9 Ways to Ruin a Writing Conference

Cross Posted from Jennie's Blog

I just came back from four days at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, where I played a number of different roles: authoraccelrator.com was an event sponsor; I taught a featured course and participated in two panels; and I did 1:1 consultations with about 60 writers throughout the conference.  Like all writing conferences, this was an event filled with so much energy and so many opportunities for writers – and while I met a great many fabulously well prepared and well-intentioned writers, I was struck at the way others writers squandered their opportunity by making easy-to-avoid mistakes.

Here are 9 common ways writers squander writing conference opportunities – and what you can do to make sure you don’t follow suit.

1. You think you’re going to get “the answers.”

At several of the presentations I gave, writers expressed dismay (and even outrage) at the fact that they were hearing different advice from different experts. Some experts said a synopsis should be 500 words, others said 750. Some experts said a query letter should be personalized, others said not to bother. Some experts said you should finish a rough draft before you stop to edit, others said to stop to edit at regular interviews as you write forward. “What are the right answers?” the writers demanded.

The answer is that there are no right answers – and if you go to a writing conference to try to find them, you will be disappointed. If you troll the Internet looking for the right answers, you will also come up short.

Writing a book is a very complicated process, and publishing a book is a very complicated process, and all of it is an art, not a science. I suggest that what you look for at a writing conference – and in the online writing universe – are two things:

  • a path forward that resonates with your goals and your style
  • and should you need a guide, an expert whose advice you trust.

2. You think you already know all the answers

Worse than looking for the “right answer” are the writers who believe they already know everything. I was baffled on several occasions when people had the chance to ask me for 1:1 advice and their response was to argue with what I suggested or to defend what they had already written (which had already been proven not to be working for them). If you think you know everything – and you don’t really want to hear otherwise – don’t go to a writing conference.  Also don’t go to a writing workshop, don’t take an online course, and don’t seek out a coach or an editor or an agent.

Writing is a solitary endeavor to be sure, but at many key points, it also becomes a collaborative endeavor, as well. Learning how your work hits your reader, and listening to their feedback, and adjusting the work accordingly, are skills that will serve you throughout your career.

If you truly think you know it all, and you don’t want to take anyone’s advice on anything, stay home.

3. You forget that reality that writing is a business

Publishers make their living by acquiring books they believe they can sell to the reading public. Agents make their living by selecting writers whose books they believe they can sell to publishers. Freelance editors and book coaches make their living by helping writers bring their work up to a commercially viable level so that readers will love it. No one is doing this work just because it’s fun. It’s totally fun – no question – but at the end of the day, publishing professionals are in the business of helping people write books that will sell.

It’s a business – and yet I was shocked at how unprofessional some writers were. They were pushy and demanding, and in a few instances, actually rude and obnoxious. Many of these people felt they didn’t have to follow the rules the conference had set up, or the rules of our profession, or the rules of polite society. I suppose they thought they were above all that – but none of us is above all that.

It’s fine to be persistent – but imagine that everyone you interact with at a writing conference might one day be a customer or an investor or a business partner or a mentor, and behave accordingly.

I had one writer tell me that he didn’t think the advice I had just given to an audience of 75 people was valid and then asked if I could give him feedback on his book pitch right then and there – which was an odd way to ask for a favor. When I politely explained that I couldn’t because I had 8 minutes to get to another room for another presentation, the writer stood in my way, shoved the written pitch at me and said, “Take it and you can email me what you think.”

Wow. Really?

I actually looked at the pitch later out of curiosity for what kind of person would do such a thing – and I was not surprised that the pitch didn’t hang together. It didn’t follow any of the clearly defined rules for pitching, didn’t deliver what a pitch needs to deliver, and was unfocused and poorly written. Of course I didn’t take the time to reach out and tell the writer this – but I feel certain that the universe will let him know in the way that the universe so often does. He will be rejected time and time again – and along the way will probably complain about how mean and unhelpful experts at writing conferences are.

Most people who are trying to get their work into the world are doing it as a side gig. You have other jobs and other responsibilities. I get that. Your writing is an “extra-curricular” activity today, but treat it as if it will be a profession tomorrow – and your odds of having that actually come to pass will increase exponentially.

4. You pitch before you are ready

Don’t plan to pitch at a writing conference unless you are ready to pitch. I know some writers believe that a conference is a good opportunity to “try out their pitch” on experts and agents, or to “just see what might happen,” or to “get a sense of whether their idea is any good” – but this is a waste of everyone’s time.

Agents and editors do not take on good ideas or nice writers or promising concepts. They take on ideas that have been awesomely executed and are ready to go out into the world. Yes, of course, they might help a writer take their project over the finish line, but you have to actually be steps away from the finish line, not back at the starting gate, or just rounding the first bend.

What does it mean to be ready to pitch?

  • You have a finished, polished manuscript that is ready for agents to evaluate. It doesn’t have to be ready to send tomorrow, but should be close enough that you can feel confident sending it within a few months. You should, in other words, be in the final stages of your final edit or poised to get feedback that will get it there.
  • You know your genre, your audience, your word count and your title. In other words, you understand the marketplace and how your book might fit into it.
  • You know what your story is about – what it’s REALLY about. For fiction, this is NOT just the plot. For non-fiction, this is NOT just whatever your area of expertise is. You need to know why anyone would care about your story and you need to be able to articulate that.
  • You know what you are looking for in an agent. You know what agents do, how they work, what they need from you, and you have done your homework on these agents in particular.

I’m all for practicing your pitch – but do so with your writer friends, your roommates, your colleagues, or your workshop buddies. If the conference offers the chance to hone your pitch before you give it, by all means take advantage of that. But wait to pitch until you are ready to pitch.

5. You ignore the other writers.

The writers who get the most out of writing conferences are the ones who pal up with other writers. They sit and have coffee with them, they share their woes and their words, they go out to dinner and help each other strategize. The people who only focus on getting “face time” with the experts and agents miss half the fun – and half the power of a conference. You could find a critique partner, a writing group, a mentor, a mentee, or just a friend who gets your particular obsession with words and story.

6. You compare yourself to other writers and come out feeling “less than.”

It’s easy to look at other writers and think they have made in the shade – especially when everyone is gathered together in a room to pitch to agents and some writers are getting showered with attention and you’re not. It’s easy to feel that those writers are the popular ones getting all the party invitations and you are the outcast no one wants to invite to the ball.

Luck and timing play a role in publishing success to be sure and it may well be that at this conference, luck and timing are not going your way. Instead of comparing yourself, think instead about one thing you can do to improve your craft, or improve your connection to your audience, or improve your odds of success. Think of one thing you can take away to make you a better writer – and forget the comparisons.

Remember that everyone is on the path to becoming the writer they are going to become, including you. You have no idea how many setbacks other writers have faced, how hard they have worked at their craft, or what else they have going on in their lives that might make them poised for success on the day of the conference. Similarly, you have no idea if you will find success today or tomorrow or next year or in ten years.

Your path as a writer is unique to you, and the best thing to do is to keep learning, keep growing, keep working, and keep moving forward.

It probably wouldn’t hurt to celebrate the other writers you meet along the way (reference #5, above.) One of my favorite moments during this conference was when one writer who had bombed in her pitches gave a new writer friend some advice for how to avoid that fate, and then said, “I’ll be sitting right here waiting to hear how it goes for you. Good luck!” It was lovely and supportive and sweet and kind. I have no doubt that some good writing karma will eventually come to her.

7. You step out in your PJs – or worse

During one of my presentations, there was a young woman writer sitting in the front row with a shirt so low cut, it was alarming. I don’t care if she was writing about the history of décolletage or a steamy romance, it was flat out inappropriate. During the Q&A, no one called on her. I think we were all afraid what might have happened if she stood up to take the mic!

Contrast that woman’s appearance with another young woman I met who gave the most fantastic pitch during a practice pitch-a-thon. She nailed the pitch, but when I suggested one way she could make it even better, she nodded, confirmed what I had said, and thanked me for the advice. She was, in other words, acting professionally.

I was betting that she was going to KILL it at the real pitch event on the last day of the conference, which was set up like speed dating. Sure enough, when I saw her after the pitches, she was bouncing off the roof about the positive responses she had received – and of course she looked put together and polished in a great dress that was age-appropriate and professional.

Just because we write in our PJs doesn’t mean you get to go out in your PJs.

8. You don’t seize the opportunities you have earned

I met a writer at this conference who had also been to it the prior year and received 11 agent requests. Over the last 12 months he had acted on none of them.  He was too scared to risk getting it wrong or getting rejected and so he took those requests and just sat on them.  

This is the flip side to being ready to pitch. This is being paranoid.

If you have done good work, and received invitations to send in your work, by all means send it in! Seize the chance! Do your final edit, and send it off!

No one wants to hear no – but as hockey great Wayne Gretzy said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.”

9. You believe that one day can make or break your career

A writing conference is a wonderful opportunity to connect to agents in person but it is not the only opportunity you will ever get. It’s just one moment, one day. There will be other days to shine if this opportunity doesn’t go your way – so there’s no reason to panic.

I had writers coming up to me all weekend who were paralyzed with nervousness about pitching their book to agents, and after the pitch, they were freaking out that they’d blown it, or missed their chance, or failed. If you think your writing career can be made or broken in one day, you have the wrong idea about a writing career. It’s not a one-day thing or even a one-book thing. It’s something that unfolds over years, with many ups and downs, just like any other career. One day is not going to make or break it, and panic will only decrease your odds of success.

Landing an agent at a conference is only one path to writing success. There are many, many others – including the fact that you may decide that an agent and a traditional publishing deal is not the best choice for your book.

Take the long view of your writing career and you’re much more likely to have a long and fruitful one.