Happy Good Friday! I hope everyone has a restful holiday. We are entering the conference season, and there are a lot of large conferences coming up soon. So, today I’d like to relay my
disaster experience with my first conference and then offer the powerful lessons I learned.
Remember, I made all the dumb mistakes so you don’t have to.
I have to say that I have attended quite a few conferences, and the DFW Writer’s Workshop folk have been one of the best (It was also my first, so it will always hold a dear spot in my heart). This year the keynote speaker is New York Times Best-Selling Author James Rollins. The DFWWWW Conference has a history of selling out early, so seriously, buy your slot NOW. You’ll thank me later. DFW offers an amazing variety of classes, taught by some of the best talent in the industry.
I mean, I am teaching there, right?
Ouch. I got a cramp patting myself on the back.
It is so interesting looking back now at my first conference. A lot has changed. I am a multi-published, best-selling NF author represented by one of the top agencies in the world, S.G.G. Literary, as opposed to a hopeful wanna-be fiction writer. I am a speaker, not an attendee.
It still feels very surreal, and I still keep thinking one day the gig will be up and they’ll realize I was on the list by accident. But, hey *shrugs* we’ll party until they figure it out, right? .
Anyway, looking back at my first conference is sort of like being out of college and looking back at that time of trial and testing and thinking…I am so much smarter now. Or, thank God I am not still THAT stupid. In my case, it’s a close tie which.
My first conference was back in February of 2008. I was an overachiever and got Swine Flu a year before it swept the world. For most of February, I had 103 fever and wanted to die…then burn my own ashes (again) because I was pretty sure I was so sick that even my cremated remains would have body ache. I nearly didn’t make it to the conference (which was DFW).
I was so sure that 2008 would the year I got an agent. All I needed was an agent and then my life would be on Easy Street. My biggest concern was what to do if the agents started fighting over me. How would I choose which one to go with? Would it make future cocktail parties in NY awkward?
Yes…I was a wee delusional, and sadly, I cannot blame it on my fever.
And, to make it worse, I should have known better, but I didn’t. I had been on the editing side and had many, many acknowledgements in published books from grateful authors who professed publicly that they would not have been published without my help. I’d run a well-established critique group for 3 years and had even been teaching some social media. I felt pretty confident that I knew my stuff.
I find it funny how I had been in “the publishing industry” for so long, yet was still pretty clueless. I think I was like the computer programmer who believed he could kick butt in software sales. I knew so much, but in my pride and relative isolation, was unable to see how much more I had yet to learn.
Conferences are vital for showing us how much we really don’t know (but then they give us the tools to remedy that, too).
So, anyway, that Friday night, the agent-author social went really well. I was charming and fun in my own mind, and managed to make it through the entire night without tucking my dress in my pantyhose. I think that was the last thing to go right for the next 24 hours.
First, for those who do not know, I have a zillion food allergies. I might even be allergic to myself. I would live in a giant bubble, but I can’t get cable. So keep this in mind.
Hey, can somebody order me gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, preservative free pizza? Please? Anyone?
The Friday social goes well, but that night I get no sleep. None. I was too excited. I was going to be an agented author by this time the next night. My future was so bright, I was fairly sure it had caused permanent retinal damage.
The next morning I peeled myself out of bed and drove to Grapevine, TX, which was about an hour away. I looked stunning in my new suit, but I was so fried that I forget to grab the food I’d packed the night before. I arrived at the conference half-starving already and it wasn’t even 8:00 a.m. That entire morning, I barely paid attention to any of the craft classes because 1) I was exhausted 2) I was starving and 3) I had my agent pitch right after lunch…which I could smell and it was making me half-mad.
I dodged out of a class early to talk to the caterer and asked if he had anything that was gluten and dairy free. He said “Yes.” The angels started singing. YES! I could get something to eat. I grabbed my meal and began wolfing it down prison-style, knife at the ready to stab any of the kitchen staff who might decide to take my plate before I had eaten the garnish and the Sweet & Low packets (fiber).
I finished eating before the other writers were even let out of class. I was feeling great. The writers filed in. I started socializing to take my mind of the pitch that I knew would catapult me to fame and fortune.
Candy Havens stepped up to do her keynote and…
My heart rate suddenly kicked up to 150 beats a minute, and felt like I was having a heart attack. I felt dizzy and my fingers and feet went totally numb, along with part of my face. I struggled to stay conscious as I watched Candy’s speech. I couldn’t get up and interrupt her, but I was terrified that I was going to pass out right there. My peripheral vision was soon gone. Black. And I could tell I was inches from blacking out. Clearly I got into something I was allergic to. I chugged every glass of water at the table trying to dilute whatever foul element I ingested.
I hung on Candy’s every word…waiting for the last one. The second people start clapping I dove out of the banquet hall and stumbled to the bathroom. I was in bad shape. A couple of the speakers happened to be in there and apparently it was clear to them that something was definitely wrong with me. They wanted to take me to a hospital.
NO! I had come too far. I could do this.
I still had an hour until my pitch session…the 15 minutes that would change my life forever…although I did grant permission to call an ambulance if I passed out.
During that hour, I drank another gallon of water and the symptoms, blessedly, started to subside. About a half hour after I staggered into the restroom, another woman stumbled into the bathroom with a screaming migraine. Apparently the caterer forgot to mention the liberal amounts of MSG (monosodium glutamate) in the broth used to cook the rice. We were both in pretty bad shape.
Thus, I missed another craft class trying to be at least coherent for the agent pitch. I got into the room and my beautiful suit is all rumpled and my hair is flat on one side (from leaning on a chair trying not to die). I am also pretty certain I only had makeup on one eye.
I sit down and begin to talk, but have no idea what point I am trying to make…and now I have to pee. Like BAD. Like 12 seconds after I sit down I am now aware of the 6 gallons of water I drank. So now I am wiggling and trying to think, but all I can picture are waterfalls and sprinkler systems and babbling brooks and speaking of babbling, what the hell was my book about anyway?
It was a disaster.
But, an hour after the pitch session, I felt better and I finally got to do what conferences are all about. I made loads of friends and connections, and took some great classes to improve my skills. I learned so much at that conference and met some of the most AMAZING people who are my friends even to this day. Candy Havens is still one of my all-time favorite people, and it is really cool to now be one of her peers instead of this strange neophyte-stalker.
Okay, I am still strange and slightly a stalker but she now doesn’t jump when she spots me in her shrubs.
Anyway, I look back and wonder if I would have just lightened up and gone for the conference for the right reasons, would I have had my near-death experience? I was so keyed up that I made one dumb decision after another, which was probably fueled by stress and sleep deprivation.
I gave myself Deer in the Headlight Syndrome. You know what happens the deer caught in the headlights? They get creamed, flattened, squished.
Hopefully, I made my point. RELAX! ENJOY your conference experience. Making the decision to attend a conference separates the wanna-bes from the professionals. Conferences are the best, and they are the greatest investment you will ever make in your writing career, but NOT because of that 15 minute pitch session.
The pitch session is not a career make-or-break situation. Seriously, agents (I have heard whispers of rumors coming from the caves) are HUMAN. More importantly they are humans with the sole job of finding writers to represent. They are not the enemy. Also, the only person with the power to make or break our career is….US. Agents do not hold that power. If we write excellent stuff, agents will want to represent it. Period.
Also, we can talk to agents outside the pitch session. I don’t recommend sliding your query letter under the bathroom stall, and try not to ambush them outside the Ladies Room door, but here is a little understood secret. Agents go to conferences to network and to…. Are you ready for this? FIND CLIENTS.
We can talk to them. In fact, agents expect writers will talk to them. To think otherwise is like thinking it would be rude to offer a designer a fabric swatch at a trade show. Agents go to writing confernces to meet writers and, hopefully, out of aaaallllll the hopefuls, find someone with content that they believe they can sell.
We are in control of our careers, which means that yes, agents are important, but connections and classes trump agents any day of the week. The more connections we have, the more doors of opportunity will come our way. The more we listen to others and learn from them, the faster we grow and mature into the type of writer an agent is dying to represent.
In the end, after all of my suffering, did I get an agent? No. I got a form letter with the wrong name on it. But, it was probably one of the most valuable experiences of my career, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Top 5 Tips to Maximize Your Writing Conference
1. Go to all the craft classes you can.
Trust me, no matter how good we think we are, we aren’t even close to how great we COULD be. Go to more than just agent panels and “How to Land an Agent” classes. Take this opportunity to grow into a better you. Grab hold of that opportunity to learn from those doing what you want to do. Ask questions. Take lots of notes. Team up with friends and take all the classes and then share notes. Often there are tricks and techniques shared that we can’t get out of a book.
Also, at conferences, we get to network with authors who are where we want to one day be. We can make
hostages mentors out of them. I stalked Candy Havens…okay, I still stalk her. But she is an AMAZING human being and five minutes listening to her will make you feel like you can take over the world. She is the only person I know who can simultaneously kick my @$$ and make me grateful for it. I have a conference to thank for knowing her. Candy challenged me to come up to a higher level and she STILL does. This is worth more than what you will pay for the conference. TRUST ME.
3. Talk to all the agents.
Not necessarily to pitch your book, but just to be nice. You might see them at another conference and they will recognize you. Now you are forming a relationship. This also helps you see they are really
blood-sucking werewolves human.
You can talk to agents other than the one assigned in your pitch. The pitch session just guarantees us a particular agent’s undivided attention. It doesn’t mean that the other agents will take out a restraining order on you if you say “hi” and ask to give your elevator pitch.
4. Have FUN!
Conferences aren’t cheap. Squeeze every bit if fun out of every little moment. Get your money’s worth.
5. Go out of your way to form memories.
This is like high school or college. We can either have a blast in our “learning years” and take lots of pictures and have lots of fun…or we can rush through it and fail to enjoy our “writing youth” because we are to busy wanting to be “writing grown-ups.” We only get to be Baby Writers once. Enjoy the moments of magic before this becomes a job. Enjoy the youth because you will soon have to let it go.
So what are some of your conference experiences? Good or bad? Some of my closest friends are people I met at conferences. Do you have any advice? Tips? Pointers? Want to recommend a conference? Want me to come speak at a conference in your area? Put it in the comments. I love hearing from you.
I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of April I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Due to the tornadoes, I am behind. Will announce last week and this week’s winners on Monday. Thank you for your patience.
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.