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.

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.