Thursday, April 3, 2014

Making the Most of Your 1st (or 100th) Conference

By V.S. Nelson

Picture taken from 2012 Desert Dreams Conference in Scottsdale Arizona.

Like a rollercoaster ride, the excitement of attending a conference can be overwhelming especially for the newcomer.  Hundreds of authors are there. Many are just like you, beginning their new writing career while others in attendance are those famous New York Times best-selling authors you’ve always dreamed about meeting or becoming. Aside from the authors, you know there will be editors and agents in attendance; those who may hold the key to your writing career. That alone is enough to make you a little intimidated.

The creative energy around a writer’s conference can be useful and beneficial to the creative mind, if one knows how to use it to their betterment, but more often than not, that energy will cause panic in the attendee.

Remember, adrenalin causes your heart to beat faster which pumps high levels of oxygen through your veins and head, which inadvertently causes nerviness and often times headaches. More than once, I’ve witnessed a talented author retreat to their hotel room or leave the conference entirely because of a migraine before they pitched their well-rehearsed speech to their dream agent.

The magical phrase your best friend said to you before you left, “don’t be nervous,” doesn’t work. Believe me, you will be nervous and there is nothing you can do about it.  But there are a few things you can do to make your conference, even your first an enjoyable experience, one you will never forget.

 The first key to making any conference experience an enjoyable one is pacing. Yes, there are lots of activities going on at the same time. Know that you cannot attend everything, so pick and choose wisely. When reviewing the schedule, highlight or circle the workshops that interest you the most, leaving blank moments in your agenda. You can use this time to re-organize your thoughts, visit with friends, practice your pitch, freshen up your makeup, relax in the hospitality suite or retreat to your room for a well deserved nap. You will be surprised how easily those blank hours in your schedule will fill up.


Some other key secrets to making your conference a memorial one is to:

Wear comfortable clothing and shoes. You will look just as nice in pumps or flats as you will in 5 inch heels. Believe me your feet will thank you for it. Forget the girdle and pants that are too tight to bend over in. Before packing for the conference, check the weather. Bring suitable light weight clothing which can be layered in case of bad weather. If you are pitching, bring at least one suit. First impressions mean a lot in this business. Wear your hair in a comfortable style. Going to the hair-dress for a complex braid days before you leave will not last through the conference. By the time you get around to meeting your dream agent, your up-do will be falling all over the place. Wear light makeup that is easily touched up, knowing you will be out most of the day. You may also wish to pack a bathing suit for nights in the hot tub or pool and a pair of sweats for the gym if you are into that sort of thing. If you haven’t gone through the change of life, pack feminine hygiene items just in case. The stress alone can cause the unexpected. Bring a camera, you will want to capture images of your first conference, your new friends, your new editor and those authors you aspire to be like.

             Leave all non-essential items in your hotel suite when you attend the conference rooms. You will usually receive a bag of goodies upon registration. When you get a chance take it back to your hotel suite. Lugging around a notebook, laptop, goodie bag, paper and pens, purse, additional makeup, etc., is way too much for one person to keep track of all day long. You can always go back to your motel, unload and restock the necessary items you might need for the various workshops you plan on attending. Remember, returning to the privacy of your hotel suite every so often will allow you to rest, change clothes and recharge your batteries, especially if you are in overload.

             Attend the conference with a friend, commonly called, a side-kick. If you are going alone and don’t know anyone visit the hospitality suite and strike up a conversation with another newcomer or solitary attendee. Remember, they are just as nervous and lonely as you are. You would be surprised how many great friendships are formed at conferences. If there are two workshops going on at the same time that you want to take, having a friend with you works in more ways than one. While you enjoy one, she can take the other. Swap notes between sessions – it is a win-win situation.

             Eat and drink small amounts through out the day. This will keep you hydrated and energized without causing sleepiness or giving you stomach problems.

             Consuming alcohol at conferences is quite common. While a cocktail or glass of wine can help you relax, too much at any given time might result in adverse effects or a reputation you don’t want. Save the heavy drinking for after hours when you are safely tucked into the confines of your room, but be warned, attending the second day with a hang-over can be detrimental.

             I think the idea of pitching to editors and agents can cause the most experienced conference attendee to become nervous. Why shouldn’t it? In reality, it’s a job interview. The only difference is, instead of having thirty minutes to talk to someone, you have three to ten minutes to sell yourself and your work to an experienced professional. That alone is enough to scare the pants off of any of us. I’ve learned a lot in my years, especially when it comes to pitching and I’m happy to say that most of my pitches have been well received, usually with me walking away with a smile on my face and a request for my work from the agent or editor in question. I’m not sure if I have a magic formula or not, but what I can tell you is what I do.

I reverse my thinking and try not to think that the agent is interviewing me – I am interviewing them. Look at it from this point of view, if you were a professional singer or actor without an agent, you would interview several professionals before making a career choice. You definitely want an individual on your side which understands you and your work and you want someone who will promote you to their fullest ability knowing they have your best interest in their heart. Above all else, they must believe in you and your work! Having an agent who promotes you without understanding or believing in you will not get you to where you want to be. How can he or she sell something they do not believe in? So that is the first of my secrets. I reverse the situation to who is being interviewed by whom.

Right before taking a seat at the table I shake the agents hand and introduce myself. Taking a breath, I quietly remind myself, I am in control. Usually the agent will ask at this point, “What do you write?” It is an open invitation for you to pitch your story. Most authors start off with, “My story, (title) is about…” Since I hate being like everyone else, I tend to vary my pitches depending on the question asked by the agent. If they asked the preverbal, “What do you write?” I will lead off by telling them the sub-genre’s I am currently working on. Below is the dialog which took place during my last pitch session.

            Agent: What do you write?

            Me:      Currently, I’m working on two series, one paranormal and one urban fantasy and

a memoir of a Mafia hit man.

            Agent: Really? Tell me about your paranormal series…

 See how that opened the door and engaged the agent into asking questions? If the agent doesn’t like what I have to say about the paranormal series, he or she may ask about one of my other stories. I never forget to ask the agent question regarding who they represent, average sales, etc. I want to know if this is someone I can trust with my work. Is this someone I can build a relationship with. Remember, I’m not looking for a friend, I am looking for a business partner.

 If you are a beginning writer and only have one piece of work under your belt, you can pitch in the normal method, “My story (name) is about….” or you  could say something cleaver like, “I recently finished a dark paranormal romance entitled (name). It’s the story of Satan finding true love with an angelic creature…. (bla, bla. Bla.) Keep it short and allow the agent to ask questions about your work – don’t unload everything expecting him or her to remember every little detail about your story. By stating you just finished, the agent does not know this is your first completed written piece, which may inadvertently have them view you as too inexperienced.


Okay, so you having finished your first full length novel, but you’re working hard on it and you would love to enjoy the experience of pitching, especially when there is an agent or editor you’ve been dying to meet. Go ahead and set up the appointment if there is an available spot.

 Introduce yourself to the agent or editor and sit down. When they ask you what you write, you can simply tell them you don’t have anything to sell them right now, but you wanted to meet them. Of course, you can also tell them what you are working on.  Enjoy your time with them, ask questions and chances are (if they handle what you are working on) they will tell you, “when you are finished with your WIP, feel free to send it my way.”  

 I hope this article has helped you in some tiny way. Although writing conferences can be intimidating, they can also be fun. Conferences are a time to share your work with others, a time to learn, and a time to pitch. What other place can you find so many great and talented people in our industry than a conference? 

Relax, have fun and make the most of your newest experience—the writer’s conference.NCHCHC


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