How To Prepare For A Writer’s Conference
In less than a week, experts from the publishing world and a slew of eager writers representing all genres will converge in Austin for the Writer’s League of Texas’ 28th annual Agents and Editors Conference.
In past lives, I attended tech and non-profit conferences, but this is my very first writing conference. To prepare, I’ve enlisted the help of two seasoned writing conference attendees.
I was introduced to Debbie Hibbert and Donna Milakovic as fellow finalists in the WLT’s Manuscript Contest. Donna works for a university in Utah and writes romance, young adult, and sci-fi stories by night. Debbie is a full-time writer in Texas. She focuses on paranormal, young adult, romance, and mystery stories.
With more than forty conferences under their collective belt, the dynamic writing duo is a wealth of knowledge. They happily agreed to chat with me about conference etiquette, relationship building, a few faux pas, and that thing on everyone’s mind — the pitch.
Haley P Law (HPL) – First thing’s first. What are you reading a week before the conference?
Debbie Hibbert (DH) – Usually, for me, it’s what I’m pitching. Oh, and I always read up on all the agents who are going to be there and their agencies.
Donna Milakovic (DM) – I’m a mix. I read up on the conference information and editors and agents. Sometimes I read up on books they’ve represented. Right now, I have a ton of books on audible that are sci-fi/romance, so I can be more current on the genre I’m pitching.
So it’s lots of study on the agents and editors coming. And a lot of work reading and preparing my content if I’m presenting a workshop or if I’m pitching.
DH – Donna once made me drive out when I had a double ear infection so I could support her while she presented a workshop. That’s love.
DM – It is.
HPL – How many conferences have you attended? How many have you presented? How many have you been forced to go to?
DH – I’ve only been forced to attend two. I probably went to three a year for several years, then had a gap where life got busy, and I didn’t have anything to pitch or present.
DM – For me, it’s somewhere between thirty-five and forty conferences between 2007 and 2020. I’ve presented at three different conferences twelve times.
HPL – Tell me how you got started presenting workshops.
DM – After fifteen or twenty conferences, I had built a lot of connections but started hearing the same things. So I started thinking about what I wanted to contribute to a conference instead of just what I wanted to take away from a conference.
I pitched my first ideas around 2012, and I gave a presentation at Life, The Universe, & Everything [Sci-fi/Fantasy Symposium]. It was about how to build relationships. It was called “How to Stalk Your Favorite Editors Without Getting Arrested.” I translated what I was using and learning in my professional life to apply to writers.
In addition to workshops, I moderate panels. I was a newspaper reporter, and I enjoyed moderating because I had studied the art of asking good questions and pulling the best information out for the audience. It’s another way to look at participating in writer’s conferences, even for writers who are not yet published.
HPL – At conferences, you meet dozens of people. How do you make sure to connect with those individuals in a meaningful way?
DH – A good piece of advice is to be nice to everyone because you never know who you’re sitting next to. At one conference, I had to leave a workshop and ended up chatting with a nice man in a hallway about my new baby. He ended up being an international best-seller, L.E. Modesitt, Jr. I definitely think being kind is important.
DM – The truth is, you never know who you’re going to meet at a conference, and Debbie’s story about meeting L.E. Modesitt, Jr. That’s the coolest thing about writer’s conferences.
Building relationships in the writing industry with agents, editors and other writers creates opportunities. Ask questions about what people are working on, show an interest, and listen, really listen, to their answers.
Learn, serve, grow. Learn something specific about someone, find ways to help them, and through that service, the relationship grows. We used to ask authors out to dinner instead of picking their brains at the conference. And we offered to pay! It was an invitation to connect beyond the conference and offer to help.
It’s important to bring a one-sentence elevator pitch about what you’re working on because that might be your once chance to talk to that person. Be genuine and have brief answers for “What are you working on?” and “What do you love to write?”
It’s not about imposing yourself on other people; it’s about the long game of learning about people as people. It helps to show up for people because when you need them, they show up for you.
HPL – What are some things to avoid at a conference?
DM – I’ve seen three big conference faux pas. Vomiting your unfinished pitch on somebody, not giving people personal space — I have seen that awkward situation, like following people into the bathroom — and sitting at your computer and ignoring everybody. Sometimes people hide and have the don’t-talk-to-me face. All three of those contribute to missed opportunities.
DH – We’ve run into people who treat you like you’re below them, but the truth is we’re all writers. Leave the humblebrag and inflated ego at home.
HPL – How have writer’s conferences changed your writing career or practice?
DH – One, for me, is how I outline. I think part of it is a trial and error process of what does and doesn’t work for me, but two things stood out.
One was the Seven-point Story Structure workshop that Dan Wells did. That was major because I’m a discovery writer, but if I have no structure, it’s off the rails. And that Seven-point Outline helps me be a discovery writer with a plan.
The second was a workshop with Larry Correia and John Brown on a Forty Events Outline. You think about forty events that will happen in your book. They taught this in a Whose Line Is It Anyway style workshop where the audience shouted out ideas, listing forty events that happen in a book. That list can be used as a chapter-to-chapter loose outline. I’ve used that a lot too.
DM – I think overall conference workshops have given me tools. They give me tools that really work for me in my writing where I am.
The other thing they do is inspire. They inspire ideas, they inspire me to carry on, they put into perspective that I’m not alone.
DH – There is something about being in a crowd of like-minded people who are there to create something. There’s an energy at writer’s conferences. It’s that group think where we’re all “We can do it!” It is inspiring.
DM – It’s jumper cables.
DH – Yes, or defibrillators!
DH – I also come away with really good one-liners. Like Howard Tayler said, “You don’t get worse at something you do every day.” Or J. Scott Savage said, “Spend your day thinking about what you want to write, so when you sit down to write, you know where you’re going.”
HPL – What factors help you choose which break-out sessions and lectures to attend?
DM – For a conference where they’re giving digital information afterward, I go to things in person where one, I want to meet the presenter live, and two, I feel it’s really pertinent to what I’m doing right now or in the industry.
DH – We always choose the workshops where an agent is presenting because that’s a built-in ice breaker if you ever run into them or if you send them a query.
DM – I always have a backup class. If I sit down in something that isn’t what I expected, I can leave and go to something else. Leaving a class is approved conference etiquette. On the flip side, I have texted people to say this workshop is way better than expected, and they need to come.
We usually spend a good twenty minutes to half-hour talking about what we’re each interested in and decide if we’re going to split up. But a lot of time we’ll go together because we can talk about it later.
DH – When you attend with your group, you then have a common language to work with after the conference.
HPL – Here’s the big question. The ten-minute consultation session is a chance to sell a story or more from your body of work. What do you do to prepare for the pitch?
DM – There are two important things I feel like I need to go in with. My short, two to three-sentence elevator pitch — memorized. Then three or four questions for the agent I’m meeting with. And those cannot be yes or no questions.
DH – I think it’s important with that elevator pitch to have it spot-on and memorized because you never know when you’ll get the opportunity to run into someone somewhere else. Like I’ve run into agents in the hall, outside of the consultation, and had the chance to tell them my pitch. Lisa Mangum, an editor for Shadow Mountain Publishing, says, “It pays off to be bold.” But obviously, read the room.
DM – I would add it doesn’t pay to be brazen.
HPL – What are some questions you ask an agent?
DM – It depends on the agent or editor, but questions about them, really. What are you most excited about representing right now? What advice would you give me as a debut author? How did you become a literary agent? What’s on your reading list right now? What’s the most effective pitch you’ve heard lately? Questions about the best ways to get attention with an agent or present my book to other agents and editors.
DH – I ask about the current industry and what they see that’s popular and selling. I like to know from an agent or editor’s perspective what trends they’re seeing in the market. You never write to the trend, but it’s good to know what’s selling so you can understand how to better pitch your book. For example, with my book, if mystery was taking off, I might tailor my query to pump up the mystery side of it.
DM – I also like to ask what kind of relationship they have with their writers? How do they like to work with their writers? Some people are more editorial and want to work on the book together, and some want a perfectly polished book to sell. Sometimes I ask what their strengths as an agent are.
DH – My first pitch session was a disaster. It went really fast, and then she asked if I had any questions for her, and I wasn’t prepared. So we just ended up chatting because I’m the queen of small talk, but the time could have been used more effectively. Another question you can ask is what specifically they’re looking for, essentially finding out if you could potentially fill a gap or if you’re one of many. And if you can’t fill a gap for them, ask if there’s anyone they would recommend to query?
HPL – What three essentials will be in your backpack on conference weekend?
DH – Notebook, hand sanitizer, and gum (especially with the mask). I might change gum to a bottle of water.
DM – A small notebook and pen (your pen has to be there too) in case you can’t get your laptop out, a water bottle, and a laptop. Just remember it’s a long day, so pack anything you need to consume a lot of information over a long day.
DH – I also bring a cardigan, always.
Feature image by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash edited by Haley Peck-Law.