Two Cardinal Rules for Conference Attendees

With a major conference coming up in September,these  two cardinal rules for writers’ conference attendees, courtesy of author James Scott Bell seem pertinent:

1. Don’t be dull. Social media has conditioned us to share the most mundane and unappealing aspects of our daily lives; just this week, someone posted a photo of her sweaty underarms to show how nervous she was, another posted in detail about preparing for a colonoscopy, another rejoiced that her newborn’s digestive system was functioning in a spectacularly explosive fashion. Too much dull  information!  When you’re at conference, resist the temptation to bore people with the mundane. Instead, focus on other people  by asking questions such as, “What has been the best thing for you so far?”  “What workshops have you attended?”  “Where are you going for dinner?” “What type of fiction are you writing?”   As Dale Carnegie pointed out, there is nothing people like more than talking about themselves. Draw other people out, and they will think you are charming and brilliant.

People can sometimes come across as dull by the way they dress. This is not to suggest dressing up like Lady Gaga or the late Liberace. But choose colors and professional-looking  styles that enhance your features and body type. And it goes without saying that garments should be neatly pressed. The Columbo look  works only in the movies. Once you are published, you will be expected to visit with booksellers, attend trade shows, speak at conferences. Editors and publishers want you to be a positive representative of your work and of the publishing house. Dressing appropriately for the conference shows them you are ready for your close up as a published author.

2. Don’t be desperate. Of course you are eager to pitch to your dream agent and editor, but temper your eagerness with the knowledge that your future career does not hinge upon this one appointment, this one conference.  Don’t over prepare your pitch to the point that it becomes a robotic recitation. At a national conference a couple of years ago, I was seated at a lunch table  with my editor and six hopefuls all of whom wanted to pitch to her. As time ran out, my editor suggested that a couple of women on my side of the table talk to me about their projects, and I would pass along to her anything that seemed promising.  First up was a woman who was beautifully dressed in a red suit, hair and nails perfectly done. She introduced herself and began her pitch. Three sentences in, her nerves got the best of her and she faltered. “That’s okay,” I told her. “Just talk to me  about your story.” But she started over from the top, robotically reciting the same sentences in the same order as before, a look of desperation in her eyes.

Even though you’ve done your homework and narrowed your appointments to the most likely agents and editors,  not  everyone  will  love your project. But the good news is that, like a parking slot at a crowded mall, you need only one.  So be confident but not arrogant, be excited but not desperate. In my twenty years as a full time author, I’ve learned that timing is everything. A wonderful novel that is rejected at this year’s conference might be next year’s hot property.

Respect the agents and editors attending the conference. Don’t be so desperate that you push your business card or proposal at them in elevators and coffee shops. Most of them are solidly booked at conferences and need that cup of coffee or that brief elevator ride to breathe and relax.

If you’re a conference veteran, what is your best tip for getting the most from a conference? If you’ve yet to attend, what is your most pressing question?

10 thoughts on “Two Cardinal Rules for Conference Attendees

  1. Rebecca DeMarino

    I’m looking forward to the conference! Thank you, Dorothy, for passing on great advice! I always love how supportive you are of those who aspire to write great fiction!

    1. dorothy Post author

      Hi Becky, Looking forward to seeing you,too. After 16 books and counting, I love being able to “pay it forward” to aspiring authors in some small way. 🙂

  2. Delia Latham

    Excellent advice on both counts! 🙂

    I would also suggest making use of the prayer room…it could help you avoid a complete meltdown. You go to conference excited and upbeat, and the idea of being overwhelmed by it all at some point seems ridiculous. But – trust me – I know it happens. My “moment” lasted much longer than a moment. And going to the prayer room is what got me past it. I found God’s refreshing presence there, and caring friends to help me pray and find peace.

    Don’t wait until it all slams you in the face like that. Find time to go in the prayer room each day, and take a quiet moment away from everything else but God.

    1. dorothy Post author

      Great point, Delia. thanks for sharing your experience. Prayer is the oasis we need in the midst of so much busyness and self-imposed pressure. Over the years I’ve found that the conferences at which I am most relaxed often yield the most amazing opportunities. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Cathy Richmond

    Thanks, Dorothy. I tell myself I’m going to be cool, calm, and collected… but Nervous Nellie shows up! Now if I can find clothes that aren’t straight out of Lady Gaga’s or Liberace’s closet!

    1. dorothy Post author

      Hi Cathy, It’s hard not to be nervous when we feel that so much is riding on this one meeting. It gets easier with time. As for avoiding the Lady Gaga look, I seem to have better luck at small shops rather than the larger department stores. I was a Nordstrom customer for years but now their focus is on an entirely different customer. I rarely buy anything there now, other than shoes and makeup.

    1. dorothy Post author

      Janalyn, thanks for your comment. You’re right, we do. It’s helpful to think of appointments as information gathering meetings. Finding out more about the agent’s editor’s tastes, assessing whether the two of you might make a good team.

  4. Leanna Ellis

    I remember the first time I pitched to an editor, I was literally shaking in my boots. Or probably back then I was wearing heels. 😉 But seriously, I was sooooo nervous! And y’all are right when you say we put too much focus on these pitches. I remember overhearing a pitch once, someone was pitching a WWII story to a Silhouette editor. They only published contemporary stories. And this author would not take no for an answer. If your story doesn’t fit a publisher’s parameters, don’t sweat it, just move on. Pitch something else. But also know that the editor wants to like your story idea and most likely you’ll get an invitation to send in your work. And it has to stand on its own two feet, so to speak. Doesn’t matter how great or how poorly you pitch in person, the writing has to be there. So relax and enjoy meeting folks who love books as much as you do!

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