Monday, February 12, 2007

Writers Conferences - Why Should Anyone Go to Them?

Recently I've seen a couple agents blogs mention writers conferences and discuss from their perspectives whether or not it is worth their time attending. Most of them are already swamped with query letters, and so they are not waiting around feeling forlorn hoping for potential clients to contact them.

They have also said that it is doubtful that they will actually find new clients by meeting writers at a writers conference. The one area they felt that was worthwhile was in educating writers about the business of publishing.

With the idea that many agents or editors from publishing houses do not expect that they will actually meet writers that they'll develop a long term working relationship with, why should writers spend hundreds of dollars to attend writers conferences?

Because you'll learn about the business in ways that you simply can't from reading books, blogs or websites.

Because going to conferences will help you to meet others who share your same passion for the written word.

I belong to a writers club and so I meet with other writers at least once a month and can talk with others who share my obsession about writing. However, by going to writers conferences I meet writers from geographically distant areas and have developed friendships with them.

The first writers conference I attended was about fifteen years ago when I was still in my twenties and I wasn't sure exactly kind of writing I wanted to pursue. I had taken a course in screenwriting before moving to California, but I had gotten bitten by the political activism bug. I started spending more of my creative energy writing essays on political issues than thinking up screenplays. At the time I went to my first conference I had the credit of having had one op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times. It was beginner's luck where my first submission was accepted, but none of my follow up submissions were.

I contemplated working as a free lance writer on political topics I cared passionately about. So I attended sessions geared for free lance writing, but also others that piqued my interest. I also heard speeches from the keynote speakers which were informative and inspirational.

At the time, I felt embarrassed to be there as if I didn't belong because I had only one real credit to my name. I didn't realize that it was precisely because I was so new that attending a writers conference was the best thing for me. If nothing else, I realized from the sheer number of attendees that I was not alone and that I had colleagues who weren't superhuman individuals, they were just normal people.

I have since then attended six other writers conferences and at least three book festivals. Talking with other writers always inspires me, because I learn from other people. I also share with them my knowledge gleaned over the years.

Just the other day I was talking with Tom Kendrick who was a guest speaker for my writers club last December and we were discussing literary blogs. He is in the process of adapting his book Bluewater Goldrush into a screenplay and wanted to know if there were any blogs about screenwriting. I didn't know of any offhand, but the next day as I was looking for something else, I found an area on the wonderful Absolute Write Website for screenwriters. I sent Tom the link and he followed up. Within an hour he was corresponding with a successful screenwriter and learning a lot.

Sometimes I envision myself as a spider who is sending out silken strands in many directions and then joining them together. You never know when a piece of information that you hear will come in handy, and that is another benefit from writers conferences. You hear stories from industry professionals and you can hopefully use that information to help you avoid making similar mistakes that others made before.

You can also meet agents. Some of the settings to meet agents are stressful ordeals because they involve time limited "pitch sessions." It's like trying to convey to someone the essence of your book project in the time it would take to ride in an elevator.

One conference I went to seven years ago had agent and editor round tables, which in retrospect was an incredibly cruel method to perform these agent-author interactions. At each table sat an agent or an editor and writers filled in the rest of the chairs. The agent could have at any one time probably seven pairs of eyes staring at them, while one person nervously tried selling them on their book in about two minutes time. The agent would make a snap decision of "that's not the type of book that I'm currently looking for" or "here's my card, please send me a query letter about your project." Meanwhile the other writers were jockeying for position to be the next to get their turn. As soon as one writer completed their pitch, they'd vacate their seat to find an open seat at another agent's table and wait their turn to repeat the process.

Rinse, pitch, repeat.

It was stressful for me, but I believe it was far more stressful for the agents and editors to have to endure two hours of hungry looking eyes staring at them desperately seeking validation. In retrospect, I feel sorry that they were even put in such a format.

It is far more humane to have only one writer at a time sit at a table talking to an agent. Even if they are bored stiff by the individuals stammering about their Great American Novel, there would only be one pair of eyes at a time staring at them as opposed to multiple sets.

Beth Proudfoot the chair of the East of Eden Writers Conference spoke to my writers club three years ago about what writers can expect from attending writers conferences, and she has a summation of that available online here.

Due to her insistence that writers embrace lines at writers conferences as a means to schmooze, I look at them in a different light. They are a chance to network with people. Be as outgoing as possible and listen more than you speak.

One thing to note there is one line in which you absolutely should not pitch.

It is a Cardinal Sin to pitch in the bathroom line.

Don't do it.

It's tacky, and well, no one wants you to continue telling them about your book when they've closed the door or are standing at the urinal.

Talking about your novel near the shrimp cocktail is one thing - doing it in a bathroom is another.

Just don't. If you feel you must say something to an agent who is standing next to you while you're waiting in line, say "isn't this a great conference?" or "I really liked your talk at the last session." Something light and polite that does not beg for a long conversation, especially when you are liable to be interrupted by the lyrical sound of flushing at any time.

There have been anecdotes of writers handing samples of their work under the stalls to agents. Unless you wish to be the butt of cruel jokes bandied about for years by agents when they gather together at a bar.

That's about all for now. This weekend I'm volunteering for the San Francisco Writers Conference and am looking forward to having a great time.

Look for me if you're attending as well.

Linda

For the most humorous take of what attending a writers conference from an agent's perspective, here's what Miss Snark had to say.
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