4 Tips for Surviving a Writers Conference

by Steve Laube

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With author Lael Arrington at The C.S. Lewis Conference.

I’ve had the fun of teaching at nearly 150 writers conferences over the years. In that time I’ve noticed a number of common things that all writers face. Let’s explore a few tips that may help you survive at the next one you attend.

Relax
The most common mistake is viewing the conference as a make-it-or-break-it evetn. The stress folks place on themselves is palatable. I’ve had people so nervous to meet with me that they burst into tears before they can even begin to talk. (I don’t think I’m THAT hideous to look at!)

Better to plan on going multiple times, like you would to an extended college course. The first time get the lay of the land and the language spoken there.

It is a Safe Place to Fail
Where else can you practice your pitch with a professional? Where else can you get a first impression reaction from a professional? Fumbling your words, pitching in the wrong genre, or to the wrong editor are not fatal mistakes. We have a number of clients who we represent who failed over and over again…until finally figuring it out.

Use the opportunity to sit with an agent, an editor, or a freelancer and see how they react to your idea.  Watch the body language. Listen to the voice for that crackle of excitement. Learn from the experience.

Beware of the False Positive
It is not fun to tell a writer that their idea won’t work and watch the light go out in their eyes. A terrible thing. Thus many editors or agents will give a word of encouragement hopefully wrapped in an honest evaluation of the work at hand. Unfortunately all the writer hears are the words “this is pretty good,” and they ignore everything after the word “but.”

However, when an editor or agent says, “I’d like to see it, please send it to me.” Believe them. BUT do not take that as an “I’m only one step away from a book contract!” I’ve see this reaction far too often. Put the positive response in the right perspective and you will save yourself a lot of grief.

The editor or agent genuinely wants to look at your material but can’t really evaluate fully during a 15 minute conversation or in a hurried glance in a hallway between sessions. Back in the office it will be judged against everything else already on their desk, as it should be. A fantastic proposal will survive every gauntlet, including this one.

I once had a person literally kneel by my chair at a conference banquet pulling at my sleeve and desperately cry, “You absolutely must become my agent because that editor over there said they liked my story idea!” This person was over-reacting to a cordial request and turning it into a false positive.

Follow Through
Don’t get me wrong. Your book has a much greater chance of being accepted if you do indeed send it to the requesting editor or agent than if you don’t. Surprised at this advice? You would be astounded how many people never send us what we ask for.

And one little hint? If you do follow through, include your picture in the proposal in the bio section. It helps us remember which person we met and where. Earlier this year I received a query letter from an author who opened with, “We met in 2007 where I pitched an earlier version of the attached story.” But there was no photo, and no indication of where we met. I have to admit, I don’t remember that meeting.

Ultimately, try to enjoy yourself. As you can see from the below photo Randy Alcorn thinks he is hilarious. And Malcolm Guite wants to talk about his book! I am an innocent bystander.

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Photos taken by Lancia Smith

27 Responses to 4 Tips for Surviving a Writers Conference

  1. Becky Jones March 31, 2014 at 5:36 am #

    Thanks, Steve, for showing your humanity! :)

    Could you please recommend a few good conferences for non-fiction writers? I am having a hard time getting a sense of which are comsidered top in the industry.

    Thanks in advance!

    • Steve Laube March 31, 2014 at 4:08 pm #

      It would be unfair for me to “grade” which conferences are better than others for non-fiction. Each conference is different because the setting, the faculty, and the fellow writers make each a unique experience.

      Start with the list on our webite (see the resource section link on the menu above). Find one reasonably close to you and then start asking your writing friends and others if those are good choices.

      In mid-April Karen Ball and I will be at the venerable Mt. Hermon conference in Northern California. It is a great experience.

      Karen blogged about this one a couple years ago:
      http://www.stevelaube.com/writers-conference-spotlight-mount-hermon/

      • Becky Jones March 31, 2014 at 5:25 pm #

        That’s fair…I’ll check out that list. Thanks!

  2. DIANA HARKNESS March 31, 2014 at 5:38 am #

    Great tips, but it’s not easy to relax. At my first conference, I had nailed down my choice of agents to you. You were 1st, 2nd, and 3rd on my list. But the traveling companion who came with me presented unexpected surprises and difficulties which, combined with the stress of being in a roomful of people, made it impossible for me to relax even though I left the conference before meeting you and went for a run in a nearby field.

    The next writer’s event also was difficult. I was scheduled to meet with a publisher who had liked my online submission. I (usually a non-drinker) was drinking wine in my hotel room and downing ibuprofen to try to decrease the stress of the conference, the imminent death of my mother (she died the day after I returned), and the pain of a sinus headache. I presented some sort of blithering proposal and to my surprise the publisher wanted to read my novel. (About 6 months later the publisher declined my novel, for which I was grateful–it was in no shape to be published).

    It has now been 2 years and I don’t know if I will attend anything other than a local writer’s conference again until I have all my novels written and edited to my satisfaction. But I have several things to add to your list. 1. Don’t travel with a stranger. 2. Don’t attend in the midst of major life events. 3. Find a close friend to accompany you so you are not completely alone. 4. Don’t feel compelled to attend every offering–give yourself time to rest and reflect.

    • Steve Laube March 31, 2014 at 4:11 pm #

      Sorry to hear you had such a challenge your first time around. I’m reminded often of the obstacles that people face when getting around these events.

      I lost my dad the weekend before a major conference where I was to be speaking and hearing pitches. It was a difficult time to focus. A few friends knew what I was experiencing and were a great help.

      Sometimes it is the editor or the agent who needs that word of encouragement!

  3. Rick Barry March 31, 2014 at 6:34 am #

    What a fun post to start the week, Steve. Laughed aloud at the part where the author knelt and pleaded while tugging your sleeve. I never faced that situation back when I edited textbooks!

    I underscore your encouragement to relax and enjoy the moment. Rarely does a 15-minute interview with an editor or agent seal anyone’s fate forever. ;)

  4. Janet Ann Collins March 31, 2014 at 7:36 am #

    I had to share this with my Mount Hermon Buddies.

  5. Jeanne Takenaka March 31, 2014 at 7:59 am #

    What a great post, Steve. I grinned at the closing picture you posted. I’m SURE you’re the innocent bystander. ;)

    My first conference was ACFW 2012. I learned a ton, pitched a story that wasn’t quite ready and was glad for the experience. I tried to attend every class I’d signed up for, and I came home tired! This past ACFW, I only made it through one entire class of all I signed up for, due to the timing of my appointments. I found it easier to pitch this past year, but I learned something about myself.

    I tend to be the one who meets with an agent/editor and latches onto the negative/not-quite-positive and then focuses on that. This is the other extreme for what you shared, I believe. This is a discouraging way to leave a pitch appointment. What I discovered this past year is that, if I listen carefully—as you suggest—the people I meet with offer some solid suggestions for strengthening my story and my craft.

    Remembering that agents and editors aren’t so different from me has helped me to relax a little more during my appointments.

    I enjoyed this post. :)

    • Carol Moncado March 31, 2014 at 8:26 am #

      I’m so glad you got to be my next door neighbor in 2012 Jeanne! Even if only for a few days! Getting to know you has been great fun!

      I, too, tend to focus on that negative and have to force myself to find the positive. I had one agent one year [2012 I think, a notoriously difficult to impress agent from a different agency] tell me s/he wasn’t really interested though I could send it anyway if I wanted but the “writing is solid.” It took everything in me to focus on that part and not the “I’m not interested” part.

      I’ve never broken down before a meeting with an editor/agent but I have after [and once during at the end of a long conference - this editor was incredibly gracious about it].

      The “relax” part is so key, especially for those who’ve never been. I love ACFW’s first timers loop and orientation for that reason. It gives people a chance to get to know at least one other person before arriving. I met one of my very dearest friends in the whole world through the first timers loop in 2011. It’s why I volunteer to help Cara and the gang with it every year. The reminder to take a big deep breath and maybe a big hug can go a long, long way.

      • Jeanne Takenaka March 31, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

        Carol, you’re so sweet. I loved meeting you too, and getting to know you better online. BTW, if anyone ever rooms near Carol, you may be treated to some of the best chocolate chip cookies in the world. ;)

        I agree with you. The First Timers Loop really helped me the first time I attended ACFW. I’m glad you mentioned it.

      • Carol Moncado March 31, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

        Jeane – LOL! Or anyone can find me in the lobby/bar/wherever after sessions end for the day – I’m the one with the big ol’ tub o’ cookies – and a smaller tub o’ gluten free cookies. I usually have some with me all day though ;). I’m happy to share. I’ve made some new [good!] friends because of those cookies…

  6. Laura Kirk March 31, 2014 at 8:05 am #

    Fun blog that also helps to put a mind at ease when preparing for the next conference. Thank you!

  7. Lauren H Brandenburg March 31, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    Perfect timing! Thank you! I am headed to Blue Ridge, Georgia this weekend for my very first writers’ conference! I’m excited, nervous, and ready for the experience. I loved the reminder that this is not a “make-it-or-break-it event”. I will absolutely keep that in mind. Thanks again! Lauren

    • Jenny Leo March 31, 2014 at 9:46 am #

      Have fun, Lauren! You’ve got a great attitude. Be a sponge. :)

  8. Jenny Leo March 31, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    I’d like to add that it’s important to choose the right conference for your needs or the stage you’re at. You might want to avoid a conference that’s heavy on pitching to agents and editors if you’re still in the wobbly early stages of your project; you’ll get more out of a conference that’s geared toward developing craft. Look for a smaller, cozier conference in your part of the country if you want to form friendships with kindred spirits near you. Big national conferences can be more impersonal but offer opportunities to meet the big guns face-to-face. Etc.

    I’ve never melted down in an agent or editor meeting. My personal nadir occurred right before an awards dinner, when a perfect storm of finalist angst, lack of sleep, and a lost ticket washed me up on the shore of a sympathetic sister in Christ who pasted me back together and literally rescued my evening. I hope she’s reading this because I’ve forgotten her name but will remember her kindness forever.

    • Steve Laube March 31, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

      The North Texas conference run by Frank Ball focuses on craft and the writing life. They don’t have agents or editors attend so that the pressure to pitch is removed from the equation. It is a brilliant alternative for those who only want instruction and networking:
      http://www.ntchristianwriters.com/

  9. Patricia Lee March 31, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    Fun post. I attended my first writer’s conference TO GET PUBLISHED! And then I attended the rest letting God show me what he wanted me to learn.

    I’m still waiting for that contract, but I’ve had a lot of fun along the way, meeting wonderful people.

    Thanks for writing a great post.

  10. Jeanette Hanscome March 31, 2014 at 11:54 am #

    Thank you for this great post, Steve! I am sending the link to all the Mount Hermon buddies so they can forward it their first-timers.

    See you soon!

  11. Jennifer Dyer March 31, 2014 at 1:32 pm #

    Great advice, Steve. This should be included in packets at conferences. :-)
    I remember the first time I met you I felt as though I’d been called into the principal’s office. I was so nervous! Ha! It was a good learning experience, though. Thanks for being available.

    • Steve Laube March 31, 2014 at 4:17 pm #

      Jennifer,

      Wonderful. Now I’m the scary principle.
      Actually I’m the vice-principle, the disciplinarian. The one who has the paddle hanging on his office wall.

      I know of a well published author who, in the beginning, was too scared to even talk to me. She admitted this years later after she had become multi-published. We are now good friends but she let her intimidation keep us from working together.

      Glad you overcame your reticence!

  12. Janet Ann Collins March 31, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

    Perhaps the most important thing I learned at my first conference was that editors and agents don’t glow in the dark. They’re actually human beings like the rest of us. And it logically follows that they should be treated with respect and consideration. I thought it was a joke that people tried to force mss on them in bathrooms until I actually saw that happen.

    • Steve Laube March 31, 2014 at 4:19 pm #

      I may not glow in the dark, but I do know that all other agents are radioactive. So stay away from them. Our agency is the only safe place.

  13. Jenni Brummett March 31, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    You were very kind to this deer-in-the headlights looking first timer when I met you at Mount Hermon two years ago. See you under the redwoods in a few weeks Steve.

  14. Christy Hoss March 31, 2014 at 4:01 pm #

    I confess! Unfortunately, I think I was the person so overwhelmed at a positive response from an editor that I knelt at his feet begging – telling him he had to be my agennt.

    I think we are sill friends – Live long and prosper :0)

    • Steve Laube March 31, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

      Christy,

      It was not you who did that. Different conference.

      May the Romulan Ale be with you. And I mean it. Please keep it for yourself.

      Steve

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