Tis the season for writing conferences!
After several long years of virtual conferences, many are returning in person or offering a hybrid. I’m heading to an in person conference myself in October and can’t wait to meet fellow writers I’ve only interacted with online, learn new things in our educational sessions, and have time away from my normal routines to focus on my writing.
Conference experiences can vary from offering publication path insight to craft sessions to simply a quiet space to write. Many offer first page critiques with panels of authors and/or agents as well as opportunities to pitch agents your work in person.
Getting your work in front of and pitching industry experts is invaluable experience for your writing and publication journey. A few years ago, I submitted a first page to a conference and found the feedback fascinating. The submission was anonymous (whew! No one had to know it was my work if they ripped it apart!), so I just sat back and tried to play it cool while my words were read to an auditorium of people.
The page opened on my female protagonist in a very fish out of water scene as she was being airdropped by helicopter onto an Army base in Vietnam. A female agent said it was well-written but wasn’t sure about the staccato pacing of the piece. A male panelist thought it had been intentionally written that way to evoke the sound of the helicopter blades. An interesting debate followed as they discussed the opening paragraphs and whether they would read more.
While that feedback may seem contradictory on the surface, it gave me a new way to look at what I had written and, maybe more importantly, how I had written it so when I went back to consider a revision, I could be intentional. FYI–the staccato beats were on purpose insomuch as I wanted to put the reader right in this anxious moment with your heart pounding in your chest, but I loved that this panelist put his own interpretation on it and it still worked for him. Hearing criticism of too many short sentences invited me to look for a moment in the scene for the reader to catch their breath and be invited into the character’s interior world, something that the pace was preventing the female agent from feeling. I never would have gotten this kind of spirited back and forth on my work from a query letter rejection or even a critique partner reading for big picture issues.
Pitching to agents is another great opportunity to take advantage of at a conference. Being able to summarize your pitch into two minutes and deliver it to a real life person is scary as hell, yet the exercise of preparing that pitch is enlightening. If your stakes aren’t high enough or your protagonist’s motivations unclear or your antagonist not obstacle enough to your hero, it will be clear as soon as you start to trim your book down to the barest of elements in a verbal pitch. I hate preparing these pitches for my own work, but it always pays off when I can finally sit and have a clear conversation about MY book with a real agent. It’s an amazing experience, especially if you listen to their questions. Those questions can be key to what’s working or what isn’t in your pitch:
- “So, what happens if she doesn’t achieve X?” — Oops, maybe you didn’t make your stakes high enough.
- “Ooooh, Character B really sounds interesting. Tell me more about him.” — Is this B character overshadowing your protagonist? Is the story being told from the correct POV or is there something about how you wrote Character B that you can bring to Character A to really make them shine in revision?
- “What inspired you to write this story?” — An opportunity to talk about your WHY–why you wrote this particular story. This is important to know throughout your writing process and, I find, can be easy to lose track of when you’re deep in the weeds of story structure or mining your manuscript for erroneous “justs” when you’re editing. Your why is the touchstone that will always bring you back to your story’s main thread, your point, your story’s purpose. Being able to talk to an agent about your why will not only bring the story to life for them, but will hopefully make you memorable if they ask you to follow-up with pages.
You want to go into these opportunities with your best foot forward while also having an open mind to the feedback and craft you learn while there. Writing conferences are a great place to meet potential critique partners, editors, or your next favorite writer. They are places to learn, grow, and honor the writer in you. If you haven’t been to a writer’s conference, I urge you to take a look for an event happening near you. Some are in large conference centers with hundreds of attendees and others are groups of 20 in a local library. Find what works for you, your learning style, and your budget.
If you’re going to a conference this year, drop the name of it in the comments!
Bonus: If you want to go in to conference season extra prepared, check out my Quick Start package. I’d be happy to add looking at your verbal pitch to the first 15 pages you submit as well as role play your pitch with you during our coaching call.