Friday, June 13, 2008

What would you like to see in a writers conference?

My local writers club is starting to plan for a one day writers conference to be held in October 2009.

I have attended a lot of writers conferences over the years. After awhile it seems that some sessions are ones that I could mumble in my sleep because I have attended them in one form or another multiple times.

Last year on one of the numerous agent blogs I follow, (unfortunately I cannot remember which one), I read about something that I have never seen in a writers conference but sounded as if it could be very instructive.

Volunteers submitted portions of their work and an agent read it aloud and gave their brutally honest feedback. The part that sounded the most intriguing would be learning at what point the agent would stop reading and say "Next!"

It sounds potentially bruising to one's ego, but it could also be incredibly helpful in identifying weaknesses in writing as well as understanding exactly how little time we have to grab an agent's attention.

I would like for our conference to have workshops and sessions that are more than just re-treads of standard fare because I want my club to be able to attract attendance from more than just our members or local writers.

Therefore, I am turning to the blogosphere in asking for feedback and suggestions.

Please tell me what are your likes and dislikes with writers conferences.

Is there a subject that you would drive one hundred miles to hear discussed?

Perhaps there is something you have never seen covered in a writers conference, but would like to see?

Is there any topic you have seen addressed that was particularly helpful that you would recommend?

Or is there a topic you have heard so many times that you would be bored to tears to hear it ONE MORE TIME.

Please let me know. I am open to all suggestions.


Sun Singer said...

While I've never been to a writer's conference, your example of the agent who reads portions of MSS aloud reminded me of an alternative approach.

My creative writing instructor read MSS aloud as well, but he never said whose they were. Rather than offering an immediate critique himself, he asked for comments. Those who wrote the piece could comment and/or defend the piece with our without admitting they wrote it.

The teacher would take part in the discussion. This kind of thing might be very valuable from an agent or acquisitions editor, especially if the writer is never revealed. It works best in small groups where there's enough time to get to everyone in the room.

Good luck with your planning!


L.C.McCabe said...


Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

I spent about half an hour going through my Google reader trying to find those old posts from an agent describing this type of session, but was unable to find it. Instead, I thought it best to just go from memory.

I agree that it would be best not to have your name announced and then savaged in public. Even without names being mentioned, if you were present when your work was read aloud and then heard the agent go "ZZZZZZ" then jerk their head - you'd get the picture loud and clear.

Hopefully everyone who volunteered their work for open critique would be able to laugh along with the audience while learning through the acid test this type of session would provide.

Now, I need to get back to perfecting my cover letter!



Anonymous said...

I believe the agent whose blog post you seek is Kristin Nelson. ;)

R.J. Anderson said...

Hail from another HP4GU alumnus! :)

I've only been to one conference (out of four) where they did the "first pages" session with an agent, but I found it incredibly helpful and interesting. The names of the submitters were kept private in all cases, and only those writers who chose to participate were included, which I think did a lot to eliminate the fear of public humiliation that a lot of beginning writers would otherwise experience.

After a few submissions I really got a feel for what makes an agent (or at least, that particular agent) stop reading and why -- I could pretty much predict myself which ones would make it through, and in most cases I felt the same way as the agent did.

In many cases, for instance, the book obviously started well before the action -- characters getting out of bed and brushing their teeth, having unnecessarily long and petty quarrels with siblings, and so on... and in all that time no hint of what the protagonist wanted or what conflicts he/she was likely to experience over the rest of the book. I would have put it down after the first page, too.

Anyway, based on my own limited conference-going experience (all of which were SCBWI events, so I can't really speak to what's going on in the adult literary or genre markets) the most helpful sessions for me had to do with time management -- tips for making time to write, and for making the most of the time you have when you get it. Christine Kole MacLean did an excellent seminar on Time Mapping at the first conference I attended, and at the second one Laurie Halse Anderson gave a fantastic talk about cultivating your creativity and setting aside time for writing in spite of the demands of work, parenting, and all the other things that can so easily get in the way.

Hope that's helpful!

Anonymous said...

And a quick google search reveals the conference in question to be Backspace.

L.C.McCabe said...


Thank you. I wound up going through my Google Reader with her older posts and found what I was looking for. I had actually made it a starred entry, but the title threw me:

Cereal killer.

Looking at that title made me think that it was a rant about misspellings on a query for a thriller. Instead, it was her pithy way of saying that if your stomach wasn't strong you might have difficulty attending that session.

Thank you for the link to the Backspace Writers Conference as well. That may prove to be helpful in inspiring our committee in planning for our own conference.


L.C.McCabe said...


Thank you for your thoughts and suggestions.

Another HP fandomer! AHHHH. We are everywhere. Yes we are.

I scanned your blog and read some of your reflections on the issue of the HP books/Tolkien/faith, etc. I wondered if you had read any of John Granger's work on that subject. If you haven't you should first check out his blog and then his books. I think you'll find that you share a lot in common with him. is the place to start.

You may be interested in some of my thoughts on the Potterverse, but know in advance that they come from a very L.O.O.N.ish perspective. You can find them by clicking on the Harry Potter link in the label cloud.

Thanks for stopping by!


Julie Weathers said...

I'm going to Surrey this fall, barring disaster. Several friends, who are regulars there, have encouraged me to do the pitch session. I cringe at the thought of it, but I'm going to get my guts up and do it.

The "Idol" workshops are good and bad, from what I hear. If the panel is being honest, then they can be very helpful. However, I've heard of some where the agents were trying to one-up each other with snarky, hurtful comments. While I understand that makes for high entertainment, it isn't very useful.

To me, the most useful session would be where the writer submitted five pages ahead of time. They the agent and writer would have something to discuss.

Also, it seems to me, establishing a reputation in a specialized area might be a good foundation. Get a reputation as a place to go and learn a certain aspect of writing. Covering the waterfront would be difficult in a one-day conference.

Best of luck to you all.

Linda said...

Hi Linda! Coming over from Nathan's... I went to a marvelous conference this past April - The Muse and the Marketplace, sponsored by Grub Street of Boston. They had a fantastic mix of excellent craft workshops that went indepth in content areas like voice, POV, starting a new novel which were taught by top notch writers: Anita Shreve, Julia Glass, Karl Iagnemma, Bret Anthony Johnson. You had to sign up in advance for the workshops, so the size was limited, and each class went for about 1.5 hours.

Also, they had Agent and Editor Idol sessions, which were very helpful, as well as (for an extra fee) 20 minute manuscript review sessions with agents and editors (first 20 pages in advance). THAT was amazing, and far better than any pitch session.

This conference ran two days, and I don't think a moment was flat or wasted.

I blogged about it here if you want more poop:

Peace, another Linda

L.C.McCabe said...


"Idol" workshops. Yikes, that is a title I had never heard of before. It sounds even more ominous than what Kristen Nelson had described.

In regards to your going to a workshop in Surrey. I also recommend participating in agent pitch sessions. Just do your homework before the conference by seeing who will be participating and check out online resources or the conference book to see what genres they represent. See if you can find the names of their clients and read some of those published titles if you have the time to see if your work is remotely similar.

Then narrow the field down to who you want to approach.

One thing that I have done is try and talk with those agents a day or so before the pitch session. Do not talk about your project at that time. Just try having an informal conversation after they've spoken somewhere and let them see you as a person with a sense of humor. Then when you sit down at their table -- during that pressure cooker time -- you will feel more comfortable *and* they will recognize you in a positive light.

If you do not have the opportunity to speak with them beforehand, the best advice I have is to sit down, make eye contact, smile, and then greet them. Don't just launch into a spring loaded pitch with an attempt to say as much as is humanly possible in three minutes time. If they've been doing the pitch sessions for any length of time, they're already shell shocked. Connect with them first on the human level and then talk to them about your writing.

Once you start talking the agent will probably ask questions, sometimes while you are in mid-sentence. Do your best to answer them but keep your focus on what you wanted to say.

If you're lucky, the words you were planning on saying will actually be what is needed to answer their questions. That actually happened to me last February.

Most important - make yourself look as professional as possible. Do not complain about anything, even if you do not get your full three minutes because the person in front of you dawdled. If you complain, then that is what you will be remembered for and not your pitch.

Too many writers look at agents as gate keepers and not as fellow human beings. That kind of attitude shows and it is not liked by agents.

You could be the last person they see all day and if you start that session off with a statement about how tired they must be and treat them with compassion, you might just be the one writer they remember with the most fondness. That would go a long way to help start a professional relationship.

Good luck.

Lee Lofland said...

Hi Linda. As you know I attend anywhere from 12 - 16 conferences each year, so I've seen some workshops that were wonderful, and I've seen some that were horrid (hopefully not mine).

One particular conference holds a session at night where writers stand and read a portion of their WIP to a panel of agents and editors. This is done in front of an audience of the writer's peers.

At the conclusion of each reading the piece is publicly critiqued by the panel. It sounds brutal, but really it's not. I've heard nothing but positive comments from the writers. They seem to love it. They say it makes them work extra hard to make sure they won't be embarrassed. The result is normally a really polished piece of writing.

L.C.McCabe said...


Thanks for your comment and the hat tip to Grub Street which I had never heard of before. It'll be nice to have all these different conference agendas to pore over with our planning committee.

Getting ideas from other parts of the country is good so that we don't just wind up having the same old thing others have had but with a different geographic venue.


L.C.McCabe said...

Hey Lee,

It must be late at night for you, unless you're on the road and on the west coast.

Hopefully we can chat sometime so that I can glean from you some of your hard earned knowledge in this arena.

I did a night owl session like the one you described at the last CWC Writers Conference held in Asilomar back in 2000. (That's when I met Erika.)

I was trying to sell my Master's thesis since I thought it had some cross over commercial potential and wasn't solely for academia. So I was in the only session that sounded remotely appropriate for me: the catch-all nonfiction.

The room was filled with memoirists who read heartbreaking stories and there I was reading about anthropology and the popular image of the Cave Man.

I felt like I was in the Sesame Street game of "One of These Things Doesn't Belong Here." If someone else had just read a piece about gardening or even how to dust for fingerprints, I don't think I would have felt quite so out of place.

Note to self: if you do anything like this try to put memoirs in their own session and have nonfiction as another.

Thanks Lee,


Karen Duvall said...

I've been to a lot of writers conferences and just as you say, it's hard to find original workshops to sit through that don't make you fall asleep. I'd have to say the most original workshops I've ever attended were at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference. I've attended every fall for the past 15 years.

The MS critique by agents and/or attending editors is probably the most popular workshop presented at Gold. Another excellent one is the Query Letter workshop that's usually presented by Kristin Nelson (her office is in Denver so she attends the conference almost every year). Any time you can get the attending agents and editors involved in presenting a workshop, it's guaranteed it will be well-attended.

The Gold usually divides the workshops into 4 tracks so that there's something for everyone each hour. The tracks are typically: craft, genre, business/the writing life, and experts (like crime pros, historians, psychologists, animal trainers, doctors, lawyers, etc.). For those of us who've had our fill of craft, the expert tracks are fascinating even if they have nothing to do with the particular book you're writing.

The Gold also provides editor/agent workshops for an additional cost of $30. You sign up for the agent or editor of your choice who reads sample pages from your work ahead of time. They then facilitate a 2 1/2 hour critique session with 8 other writers who've done the same, and everyone's received everyone else's pages weeks before the conference. It's an incredibly useful workshop. You get professional one-on-one interaction with an actively acquiring agent or editor. It makes the entire conference worth attending.

Because series writing is becoming the popular trend these days, I'd personally like to see a workshop on writing the series and how to keep the all-important series bible.

I think any hot topic or genre should be addressed at a conference. Dissecting the best seller. What's up with the YA craze. That sort of thing.

The Gold is coming up in September and if you'd like to see the workshops and list of attending agents (7) and editors (4) you can visit

L.C.McCabe said...


Thank you so much for your input. I appreciate it.


A Week In The life of A Redhead said...

I'd love to see you put up some extra pages at the RW site or create a blog\forum site specific to the writers conference. An area set aside to help conference presenters and participants share ideas before, during, and after the conference "face to face" activities. Also, I'd love to see something on screen writing and successful magazine writing.... and of course, something on blogging. Maybe you could get top blogger Heather Armstrong of Dooce ( to come out for a talk. I think her agent might be in Northern Calif as she has written about her trips to Northern Cal.

L.C.McCabe said...


Thank you for your feedback. I appreciate it.

We are just now in the planning stages and the feedback on this blog post will be a starting point for discussions as to what topics we want covered and then who we should try to enlist to be speakers for them.

BTW, I don't think I have your phone number. Please send it to me via email, so I can call you next week as I'm out of town for the holiday weekend.


Cindy Pavlinac said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cindy Pavlinac said...

Molly Dwyer, author of Requiem for the Author of Frankenstein, the life of Mary Shelley, spoke at our CWC Marin Branch meeting in June and gave one of the best, most articulate presentations about writing I have ever experienced, at any venue. Her lively talk deftly wove the Romantic poets, dreams, and traveling in England with shamanism, quantum physics, genius, and meaningful coincidence.

She showed us how our writing will improve by paying close attention to how things like to happen together. Through tapping into deep levels of emotional sensitivity, the observer becomes a participant, the key to change.

I highly recommend her to keynote your conference. Her power point presentation on Synchronicity and Sensibilité kept our packed Book Passage events room enthralled for over an hour. Please invite her! Her prespective is very grounding, informative, inspiring, and current. Check out her website and blog.

L.C.McCabe said...


Per your request I nixed the duplicate comment, but it does not appear that I have the Author-it-tay to fix spellings.

Darn it.

Thanks for the suggestions and I look forward to getting together with you again soon. I'll keep you in the loop once the plans are underway.

It is wonderful having you as my Marin branch counterpart.