Conferences? Love ’em! (Though sometimes … )

readmymanuscriptHave been polishing up two talks this morning (creating Power Point slides for them—thank you for the kick in the pants, Martha Bee), and so have also been musing about the national SCBWI conference in Los Angeles. It was about six weeks ago that it wrapped. I didn’t get to attend this year, and I really missed it. It is grand in every way—thousands of people, speakers who inspire and entertain, children’s books celebrities hobnobbing at the lobby bar, and a huge costume party/dance on Saturday. Being surrounded by like-minded people is inspiring, narcotizing, energizing. There’s nothing else like it.

I love attending and speaking at conferences. No, not just because I am a complete ham; and no, not just because of an obsessive need for endless attention, thank you very much. Rather, it is because I get to talk to people about what I love—books and writing and books and writing—and I get to find exciting new writers. (It does happen, that whole writers-being-“discovered”-at-conferences thing. For example, I signed up Ysabeau Wilce after reading her stuff at an SCBWI retreat in Prescott, Arizona, and I had the fabulous Deb Lund as a one-on-one critique at the Whidbey Island Writer’s Conference years ago.)

But occasionally these conferences can be utterly draining, too. Why? Because the attending agent or editor or writer must always be “on,” and that can be a wee tiny bit overwhelmingly taxing. I’ve seen people literally block access to the bathroom in order to give someone a pitch; have seen crowds mob speakers after a talk, pressing manuscripts into their already-full hands; have heard stories of manuscripts slid under hotel doors, between bathroom cubicles, and other such things that might be amusing if they didn’t happen to be true.

And you know what? I understand the impulse of those eager writers. There is a sense, as a new writer, that you had better make a strong impression, because this one fleeting contact with an agent or editor is the author’s one and only chance to be discovered.

But I’m here to tell you that it’s not. Honestly, agents and editors like meeting new talent—really, we do!—but we’ll be more receptive to your manuscript when we’re at our desk, in the work headspace. No one wants to carry manuscripts around at a conference. We’re just as receptive to getting submissions after the conference. In fact, we’re probably more receptive. Certainly come up and say hello. If you heard us speak, say something nice that shows you were listening. (“I can live for two months on a good compliment,” Mark Twain said, and his ego was larger than most anyone in publishing.)

And then? Let us get to the bathroom.

There must be other conference etiquette tips I don’t know that people should bear in mind. What are they? What sorts of interactions at conferences have proven especially fruitful for you? And why?

  1. Great post, Michael! I think I figured out why there are no literary agents in St. Louis; tasering writers who block the rest room = not good for business.


  2. I can say for sure that conferences are a life-changing thing. But not in the way you might expect.

    It’s incredibly rare for an editor or agent to see a manuscript and say, “I must have it” at a conference. It’s probably smart to cross that dream off your list. (People who don’t can sometimes end up embarrassing themselves. Not everyone is a fantastic and amazing Deb Lund, you know.)

    I started going to conferences and met people I really liked. These people, the RAs at my local SCBWI chapter, asked me to volunteer.

    So I did. Volunteers get to go out to dinner with conference faculty–something I did not know when I started giving my time. Which was a good thing, because I might have puked in my plate if I knew I was going to be seated across from an editor whose line I loved. (I’m shy and really have to work up my confidence to be on for these things.)

    The editor told me I was funny and ought to be pitching him. (My response: I am going to curl up in a fetal ball under the table, now.) I saw him later at another conference that year, and shortly after that, the idea for a story flew into my head. The story is on his desk today.

    That same conference was where I saw my agent speak (along with a few others). By then, I’d heard quite a few agents speak, had talked with a bunch of represented writers, and was deciding whom to query. Seeing my now-agent talk sealed the deal. I liked his style, I liked his books, and even though I was only able to utter one embarrassing word in his presence, my writing eventually spoke for me.

    I guess I’d say that’s always the case. The writing speaks for itself. Conferences are a great way to figure out who you would like working with. Just as important, they’re a good place to meet writers whom you can help and vice versa, because this is otherwise a fairly lonely enterprise. And finally, you will never regret giving your time to the SCBWI community. It’s not a substitute for the work of writing, but the opportunities are pretty incredible.


  3. Helpful post here, Mix-Master M.

    I remember my first conference back when I was a writer seeking representation. The best advice I received? “Bring a business card.” I didn’t wind up meeting the editor of my dreams, but I did make writing connections, hear inspiring speeches, and come out out of the conference feeling motivated.

    Don’t go to a conference expecting to leave with a book deal. Go to network, learn, and have fun.

    Sometimes it works out. I signed a client after critiquing her work at a conference. Key word: “After.”


  4. I’ve only ever been to conferences as a reader and fan, but I have been to lectures where Patricia C. Wrede spoke (loved her) and Orson Scott Card spoke (uhhh… he is not the uhhh… forget it. I can’t say anything nice, so I’ll just leave it at that.) There were a few other fantasy/Sci-fi authors and it was interesting to see how they developed plots and characters. Some were more personable than say… oh… Orson Scott Card.

    I love the graphic chosen.


  5. Oh, but speaking of conference goofs…

    I once heard a story about a writer who planned to use her womanly endowments–her sweater meat, if you will–to charm an editor. A gay editor. Mortifying on every level. Trying to seduce someone is probably worse than a bathroom-stall pitch, but maybe that’s because I’m an old married lady.


  6. Although the zombie looking freaks in the photo are unattractive and frightening, I wouldn’t mind harnessing a speck of their obvious self-confidence and determination. When it comes to approaching an editor or agent at a conference, I simply don’t have it in me.

    Like Martha, I’m all too familiar with the fetal position and that’s where you’d find me (probably next to the bar) if I actually did something cringe-worthy like fling a story at you. Well, ok, even if just came and said, “hi”.

    I do make friends and meet cool people at these places, and I just can’t imagine crossing the line by consciously making an ass out of myself.

    I attend conferences to be around like-minded people and to feel totally inspired, motivated, and educated. I leave feeling hopeful, that maybe I really can contribute to this awesome world of children’s books.

    The fact that most (all, i think?) editors and agents encourage writers to submit to them after the conference is incredibly gracious. I consider it a great opportunity and am thankful for it. It makes me want to produce my best, and because I’m so chock-full of respect (really!) I want to make sure I send only the best. I wouldn’t want to waste anyone’s time.


  7. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Upstart Crow. Upstart Crow said: Now on the Upstart Crow blog: Conferences? Love ‘em! (Though sometimes … ) ( […]


  8. My wife and I are going to the SCBWI Mid South next weekend and we have a plan. She’s a former book store owner/manger and knows the ropes. Plus she loves my work (imagine that). We’re going to tag-team ’em. She’ll block the door to the ladies rest room while I pitch and vice versa. Tell Chris we’re coming after him.


  9. I went to my first conference in June, where I heard a woman pitching an agent in the toilet stall next to hers. Also heard an author bragging on his technique of slipping his manuscript into agents’/editors’ tote bags while they weren’t looking. (!!!)

    My advice (besides not doing those two things above) would be to treat every single person around you as someone (a) you could help, and (b) who could help you. Basically, network, but with your first priority being to help the other person first. The good feelings you engender often come back in a beneficial way.

    Also, if you’re in a position to tweet a conference, do it! Lots of folks can’t afford the time or money to attend and are really grateful for first-hand accounts of sessions and keynote speeches. I did this at the Writers’ League of Texas Conference — it was fun to be reporter for the weekend, and I found lots of new folks to follow on Twitter and elsewhere.


  10. The best advice has already been given here, I think (don’t expect a book deal, volunteer, don’t rely on your “sweater meat” — love that, Martha).

    I think writers also have to remember that like the agent or editor they are “on”, too. Maybe it’s just me, but at conferences, I have to remind myself, “Think before you ask that question, don’t defend that part of your story that’s not making sense, don’t rip on that less experienced writer, don’t interrupt, cry, pout or shout.” Basically, try to be a nice normal human who trusts that his or her work will get recognition when it’s ready. Easier said than done.

    Volunteering and keeping busy behind the scenes really helps my nerves. Plus, when you’re not pitching your work on coffee break, you find out cool things about editors like where they bought their dazzling shoes or titles of hilarious books they’ve ghost written . . .


  11. I’m the client Chris signed up after a conference, where we didn’t even meet. (When we finally talked weeks later, he asked if we’d spoken there and I mentioned I asked a question during a smaller group roundtable, but that was it. It was clear he didn’t have a clue who I was.)

    I think there’s too much emphasis placed on writers making personal contact with agents and editors at conferences. What matters is if you learn something new and have fun meeting other writers. And then use whatever you’ve learned to improve your writing and submit to the appropriate agent or editor afterward.


  12. A screenwriter once gave me some excellent advice that really panned out:

    1) Never ask a professional to read your work (outside of the accepted channels, i.e. a query letter). You’re imposing on him, and he won’t be receptive. In fact, the attempt most likely will be detrimental, as Michael described. Instead, if you have an opportunity to discuss your work, perhaps at a round table or at the Rutgers one-on-one conference where they encourage you to approach the pros, make sure your (brief) description is spot on and perfectly rehearsed (so you don’t get nervous and flub). He may follow up w/ questions (be prepared for that) and ASK to read your work if he’s interested. Then you’ve done your job.

    2) The agent or editor is a person, not just a means to an end. Don’t just talk about yourself and your manuscript at the Hyatt’s lobby bar or on the drink line at the Sat. night party. Inquire about him. Talk about other things than the business. You’ll make more of an impression that way, and who knows, he may start asking about you. (Seriously. That’s how I got my first writing job.)

    Hope this helps.


  13. I’m going to be attending the upcoming SCBWI MidSouth Conference in Nashville the last weekend in September and will also be attending the COSCBWI Conference in Columbus the following weekend. This link was shared in a recent YahooGroup post to the attendees of the upcoming Nashville Conference:


  14. I met my agent (Jodi Reamer) at a SCBWI Conference. I acted very profession and was careful not to trail her into the bathroom. The tactic worked. However, now that we’ve been together for several years I’ve let my guard down and all my weirdness has been revealed to her.


  15. “Pass the TOILET PAPER?
    Oh, sorry, I thought you said Pass the Manuscript…”

    See you in Chicago….
    mwaaah ha ha ha!


  16. I’m the one in the very last row. To the utmost left.

    My portfolio spilled out and I was pissed. But it missed a fierce tramplin’ so I am going to another conference.


  17. The first couple of conferences I went to, I thought I had to pitch to everyone. Only I couldn’t do it because I hate to pitch so much. Especially on the fourth and fifth days when the editors and agents are getting that tired and stressed “deer during hunting season” look about them. Thinking I had to pitch made me uptight and unhappy.

    After that I went to a couple of conferences with no intention of pitching. Wow! I really enjoyed talking to editors and agents and I think they enjoyed talking to me, too, since I wasn’t stalking them.

    I have the most fun hanging with old friends and new in the bar or coffee shop. I love conferences. Love the speakers, love the writers, love the energy.

    Though I don’t pitch, I do always pay for the critique. That way, if someone sees my stuff and loves it, they can ask for it, or give it to an agent or editor they think might be interested. Or nominate it for an award. Even if none of that happens, I don’t ever want to pass up a chance to have a professional critique me. Some critiques are good and some are…less so. Still, I’ve never been sorry. Even the bad critiques have told me which editors and agents I don’t want to work with. So, none of it’s wasted.


  18. For those of you who haven’t yet had the chance to attend SCBWI and hear Stearns deliver his famous Sexual Peccadillos of Kidlit Editors presentation, it’s really worth the registration fee. The slides are amazing. And the audio tape of two Scholastic editors debating the proper way to pluralize “dominatrix” is a scream.


  19. Through a strange and rapid series of blog post connections, I realized that you (Micheal) will be a panelist at a SCBWI conference in my backyard (Harper College), and decided just two days ago that I had to go. This will be my first writer’s conference, but I promise not to stalk you to the bathroom, pummel you with my manuscript or turn zombie before I get there. Afterwards . . . well, apparently that will depend on whether Orson Scott Card is speaking.

    I am, however, intrigued by the Peccadillos talk!

    Seriously, I was wondering, being a Newbie, if it was worthwhile to sign up for the critique. I was tending toward yes, and got pushed off the fence by the commenter above. I get critiques all the time from my writer’s group, but most of them are not in the genre (MG SF for me) so it would be nice to hear from someone in the field.


  20. OK, I do know how to spell Michael. I swear.


  21. Clearly Michael Grant had been hitting the hootch early yesterday. Everyone, please pray for his sobriety and speedy recovery from this lapse.

    And Lisa! Hi! Welcome! Trust that your weirdness has been clear to all from the get-go.


  22. When you go to an SCBWI conference:
    Soak up the creative energy.
    Make friends.
    Have fun.
    Learn all you can about the business(how to submit, proper format, etc.).
    If you’re a writer, spend time viewing the illustrators’ displays.

    Make a good impression:
    TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONE when you’re in workshops, keynotes, critiques, etc. (I feel I must say this in all caps because ringing cell phones are distracting to speakers, and talking on the phone during the speaker’s presentation is downright rude. And yet, people continue to do this. Incredible.)
    Don’t be afraid to speak to agents or editors, but don’t monopolize their time, either.
    Don’t be rude to the volunteers.

    If you’ve paid for a critique:
    Don’t expect an offer of representation or publication.
    When you’re told your session is up, leave. If you stay over your allotted time, you’re cheating the next person out of the minutes he/she paid for.
    Don’t cry. (If you feel you must, wait until you’re somewhere other than with your critiquer.)
    Don’t bad-mouth the agent/editor if you’re unhappy with your critique.
    Keep an open mind. (Example: Once I had a critique that, on first impression, seemed negative. It took a few days for me to realize it wasn’t — and even better, I had gained a friend, the critiquer, in the process.)


  23. Gosh, Michael. I didn’t realize that blocking the bathroom was an option. Hmmm…I’ll have to keep that in mind for my next conference.

    Completely missing the point


    😉 And on a serious note, I’m very glad you came out our way. Your presentation was awesome, and I thank Martha Bee for that kick, because the slides were cool.



  24. […] this. But we also know that networking can help abate just how lonely the writers have to feel. And conferences. And going outside to breathe fresh air every once in a […]


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