My Experience At My First Writer's Conference
Benefits of a Writer's Conference
Some may have noticed that I have not been posting a lot of hubs in the past year. The cute cupcakes and crafty things have fell by the wayside. It isn't because I haven't wanted to: I love hubbing. But about a year ago, I started writing my first novel. It may just be me, but I found it to be overwhelming in taking up time. I had to do a lot of studying right along with imagining to come up with a 97,000-word narrative. It's finished, just a touch more editing.
Attending a Writer's Conference
As a first-time novelist, of course, I read all the tips and tricks I could get my hands on. And attending a writer's conference was a strong suggestion. Being the southern hick that I am, I figured one would have to fly to New York, Los Angeles or some other such metropolis to attend one. But after investigating, I discovered that the Atlanta Writer's Club offers a writer's conference twice a year.
"That's doable," I thought. I could get there in an hour or so. And with the money I saved on airfare, I could stay in the hotel for the night and be on-site for the two-day event. So May 8-9, Mother's Day weekend, I set out to attend my first writer's conference. I hope through sharing my experience, I can offer give an insight to what it was like.
Kinds of Writer's Conferences
As far as I have seen, there are basically two different kinds of writer's conferences. There's the "speed dating" kind, sometimes called pitch slams like the popular pitchapalooza thing. This concept is a sort of American Idol type model where you have just a minute or so to throw your novel idea out to agents at the conference.
The other kind of writer's conference hooks you up with one or two pitches for 10 minutes. Additionally, manuscript and query letter edits from 10 to 15 minutes are offered. Mini- seminars and a couple of Q and A panels are thrown in, sometimes at an extra cost. You can also choose to eliminate some of the other components, like the pitch, for a reduced price.
There is an advantage to both kinds: with the speed-dating sort, you get less time (something like 90 seconds) but you get to pitch to a larger number of agents. The other way gives you just one pitch, usually, but you have more one-on-one time with them.
The writer's conference I attended for the first time was a sort of "mix and match" deal. I went all out and got the whole shebang for $400 dollars. I didn't think that was a bad deal. I had access to two Q and A panels and six mini-seminars, a query letter critique, one 10-minute pitch, and a 15-minute manuscript-synopsis critique. It didn't include the price of the room, but I did get a discount and spent the night in a really nice room for around $100 bucks. This room would probably be $300 dollars in NYC. But it was the "Big Peach" not the "Big Apple." For some reason, inflation seems to hit the south at a slower rate. And if anyone can explain that to me, you are an economic expert in my opinion.
The Query Critique
The query letter seemed to be the most troublesome for everyone at the conference. I heard more than one opinion that the novel was easier to write than the query letter. And we all know how important the almighty query is. It is ultimately the key that can lead to getting published.
There are three parts to the query letter: the introduction with a hook, , the story summary, and the bio. Writing four or five sentences to summarize your 347-page novel can drive you crazy. You must start with an "elevator pitch " or a story premise and then expand on that. I think the example that helped me most was something like A wealthy man falls in love with the hooker he hired for a business trip. (Pretty Woman)
In the introduction, you must tell the agent the title of your book, the genre, and the word count. You must do your research and only query agents that represent your genre and are taking on new clients. It helps if you can make a personal connection like "I enjoyed hearing you speak at ..., your article, blog or whatever. The second paragraph talks about your book, and the third is a brief bio.
I had read a couple of articles that if you weren't a published author, you didn't need to include a bio. An exception being if your job was related to the story, like maybe a crime thriller and you are a policeman or lawyer.
I'm a retired special education teacher, which has diddly squat to do with my tale. Since a query letter can only be a page long, I decided to leave it off and tell more about my story. But the two agents who critiqued my query letter insisted that I should say something about myself like freelance writer, blogger, etc. "And the middle paragraph is too heavy with subplot points," they said. "Stick with the main premise and what happens to the characters."
So it was back to the room and the drawing board to execute a new query letter to print out in the hotel's business center.
The Manuscript and Synopsis Critique
Upon signing up for the conference, I was to write a query letter to an assigned agent and submit it to the conference director along with a synopsis and the first few pages of my manuscript. The deal was that the synopsis be three to five pages long. This, along with the query letter and the first few pages of the story was to be no more than 21 pages.
I tried to whittle my synopsis down as much as I could, but ended up with five pages. That would limit my manuscript by two whole pages. The synopsis is too long, and I am still trying to cut it to 2-3 pages. Not an easy task. But of each of the three sessions, I got the most helpful feedback at the 15-minute long manuscript critique. I suspect she didn't even read the synopsis, and I can say I didn't blame her. She helped me decide to make my second chapter my first one and the first the second with tips on how to do so.
This is where things got confusing. I was all ready to discuss my story in a way that showed confidence and without sounding as if I had memorized the 90-second pitch, leaving room for her to say something like "that sounds interesting, tell me more."
But when I sat down outside the room assigned to me, my timekeeper asked for a copy of my query letter and took it in one minute before my 10-minute time slot began. Since the manuscript critique had started with my query letter, this would be query letter critique number three. And this agent said I need more details in that pesky second paragraph I had cut down.
Final Thoughts on my First Writer's Conference
I learned a good bit and made some good contacts. I can now send in a few queries and begin with something like "I enjoyed hearing you speak at the Atlanta Writer's conference last May" or something personalized like that.
All of them said I had a very good story premise which gives me a lot of confidence in sending my work out. The agent that critiqued my manuscript praised the way I wrote dialogue. I know this is one of the skills agents and editors look at first. I also made some contacts for local critique groups. Ninety percent of the writers I met were local people. The cost included a year's membership in the Atlanta Writer's Club, and they have monthly meetings, speakers, and activities.
I almost canceled this first conference, because the agents I really wanted to pitch to were already out of time slots. The one I ended up with actually didn't represent women's fiction, my genre. If you are considering attending a writer's conference, my advice is to sign up early so that you can pick the agents you want AFTER researching the agents/editors that will be there.
I'm glad I went though, because after I diffuse all the advice about how to write my query letter, hopefully it will be at its best for sending out to lots and lots of agents.
One of the agents who spoke likened the query letter to someone browsing in a book store. You begin by reading the summary on the back of the book jacket. If it sounds like something you might like, you read the first few sentences, then more, and then you make the decision as to whether or not to buy the book. Sound familiar?
Now I'm off to get unconfused and compose the best query letter I can. Then I'm going to relax and maybe make some cute cupcakes. I was thinking maybe some that look like ladybugs.