Lessons Learned – My First Writing Conference

Two weekends ago, I attended my first writing conference. I thought since I had embraced most aspects of the writing life, I should join my fellow writers in the area and part with some hard-earned money for a daylong writing extravaganza. And if I were writing this post immediately after returning home from the conference, my disappointment with the whole experience would be clear.

Lesson One – All experiences require some time for reflection for their full effect to be recognized.

But we’ll get to that in a moment. The conference organizer started things off Saturday morning with a bit of unimportant housekeeping. But one thing stood out – she recommended that at lunch the attendees sit with someone other than the person they’d be pitching to later in the day. As it would turn out for me, this was excellent advice.

Lesson Two – Never turn down the chance to share your work with industry professionals when given the opportunity to do so.

Following the keynote – which offered more inspiration than insight – it was time for the expert panel with editors and agents, followed by a Q and A with the audience. As people raised their hands and the microphone was passed around the room, I squirmed in my seat, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the type of questions asked and the ignorance displayed by the other attendees. Now, I am/was an unpublished writer full of hope, just like everyone else in that room. But nearly every question asked was something that could have easily been answered by a simple Google search. As disappointed as I was that the questions never moved past the basics of submitting and formatting, I learned something. Two things, actually.

Lesson Three – You probably know more about writing than you think.

Lesson Four – If you take the time to educate yourself on the writing business, on issues of craft etc. (through classes, books, and reading blogs like this one), you know more than the majority of aspiring writers.

Now, I can’t say the attendees of this particular conference were representative of all writers, but the overall lack of awareness was a big boost to my confidence. Which was great because I realized over the course of the expert panel, the agent I was supposed to pitch to would not be interested in my story.

In my defense, I kinda waited until the last minute to sign-up for a pitch session. Like attending the conference, I convinced myself that if I was going to do this whole writing thing the right way, I needed to practice pitching my story. Based on the descriptions of the agents who’d be attending, I chose Agent Y because she repped historical fiction. Since my book was historical romance, I thought I had made a good choice. She was a new agent still building her client list and I had no way prior to the conference to see her track record as most of her projects were still forthcoming. But when Agent Y announced during the panel she didn’t rep romance in any form, I could feel the pitch and writing sample I prepared burning a hole in my bag.

So what to do? With Lesson Two firmly in mind, I decided to sit at Editor X’s lunch table, as it was clear she had extensive editorial experience in the romance genre from the panel. It was high school all over again, as writers rushed to sit at the tables with the editor/agent/writer of their choice, except everyone had a different idea of who the cool kids were. Editor X was, in a word, awesome. She went around the table asking everyone about their project and provided great advice. I left the lunch table with a list of three agents to submit my project to (two I already knew about) and the confirmation that my plans for my manuscript were on target.

Lesson Five – Sometimes confirmation you are on the right track is more valuable than new information.

The afternoon consisted of smaller breakout sessions interspersed with 10-minute pitch appointments. By now, I had banished the urge to skip out on my pitch and told myself that the best way to recover was to admit to Agent Y up front that my project wasn’t a good fit for her and use my 10 minutes to discuss the industry.

Lesson Six – Always have a backup plan; more specifically, other questions to ask if your pitch crashes and burns.

Agent Y was gracious enough to agree, and I learned more about her manuscript preferences and how she evaluates projects – information that may or may not be useful in the future. But at least I didn’t come off as a complete fool and blow the oh-so-important first impression. At the end of our talk, Agent Y suggested I talk to Editor X. I assured her I already had at lunch and gave her my thanks.

The breakout sessions that followed were a bit of a letdown, in the sense that I didn’t learn anything new about topics such as world building, historical research, or writing the short story. The talks only seemed to scratch the surface – something great for beginners, but not for someone a little further along in their craft like me who had already learned so much just by doing.

Lesson Seven – Writing is (still) the best way to learn how to write.

Driving home from the conference, I was disappointed. I had fudged my very first pitch session and although I had confirmation on which agents I should send my manuscript to, I didn’t really get anything else out of the conference. I felt I had squandered my time and money, and would have been better served had I just spent the day writing at home.

But then on Tuesday, I received an email from the conference organizer, telling me that Editor X was interested in seeing my manuscript and that I should send it on if it was indeed complete. Now, setting aside the remarkableness of this request for a moment, I must stress the fact that Editor X had no reason to know my name. I sat across from her at lunch in the farthest possible spot, and I didn’t see her again after that. What I suspect happened is Agent Y mentioned me to Editor X after my failed pitch session, and Editor X, now armed with my name, asked the organizer to pass on the request. Talk about remarkable.

So with much dithering and hand wringing and line editing, I sent in my manuscript on Wednesday. Half an hour later, I kid you not, Editor X wrote back, saying she was glad I got her message and that although she had to read agented manuscripts first, she’d get back to me eventually. And that’s how I got my first full request without ever sending a query to an agent.

Maybe this is not so uncommon… for editors and agents to be so kind and open to hopeful writers. I find it hard to believe I made that much of an impression at lunch to justify Editor X’s request. Maybe she just felt bad for me after talking to Agent Y. I don’t know. But what I do know is that an editor at a major publishing house will read my manuscript.

I don’t know what happens next. Every writer’s journey is different (just browse the ‘How I got my agent’ series on the GLA blog) but had I not gone to this conference…well, let’s not go there.

Lesson Eight – Always be open to new opportunities. You never know what could happen!

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13 thoughts on “Lessons Learned – My First Writing Conference

  1. Laura Marcella says:

    Congratulations, Blue! What a wonderful opportunity for you. I've read quite a few accounts from people's first writing conferences, and most people are disappointed at their first one. You head in there not knowing what to expect, so you form something in your mind out of nothing. Then when it doesn't turn out how you imagined, of course you're disappointed. But see how this turned out well for you! I sure hope you get representation. But even if you don't, your name is out there. At least two agents discussed your writing, and for all you know others may know about you, too!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Bluestocking says:

    Thanks, Laura. It's still a bit surreal, and I have no way of knowing if this is customary or not. So I'm trying to be upbeat about everything, not imbue the request with too much meaning, and funnel all the nervous energy into my next WIP. Like that will help 🙂

  3. Talli Roland says:

    Great tips! I too have been through this same feeling at agent talks — when other people ask questions that could be answered with a little bit of reseach online. But you're right – confirmation is an invaluable thing.

  4. Sharon K. Mayhew says:

    Great story! I love tip number six… The first writer's conference I went to was wonderful, but I felt a lot like you on the second one. I think it was the same reason. I'd taken time and energy to study the industry more than a lot of the attendees. The next conference I went to was spectacular! It was put on by the Highlight's foundation…

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and reading Laura's interview. Laura is an absolutely lovely lady.

  5. Adventures in Children's Publishing says:

    This was an excellent post! Having attended a conference this past weekend myself that I reflected on in a post on our blog, I had very similar impressions. I was ecstatic leaving, feeling like I was more knowledgable than I realize sometimes. I texted my partner-in-blog Martina to express this same sentiment you hit upon.

    I commend you for taking risks, listening to advice, and connecting. Clearly, it paid off! Congratulations!

  6. gabi says:

    Great post! Thanks so much for sharing what you learned and your exciting news. It's stories like yours that show the rest of us writers “yes, good things DO happen.” Congratulations and best wishes for continued good things in your writing.

  7. blocktobloom says:

    Thanks for this post. I found it through a retweet by Elizabeth Scraigs. I wish we had writers' conferences over here in The Netherlands, a place for (aspiring) writers to meet people from the publishing industry and hear from experienced writers. Maybe I should set one up..;)
    Good luck with your manuscript submission, I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  8. Andrea says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I so far haven't been convinced that writing conferences are worth their expense, but you've changed my mind.

  9. Carmella Van Vleet says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It was just what I needed. I've been taking a in-person writing class the last few weeks and can so relate to the “I already know this” kind of feeling. But what struck me was your Rule #5. It's so true! Maybe I just need a different attitude. Good for you for keeping an open mind and being flexible at the conference. Hope the editor loves your work.

  10. 52 Faces says:

    Wow thanks for this recount! I went to my first literary conference last fall and it was a huge waste of money.

    It's giving me pause before I sign up for the SCBWI conference this summer…I'll really have to think about it.

    Which conference was this? If you, for some reason, don't want to share the name in public, can you email it to me at 52faces at gmail?

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