by Jeff Kleinman
Step #1. TALK to fellow participants. Do you realize what a huge boon you have at these conferences, literally tripping over published authors and – possibly even more intriguing – other wannabe writers who could be an enormous asset to you – reading drafts of your manuscript, offering a different perspective on your work? I always feel that authors are so focused on the editor-agent thing that they forget about the people sitting right next to them, the other writers who could actually be of huge assistance to them. I honestly think that it’s not at all a bad idea to ignore the editors and agents prancing around and just sit down in the hotel lobby with a couple of other writers, trying to create a community, a sounding-board – trying to make a connection to someone whose insights could really prove valuable. If you go to a writer’s conference, just try this (no matter how painful and terrible it is – and believe me I’d hate to do it myself, so I feel for you). Turn to the person sitting one seat down from you (because you always sit with empty seats on either side if you can help it) and say, “Hello, my name is [fill in your name – not mine] and I’m working on a book about [one-sentence description of your book]. What are you working on?” See if you have some kind of common ground. You might not, of course – the person sitting one seat down from you could be an absolute dragon with terrible breath and appalling clothes – but then again, you might make a worthwhile connection. If for no other reason, writer’s conferences are great places to (hem) meet other writers, so meet them, for goodness sake.
Step #2. Take Conferences With More Than One Grain of Salt. It’s true that, as billed, conferences are one of those rare occasions when you have a chance to meet people on the other side of the mailbox – editors, agents, PR and marketing professionals, and so forth. We’re generally called in to do a bunch of different tasks at these events – lectures, workshops, manuscript evaluations, one-on-one meetings, etc. Often we choose sexy and compelling titles for our talks – stuff like “Write A Bestselling Novel in 5 Minutes A Day and Lose 30 Pounds in the Process,” or “Become Independently Wealthy and Emotionally Fulfilled Through Freelance Writing.” Point being: we have a lot of information that we can impart, and certainly knowing the business side of things can be really helpful, but don’t get too sucked into these kinds of talks. Your business is writing, so make a connection with the writers. Use whatever information you find useful from these editors and agents, and throw out the rest. Whatever you do, don’t panic, hearing the kind of stuff we talk about. Sometimes people get all upset, going to a talk about, say, “Trends in Nonfiction” – someone on the panel will say that memoirs are dead, and all the memoirists in the audience will gasp and turn blue; and the reality is that no trend is dead – it just hasn’t had the next breakout book to hit yet. Let’s face it, Marley & Me is just a memoir about a guy and a dog, and there are millions of those stories out there – so who will want to buy another book like that? Millions of people, apparently. So don’t take what we have too say too seriously.
Step #3. Use Proper Etiquette When Talking To Publishing Folk. OK, if I haven’t lost you yet, then you’ve hung on for the real reason I was writing all this today. Conferences are opportunities to meet and speak with (either in a structured one-on-one setting, or informally over lunch or a beer) editors and agents – who, for the purpose of this discussion, shall henceforth be termed PF, for “Publishing Folk”. There’s a possibility to talk to these folk about your project, get their feedback – who could resist such an opportunity? Before you go and talk to them, though, here are a few handy-dandy rules to print out (with the proper copyright notice, please: © Jeff Kleinman 2006) and carry with you everywhere. They’re listed in order of importance, of course (but from most to least important, or least to most, I’ll let you decide).
1. Never hand your manuscript to PF without being asked to do so. That means don’t push it under the bathroom stall, shove it under the hotel room door, leave it for them at the front desk, staple it to their windshield wipers, etc. That’s considered “unsolicited,” and you don’t want to do that. If PF ask you for your material, that’s a whole different thing, of course.
2. Be prepared. Have a proposal (if NF) or the first 50 pages (if F) available, in case PF ask to see it after all. It should be nicely formatted and all that kind of nonsense.
3. Know Your Log Line. A typical conversation with PF goes as follows:
You: I wrote a book.
PF: You did? Huh. What’s it about?
You: Many many longwinded sentences about your book.
Be able to boil your book down to a single sentence – and make it a single sentence that generates the following response from the PF: “Oh, wow, that sounds terrific – can I read it?” That “wow” is a very difficult thing to achieve, so it’s worth really thinking about what makes your book, and/or you, special/interesting/different/remarkable. If you can’t do it yet, that’s OK – then probably the project isn’t ready for PF after all. Use the single sentence as a test for yourself: if you can’t sum up the book succinctly and in a way that engenders immediate interest, keep rewriting the book until you can.
Step #4. Research The PFs Ahead of Time. All PFs are not created equal. Some PFs, like yours truly, do not represent romance novels. Other PFs, like yours truly’s partner Paige Wheeler, do. It would be a mistake to ask yours truly about your paranormal romance, because I wouldn’t know a paranormal romance from a three-toed black sloth – in fact I’d certainly know a three-toed black sloth much better. You can find out about PFs from a variety of websites. Just because you research the PF ahead of time, though, doesn’t mean that you should necessarily contact the PF and try to set up a meeting – that can be confusing and difficult to manage, since the PF is often at the mercy of the conference’s schedule.
Step #5. Don’t Ask Overly Specific Questions at the Q&A. Q&As are times for general questions, not opportunities for you to discuss your project with a room full of strangers.
Step #6. Relax. On several occasions at conferences, someone sits down across from me, we introduce ourselves, and then the writer on the other side of the table bursts into tears. It’s a truly weird and horrible feeling to be sitting there watching a grown woman, carefully made up, sobbing into a wad of typescript. Remember: these PFs are generally nice people. They’re generally interested in what you have to say. They’re not mean, or cruel, or vicious – and if they are, you certainly don’t have to take it; just get up and walk away. But I’d say pretty much everybody who does these conferences is a pretty nice person, most of the time – so just talk. Know what your book is about, be able to discuss it concisely and passionately. And then be ready to listen, to hear the questions the PF asks, be ready to respond concisely and passionately.
Step #7. Know that It’s All in the Writing. Let’s repeat that: It’s All In The Writing. Conferences can be fine things, and being able to talk about your project concisely and passionately is a fine thing, too; but in the end it boils down to the words that are laserprinted on that page. PF may ask to see your material; PF may jump for joy after hearing your description; but bottom line is that PF must read your material. So although it’s always good to have the bells and whistles in place, it’s even better to have a gorgeously written manuscript. The writing is everything.
And there you have it. If you go to a conference, have a great time (and buy me a beer, if I’m there).