Attending a Writers’ Conference? Here’s How to Prepare

Attending a Writers’ Conference? Here’s How to Prepare

(This column is excerpted from Chuck’s latest book, Get a Literary Agent.)

GIVEAWAY: Chuck is giving away a copy of his book, Get a Literary Agent, to a random commenter. Comment within two weeks to enter! (Must live in the United States or Canada to win.) (Update: Lila won!)

If you’re planning on attending a writers’ conference to learn more about writing as well as pitch your book to agents and editors, make sure you brush up on some etiquette and strategy basics before you go.

Being prepared and knowing what agents and editors expect could make the difference between a great pitch and a mediocre one.

I’ve put together this list of do’s and don’ts based on my own experience, but you don’t have to just take my word for it. Keep reading for advice from literary agents themselves on how to make sure you have the best and most productive event experience possible.

Are you ready for your next writers’ conference?

What to do at a writers’ conference

  1. Do practice your pitch in advance. You want to be able to converse with an agent without rambling.
  1. Do be able to explain what your book is about in one sentence. (This is called “a log line.”)
  1. Do go to as many educational sessions as possible to learn from authors, agents and editors — and take notes. You’ll get insights that help to perfect your book and your pitch, and you may learn which agents might be good fits for your book.
  1. Do bring business cards in case an agent asks for one.
  1. Do your best to be friendly and open. Smile!
  1. Do dress the part. You don’t need a fancy dress or a three-piece suit, but don’t come looking like you just woke up. Remember that an agent is looking for a business partner.
  1. Do bring some extra cash. In addition to buying some books at the event, you’ll also want to schmooze and make writer friends. Often, that means gathering at a hotel bar with other attendees and ordering something while you get to know one another. Occasionally these social events attract agents, but they’re also great places to meet writers who, over time, can give you referrals.
  1. Do read other writers’ blog posts describing their experiences at conferences before you go, so you can get a better sense of how to best spend your time. Especially seek out writers who’ve met with agents at the conference in previous years.

What not to do at a writers’ conference

  1. Don’t pass agents or editors any pages during a pitch. Agents can’t carry around sample pages from all the writers they meet. They’d collapse from all that weight, and it would make their suitcases explode.
  1. Don’t come to a meeting with an agent with a long, rambling pitch. Aim to discuss your book and yourself in 90 seconds.
  1. Don’t skimp. Most conferences charge a base fee to attend, and then they charge for add-ons, including pitches to agents, critiques or the fancy dinner with the evening keynote speaker. If you can swing it money-wise, take advantage of all aspects that you believe can help you.
  1. Don’t be afraid to start conversations — whether with industry professionals or fellow scribes. Be bold, but use your best judgment. Don’t pitch an agent in the bathroom or interrupt someone’s conversation to step in and introduce yourself. Creating such an awkward moment will work against you.
  1. Don’t monopolize an agent’s time. If you sit down at a table and an agent joins you and others, know that most if not all of the people next to you will want to chat with the agent. Be respectful and don’t dominate her attention for long periods of time. Hogging an agent’s time doesn’t make a good impression.

Quick note from Chuck: I am now taking on clients as a freelance editor. If your query or synopsis or manuscript needs a look from a professional, please consider my editing services. Thanks!

Pitching tips from literary agents

Relax. We are people, too, and we are there because we want to meet you and find someone to represent.  Some conferences do a better job than others in preparing writers for these things, but just remember to be yourself. Act professionally and remember the more relaxed you can be about things, the better for both parties.”

— Elisabeth Weed (Weed Literary)

Make sure I represent your genre to make the best use of your money and time. If you encounter an agent [including me] that dismisses you because they don’t handle your genre, ask if you can practice your pitch or ask their general advice.

“I suggest every writer take advantage of agents at conferences, even if your work isn’t ready; this is good practice, and an agent may ask to see your work when it’s ready. Many of the writers I have signed I have met at pitch sessions.

“My best advice is to practice and hone your pitch well before you attend the conference. Practice out loud, in front of people, and practice a shortened version in case we meet in the elevator. A composed, professional-appearing author will live on in my mind. Focusing your pitch on plot, themes and premise will help you communicate it effectively.

“Lastly, never pitch an agent in the bathroom.”

— Elizabeth Kracht (Kimberley Cameron & Associates)

Don’t read from a page in your notebook! If I ask you what your book is about and you can’t tell me the plot in a concise, compelling way without reading word for word from your notebook, then don’t bother.”

— Jennifer De Chiara (Jennifer De Chiara Literary)

“I love when someone meets me with a big smile. Always take a deep breath before you approach an agent — and smile. This makes me feel relaxed and in turn will make the author feel relaxed — and that is the only way you are able to really connect and share your story.

“I’ve had authors sit down with something to prove or even with a bit of anger or defensiveness. This does not work. I spend most of my time trying to deflect this energy and it takes away from the purpose of the meeting. Keep in mind that we are here to meet you and we are hoping to find a match.”

— J.L. Stermer (N.S. Bienstock)

“Relax, make it conversational and not too plot-heavy. Try to condense your pitch into the equivalent of a pitch letter or jacket flap copy. Anything longer is unnecessary for the limited time. Leave time to discuss.”

— Stacey Glick (Dystel & Goderich)

By the way, if you’re looking for a conference, perhaps one of these below is in your neck of the woods. I’ll be presenting at the following events in 2017:

What’s your best tip for a writer about to attend his or her first writers’ conference?

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77 comments

  • Having only attended small seminars, this is a lot of great advice for actual conferences. I especially like the “Don’t” section. I would have been the person showing up reading from a notebook because I’d be too nervous to remember my logline.

    As always, thank you Chuck, for such amazing advice.

  • This is super helpful.
    I’m attending a writer’s conference in July at Philadelphia, and this gives me stuff to look forward to, and also gives me stuff to prepare.
    Thanks, Chuck!

  • Thanks, Chuck! I’ve got a writers conference I’m attending in Philly during July, and this is awesome advice.

  • Great information! I will be attending a writers’ conference in May and hope to be learning as much as I can on finding an agent. Thank you for the advice!

  • Brilliant tips, as always! I’ve attended some small conferences, but on the plus side they included some free additional events and even a one-on-one with a professional editor. I went to all the additional events, but almost no one else did. Crazy, right?

  • Great advice.

    I went to a fairly large conference last year and the best advice I have for anyone attending one is to simply be friendly. I know writers can tend to be introverts sometimes, but don’t be afraid to talk to people. I met so many great, encouraging people at the conference and had a great time.

    And if you are a little shy, don’t worry; that’s why they serve alcohol 🙂

  • Cheryl Gates says:

    Great advice and tips, I’m planning on attending a conference in my area soon and I’m nervous since it’ll be my first one. I’m hoping my tongue doesn’t swell up from being nervous. I’m practicing my pitch and logline to everyone I know…

    Thanks, Chuck.

  • David Kline says:

    Thanks for posting this. Good, simple suggestions, many of which SHOULD be obvious (not pitching in the restroom) but it’s good to see your list.

  • M.W. POTTS says:

    Hello and thanks for the tips. I am attending the Chesapeake conference in Arlington in March. This will be my second pitch session and I am looking forward to the opportunity. Can you tell me if bringing a ‘Treatment’ for my romantic/mystery series would be better than a business card?

  • Liya Tova says:

    Great information as always Chuck! I will be meeting you at a conference in April. I still have two question (not sure if this is the place to ask)….Do you mention a subplot which ties into the main plot (is the cause of the main plot) in the query and or/ synopsis? or just allude to and there is a subplot….Secondly, if there is a foreign word or mythologic creature do you just mention the word and not define what it means in the query and/or synopsis?

    One agent workshop on line stated not to allude to subplot in query. What is your take on the above (if you can comment)
    Thanks.

    (Trying to get is straight before the conference)

  • Dennis Goss says:

    Thanks for the great tips. I ‘m headed to the SF conference tomorrow which will be my first. Pitching has consumed my thoughts at the moment so glad to have read your blog.

  • Jessica Mork says:

    Thanks, Chuck! This information will come in handy at a conference in Minneapolis this April.

  • Lindsay Carlson says:

    Great tips! I’m a bit nervous about doing my first pitch ever this year, so wish me luck! 🙂

    • Good luck with your pitch. What helped me the most was to talk to as many other writers the night before my pitch. So many people were willing to share stories about the first time they did a pitch and how nervous they were. When you realize that you’re not alone in your nervousness, it’s easier to relax.

      If you’re not an “actor” don’t focus so much on memorizing anything. Just have a couple of sentences prepared that can tell the agent what your book is about in 30 seconds. She will ask lots of questions. Just keep it casual and talk about your book.

      It also helps to do some research about the agency they work for and bring one or two questions related to that.

  • I found out about Chuck recently, and the volume of great advice, blogs, and publications will help any writer, new or old. I am a new author, and I will be going to conferences and book fairs this year to promote my book, From Woodstock To Eternity. This article is just a sample of the insight he has into the process of finding agents and publishers and general marketing for indie authors. Thank you very much.

  • Clif Travers says:

    Great advise.
    I wish I had read this before my last conference. I spent a lot of money with no outcome. I won’t make those same mistakes next time.
    Note to self:
    Log line
    Biz Cards
    Cash

    Thanks Chuck!

  • A. Pauli says:

    I’m about to do my first round of pitches in a couple of weeks, so this was very timely and much appreciated.

  • I have never attended a writers’ conference, but I would LOVE to!

  • These are great pointers. I have a basic idea, but I just need to refine it. I’ll have to work on that. One thing I’ve learned, though, it’s always good to at least have a first draft, so you have something to edit.

  • Kimberly Kauffman says:

    Chuck,

    Thank you for the great advice. I do have a question though. Do we bring a copy of our book with us if we self publish it? Or do we just have a story line in a bag waiting in case asked for it?

    Thank you again and I hope to see you in August in NYC.

  • I’d expand on tip #3 – attend the education sessions even if you think they don’t apply to you and your writing. That session on science fiction could have a great tip on dialogue or the novel-writing session might help you craft an opening for your memoir. My best tip is to be nice to everyone, even if you think they can’t help you. I’ll never forget a conference attendee who wanted to know if I’d published a book. When I said I hadn’t, she walked away! (Guess she’ll never know how many books I’ve *edited*!)

  • That’s some great advice, Chuck. At some conferences, they offer pitch practice sessions where you can get in front of fellow authors to pitch your book, and they give you feedback. I highly recommend doing those ANY opportunity you get. It gives you a fresh perspective on what’s important in your story. It might also alert you to problems in your plot if you can’t boil it down to a few words or a sentence or two. I know when we stood in line waiting for the pitch slam at the last Writer’s Digest conference in NY, a few of us clustered around each other and just practiced delivery. It really helps and gets you over the jitters.

  • D.J. says:

    Having just returned from my first critique session at a large writers’ conference in NYC, I found if you make an honest effort to converse with the person next to you, it will build your confidence when it comes time to pitch,since we’re all in the same (nervous!) situation. As a bonus,you’ll have a friend to share your experience with when the conference is over!

  • Ellen T McKnight says:

    Excellent advice, Chuck! I’d like to add that the last few conferences I attended also had a Twitter hashtag going during the conference. Participating that way can help with relationship building. It’s also fun. Best of luck to everyone!

  • Lorraine Greene says:

    I appreciate the wonderful advice as I prepare to attend my first conference this summer. I would much rather be over-prepared than under-prepared and appear to be a bit more professional than I actually am. Thank you!

  • Daphne says:

    Much needed words of advice as I am preparing to attend two conferences this spring and summer and hope to have the opportunity to pitch my book. Thank you for sharing your expertise and experiences with us all. It is greatly appreciated!

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