Tales from the 2015 Writer’s Digest Conference

No visit to NYC complete without seeing the lovely Lady

No visit to NYC complete without seeing the lovely Lady

I’m a big conference fan. Not only are they places where writers are respected (unlike neighbors or distant family members that might roll their eyes when you announce your profession), these gatherings serve as great opportunities to learn industry news and changing trends. Regional conferences are wonderful, but the national ones serve as the best occasions for hearing about news and developments in traditional publishing. I participated in Thriller Fest for several years and enjoyed every minute. However, this year I decided to check out the 2015 Writer’s Digest Conference in New York as a change of pace.

The Conference

In short, it was fun and frantic. The one down side, in my opinion, was the venue. Although lovely, some of the hotel’s conference rooms seemed small for so many people and were divided by massive pillars that blocked the views of the speakers and the large screen presentations. The elevators served as the weekend’s nightmares, always being slow, filled to capacity no matter which direction you were going, and frighteningly creaky when in motion.

The Pitch Slam

Another great offering of national conferences is that they focus on interactions between writers and industry leaders, such as well-published authors, publicists, agents, and editors. In fact, one agent pointed out that she gets about 38% of her clients through meeting them at conferences and only about 14% from the slush pile. Do the math. Your chances of getting representation are simply better at writers’ conferences because the agents can get to know you as a person.

In the case of the Writer’s Digest Conference, they featured four one-hour Pitch Slam events where hopeful scribers of fiction and nonfiction could throw story ideas at about sixty literary agents (and a few editors) in a speed-dating style frenzy. Since the number of participants in the room was limited, most people had a chance to see at least six or more professionals before time was up. The conference organizers helped by starting the weekend events off with Chuck Sambuchino, editor of the 2015 Guide to Literary Agents, giving us a pep talk and great advice about pitching. According to Chuck and several other experts, the elevator pitch is quickly becoming history. Its replacement is the idea that you engage the agent or editor in conversation and then give them your pitch, rather than throwing it in their faces as some explosive attempt to sell your book.

The agents at the conference were extremely friendly when faced with the hand-shaking, heavily-sweating hopefuls in front of them. I know this because of my dismal performance in front of my first pitching attempt.

To be clear, I’ve pitched at several events before. ThrillerFest runs a four-hour, mad dash across three large rooms. It is open to everyone paying for the event, which often leads to long lines in front of the most popular guests. However, having a few years of experience doesn’t stop the stomach from knotting up and the obsessive repeating of your pitch while waiting in line to see the next literary agent. You know this is your live-or-die moment. It’s not, but you feel that way anyway. You are desperate not to screw it up.

In my first attempt at the 2015 conference, I approached Ms. Kirsten Carlton of the Waxman Leavell Literary Agency, ready to make conversation and launch into the best elevator speech that the world has ever seen (my opinion). I shook her hand, sat down, smiled, and began to talk. Some loud noise drew my attention away and “POOF!” my rehearsed speech disappeared from my brain in mid sentence. She stared at me, looking concerned, as I sputtered, tried to find my thoughts again, failed, and then banged my head against the table in frustration.

Yes, it was that bad.

She told me to take a deep breath and we began again. She listened to my pitch, we discussed its merits, and I went on my way to the next table with more calm and confidence. (Dear Ms. Carlton, I’m mentally sending you many blessings for being so kind and understanding.)

Future Blogs

I took a ton of notes and will be sharing them in the next few blog posts. However, nothing I say here replaces the real thing. As I mention some of the experts that I’ve met, check out their websites and blogs. Look for the books that they’ve created. The information I can provide is just the tip that they gave out at the too-short sessions.

Finally, if you are serious about writing and publishing (self or traditional style), attend a conference if possible. Be wise in choosing one that fits your genre and needs so you don’t waste money. However a little research on the Internet, through the writing-oriented magazines, or in many of the Writer’s Digests Guide books will provide a wealth of options to choose from. You may even have trouble limiting it to just one event a year.

And as ever, happy writing!

The hotel was very classy.

The hotel was very classy.

 

First Blunt Truth About Writing

Last week, a college-age person put a note on a chat forum that featured a wide range of writers. He requested that someone volunteer to act as a mentor in helping him finish his novel and getting it traditionally published. The individual knew in his heart that it was a great story and he had put part of his soul in it. He went on to say that he now knows that writers work as a community and he needed and desired help to make the next steps in his career.

I waited a day or so to see if anyone else would respond because my own answers were less than flattering. What happened?

Silence.

And more waiting.

The silence was so profound that you could hear the distant chirping of crickets in cyberspace.

I get frustrated because I rarely get feedback from agents on my queries. Simply saying “it’s not right for me” doesn’t help me understand what was wrong. So I figured this writer, like me, deserved an answer. I wrote my less than flattering opinion as nicely as possible. Happily, several experienced people responding with the general equivalent of “yep, that is the way it is,” and “tell it like it is, girl!” I have not heard back from the college student to know if he believed me or even wanted to discuss the issue further. His non-reply was disappointing. What the kid (yep, at my age college students are kids) failed to realize was that I had stepped up to a mentoring role he asked about.

I told him the blunt truth.

We all want an older, wiser expert to take us by the hand and guide us through the pitfalls of creating and publishing books. Personally, I would choose Patricia Briggs or Charlaine Harris because they really rock in the urban fantasy world.

Guess what? It does not work that way.

Let us break it down by the kinds of people who might consider being a mentor to a beginning novelist.

The Theoretical Authors have finished but unpublished manuscripts sitting inĀ  desk drawers at home. They should not give advice because they have not “leveled up” in the game of traditional book production. Whatever they are doing to reach the Elysian Fields of the big publishing houses has not worked yet. Most authors never get their first, second, or often third book accepted by an agent or publisher because these manuscripts are not good enough yet. These early works act as the training grounds for creating a story that is exceptional enough to see a bookstore shelf. Read about the struggles of some of your favorite authors and you will see this is true.

The Debut Authors have one or maybe two books on the market. They will not step up to help because they are busy promoting their paperbacks or working on the next manuscript because chances are, their first published book will not be a breakout novel. Plus, publishers like having a second book to quickly follow the first, particularly in a series.

The Veteran Authors are the Gods of Literature. We wish we were them and gather at conferences to hear pearls of wisdom flowing from their lips. Individuals with a breakout novel will not volunteer either because they are running hard with promotions, book signings, and conventions. They also must continue to write the next great hit. However, it is more than just being too busy. To be honest, dozens of newbie writers want the established folks to help them. After all, success is sometimes related to whom you know. However, helping one may result in a new flood of requests so it is easier for the bestselling author to simply say no to everyone.

Finally, the main reason why no one will serve as a mentor comes from the answer to this question: what is in it for me?

Nothing.

As altruistic as most folks want to be, time is money.

More importantly, we writers viciously guard our creative time from any and all intrusions. This includes spouses, pets that want to go outside ten times in an hour, day job demands, self-promotion, or even sleeping. No matter how long an author sits at their desk every day, it never seems like enough. So taking time out of our schedules to do everything we can to promote your new work, particularly without anything serving as payment back, simply is not good business.

So where should young writers go for help? The answer is easy but potentially expensive: conferences, workshops, writers’ retreats, and critique groups. The review clubs provide one-on-one feedback, while most of these others include how-to-write information, how-to-query secrets, and interactions with experts in the industry. Invest in these opportunities to get the tools and knowledge you need for your own career path.

It is not easy, but nothing worth doing well is ever easy.

Find out about more blunt truths in the next blog