The Do’s, Don’ts, and “Stuff” of Writer’s Conferences

Writers conferences can be fantastic for writers of all experience levels. A little pre-conference planning is a great idea. Most importantly, consider your choice of conferences carefully. Some are geared more toward craft while others focus on the business and marketing side. The best choice for you will depend on where you are in your career.

The key to getting the most out of a conference is preparation. That’s right, attendees. Ya gotta do your homework. And get comfortable hearing your own voice. Case in point: A couple of years ago, at a pre-conference social event, a featured editor (whom I had studied in advance) pulled up the chair next to me and struck up a casual conversation about Austin. It was friendly and laid back and lovely. Then she opened the golden door, “So, what do you write?” Though I had mentally practiced my pitch, her timing caught me completely off guard, possessing me suddenly with the intellect of Sponge Bob.
     “Oh, stuff,” I said.
Uh, huh. you heard me right. “Stuff.” Not the well-rehearsed pitch for my three nonfiction picture books, or the historical novel I was planning. “Stuff.” Shortly after that, the conversation ended and she moseyed away to strike up another friendly conversation with the writer across the room. She probably bought that woman’s manuscript. Arggh! I’m still kicking myself about it.

I give you the Dos and Don’ts and “Stuff” of writer’s conferences:

1. Don’t stalk the editor or agent- Let them go to the restroom in peace.
2. Don’t sneak your manuscript into the agent’s or editor’s bag, folder, or turkey sandwich.
3. Don’t elbow your way into his/her sight line.
4. If you are asked what your book is about, don’t whip out your manuscript. Revert to your rehearsed elevator pitch. Think one or two minutes, top.  Above all, don’t say STUFF!
5. Don’t bring gifts, care packages, or the agent’s favorite dessert. Remember, rock stars never fall in love with the pushy groupie. See #1 on stalking.
6. Don’t call yourself the next J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, or Rick Riordan. Be original.
7. Don’t knit scarves, socks, or book covers for featured speakers. It’s just creepy.
8. If you have a critique with a featured speaker, don’t take criticism personally. No tears. No tantrums.
9. Don’t wear sparkles, flags, or lighted tops in the hopes of getting noticed.
10. Don’t forget- the featured agents, editors, and award winning authors are people, too. Be respectful and friendly.  Remember the golden rule.

1. Read books by featured authors in advance. It will make their presentation much more meaningful.
2. Get to know books agented by or edited by your speakers. You’ll gain insight into their tastes and you’ll be ready with conversation starters if the opportunity presents itself.
      (read the comments section of this post for suggestions on finding those titles.)
3. Sign up for conference critiques. If the agent or editor genuinely likes your manuscript, ask if you can submit it to them. And don’t underestimate critiques from featured authors.
4. Dress accordingly. Most regional conferences are casual to “professional casual.” Wear comfy shoes and dress in layers. You never know if your conference room temperature will be tropical or arctic.
5. Practice your elevator pitch out loud. Again, think 1 minute summary. Not one word-“Stuff”
6. If you are attending alone, find another attendee to befriend for the duration of the conference.
7. Be prepared to take notes and bring a highlighter, just in case.
8. Ask permission first if you’re thinking of recording the sessions. It’s generally frowned upon.
9. Bring plenty of business cards to share with other attendees. Nobody understands writers like other writers. And, if you’re looking for a critique partner, you might meet him or her here.
10. Leave your manuscript in the car. Editors and agents will not be asking for it.
11. Come prepared with questions; for Q and A sessions; about featured books; about process and craft; about submission possibilities; about recommended titles, etc. Be brave and raise your hand.
12. Be friendly with other attendees and when possible, shake the speakers hand and strike up a casual conversation. Feel free to ask general questions, but do not propose your book unless the agent or editor asks what you write.
13. Be your genuine self. Remember, agents, editors, and award winning authors are people, too. They appreciate a friendly chat. But, at the end of a long day, respect that the speakers are tuckered out.
14. Follow up: touch base with your new friends. Send thank you notes to your critiquer.
15. Thank the conference planners. They’re writers and illustrators, too. After planning for months, they’re probably working behind the scenes, missing all the wonderful action.

Want to ask just the right questions of featured editors? Pop over to editor Madeline Smoot’s “Buried in the Slush Pile” blog post for some great advice. 

One final tip. Start a conference/workshop notebook that you can add to with each event. It’s an easy, efficient way to keep track of your notes. Later, it will serve as a snapshot of the many ways you strive to progress your writing and publishing journey. And, it comes in handy at tax time when you’re trying to recreate writing-related expenses.

13 Responses to “The Do’s, Don’ts, and “Stuff” of Writer’s Conferences”

  1. Corinne O'Flynn

    excellent excellent excellent! Such valuable advice – I attended my first pair of conferences (SCBWI Rocky Mtn) recently and found myself so at ease with the advice I found online ahead of time.

    I will add to your "comfort" regarding dress: Dress in removable layers. The conference rooms were hot/cold and I was grateful to have brought a wide pashmina/shawl that I could stuff into my bag or throw over me like a blanket without looking like an eskimo!

    Have an excellent conference!

  2. Robin

    Excellent. I'm sending your link to the SCBWI Oregon listserv. I wonder if you'd submit it to RAWI? Thanks Donna!

    — RObin

  3. Donna

    Thank you all for your wonderful feedback.
    Corinne, thank you for reminding me about layering. You never know if the conference room temp will be tropical or arctic. I'll add that to the post.

    Robin, what is RAWI?

  4. Debra Mayhew

    Hi, Donna!
    I'm an SCBWI member in Atlanta. We're gearing up for our Spring Mingle conference this weekend. Thanks for the great reminders in this post! It's always good to go over these again before the next conference.
    Hope your Austin conference went well!

  5. Rosi

    This is a wonderful post. Great reminders of what to do and brings to mind some of the horror stories of conferences past. I'll be linking to this on my blog. Thanks for making such a good list.

  6. Donna Perugini

    Donna,(great name btw)

    Regarding tip #2 Get to know books agented by or edited by your speakers. You'll gain insight into their tastes and you'll be ready with conversation starters if the opportunity presents itself during the event.

    How would I go about finding the books that they agented or edited? Would it be in their bios for the conference or is there a 'secret place' where they are all waiting for the questioning writers?

  7. Donna

    Lee, Kerry, Debra, Rosi, and Donna- Thank you for your wonderful comments. I'm feeling all warm and fuzzy.

    Donna (back atcha on the great name, by the way), you asked about tip #2, getting to know books agented by or edited by the featured speakers. Wouldn't it be nice to have a handy searchable site for agents or editors, the way you can easily search by author? Alas, it's a tad more difficult. But, there are a number of ways to track down those titles.

    1.) The agent's or editor's website almost always lists representative titles and authors. Remember that past successes for him/her are the cornerstone of a publishing resume, so editors and agents are thrilled to advertise them.
    2.) Read acknowledgments in books, which often include thanks to an editor and/or agent.
    3.) A good ole Google search by name will often reveal author/agent/editor connections, though be prepared to scroll.
    5.) Casey McCormick's fabu blog, Literary Rambles- spotlights different agents.
    6.) You can follow Publisher's Marketplace which lists editors and agenst for specific titles. This is a paid subscription, though the free daily Publisher's Lunch newsletter often gives insight, too.
    7.) Don't forget the Children's Writers and Illustrator's Market Guides.
    8.) might also provide some insight. Unfortunately, I'm unable to verify it at the moment. If you're an SCBWI member, pop over to the site and peruse.

    Good luck to you:)