…or at least not wet your pants while you’re there. (Probably.)
In case you didn’t hear (like most people on the planet) I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in Hollywood, California last weekend with the intention of learning about my craft and pitching a current project to as many agents as possible.
Having survived the experience, I’m now an expert. Naturally.
Okay. No, I’m not.
But I’m perhaps more valuable (shut up, I am) because an expert may forget crucial details after attending multitudes of conferences. I, however, offer the perspective of a new kid fresh from her first time with tips to ease your newbie mind. Or at least help you control your bladder. (Probably.)
Here’s a list to consult when YOU take the leap and attend your own writer’s conference:
1. Don’t worry about going alone. I attended the WDC with the wonderful Cheryl Rosenberg so I knew I wouldn’t be by myself (unless I peed my pants early and she ditched me). But most attendees arrived as singletons. They were friendly and willing to sit next to strangers or invite strangers to sit with them. A writer’s conference isn’t a social event so being alone isn’t the end of the world, it’s the norm. If you can’t convince another writer-friend to attend with you, don’t let your solitary status hold you back.
2. Do your homework. Research which participating agents specialize in your genre. Find at least one fact/preference/detail about each agent to reference in your pitch to show you want to work with him or her specifically. I took notes on index cards and practiced answering the question, “Why is your project a good fit for my agency?” Narrow your list to agents you want to see most. Your time’s limited and so is theirs. Don’t waste a minute of it.
3. Don’t pitch an incomplete manuscript if you write fiction. When an agent is interested, he/she won’t want to wait six months for your finished project. Non-fiction writers can pitch a book proposal rather than a completed work. (See Nathan Brandsford’s site for tips on writing an effective proposal.) Some writers attended the WDC strictly for break-out sessions to hone their skills; but conferences are expensive and my main goal was to score agent interest.
4. Do memorize your pitch so when you forget it (or freeze, like I did) you can still deliver the key details of your story off the cuff. When I actually got in front of the agents, my super-rehearsed version sounded awkward so I strayed from my script because it felt more authentic than reciting a monologue. Still, I NEVER could have done this if I hadn’t known my pitch cold.
5. Don’t worry about what to wear. Clothing spanned the spectrum from casual jeans to flowing skirts (even a Benjamin Franklin costume!) so wear an outfit you’ve had on a million times and won’t think twice about, something that makes you feel comfortable or fabulous. Fashion is NOT the focus of a writer’s conference. Wear layers (because temperatures vary between rooms) and don’t worry about shoes (I beg you) because agents can’t see under the table. No one will notice what you’re wearing. Unless you’re dressed like Ben Franklin.
6. Do bring a granola bar or small snack and a water bottle in your bag or briefcase along with paper, pens, cash for parking and coins for vending machines. I got hungry and thirsty in between meals (duh) but grumbling stomachs and parched tongues aren’t good for anyone.
7. Don’t forget to order business cards to give to those with whom you connect. They need not be fancy; simply include your name and contact information. You can use these to take notes on specific people you meet. Along the “nothing fancy” lines, I brought a Ziploc baggie to store mine, not a card-holder. No joke. No one cares. (Thanks, Joann Mannix!)
8. Do line up early for a pitch session without pre-established appointments. At our conference, we didn’t book ahead of time with a specific agent or two; ours was a PITCH SLAM: 250 writers in one room with 20 agents for 90 minutes switching up in three-minute intervals. It was speed-dating for the literary world. I may suck at math, but you do not want to be the 250th writer entering that room.
9. Don’t limit yourself to pitching your first-choice agent first. I went in with seven options and used as variables the length of their lines and how good a fit I thought we’d be. Some writers waited more than a half hour for one agent and ended up pitching to only one or two people while my strategy afforded me face-time with six.
10. Do write down the interested agent’s specific instructions immediately. You think you’ll never forget the moment an agent says, “I’d like to hear more,” but your brain is on overdrive and you won’t remember when it’s over. Synopsis? Ten pages? Two chapters? Query in the body of an email? Trust me. Write it down. The back of their business card works great. (Thanks, Robin Bielman!)
11. Don’t forget these agents WANT to love your pitch. You’re a potential money-maker and they are mere mortals. I didn’t pee my pants (probably) but I was uber-nervous during my first pitch. My voice cracked, my hands shook, my eyes watered and I blanked on words I’d practiced no less than a thousand times. And yet. The agent understood it was my first pitch of the day. She nodded and smiled and I kept breathing and the next pitch became easier. And so on. If an agent is harsh, do what Ben Franklin did – grab your kite and key and move along. Then forgive yourself for being scared and realize that everyone else is, too. You will survive. (Thanks, Gloria Gaynor!)
And so my spectacular writer-friends, if you take even one piece of encouragement with you to your own writer’s conference let it be this:
Be proud that you are putting yourself out there. EVERY new experience is an opportunity to learn. You’ll come away from the weekend knowing more than you did when you arrived.
Even if it’s simply about yourself.
Cheryl took this picture right before we entered the room for Pitch Slam. If I hadn’t been wearing a jacket, you would have seen my heart beating. Pretty sure. And Cheryl? Thank you. From the bottom of my sick and twisted heart.
p.s. In all seriousness, if you’re going to a conference and have a question, shoot me an email or DM me on twitter. I’d be happy to send you a virtual hug or words of advice if I can.
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