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 2019:

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

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  • John E. Blumeyer says:

    Chuck, As one who still hopes to get to a writers’ conference and pitch an agent, I appreciate your guidelines. Your comment about the Log Line–that is what I am trying to work up on the novel I currently have in preparation. I can discuss it, but to get it down to one sentence–I am still having a problem. But, like writing itself, I know I must keep trying and sooner or later I’m bound to get it. Keep up the good work, and keep notifying all of us about these things. Try as we might, we can’t keep everything in mind, and it helps to have you and others keep us posted on these things.

  • Mike Crowl says:

    Great advice, Chuck! I’m torn between my usual SCBWI Regional Conference and the Chesapeake Conference, which are on consecutive days. Maybe I can swing both! But either way, I will now have a ‘log line’ in addition to the elevator pitch. Last time I met with an agent, I practiced my pitch in the car on the way to the conference. When I faced one of my fellow conference attendees in person, all I could do was fumble my way through it. Practice makes perfect though, and better than fumbling in front of the agent.

  • Alisha Benson says:

    Oh wow, this is a great list. My husband leaves for LTUE tomorrow– I’ll share this with him before he leaves. Thanks again! 🙂

  • D.A. Boersma says:

    Thanks Chuck! I’ve booked a query slot with you in Portland. So see you on February 20.

  • Barbara says:

    I’m attending my first conference in May in Tallahassee. Nervous doesn’t even begin to describe my emotions about it. Frankly, I have decided not to try to pitch, have pages critiqued, or any of the other options offered. I will be attending to listen and learn about conferences so that I can be ready for one in the fall.

    My book is almost ready, I think, having had it critiqued on line and in a local writers’ group. I’ve rewritten, edited, and had it beta read. But based on your advice, I will have cards printed, and a log line ready, just in case.

  • Nancy Brown says:

    Thank you Chuck for all the great tips–I always wonder if agents at these conferences are as motivated as the writers are to make those connections!

  • Kellee says:

    Thanks for the tips! I’ve never attended a writers’ conference, so this is a helpful primer.

  • Heather says:

    Thanks for the tips and the insight! I’m looking forward to attending my first writer’s conference this July and I’ll definitely keep this information in mind. The idea of pitching my book is nerve-racking.

  • Kyle Larkin says:

    This is fantastic, I love reading do’s and don’ts. I’m a little while away from being able to attend a conference, but I’m trying to consume as much info like this as possible. Little tips such as dressing up are great. Keep ’em coming!

  • Erin says:

    Nervousness is definitely a good sign sometimes! Even though the conference I’m planning to attend isn’t until this summer, the butterflies of excitement are flitting around already. A First time experience it will be, so thank you Chuck for sharing your insight! 🙂

  • I love how most of the posters call you Chuck–you must have a knack for getting people at ease!

    My first conference will probably be the James River Writers’ Conference in October. Your do’s and don’ts are great; but my biggest problem is me, unfiltered. After five decades on this planet I am apparently impervious to improvement.

    What would really be helpful is a list of literary agents who are skilled at, or even enjoy, dealing with eccentric people such as myself. Get all of them and all of us ADHD/substance-abusive auteurs together in a Motel 6 conference room in Atlantic City, and see what comes out on the far end.

  • Victoria Noe says:

    No matter what kind of conference you attend, the best thing you can do is have goals for attending.

    That means you have to read the descriptions of the sessions. Research not just the agents, but every speaker. Start following them on social media before the conference starts. Live tweet from the conference.

    Don’t stick close to people you already know. Make a point to sit with strangers at every session and meal. Make notes on the back of business cards and flyers – don’t assume you’ll remember what you talked to them about once you get home.

    But most importantly, identify your goals for being there. Choose the sessions you attend based on your goals and an honest assessment of your experience.

    • Thanks for sharing these great tips, Victoria! I love your point about having goals for attending — knowing why you want to be there is crucial for making the most of your time at a conference.

      TWL Assistant Editor

  • Feather Linn says:

    Thank you for the great advice. I understand that you don’t want to present literary agents with print copies, but what about giving them a USB drive with the first ten pages?

  • Ron says:

    Good stuff.

    The thing every conference attendee should remember is there is nowhere on the planet where it’s easier to make friends than a writing conference. Think about it. Everyone is there for the same reason. You can walk up anyone and say, “Hi, I’m . What’s your book about?” And if they answer, “Oh, I’m not a writer, I’m an ,” that’s just as cool! 🙂

  • Christine says:

    There’s so much going on at conferences – great idea to plan ahead!

  • Travis West says:

    Kansas Authors Club, this fall in Topeka. Thank you for all of the tips and advice.

  • Chris Broster says:

    Really useful and will definitely run through these before I attend my next few events. Compare and contrast to follow.

  • Although I have attended conferences in the past, after two years, I have signed up for an upcoming event. The information you provided was on point and a great refresher. While reading each item in the “Do” list, I found myself practicing #1 and #2 aloud as I pushed past the jitters that crept up. With your advice, on the day of my pitch, I should be as smooth as silk!

  • Jim Haurylko says:

    Thanks for the timely tips, Chuck.
    Funny how what I learned in my radio/TV and sales career is the same for developing a writing style AND pitching the manuscript: be yourself. And…be brief! ;O)

  • Auri Lynn says:

    Nice article. Thanks!

  • Vanesa says:

    thank you for the insight! I’m so looking forward to going to a conference!

  • Amy Zlatic says:

    Good, solid advice. Thank you!