Writers Conference Dos and Don’ts

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From an editor’s perspective, writers conferences can be a mixed bag. For those of you planning to attend one in the near future, or wondering whether you should, let me offer some dos and don’ts that apply to any writer’s conference you might attend as an aspiring author…

Do know your genre. Everything may be expanding into new genres and sub-genres, but there will always be a line of books that precede yours in content and style, both informing it and categorizing it for a quick comparison. You may not like that others have written books like yours, but the fact is, it’s your duty to know them and how you’re improving the mold. Categories help us know what we’re getting, even as barriers are breaking down between CBA (Christian Book Association) and ABA (American Book Association). Some people may not like categories, but they help readers. Some people may not like books that push the boundaries, but they’re a sign of health and vigor.

Do get an agent to sit on a panel and use you as an example of a fresh, and engaging voice. It was at the ACFW conference in 2005 that a respected agent used Siri Mitchell as his example of what’s most important in evaluating fiction proposals: a distinctive, individual voice. I’ve known Siri for over 6 years now and having that confirmed by an agent/editor (okay, it was Chip MacGregor) was absolutely a factor in getting her published. Don’t be conniving and crafty, but do be a crafter of unmistakably unique work.

Don’t simply go to the conference to be fed. I hear this often: “The singer / food / accommodations / teaching is so wonderful!” Well yes, but these are compliments for the organizers, and they need to hear them. When you’re with me, don’t gush. I’m not interested in your experience of the trappings. Would you be here if it was the worst, backwoods conference on the planet, just to deliver the proposal that’s going to put my publishing house on the map? Good. Let’s talk. Which leads me to,

Don’t be a sycophant. If you don’t have the definition memorized, please go do so now.

Don’t miss the point. On a panel at ACFW, I recommended The Time Traveler’s Wife as the best book I’d read in 2005. In a rare moment of foresight, I included a warning that it might be offensive to some, but for months after that, I still heard about grumbling: “I can’t believe a Christian editor would recommend that book.” Dear ones, you have a responsibility to know what’s being written in the market. Most CBA editors are ABA readers. If you aren’t, that’s a serious handicap. Yes, do skip the sex/language/violence, but don’t misunderstand: you need to find out why an editor is recommending a book. That’s your ticket into his stable.

Do pay attention. Much of the benefit, if not all, of a writers conference is what you learn while there. Authors’ and editors’ names, literary terms, methods of writing, clarifying, editing, working, thinking, appealing to the muse. Don’t waste your time worrying about your pitch, selling your idea, trying to force your way up from the place you need to be to learn. It’s not about getting published. It’s about being in a place where you are being courted because you’ve acquired so much knowledge, and your book begs to be published. While many bad books do get published, publishing the good ones is inevitable. 

Don’t listen to amateurs. There is more slippery sludge thrown around by well-meaning Christian newbies than any of us can shake our fingers at. The blogging world has made this bad advice proliferate, and there’s far too much posturing and speculating that goes on in absence of good data and some honest humility. Pride and ego can get the best of anyone—so be smart and listen to those who know.

Don’t tell me your entire story. Just stick to the P’s: Pitch, Package, Platform. PITCH: Give me the essence in as few words as possible. (caveat: “Aliens meets Blue Like Jazz” is not helpful. “Philip K. Dick meets Don Miller” is better, but explain that genre with a more specific comparison like, “Kathy Tyers meets Siri Mitchell.” Now I’m getting the picture.) PACKAGE: Tell me about series potential, any foreword or endorsements you’ve got, good-sized* publicity and promo opportunities, which leads right into PLATFORM: How big and how wide is your network? Are you bringing any guaranteed pre-sales through your contacts in ministry, media, or miscellany (schools, churches, professional organizations, etc.) *target groups of 1000 or more.

Do know something about what my publishing house publishes. Know the catalog and general sales figures (CBA top 50 titles, at least), especially for books like your own. You can find info on sales figures by asking questions: an author/agent/editor or clerk at a larger bookstore.

Do get in a crit group with real writers. When you say you’re in a crit group with a promising author or authors I recognize, it’s a big indication you’ll be an author I want to take more seriously. This is an alternative to getting a respected agent’s highest regard, though having both would probably make me fall out of my chair.

Do make me fall out of my chair. I really am a nice guy, but I have to be mean and nasty because this is just how it works with so much competition and so few who really get it: a vast majority of the pitches I hear at conferences are really bad. I have a blog, I have a reputation, and if you’re pitching me without knowing anything about me, my house, or my publishing goals, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Egos aside, the editor in the chair across from you is looking to see that you get it, you understand the situation, and you’re well-prepared. Do that, and you won’t have to quiver and freak out. Learn the criteria of a good proposal. Read the publishing trades (mainly PW Religion & CBA Marketplace) and relevant editorial (Christian Communicator, Books and Culture) so you know what’s happening in the business you’re hoping to join. And remember, it’s a business.

Mainly, I like to see people at writers conferences soaking up the knowledge and the community of like-minded individuals, and helping each other grow. When that’s evident, I get inspired, and I realize again how great it is to be in a place like this too, doing work I love, with people who are making a difference.

And who doesn’t want that?

 

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13 thoughts on “Writers Conference Dos and Don’ts”

  1. I journeyed this way from Mary Demuth’s blog. As an unpublished writer, I appreciate the pre-conference advice. I certainly don’t want to be labeled a wingnut from the first conference. I do have a question: how does a new writer break-in to a critique group with authors and/or promising authors an editor might recognize?

  2. Great question, Christa. Just like the rest of this, there’s no easy way to distinguish yourself until you’re writing at a level where you can hold your own. Chances are, if you’ve just started, you’re not as far along as those who’ve been at it a few years. Of course, some people write for years and still suck. But generally, if you’re a fun, interesting, well-informed person who’s got good ideas and just needs to find the right group to help shape it up, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find some willing authors of similar stature and skill with whom to work. Constant learning, constant reading, and good AIC time is the only way (I believe Stephen King coined the famous “ass-in-chair” instruction).

  3. “Andre Hussar knows what his musicians bring to the stage. For any given performance he will consider the harmony or dissonance of their personalities and adjust the piece according to each particular presence.”
    Kind of like a great editor, huh?
    I like it…

  4. Another question Mick:
    A friend of mine was told (by someone currently publishing in the business) when submitting her manuscript to editors not to put a slugline on the top with last name/title. “We don’t do that anymore – just paginate at the bottom right”. In other words, no header.
    What’s correct?

  5. Hey Madison, whatever floats their boat, I guess. There’s certainly no way I would publish a book that didn’t have the header on it. (kidding)
    I’m going to guess that particular “rule” isn’t a requirement for that house, so much as a simple preference. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to know where that page came from if it got free of the others.

  6. Hey Mick,
    Like the BOLD effect. It works. I had a great time talking with you at Mount Hermon’s 38 Christian Writers’ Conference where the food is good and the weather is gooder. But I have to apologize for knocking you out of your chair. Not exactly sure how that happened, but since it’s been a couple weeks, I just thought I’d check up on you. I promise to be more careful next time.
    Peace out,
    Jenn, who really can’t imagine you being mean and nasty, no matter what everyone else says about you

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