Act Like a Writer

This blog is the second in a series on the 2015 Writer’s Digest Conference

One of the more unusual panels that I’ve ever seen at a conference was “Act Like a Writer” presented by Keith Strunk. The material focused on the author as a person and not on his/her production of material or marketing attempts. Mr. Strunk is a scriptwriter, actor, and marketing pro so he definitely knew what he was talking about.

The tall gentleman stood up, clothed in a relatively loud printed button-down and tan slacks. As he spoke, he radiated enthusiasm and an energy level that the rest of the tired audience lacked as we were crowded into a small and overly warm room. I liked him immediately and he drew most of us into the interactive discussion.

His Presentation

Turns out that his “act” was the point of the panel. He seemed like a guy you would want befriend. Certainly he would be hard to forget. His purpose on that day was to teach authors to be aware of their reputation and presentation, and he did it beautifully by example.

Of the multiple ideas he presented that day, one really struck home with me. All authors should create or at least understand the persona that they present to the public. Part of this concept involves the philosophy of “don’t be a douche bag,” as he stated it. However, the idea encompasses more than simply behaving yourself in public. You should actively sculpt this outward facade and use it as part of your marketing plan every time you go into author mode at book signings or presentations.

My Persona

For me, this notion involves a hat. The first time I went for professional pictures to use in my writing career, I dressed in my Sunday-go-meeting clothes and full makeup. The photographer put me in front of a library-like screen with a book in my hand. After all, it’s literary looking, right? I knew it was boring but didn’t have any better suggestion.

My first promo shot. Pretty but not me.

My first promo shot. Pretty but not me.

The pictures looked okay except I had a certain deer-in-the-headlights, mindless glow to the eyes. The problem was that it wasn’t me. It looked, blah, boring, 2-dimensional, devoid of creative personality, and… you get the idea.

A couple of years later, I tried again. Having just moved from my long-term Texas home to lovely Northwest Indiana, I was missing my western roots. I felt Texas to my core, from the constant use of “ya’all” to the tendency of wanting to put up barbed wire fencing all around my property. A person born and bred in the west has different perspectives and ways of thinking from those born in the south or New England. Like anywhere, the land and culture molds the personality of that individual. Therefore, I wanted my western heart to show through in the photos.

This time, I still dolled up my hair and put on makeup but I donned jeans, a country-style shirt, a denim jacket, and my favorite white cowboy hat. Although I fought them on some of the poses they wanted to use, a few of the pictures really reflected the heart and soul of me. No deer or headlights around. I still use these pictures today and you’ll see them on this website.

The real me.

The real me.

So now when I show up, I’m the Texas Chick. The hat and I go together to every author event, even if I lay it on the table when we are indoors (I wasn’t born in a barn). People recognize me because of the hat and comment when it is missing.

For Keith Strunk, it was his visually engaging shirt and his bouncy attitude. He said it was his trademark, reflecting both his personality and presentation. To give you more marketing examples, check out Heather Graham who showed up for her panel at ThrillerFest 2014 looking like she just stepped off a romance novel cover. Famed author Terry Pratchett (may God rest his soul) also had memorable hats and a distinctive beard. Both made him easily recognizable on posters and book covers.

So as you publish your first book and set up your author appearances, think about your presentation. What can you do or wear to make people remember you? What visual impact on you or your table will catch people’s eyes from across the room? Find that persona, develop and embrace it, and you’ll see an impact in your marketing.

As always, happy writing!

Post note: If you get a chance to meet or hear Mr. Strunk at any conference, I highly recommend it. He is wonderful.

How to Choose the Best Conference for You

Conferences are often expensive, both in terms of fees and travel. Therefore, most people, particularly early in their careers, are limited to one large trip a year and maybe one or two small, regional events if they live close enough to a big city that hosts them. As a person who has attended a variety over the years, I can tell you that each type has its pros and cons. In order to choose one, you must have some idea why you are going in the first place.

First, consider where you are in your career. Are you at the beginning and want more “how to write” type advice? Then the smaller regional ones are great and affordable. Use them to hook up with local people in the business or find area writing groups. If the conference is in a fairly large city, such as the Houston Writers Guild Conference, then you may get an opportunity for meeting a handful of literary agents or editors. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) offers a number of smaller conferences across the country along with a major event in February. After attending a regional convention. you should come home fired up to hit the keyboard and burn through paper. They should leave you with a “yes I can!” attitude towards putting your work forward and getting it finished.

Do you feel like you know how to produce a good story? Do you have a manuscript ready and are developing an author platform? If so, then you may find small regional symposiums frustrating. After a while, the speakers are usually saying the same things. It’s time to move up to the larger conferences that include some manuscript review, experienced authors, and definitely interaction with editors and agents. At the midsized ones, the workshops often cover the subtleties about writing, such as developing strong characters or how to create winning query letters. The Pikes Peak Writers Conference, Chicago’s Love is Murder, and Midwest Writers Workshop  are goods examples. This point in your career is also a good time to make your first large conference as well since many offer craft style seminars. You should also pay attention to any advice about marketing yourself since agents want that in place before investing in your book. When you go home, you may have a “I really need to edit!” feeling but you’ll know how to fix your letter or manuscript to make it more presentable.

Finally, if you feel your manuscript is ready and you want the ability to really push it into agents’ or editors’ hands, then spend the money to go to a large, national conference. It’s time to meet the international experts and start networking, particularly if you have book out with a small press and are looking to move on to a bigger publishing house. The cons are the expense and the crowds. They can be overwhelming for some folks. This makes it harder to really slow down and talk to the professionals. The pros include meeting true top-of-the-line experts, participating in established pathways to pitch to agents, and receiving valuable information about marketing and life-after-publication. These conventions also provide valuable information on the state of the industry as well. The Writer’s Digest Annual Conference and San Francisco Writers Conference are good examples. One word of advice is to research the seminars to make sure you will get your money’s worth. Consider going to a genre-specific conference if possible because the bang for your buck will be higher. I have attended ThrillerFest for three years because that is what my material is. Romance writers would not do as well here and have other, better conferences for their work.

As I hear about conferences and dates, I’ll post them at the bottom of my blogs. However, I hesitate to say any of them are better than others. For most, you get  what you put into them. If you go and just listen to the speakers, you will walk away more knowledgeable but not necessarily in a better position in your writing career. If you submit items, interact, join in discussions, and/or participate in speed-dating the agents, you’ll benefit much more.

More conference suggestions:

RT Booklovers Convention 2015 in May 12th-17th in Dallas, Texas. Focused on romance writing, it offers writer’s boot camps but seems largely focused on the love of books and meeting established authors. It may be a good place to sell your new book.

The Writers’ League of Texas 2015 Agents & Editors Conference June 26-28 in Austin. The name says it all and the Writers’ League is one of the biggest groups in Texas. Prices go up after April 5th.

New York Pitch Conference March 19-22 (four times a year) is extremely different from other conferences. If your manuscript is polished and ready, this may be for you. You spend one day developing an excellent pitch and receiving comments on your manuscript based off your pitch. Afterwards, you are put in a room with editors from some of the top publishing houses and pitch your idea. It is a rare opportunity to meet some of these industry leaders in person and avoid the slush pile.