A Novelist’s Journey – Episode 4


Inspirational as a Sunrise!

Your First Writer’s Conference:

How to Survive and Thrive

If I knew then what I know now…I would have had a much better experience at my first writer’s conference.

Though I didn’t make any fatal mistakes, it would have been great to have these tips under my belt when I walked into that event.

Here’s how to squeeze everything of value from your first time around to be a better and more connected writer.

  1. Talk to everybody

I’m a natural-born introvert. Many people don’t exactly know this because I’ve done radio interviews, been filmed for a cable show, and done numerous readings of my first book to all different kinds of audiences. I know that I appear very comfortable with crowds and individuals alike, shooting the breeze and interacting like it’s second nature.

It’s not. What I do is channel the inner actor in me and forge ahead.

Yet I didn’t do it enough and I kind of regret it.

Here’s what I learned.

It was in Boston and I’d have to say there were a good 200 participants, plus a panel of about ten experts (literary agents and publishers), with a moderator.

While I talked to a few people before the event as we waited for the venue to officially open, I should have put my shyness aside and talked to everybody who made friendly eye contact. There was certainly enough time when we got inside and settled in to then walk around the room and just start talking to people. Now I realize I fell woefully short of the potential of this event.

DO: Chit-chat about your travails as a writer, why you chose your subject matter and what you are looking forward to. Keep it light and stay positive!

DON’T: Try to pitch the other writers. They don’t need anybody else’s elevator speech. They’re trying to perfect their own before their five minutes with the literary agents and publishers who they’re about to meet, and trust me, the energy level is pretty high. Everybody has a case of the nerves.

  1. Don’t lunch alone

I’d been to Boston only once before (I’m a native New Yorker who considers Boston a sister city). On the way over from my hotel to the conference center, I took note of the restaurants I passed just in case lunch wasn’t readily available at the conference. It was a sunny, beautiful fall day and temperate enough to walk a few blocks. I chose P.F. Chang’s, and scooted out one of the back doors as soon as we broke for lunch. I was determined to get there ahead of the crowds.

Success! I had ample time to savor the Mongolian Beef and boy was it fantastic. I looked over the paperwork I had collected from the handouts and proceeded to digest what I learned during the first half of the conference. I pondered over which agents I would approach and what I would say to them. It was all taking form. I was feeling confident.

A few minutes into my meal, in walked a small group of people who were clearly talking about the same conference. Were they friends to begin with? It was apparent from the conversation that they were not.

I got a good jump on lunch and didn’t have to wolf down my food. I had plenty of time afterwards to walk around the city before the conference started again. And how was that helping me to be a better writer?

DO: Step out of your little box and mingle. Every minute of conference day is an opportunity to learn something new, either from another writer who brings fresh insights or from the other publishing professionals or the presenter himself.

DON’T: Lunch alone. So what if you’ll never see these people again? You are there to split your mind wide open to new writerly ideas! It’s what you came for.

  1. Exchange business cards

If you don’t have any, make them cheaply and quickly with somebody like Vistaprint or another fast online printer. Choose a simple graphic that reflects who you are as a writer, or use your head shot or the cover of your book if you’ve been published. Make sure your email address, website or blog address, and telephone number are there.

DO: Use them to reach out and then keep in touch post-event. Follow-up is a huge part of networking.

DON’T: Be embarrassed or apologetic about giving out cards.

  1. Hang around afterwards

My feet were killing me (oh and that’s another tip: comfortable shoes are a must!) so I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel room and fling my kitten-heels across the room.

But if I had milled around a little and gotten into a conversation with a few other writers who were clearly bent on continuing the conference afterwards on a more informal level, I would have exposed myself to more ideas. Maybe even had a little bit of fun while doing it. I mean, I went to Beantown alone, so it’s not like there was somebody back at the hotel waiting for me.

If they are going to the bar to have drinks, go along, even if you don’t drink (nobody feels funny about this anymore, and cranberry juice with a lime wedge does just fine). You never have to see these people again if you don’t want to, and on the other hand, it is a fantastic way to unwind after the pressures of being “on” and pitching those scary agents.

DO: Know when it’s time to call it a day, so that you don’t run out of that positive energy and start to fade.

DON’T: Forget those cards in your briefcase! It’s not a come-on, it’s building your contacts.

  1. Talk to the panelists- they don’t bite

Actually, in retrospect, one did. But I survived (and thrived!).

So one of the panelists was an agent who had particularly witty and on-point responses to audience questions. When “first pages” were read out loud (submitted by a few brave writers, and thank God they never got to mine!) her comments were extremely thought-provoking. Her no-nonsense approach and intelligence came through loud and clear. This was one person I made a mental note to query when I got back home. I loved her already!

I thought my manuscript was in great shape. It was ready. When I emailed her with a pithy and flawless query she snapped, “Debbie, didn’t anybody ever tell you that 40,000 words is not enough for a novel? I’ll pass.” My heart sank. Her tone deflated me and her words lingered in my brain for days. To be honest, weeks.

She was right: there was more story to tell, and I fleshed it out until it truly felt complete. But I’ll never forget her line- didn’t anybody ever tell me…it sounded so churlish and condescending.

Talk to the panelists anyway, even if they DO end up biting. You’ll learn so much that the temporarily bruised ego is worth it.

DO: Go all in. No matter what. Lick your wounds at home.

DON’T: Perseverate on the negative feedback, because when you strip away the perceived attitude or insult, there is often a kernel of truth that you can use to be a better writer!

(c) Debbie Burke 2017

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