Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Writing Conferences

Over the past two months I have taken part in five different writing events. In some of them I was the only presenter. In others I was one of many presenters. And in others I was part of a panel of writers. Early in my writing career, I attended several of these types of events as a conference attendee. I remember not being sure how to go about things, and being nervous I’d either miss a chance to make a contact or offend someone by being too pushy. Then I began attending the events as a presenter, which brought its own unique challenges. At this point in my writing career, there’s not a lot that fazes me in these events, so I thought I’d offer some advice from both sides of the fence.

Things to know as a paid attendee:

First and foremost, if you have aspirations of becoming a published or even just a polished writer, you MUST attend writers’ conferences. I’m not going to say you can’t get published without going to a writers’ conference, because I did. But I honestly believe you can get more out of a conference of published authors and industry professionals than an entire semester of creative writing. Not to mention the fact that making contacts with editors and agents is invaluable.

Take lots of notes. There is nothing worse than learning something really valuable and after getting home, realizing you can’t remember what the presenter said. Sometimes it’s as simple as a couple of bullets which apply directly to the novel you are working on. If you do lose your notes, try e-mailing the presenter with a question or two.

Think about what classes to take in relation to where you are currently at. Does it really make sense to take a class on internet marketing when you are nowhere close to completing your first book? Most conferences try to provide a variety of tracks and skill levels.

Most conferences have at least a couple of panels. Research them and think about questions in advance. It often surprises me how many people are sitting in front of a panel of publishers and can’t think of any useful questions. This is your chance. Use it.

Be brave and schmooze. Networking is a big part of why you should attend these things. Yes some people take networking too far by dominating the time of a particular author, agent, editor, or whoever. Don’t do that. Ask a question or two and give someone else a chance (after asking for a card) if others are waiting. But don’t be afraid to step up and ask questions. They will be especially impressed if you’ve done your homework. Ask an author about why they wrote a certain scene a certain way instead of asking, “So, what do you write?” Often the most valuable networking is done after the day’s classes are over, so don’t be in a hurry to leave if you can help it.

This is one of my biggest pet peeves. The instructor has presumably been chosen to teach the class because they know something about the subject. If you have a question, raise your hand and ask. But don’t start giving rambling opinions on what you think about the subject. The other attendees are paying to hear the presenter. Feel free to chat with whoever you want after the class, but usually the schedule is tight enough that there’s barely enough time for legitimate questions as it is.

Do not under any circumstances bring copies of your manuscript to give editors, agents, authors, or whoever will take them. First of all, it is bad form. No one wants to go home with a suitcase full of paper, and if we take one person’s work, everyone wants us to take theirs as well. Second, most conferences schedule one-on-ones just for the purpose of pitching ideas. If you don’t have the chance to attend a one-on-one, send a query to the agent or editor right after the conference thanking them for coming, and pitch your book. Often editors who don’t take un-agented work will make an exception for attendees. Great question to ask for those panels huh?

Just a last thought. Sometimes you’ve spent everything you have on the conference. If so, more power to you. Hopefully it is a good investment. But if you have a little extra cash, consider buying books from an instructor who really helped you out. Most of the time instructors make little or nothing for teaching a class. Agents, editors, and keynote speakers typically make at least enough to cover their travel, but the authors teaching classes are doing it to sell books and spread good will. Say thanks by purchasing a book or two. They’ll appreciate it and you’ll get a signed book which will one day sell for millions on E-Bay.

Things to know as a conference presenter:

You’ve finally made it big enough (or know someone on the organizing committee) to stand in front of the classroom. Now it’s on you not to forget how you got there. If no one gave you a helping hand along the way, you are rare indeed. So how can you pay it forward?

First be friendly and open. Realize that many aspiring writers are scared to approach a “real author.” If you bury your head in a book or quickly scoot off to the green room, you are doing a disservice to the attendees and to yourself. Make a couple dozen friends and you’ve probably just added a couple dozen people who will buy your books. Look for people to talk to. Don’t sit at the table with all the other authors. Plop down with a bunch of people you don’t know.

Be encouraging to the newbies. The last thing they want to hear is how hard it was for you and how little chance they have of ever succeeding. They want to hear how you overcame rejection and how they can do it too. By all means ask them what they are working on. As a sales manager, I always have to remind my CEOs how much a word of encouragement or a pat on the back from the head of the company means to a sales rep. The same goes for a published author to someone trying to break into the market.

With the exception of a little commercial at the beginning or end of your class, avoid talking about yourself in your classes. People are attending your session to get take away points which they can use in the own writing, publishing, or marketing. It does them no good whatsoever for you to spend twenty minutes telling a funny story about how you and your agent met over lunch at that little deli on 28th street and saw Tom Cruise. On a related note, if you are going to read, it is highly desirable that you read from someone else’s book, and keep it under three minutes. As authors, we want to give examples from our own work and it’s easy to overlook how self-serving it appears to class members.

Don’t dominate panels. You don’t have to answer every question. Take a couple of questions that you feel comfortable answering and pass the mike the others on questions they might be better suited to answer.

Be funny. Can’t stress this one enough. You know the old saying about how people don’t care how much you know until you can make them laugh. That’s not the way it goes? Well it should be. Prepare your lessons with solid take away points and plenty of laughs. Even if you are not a comedian by nature, you’ll find it is extremely easy to make people laugh in an environment where so much is serious. This is especially important if you are lucky enough to be an MC or keynote speaker. If people like you they will buy your books. But be really careful of anything too off color. Humor can turn to offense quite quickly.

Lastly, realize that not everyone has the money to buy your book right now. Bring other handouts: bookmarks, business cards, flyers. The person who takes your bookmark now is the person who buys your book next month. And if you are asked to sign a bookmark, do it with the same enthusiasm you would offer if you were signing a book.

I’m sure I’ve missed a ton of things. So speak up. What has worked for you? Or what questions do you have?


Don said...

At this last conference, I came out of my comfort zone and made a point of introducing myself to people. Everyone was extremely friendly, from my fellow wannabes to multi-published authors with strong name recognition. It was really great.

I enjoyed your presentations - they were fun and informative. I regret that yours was one of the hands I did not manage to shake. I shook Dashner's hand twice, so that sort of makes up for it. I'll be sure to introduce myself to you next time.

Stephanie Humphreys said...

Thanks for the great advice. I am still working on coming out of my comfort zone, but I do think all the authors at the storymakers conference were friendly and approachable. I actually managed to talk to you and to Dashner, so what else do I have to look forward to at the next conference?

Melinda said...

I thought your presentations at LDStorymakers were very helpful. I was just going through my notes and thinking about my hook. -I'm so glad you didn't read mine in class. :-)Thanks for giving well-thought-out advice and information.

I can't think of any questions, though. Since I haven't published anything yet, it won't be likely that I'll be a presenter anytime soon...

I haven't even been asked to talk in church for the past seven years.

Tamra Norton said...

It was great catching up with you at the conference. You, my friend, are the master teacher and I have so much to learn. I always get so much out of these conferences.

I'm still trying to figure out the presenter thing...and I have a long way to go. I'm SOOOOO much more comfortable standing in front of a gym full of 500 kids than I am a classroom with 20 or 30 adults. Go figure.

Jon Spell said...

Always Bring Treats!

Annette Lyon said...

Great suggestions. You covered a ton. Humor is probably my Achilles heel--I take everything too seriously. :)

Rachelle said...

I really enjoyed your classes and learned a ton! This conf. was awesome. I am excited to see what you'll do as King! :)

Elizabeth said...

I really enjoyed your sessions. Thanks for your help with my hook, and I look forward to hearing more about your series!

Stephanie Black said...

I can't WAIT to attend the Storymakers conference next year!

Great blog, J. Scott.

Julie Wright said...

Amen to all of it!