope. The writers got to pitch to the agent at their table and the other writers there got to listen in and take in our reactions. What did we respond to? Were we interested? What did we think about the pitch style and how could it be improved? What did we say about the market potential for a work?  Then I switched tables with Jennifer and I did this with the group she’d just heard from, and she took my group and did the same. The result? Interesting, for sure.  We each shared some opinions, sure. But we each also had very different interests too. I liked some things she didn’t. And vice versa. I liked or didn’t like certain things in the pitches, and that sometimes varied too. The big takeaway? Everyone’s different.

This isn’t an exact science. Yes, it certainly helps that I know lots of things about the editors that I pitch to.  But there is always that “I’ll know when I see it” factor in play. They can tell me they are looking for such and such, but there are tons of intangibles. That idea they didn’t know they were looking for until they saw it. That type of book they’d never thought they’d buy…until they saw such an unusual take on the subject and were completely blown away. And readers are fickle too. That book that was supposed to be a mega-hit, but fizzled. That sleeper that wasn’t supposed to go too far, and then broke all the records.

It’s not an exact science. It’s about your gut and your instinct and your unique point of view.  It’s about connecting with others, too. So listen to what the world says about your work. Take it in and think about it. Take what will make you a better writer and use that. But keep being yourself and believing in your voice and writing.

Everyone’s different, every book’s different. Every agent and editor is different, too. So work hard, keep improving your craft, love what you do, and have faith that you’ll find your audience.

*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.

Agent Monday: Inspiration – Follow Your Goosebumps

Flying birdsHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  Today, as we move from bleak January through chilly February, it’s a perfect time for some inspiration.  I’m so pleased to feature here a guest post by my client, the extremely talented Harmony Verna.  Harmony’s manuscript FROM ROOTS TO WINGS caught my eye the moment I started reading it.  Her writing is luminescent. So vivid. And her characters grab you with their reality and their longing and heart.  FROM ROOTS TO WINGS is a sweeping and passionate adult historical novel set in turn-of-the-century Australia and America. It’s about a boy and girl orphaned in the harsh Australian desert. They form a young innocent love, but must take separate harrowing journeys in their own search for home and for each other. This manuscript was a final round selection for the James Jones First Novel Contest.

And here Harmony shares with us her insight about inspiration:

 

INSPIRATION – FOLLOW YOUR GOOSEBUMPS

Guest post by Harmony Verna

As writers, we sift through an infinite jumble of words, sorting and arranging them like puzzle pieces until they sit just right and tell our story. At times, these words will soar, fly to the moon, and at others, fall flat to Earth with a thud. So what makes the difference? Inspiration.

For me, goosebumps have always been a barometer of inspiration. When I can FEEL a character’s surprise or pain or elation to the point that it raises the hairs on my arms, I know I’ve nailed it. It’s the same way a certain song can enter your very pores, or a soft, scented breeze can warm from the inside out, or an act of kindness can break your heart with its purity – it becomes a visceral experience. Your body becomes like an incandescent bulb cranked up from a dimmer switch, bright and open to creative energy. Anytime you can transfer that level of feeling through the written word, that is inspiration.

But let’s face facts, it’s easy to be open to the flow of inspiration when a sunset branches across a quiet evening sky or when we have time to stare at ripples dancing upon a lake. That’s all great until reality smashes in and wrecks that lovely scene – an unexpected bill comes in the mailbox, the kids are home sick for a week, the laundry is piling up and gosh darn it, we’re out of coffee! But c’est la vie, writers. It’s up to us to pull inspiration into life even when life seems to be kicking and screaming against it.

Truth

Earnest Hemingway once said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” What makes a sentence true? When you can feel the words radiate from under your skin, down to the marrow. When dialogue becomes so real that it enters and converses in your dreams until you ask the voices politely to stop; when you enter a landscape or time or place so fully that when the phone rings, it takes a moment to remember that you are here, writing, sitting at home; when you write words that squeeze your throat or make you giggle like a naughty child or wipe your streaming tears on your sweater. And when your story finally ends, you grieve your characters as passing friends. This is truth.

Simplicity

As wordsmiths we cling to vocabulary, espousing our bag of fancy words when in fact, sometimes the simplest words pack the most punch. Look up the word “old” in the thesaurus and you’ll have a ball field of synonyms to use. But like a sundae piled with too many toppings, it might look appetizing but you can’t taste the ice cream anymore. There can be a certain power to simple sentences, simple thoughts – “He was an old man. A man with old teeth, old breath and lingering old smells.” Say what it IS first. You can always elaborate later.

Don’t self edit…yet

It’s easy to judge the words that get put down first. Are they perfect? Are they smart?  Maybe or maybe not. All that matters is that they’re REAL. We all have an urge to self-edit, but tell that voice to hush. Let the words come out easily, accept them without criticism. And don’t worry, the day for editing will come. Let me rephrase that, the days and months and sometimes years of editing will come. Enjoy those first words, the freshness of them. Then later, you can plant around them, knowing that your first seedlings are pure.

Ban the ego

Daisies on whiteNothing kills inspiration like a pesky beast called the ego, a creative leech that attaches itself to your writing and sucks the life out of it, leaving the words hollow and depleted of soul. How do you know if the ego has snuck into your creation? When your focus is on how good and smart and lush the words are rather than the smell, taste and feel of the words; when you’re more concerned about getting on Oprah than getting behind the computer keyboard. Anytime you feel the need to stand out or to impress – that is ego.  And how do you know if your writing is free of ego? You KNOW! It sits right in the gut. There’s an internal sigh and half-smile that’s calm and says…that’s it. I got it. You know.

You got this

Your story wants to be born into this world. It’s all there, already written, already changing lives and inspiring people. You are the vehicle for this story, open yourself and ALLOW the story to unfold. When we put aside deadlines, the need for approval and the stress of writing something “perfect,” resistance is lifted and inspiration has room to enter and flourish. Then it’s just your job to ride the wave and hope your pen can keep up.

So, before you start writing, take a moment. Be still. Silence the mind chatter and focus your attention on that warm, quiet place in your chest with the calming beat. Look at the fine lines of your hands. Feel the threads of the pillow. Listen to the tick tock of the clock down the hall. Smell the subtle spice of your tea. And now…slowly…let the words of your story come into existence. Welcome them as you would a child, with open arms, with unconditional love and gratitude, and then…

Follow your goosebumps.

 

Harmony Verna

Harmony Verna has worked with all media facets: radio, television, magazines, newspapers, public relations, advertising and marketing, and has been involved in articles that appeared in top-tier publications across the country and guest segments on news programs including Today, CBS This Morning and Good Morning America. As a freelance writer, she has written scripts for the Food Network and articles for Modern Bride Magazine, Connecticut Woman Magazine and more. Harmony is a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and she is represented by Marie Lamba of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.

Agent Monday: It’s an Investment

Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  Okay, it is so cold in the Northeast that folks coming to the ALA Midwinter Conference in Philly had to contend with cancelled trains. Why? Because the train doors were frozen shut. That’s what I heard. Not kidding!  Fortunately, my trains had working doors and I braved the cold on Friday and Saturday to attend the conference. Was it worth it?  Definitely. I got to meet with a ton of editors, talk to publishers from all over the country and from Canada, and see a number of writers that I know as well. But what really warmed my soul was seeing the products of my first two book deals being launched! Publishing takes time, and agenting takes patience and persistence and lots of work, just like writing does. It’s an investment.

All that time I put into finding the right authors to represent, working with that author to get the manuscript ready for submission, making up the perfect pitch, learning about who the right editors may be for a work, contacting editors, following up, taking deal offers, negotiating contracts… Phew.  I love what I do, but it does take time.  And that time is all worth it when I see this:

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Here are two of my very first deals, published and on display side-by-side at The Holiday House publisher’s booth at the convention. And they are both on sale now. Eliza Bing is (Not) a Big Fat Quitter by Carmella Van Vleet is a fabulous middle grade novel about a girl with ADHD who must prove to others (and herself) that she can stick with something to the very end.  This is Carmella’s debut novel, and it has already been honored as a Junior Library Guild Selection.  I’m not surprised.  Eliza’s an unforgettable character!  Mending Horses, a YA historical by award-winning author M.P. Barker, is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever encountered. Michele (the M. in M.P.) writes with such confidence and skill that you are completely absorbed in this tale about Daniel, a young indentured servant in 1800s New England, who is suddenly set free and must find his way alone. He finds a family of sorts in an old peddler, a young runaway and a traveling circus, but all is not well. The performing horses are mistreated, and a dangerous secret puts everyone at risk. Daniel fights to protect the horses, but can he save them all?

To view the cool trailer for this book, click here and then click on trailer video.

It was a great moment for me as an agent to hold these two books in my hands. To have a part in bringing these wonderful books to readers. But it took time. And not just for me, of course. The authors spent so much time perfecting their writing, creating their novels, revising them, finding an agent, then revising again, then working on revisions with the publisher. It’s an investment.

But it pays off – over time.

I look at my career as an agent thus far as a start-up business. I put in my own time to learn the ropes, to scout out clients, to build my list, and now, two years into it, things are chugging along. My authors are working on second and third manuscripts for me. I have a number of projects out on submission. New books are slotted for publication in 2015. It’s a process.

I guess that’s what I hope writers will take away from this post. It’s a process. An investment. It takes time. It’s worth it.

I always tell my authors to take a loooong view of their careers. That means don’t just write one book and wait for it to sell. Work on something new while the other is on submission.

Writers, don’t let past discouragements in your career stop you from writing and moving ahead. Learn from it and keep going. I’m a writer, too, and there are many times that I could have stopped and said, enough! But I didn’t, and I’m so glad I gave myself that time. When things derail your writing career, it can be hard to have that sort of perspective. But keep working and you will look back after 20 years of writing and producing work and see that stumbling block as something small in perspective. If writing is your passion, keep going. It’s an investment.

And expect an agent that will invest in you. A good agent will be viewing you over the long career you have ahead of you. Not dropping you if a project doesn’t immediately sell. You will continue to write, to grow and to get better and better. Writers with talent are worth investing in.

Now back to work, everyone!  Put in that time.

*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.

Agent Monday: Title Talk

Boy reading in the libraryHey gang, happy Agent Monday!  More than half way through January.  We can do this!  The days are getting longer, right? Today I thought I’d talk a little bit about the way writers title their novels. And why it matters when going on the hunt for an agent. Sound good?

Okay, so one of the first things a reader encounters about a published book is the cover and the title.  Like a great cover, an on point memorable title can help with the sale of your book. Makes sense, right? Something vague that doesn’t position the work in a reader’s mind won’t prompt a reader to pick the book up.  Something that sounds kinda like something else, will be confusing. A title that is completely misleading will attract the wrong audience, who will quickly discard the book in most cases, once that audience sees it’s not what they were hoping for.

So, let’s face facts. A title is a marketing hook for your book. Writers, ya gotta accept that. Yes, your book is art, but it is also a product to be sold. So while you artfully create your title, remember that you want it to be sold and read. You want an agent? Then a great title that represents your book well is a solid start.

Think of it this way… Nail that title, making it memorable and just right for your novel, and that title will go into your query. I’ll see that title and think, ah, cool. That’s an awesome title. I’ve got the feel for what the book will be. And I know that’ll give my pitch to editors some punch, because when I get on the phone and talk about the book, I’ll say the title and the editor will light up, thinking, ah, cool!  Fast forward to that editor falling in love with the manuscript and pitching it to her acquisitions committee, which sometimes is made up of editors and sales folk. She says that great title, and the people on the committee are all AH, COOL! Already they can start to picture how they will position this title and sell it, how readers will sit up and take notice.

So title does matter.  Can the title change as it goes into production. Yup. But if you come up with a solid one, chances are pretty good it’ll stick.

Okay, so what are some title mistakes I see in submissions that stream into my inbox? Well, there are those vague titles. Things like: Time and Time Again, or Eternal Love, or Seasons of Change. That sort of stuff that feels like it could be any novel written in any century. Not exactly standouts. Then there are those not right for the readership titles. Like a cutesy one such as The Giggly Girls, which, okay, maybe for a chapter book, but for an edgy YA? Nope.  Or a title like Blessings in Disguise. What sort of book do you think that would be? Certainly not a gripping bloody thriller.  Another, less obvious title mistake? Choosing words that would send people to the dictionary to understand, and that most folks will get wrong spelling wise when they try to search for it on the computer. This isn’t time to elevate the general public.  You want to be found and talked about by readers.  If they can’t even type the words correctly, how the heck are they going to pull it up on their computer to purchase it?

Do I ever represent manuscripts that have not so great titles? Yup, when the query and the book itself overcome the handicap of a misleading or dull title. BUT, the first thing I talk about with that author in our phone chat is that title. It’s gotta change. Are they okay with that? And together we come up with the title that’ll make the book’s pitch really soar.

A title is a marketing hook. Right?

Some great titles by my clients?  FLIP-FLOP DAYS, MARSHMALLOW NIGHTS, by Miriam Glassman, a wonderful middle grade manuscript that takes place in sleep over camp. ELIZA BING IS (NOT) A BIG FAT QUITTER, by Carmella Van Vleet (which has just gone on sale!, Holiday House), a fab middle grade novel about a girl with ADHD who is determined to prove she can stick with something to the very end. FOLLOWING YOU, by Stephanie Winkelhake, a gorgeous YA manuscript about a dead ex-boyfriend who just can’t leave.  FROM ROOTS TO WINGS, a sweeping debut historical by Harmony Verna, about two orphans surviving in gritty late-1800s Australia in a difficult search for home and for love. And here’s my own recent novel’s title: DRAWN, which is a YA about a young artist who starts sketching a guy from another time, and is drawn into his world in the 1400s.

Not all of these titles started this way, but reading this list, can’t you start to grasp the tone and the sort of book it will be?  That’s what it’s all about.

*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.

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.