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?