Most Interesting Conference Experiences

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Aug 31 2009

I can’t even begin to count the number of conferences I’ve been to. Since starting the agency ten years ago I have attended anywhere from five to ten each year, and prior to that I attended a number as an editor. Needless to say, I’ve had more than my share of interesting experiences. I’ve had terrific moments where I met future clients. I’ve had horrible moments where organizers were anything but and attendees spent more time worrying about the color of the envelope they were submitting in than they did their writing, and I’ve had the truly scary times where groups of agents and editors fled after hearing some truly threatening remarks made by a seemingly unstable attendee.

While I’ve certainly given a great deal of advice about conferences, one of the things I don’t think I’ve ever done is share some of the more interesting or rewarding experiences I have. These are typically conference workshops that were different from anything else I’ve ever done before and that I found refreshing and fun from my side of things and hopefully useful for authors.

At one conference they had critique sessions, and I have to admit I was dreading it, unsure of how authors were going to take my face-to-face feedback. The way the session worked meant I received eight to ten samples before the conference. The samples included the first ten or so pages of each book and a one-page synopsis. Everyone taking the workshop (they kept it to a small number, about 10) received the same material. On my flight to the conference I read the material and made my comments. Then the entire group got together and went around the circle to discuss the pages we received. I would start by giving my feedback and suggestions and then open the floor to everyone else at the table. I have no doubt that it was a little painful and very difficult for the authors, and I give anyone who participated a lot of credit. However, I think hearing an agent’s feedback, as well as feedback from other authors, on your own work and on the work of others can help you learn a lot. It felt very productive to me.

At two different conferences I did a workshop the conference came up with that allowed attendees to get a sneak peek into what it must be like to read the slush pile. One conference focused on queries only, while the other on the first two pages of the manuscript. All material was submitted anonymously by brave writers. A reader read the material aloud, and when the agents on the panel reached the point where we would have stopped reading we simply said stop. Once all agents were in agreement we went on to explain further why we stopped. In some cases it was a simple phrase that sat wrong with an agent, in other cases it was simply unclear writing, and in other cases it was entirely personal. We tried to be nice, but I do think authors were really given insight into how subjective the business is as well as what goes through an agent’s mind when considering new material.

One conference held “take a speaker to lunch” days. Instead of hosting a lunch, they encouraged attendees to invite one of the speakers out to lunch. I’m sure there are a lot of agents who might groan at this possibility, but I enjoyed it. There were no rules (other than that the attendees were encouraged to pay for the lunch) so an entire writing group could ask one agent or an individual could ask. It allowed me a little downtime to discuss one of my favorite topics (publishing) and learn a little about the area I was visiting, and it certainly allowed brave attendees to get easy quality time with an agent and really learn about the business rather than pitch a book in ten minutes. Oh, now that I think about it, pitching might have been discouraged for these lunches.

I’m sure there are other conference events that stood out for me, but these were different and fun for me to participate in. What about you as conference attendees? Have there been any different “activities” or workshops that you think more conferences could benefit from?


21 responses to “Most Interesting Conference Experiences”

  1. The lunch thing sounds great – more relaxed, and writers can see that agents are, well, human.

    Most of them, anyway.

  2. Avatar Heather Lane says:

    The first time I went to a conference, I was struck by how nice everyone was–from the other attendees to the presenters to the agents and editors. I was amazed at how supportive everyone was.

  3. Avatar ClothDragon says:

    My sister and I decided that we'd go to a conference next year. Our first. So I started looking at conferences and there seem to be a million of them.

    If she keeps to her deadline we should each be finished with a book by then, we write scifi/fantasy with romantic undertones, and we don't think we can afford Australia or Scotland or really anywhere overseas, but even that doesn't seem to cut our numbers down very much.

    I lean towards somewhere we could meet an agent or two or at least includes our genres, but she'd be just as happy attending the writer track at Dragoncon. How do the rest of you choose with all these options out there?

  4. Avatar terri says:

    Jessica – I would love to go to a conference with the group feedback roundtable or the read aloud agent panel.

    I went to my first conference this year and the best part was the one on one critique with an author published in my genre. He kicked me square in the backstory and now the book is in serious rewrite and is much better because of it. My goal is to have it ready to query by spring.

    The best experiences are the interactive ones. Makes y'all not seem so scary.

    Do you have any conferences you will be at in the next six months or so? That would help me pick which I would like to attend.

  5. Avatar Rosemary says:

    Hi Jessica!

    Two years ago I attended a pitch conference that really jumpstarted my writing career. We had the opportunity to pitch directly to editors, but only after we'd spent a full day honing our pitches in a workshop.

    It was very valuable to hear everyone else's pitches–even to the point of ad nauseum–because it was so easy to tell whose was effective and whose was not. And because we were grouped by genre, there was a lot we learned from each other. In our free time, we'd go off to revise and polish the pitch, and then come back and present again.

    It was grueling, but out of my sub-group of 15 writers, five of us got agents and one of us got a book deal. Those are pretty amazing odds.

    I also made several good friends who now serve as critique partners. When I go to conferences now, I always seek those that offer hands-on workshops.

  6. Hearing pages read and getting professional reaction is eye-opening. I was picked by a senior editor for a one-on-one at the first conference I ever attended. It was humbling and awesome. She told me things I needed to hear, and I have written a far better book because of that advice. I also listened as a panel of editors read first pages aloud. While it was painful for the writers, I again learned a lot by listening to what the editors reacted to and why. Thanks for letting us know that you have found some experiences rewarding, too. (Sorry to hear someone was threatening, though. That really sucks.)

  7. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I do like the feedback one. I attended one you did with the queries. I was shocked at what stopped an editor or agent, and it made me super-aware of how I structure my query. I've learned less is more.

    The cold reads are good too. Any time I can climb into the mind of an editor or agent is a good thing. I get too close to my writing and having a e/a rip it up a bit, really improves my writing.

    Amy Talley

  8. Avatar Falen says:

    i've never been to a conference, but all those sound awesome (except the threats…)
    I would have loved to participate in the critique session. Sometimes it can be really hard to find good and valuable constructive criticism.

  9. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I wouldn't be published without conferences–big ones, small ones…in between ones. Everything about them is valuable, from the networking with other authors to the chance to meet and speak face to face with industry professionals. I think, for me, the most important panels or workshops I attended before I sold were the ones given by published authors who talked about their own often rocky roads to publication. I learned there are very few overnight success stories in this business, that it's all about writing and rewriting and learning your craft.

    I can't think of a single conference I've attended where I haven't left with a new feeling of commitment, a head full of ideas and a sense that there's no other job in the world I'd rather be doing.

  10. Avatar Dara says:

    I'm still a conference newbie, having only been to two relatively small ones, but I think that the agent lunch sounds like a fantastic idea. I also liked the sneak peak into the slush pile–that would've been a great session to attend 🙂

  11. Avatar Kim Kasch says:

    I've met some wonderful friends at conferences – one of the reasons, I think, is because we all have the same interest. We all love to read and write. And who doesn't like to talk about the LOVEs of our lives?

    No better way to meet compatible people – hanging out with like-minded folks.

  12. Avatar ryan field says:

    I love the conference posts, mainly because I've never actually been to one.

  13. Avatar Mira says:

    I love conferences. I hope I get to go to some writing ones someday. Conferences for me are like being a kid in a candy store, love them.

    I like the interactive ones the best; you can really grow from those experiences. Thanks for sharing your experiences that stand out, Jessica.

    I know I must sound like a broken record, but the subjectivity around the query, well, getting rid of the query would help this business be less subjective. Just as an aside. Since you brought it up. 🙂

    Hmmm. Maybe I should just add something at the bottom of every message, like: "Just say 'no' to the query." Something snappy. Something you could put on a bumper sticker.

  14. Avatar Bill Peschel says:

    I've been to a number of conferences in N.C., S.C., Georgia and Penn. So, to answer ClothDragon's question, it depended for me on location (I can't afford to travel far) and guests.

    The last couple Pennwriters conferences have been very good. I suspect it's easier for N.Y. agents to make their way one state over.

    One good event was the agent pitch, in which several brave writers sat before the audience and made their pitch to three agents. It was a good learning experience for everyone, and the writers took it with good grace.

    Another one I participated in was a simple reading circle, in which I read five pages from a manuscript and the rest of the circle critiqued it.

    The one I profited from personally was a proposal-writing workshop in which the speaker offered copies of the proposals he used. I based mine on it and attracted an offer from an agent and (through her) a publisher.

  15. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I love the take the agent to lunch option. And yeah, it would have to be no-pitching.

    How did they decide who got to do it, though? Lottery? Simple sign ups?

  16. The three conferences I've been to over the past year have been priceless. I've learned so much about writing a query, synopsis, and making your first pages count, along with networking with writers and agents.

    You asked about us as attendees and what we liked. Believe it or not, the most terrifying experience was also the best – Pitch Slam at BEA. I pitched one on one to six agents. Five asked for partials and one for a full. My stomach wanted to take the last train to Clarksville (sorry, my age is showing), but I'm glad I forced it and the rest of me to stick around. Speaking to the agents face to face was awesome in that it let me see how nice and down to earth agents can be, and had me get out of my writer's comfort zone (i.e., sitting in my room writing!) and work on my pitch.

    I can't believe you were threatened! As Sarah Silverman would say, "That's beyond!"

  17. Jessica,

    Since I was at the conference with the agent panel and the "slush pile" of the first two pages of manuscripts, I just wanted to tell you how helpful that was! It was terrifying listening to my own first two pages read out loud to a whole room of people, and then hearing the agent's reactions to the pages. Terrifying, but OH so helpful!

    Because the slush pile was anonymous, I really learned a lot about how different each agent is, and how a rejection from an agent doesn't always mean your manuscript sucks, it could be a lot of issues.

    Anyway, I loved it. And thanks for participating in the Northern Colorado Writer's Conference!

  18. Avatar Steph Damore says:

    For all the networking I've done, even I'm surprised that I've never been to a conference before. The experiences sound amazing. I admit, I am a bit of a chicken–not with having my work critiqued, but by being intimidated by all the fabulous writers.

    But as Elleanor Roosevelt once said, "Do one thing every day that scares you." So today I'll research some conferences and get the ball rolling. Thanks for the motivation Jessica!

  19. I have never been to one of these conferences. I'm sure they are extremely beneficial. Frankly, though, they terrify me!

  20. Avatar Anonymous says:

    One of my favorite workshops was at RWA two years ago. They had authors read snippets from books, and we all had to rate them, and give our opinion on which would be published. Their way of putting us into the editor and agent's shoes.
    It was an eye opener, as all the books were published, and some were classics, whom people rated very poorly—-thus illustrating the subjectiveness involved in publishing. And the importance of having someone who loves your work to represent you, due to the odds.

    RR smythe

  21. Avatar Yorkie Mum says:

    I can think of three offhand. The first was a Pitch Preparation at Moonlight & Magnolias where they opened up a ballroom and assigned all the participants to a table presided over by either an agent or a published author (our "designated experts"). We each "pitched" to our designated expert and then went around the table taking suggestions from him/her as well as the other participants on how we could tighten up and hone those pitches before we actually had to take part in the real thing.

    The other was called "Buy This Book" and was at this year's National conference. It was a role-playing reenactment of what goes on at a book buying meeting with a group of individuals (including agents, editors and authors) playing the parts of editor, marketing editor, sales editor, etc. where each individual basically asked the sort of questions that would be asked at a real decision-making meeting. It very effectively demonstrated just how much goes on behind the scenes to sell the books we write.

    The other was at a conference in Phoenix where you, Jessica, allowed us to throw out our one line pitches, after which you gave us your knee-jerk reaction to them and suggested ways in which we might improve them.