June 2015: The writer attends her first writers’ conference, starting off as a young hopeful then becoming completely overwhelmed because she was not prepared.
It’s that time of year again my fellow writers, conference season! Where we all prepare our manuscripts for those in house conference workshops, practice our elevator pitches in the mirror where we also learn how to control our faces and body language for when we sit across from established authors, agents and editors. Questions and contact information will be exchanged, some stories may be accepted by an agent or editor but this all depends on one thing:
The Writer’s Survival Kit.As I prepare to attend the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference (a weekend conference) and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival (a week long workshop) I can’t help but think back on the first conference I ever attended, wishing that there was a list of items to bring, much like the checklist I received in middle school in preparation for the first day of school. To prevent other writers from making the same mistakes I did and to ensure that I remember to bring everything, below is a list of strongly suggested items everyone should pack before stepping foot into any writers conference.
- A STRONG backpack or book bag
The first conference I ever attended was the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference last June. I thought I would be cute and show up with a small bag, carrying around a flimsy folder because I wanted to make a good first impression. Don’t make the same mistake I did! A strong backpack or book bag is essential when attending a writers’ conference because of all the free goodies you will receive throughout the day. Literary magazines/journals, brochures and the books that you might buy after hearing that inspirational discussion about incorporating strong, independent female characters into fairy tales! Also, its really embarrassing when someone wants to shake your hand but your arms are overloaded with all the items you’ve managed to buy on the first day. Having a backpack or shoulder bag enables the writer to store those essential collectibles for later.
This item depends on the writer and what their preferred method of note taking is. I for one prefer to write everything by hand in pencil where others are more comfortable heading straight for their computer. Still, I would suggest that each writer have a pencil or pen handy when attending any conference because sometimes electronics fail. You don’t want to find yourself sitting in front of an agent/editor/future contact who wants to give you their information but you don’t have anything for them to write with! Your laptop’s battery is dead so you both end up sitting across from each other thinking of what might have been. Pencil and Pens are essential for quick notes, quick edits you might have missed at home, on the bus, train, airplane or for those moments where you’ve run out of business cards so you quickly write down your email on a piece of paper.
Once again, this item depends on the writer. Some will prefer to carry a notebook while others like to carry around a laptop. Personally, I bring my iPad and a notebook just in case technology fails me. A lot of information is being exchanged at these conferences and taking notes is an important element of getting the most out of each conference. Not only that, you never know when the guest speaker is going to ask for a piece of paper. Great way to get noticed and also forces the speaker to interact with you which is always good. OR, for those who prefer to use computers, you never know when the guest speaker is going to ask for an email reminder or for someone to type up all the notes for the day. Once again, quick way to get noticed, speaker is forced to interact with you AND in emailing the notes to the guest speaker, they will automatically have your email address and you will have theirs.
Nothing illustrates disorganization more than a writer reaching into their bag, digging through several loose papers and passing a crumbled note, bent business card or coffee stained manuscript to a professional. The goal is to advertise yourself, form connections and leave a good impression so lets leave the coffee stains and chewed up papers at home. Folders are cheap and will protect that polished manuscript you’ve decided to promote at the conference! I’m more of a binder person since I have a terrible habit of spilling anything I try to hold, condiments from a sandwich will always be the first stain on any piece of paper that finds itself loose in my bag. A hardcover, single subject binder is my chosen keeper of my printed synopsis, proposal, sample chapter and list of questions I have for agents or other authors that might be in attendance. I look over it every night after emptying the free goodies from my book bag, make sure I am prepared for tomorrow then slide it right back into my book bag. Or, if I’m carrying a shoulder bag, I make sure the spine is up and the papers are completely protected by the binder’s shell, avoiding unnecessary creasing.
- Business Cards
I had no idea I would need business cards in attending my first conference but this quickly became one of the most frequently asked questions I received. Imagine the sheer feeling of terror followed by guilt when every time someone asked me if I had a business card my answer was no. Business cards, quick and easy way to hand your information off to a potential contact without having to deliver your entire resume. Without saying a word, the agent will know your name, pen name, website and contact information all because of a little card. Also a great way to skip over all the basics and get right to the nitty gritty, grabbing the agents interest. Have an interesting blog name? Its already on the card and may catch the agents eye triggering a conversation about what is on your blog instead of wasting time, you listing the web address of where the agent may find your written work and how to spell that one word you thought was cool when you first created the blog but is better suited for that page in the dictionary where you found it.
I am currently using Vistaprint for my business card needs because they have sales and coupons! Also, it doesn’t hurt that they have a writer themed category with plenty of choices. My favorite is the business card with the vintage typewriter in the corner because I just so happen to collect vintage typewriters and I still choose to write everything by hand which seems as foreign as choosing to use a typewriter to draft a manuscript.
- An elevator pitch
This you will have to do before you wake up for the first day of any writers’ conference. The elevator pitch: a MEMORIZED description of what your writing project is about. It should be no longer than two sentences, keeping in mind that this pitch should be no longer than the amount of time it takes to share an elevator ride with someone. And no you are not riding from the first floor to the 16th floor while both a wedding and graduation ceremony are in progress. #SpaldingMFA
Time yourself while delivering this pitch which should take no more than 30 seconds to complete. If you catch the interest of a potential agent or editor, move on to the longer pitch and synopsis! Creating and presenting an elevator pitch is also an excellent practicing opportunity for future conferences. If you present your elevator pitch and the agent simply nods and smiles, obviously you have some work to do versus the agent who asks to know more about your story. Here is a video that I found helpful by Teresa Funke, a writer’s coach, entitled How to Pitch to Agents and Editors at Conferences.
- Synopsis of your story
So the agent or editor is interested in your story! Congratulations! Now its time to deliver the synopsis of your story and by deliver I mean have a typed and printed copy ready to hand over to your interested party. The point of the synopsis is to convey your book/collection/series entire narrative arc and sadly, must reveal the ending. While attending the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, I had an idea for a story but in no way, shape or form did I already know how my characters were going to change or the ending! For my first conference, I was completely at a loss but now, in preparation for conferences two and three I have a story in mind, how the main characters will change, who survives and who dies and a rough draft of an ending. My point: make sure you know the story you are proposing inside and out before pitching it to someone else.
Now the length of the synopsis varies from one paragraph to two pages double-spaced. If the agent or editor doesn’t let you know ahead of time which they would prefer or their companies website does not specifically state which length is preferred, I would suggest doing both! Great practice in the future and shows that you are able to summarize your novel in 30 seconds, one paragraph and two pages. For more on writing the synopsis and what it should cover I would suggest Jane Friedman’s blog post entitled Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis.
- A SINGLE sample of a chapter
This item I have mixed feelings about so I will let other writers decide whether its best to bring a sample chapter or not. I think it all depends on length and will use my work as an example. My novel in progress is told through short stories which tend to be 10+ pages in length. While I realize an editor or agent is not going to have time during the conference to read my work, its always good to leave them wanting more especially if it leads to an email telling me they want me to send them more! That is my praise for the single sample chapter, typed and printed of course.
My concern is for those who have a sample chapter that’s edging towards 30+ pages. I’m not an expert, I learn what materials to bring and what not to bring just like the rest of you, by attending the conferences. However, 30+ pages is edging toward the 50 page sample most agents and editors ask you to send them when they’ve accepted your manuscript. No longer is the writer handing a small taste of their work to engage the agent/editor but giving them a longer work that will take even more time to process. With this one, it all comes down to length and whether or not your first chapter is in the 10-20 page range or 30+ pages. What’s important is that this chapter is an example of your best written work.
- A list of questions you want to have answered
I encourage everyone to read and review the profiles of those who are attending the writers’ conference! Know their names, what genre’s they work with, what they like to read and if they are an editor or an agent. Then, write a list of questions so you don’t waste time sitting in the presence of an author, agent or editor overwhelmed with excitement that you can’t think of anything to say. This moment definitely comes before having to say no every time someone asks for your business card. It makes you look unprepared and makes that one person across the table wonder if you are wasting their time.
The information is available to you so use it to your advantage! Get to know each author, agent and editor before you meet them and have your questions ready! After all, these people have made themselves available to you, the writer, to answer your questions, listen to your pitches and help you in this process.
If I’ve forgotten anything please let me know! I’m hoping to keep adding to this post as I continue to immerse myself in writers’ conferences. I leave you with the one thing NOT to bring to a writers’ conference:
DO NOT BRING YOUR ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT! IT WILL WEIGH YOU DOWN AND NO ONE WILL HAVE TIME TO READ IT! YOU PRESENT IT TO AN EDITOR OR AGENT AND THEY WILL STILL ASK YOU TO SEND THE FIRST 50 PAGES OF IT SO YOU MIGHT AS WELL LEAVE IT AT HOME!