What to Expect at a Writing Conference
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
Guest post by Elizabeth Reed
The basic timeline of an in-person conference usually looks something like this: Registration, Sessions (with different speakers), and pitches throughout the day (for those who have signed up). There will also be short breaks punctuating the day for bathroom, snacks, and networking. I can only speak to the conference I attended, but from my understanding, many of the others out there have a similar format. You can see the schedule for the 2020 LA Writing Conference hereto see an example.
The sessions are given in different time blocks, where you have a choice between as many as three sessions. Sessions may include everything from author platform to editing to querying! If you sign up for agent pitches, they occur during the sessions, so you may want to schedule the pitches during a session you’re okay with missing at least part of.
How to Plan Your Day
As soon as you know you’re going to meet with an agent at a conference, start planning everything you can get done ahead of time. Items you can check off your list far in advance include:
Pick out your outfit and shoes
Design and print business cards
Research the agent(s)
If attending a conference, choose the sessions you want to attend
Block off your schedule on your calendar
Plan snacks/meals for the day
Research the venue
Calculate when you plan to arrive and think about when you will need to wake up the day of
Print out your schedule when it’s confirmed
Make a list of things you want to bring
Consider a contingency plan, just in case. What will you do if you’re feeling anxious? Sick? If your planned method of transportation fails?
Think about whether you want to socialize during free time or if you prefer to practice your pitch, etc.
Some of these, like the business cards, are optional – decide what you want to do beforehand, and prepare well ahead of time. If you’re attending an online conference, you might only need to pick out a shirt in advance. Even if you don’t plan on much walking during your time there, make sure to wear comfortable shoes! You never know if an opportunity presents itself and someone might want to talk while walking or walk to a coffee shop for a meeting.
Research the agents and presenters (even if you’re not pitching, you can still connect with these industry professionals). If you are pitching, make sure your pitches are finalized, memorized, and practiced, so you can go in with confidence. For networking or if you are seeking representation, have answers prepared and practiced for common agent questions, such as “What are you working on now?” or “What are you reading?” etc.
As your conference/meeting with an agent gets closer, be careful to read all updates and communications sent by the conference coordinator. Reading these emails closely can prove very important.
For instance, the conference I attended sent out an update email that mentioned a free first ten pages critique opportunity. Even though it might sound intimidating, try to take advantage of these opportunities. Yes, it means your work may be read aloud to the whole conference, but you don’t want to spend money attending a conference and walk away asking yourself “what if?”
The night before:
Pack your bag if you’re bringing one
Check the predicted traffic for when you plan to leave
Lay out your outfit (iron/steam if needed)
Things to bring:
Writing utensils (pencils and pens)
Items specific to your conference – e.g., print outs of your first ten pages.
Most guidance for writing conferences states there is no need to print out your entire manuscript, but if you’d like to print out something just in case, that’s fine too. No one requested anything in hardcopy from me. Most agents prefer email, but you never know.
The day of your conference:
Wake up early (with plenty of time to spare!)
Remember, you should’ve researched the venue ahead of time – that way you make sure to have ample time to park and leave additional time for logistical issues that may occur
If you are experiencing anxiety, pick out a relaxing podcast or your usual method of calming
If you come prepared and confident, this makes connecting with other writers easier. When approaching attendees, try to make sure you’re not interrupting. You can even ask “Am I interrupting?” before sitting down or joining them wherever they are. Even if you’re nervous, try to smile or give a friendly expression that might make others comfortable striking up a conversation.
Conversation starters/common topics of conversation at a conference might include:
What genre do you write?
Are you a local?
Have you attended any other conferences?
What session are you most looking forward to?
I connected with writers mostly during the breaks between sessions. One very nice woman who was scheduled during my same pitch time started a conversation with me while we were waiting for the group ahead of us to get out, and she is the one who suggested I join the SCBWI. She was a children’s book author, and I hadn’t yet realized that the SCBWI included authors of YA novels like myself. I ended up joining the SCBWI right after the conference. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – I asked that author a lot of questions about why she thought the SCBWI membership was a good investment.
Most attendees are just like you – most people you will meet are friendly and may be nervous. Be prepared for total strangers to want to socialize with you. Expect that some people may want to chat, while others may not want to socialize. Chances are, everyone will be nice enough – so try not to get too nervous. There are usually plenty of first-timers there. If you want to network, many people will be happy to connect with you.
Speakers, on the other hand, may be bombarded while they are approachable. If you need to talk with one of them, you may need to be assertive, but be respectful. Don’t procrastinate or not speak up when you have an appropriate opportunity, but being pushy is a bad look.
Be careful about approaching agents. If you end up networking with an agent, don’t try to get a free pitch session out of it unless the agent asks to hear your pitch. Genuine connection is a great topic to start your query letter off with, so don’t think of it as wasted!
For example, if you talked with an agent at a conference about dogs, you might query them by saying:
Dear [Agent Name]
We met at the Writing Conference of Los Angeles in May, and I enjoyed connecting with you over our shared love of Border Collies. I hope that Bubba is still loving his Dodgers chew toy. I am querying you because you are a fan of…
Protect Your Time, If Needs Be
While networking is a good idea, keep in mind that you can protect your time if you need to. I arrived early, but I was still feeling nervous about my pitches, so I wanted to practice in the morning. I went onto a terrace outside to practice. Some very nice writers came by to chat, and while I was cordial, I explained I was going to try to practice my pitch. While most seemed to want to genuinely connect, I will say a few attendees were very ‘pitch-y’ with their conversation, which made me feel like they just wanted me to buy their book.
Make sure if you’re networking to ask questions, offer advice only where appropriate, and don’t push your ideas on other attendees. I wish I hadn’t been so nervous, then I could’ve spoken with the other attendees more in the morning. Next time, I’ll be less nervous, and spend more time socializing in the morning. Either way, it pays to arrive early to have that time to prepare or network.
Also, if networking is one of your goals for the conference, make sure to take the opportunities as they come – there are no guarantees you’ll get another shot.
In my experience, I was hoping that people would hang around after the conference and want to socialize after my pitching nerves had gone, but most of the agents had to catch flights back and most of the other attendees left right afterward. In hindsight, I should’ve tried to network more at lunch.
How to Prepare for an Agent Pitch
Research the agent(s) you’re pitching. Make sure you can explain why you chose to pitch to them. Do you think your writing is on their MSWL? Do you find similarities with your work and their clients? Did their bio say they’re a hands-on editorial agent, and you think you’d be a good fit to work with them?
Try to leave yourself a good window of time to practice. I suggest working a timeline backward from the date of your pitch that will ensure your manuscript, query letter, and pitches will be ready before then.
I developed three separate and distinct pitches – an elevator pitch (less than thirty seconds), a short pitch (about one minute), and my longer pitch for one-on-one sitdowns (approximately 4 minutes). To start the pitch honing process, I wrote my draft pitches down (by hand worked best for me) and edited and re-wrote them until I had something strong. Then, I moved to practicing them aloud and made relevant edits.
Once you’re happy with your pitches, do a dry-run with an actual human being! Find a trusted critique partner to assist you, and offer to do the same for them if they’re a writer. If you are pitching agents in-person, finding someone who is willing to earnestly roleplay in-person with you as an agent and give you honest feedback can be a game-changer – don’t forget to show your gratitude for their help (a small token like a coffee gift card may be appropriate depending on how much time they spent with you).
I get anxious in these situations, so it was imperative for me to practice a lot – others who are more comfortable with pitch sessions may be able to wing it more.
Agents could tell I was nervous, but that didn’t stop them from requesting full manuscripts – so don’t let your nerves hold you back from pitching altogether.
Are Agent Pitches Worth It?
Short answer: In my experience, yes.
For agent pitches, there must be a cost-benefit analysis. As a teacher, I have a very limited budget, but I ended up purchasing two agent pitches. My reasoning was that the $29 (USD) price was reasonable and I wanted to somewhat hedge my bets. I ended up doing three agent pitches, because they gave me a free one the day of the conference due to openings. Don’t expect a freebie, but if you are offered a free opportunity like that, I suggest you jump on it – the only reason I was able to get the free pitch was that I arrived early and had already purchased pitches. One of the writers I connected with got her pitches by volunteering, so if you can’t afford to pitch, volunteering is an option that might grant you that opportunity (again, this isn’t guaranteed).
Pitches may pay off in a few ways. You may get some invaluable advice. My friend pitched to an agent, and she found that it was worth the money even though she wasn’t ready to submit her manuscript yet! The agent gave her fantastic suggestions on the direction of her story and she got some feedback as to whether her pitch for her draft was strong.
You Need an Author Website
One of the agents I pitched to explained the importance of having an author website. I asked a few questions, which he graciously answered (don’t be afraid to ask questions if they give you advice you don’t fully understand).
For instance, I asked him if it made sense to have one before I was published and whether it was helpful even if the site received few (if any) visits. He said yes, because as an agent, it makes it easier for him when on submission – he felt a good site showed a level of commitment and professionalism for his authors.
Creating a website was expensive and time-consuming, but I’m glad I did it. I still probably wouldn’t have a site yet if the agent hadn’t given me that great advice during our pitch session.
I also loved the fact that by signing up for a pitch session, I got an external deadline. As many of you probably know, sometimes writing can take a back seat to day jobs, family obligations, etc. Having a date set for when I needed to have my pitch and query ready helped me prioritize my time correctly and explain that prioritization to others.
View Investing in a Pitch Session as Investing in Yourself as a Writer
Even though you pay for the time, agents are under no obligation to request the material, so I would make sure you can afford to pay for the pitch as just that – an in-person pitch experience. Don’t drain your bank account expecting the agent pitch session to be your one-way ticket to a lucrative book deal. Keep in mind that you’re investing in the pitch session itself and use your time wisely. Prepare yourself mentally for any outcome.
With that caveat, I will say I had a much higher full manuscript request rate from the in-person pitches than cold-querying.
In fact, I didn’t get any full manuscript requests from cold-querying using that version of my query letter and sample pages, yet all three of my in-person pitches requested my full manuscript, and one followed up with an R&R request.
For me, the agent pitches were well worth the money, but I would have thought so even if I hadn’t gotten those requests. I also feel much more prepared to do an in-person pitch again now that I’ve gone through the process once, so that is another added benefit.
Elizabeth Reed is a writer based in Orange County, California. Some of her completed works include novels, picture books, and a chapter book. She is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
When she isn’t writing, Elizabeth enjoys reading, traveling, and scuba diving. She is an adjunct instructor at the collegiate level and has volunteered as an ESL & literacy tutor. She loves sharing her love of reading and writing with others.
Elizabeth is a graduate of Michigan State University and Eastern Michigan University. She has way too many degrees, most of which sound unrelated to her journey as an author, but they did require a lot of writing. She worked as a CPA in tax and accounting for nearly a decade.
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