What I Write

My young adult novels are dark, edgy, and realistic. Although I love paranormal and fantasy books, I prefer to create stories that could really happen (and in many cases, really are happening). For me, the echo of a story set firmly in the real world always haunts me long after I've read the final word. If you like Ellen Hopkins, Jay Asher, and Neal Shusterman, you might like my books, too.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Going to Backspace? 15 Things You Should Know

One of the most valuable and awesome things I've ever done to move my writing career forward was to attend the Backspace Writers Conference in New York City (May 2011).  I learned more in those three days than I could possibly Google in a lifetime.  (And, there are some AMAZING pictures of the back of my hair posted on the website, which totally makes me feel like a celeb.)

So, since Backspace is hosting another Agent/Author Seminar next month (November 3-4, 2011), I thought I'd share a few hints to help participants get ready for the big weekend.  For the record, I'm not a member of Backspace and I'm not getting any big endorsement deals for this blog post either--just a satisfied customer who's happy to spread the love.  If you've never been to a conference, I would HIGHLY recommend Backspace (I'm sure there are other awesome conferences out there, too, but I've never been to them, so I can't speak for those...).

For those first-time conference goers, here's my advice on what to do before, during, and after the Backspace Writers Conference.

Before the Conference

1.) Create a blog if you don't already have one.  You don't have to hurry up and write a bunch of blog posts, but you should have a contact page, a description of yourself (and what you write), and a blog post talking about how excited you are to be attending the Backspace Writers Conference.  You'll want other conference participants (aspiring authors like yourself) to be able to Google you and email you before and immediately after Backspace. This is a lot easier if you already have some type of online presence set up.

2.) Get business cards printed or made professionally beforehand.  You'll want to include your name (and/or pen name, if you're using one), an email address, blog/website address, Twitter name, Facebook link, or any other contact info (not your phone number or home address, that's weird) you'd like to share with other conference participants.  Do not give business cards to agents or editors at a conference.  They aren't going to contact you and your beautiful cards will just end up in a trash can.

3.) Perfect your query letter and opening pages for review by literary agents.  At Backspace, you'll have an opportunity to get your query letter and opening pages in front of agents, which is an amazing opportunity.  Make sure you're putting the best possible product out there.  At the May conference, one participant admitted to writing her query letter the night before.  Uhhh, don't do that.  You should have the most polished query and manuscript possible by the time you arrive at the conference.  (Note: I would also highly recommend you read (and study) Donald Maass' book, Writing the Breakout Novel.  I went to the Maass workshop at Backspace in May and it was phenomenal.

4.) Research the agents and narrow down your top five or six choices for introductions.  Make notes somewhere about what they represent, if they're actively expanding their list, and anything else that's important to you.  Although there's time built into the schedule for meeting agents, you won't be able to chat with every single one.  You'll really feel silly if you spent your break waiting to speak to an agent who represents crime fiction when you write romance novels.

5.) Choose your wardrobe carefully.  I wore a suit every day.  Sure, there will be people at the conference who dress very casually; but this could be the only opportunity you have to meet agents in person.  Do you really want to do that wearing jeans, sneakers, and a cheap Hawaiian shirt?  Dress in a way that makes you feel comfortable and confident, but don't be a slob.

During the Conference

1.) Be social with the other participants.  Your main goal in attending the conference might be to meet agents, but networking with other aspiring authors is just as important.  I found my entire critique group at Backspace.  These four ladies are my most trusted betas and I consider all of them dear friends.  We help each other with everything (including the stresses of querying agents) and I trust them implicitly. 

2.) Take notes on every panel member.  You might think you'll remember the agents, editors, and authors who made an impression, but believe me, there's so much information packed into the program, you'll be glad of any notes you can read later--especially from the workshops.  One mistake I made was lugging my laptop through two airports so I could have it at the conference.  Don't do that.  You won't need it.  I would, however, take copies of your query and opening pages and write all over them.  I suggest making a special double-spaced query letter for yourself so you have room to annotate as agents give their suggestions.  And pack a highlighter.

3.) Be open-minded during critique sessions.  Agents will give you their honest (and sometimes brutal) opinions on your work.  Be prepared to listen, and accept, criticism graciously.  You don't have to agree with their feedback (it could be subjective) but be professional and courteous at all times.

4.) Wait your turn to speak to agents and editors and do not monopolize them during breaks.  Everyone's there for the same reason and you're not more important than any other person there.  Your goal should be to introduce yourself, possibly chat about your project briefly, and thank the agent for his/her time.  That's it.  No agent has ever signed an author because of a ten-minute conversation between panels at a conference.  Ever.  You'll still need to query them later, so don't be a jerk and hover all over them.  And don't follow them into the restroom, either.  That's just creepy.  Especially if they're of the opposite sex.

5.) Be brave enough to talk to agents.  You took a big step by registering for this conference (you're sharing your work with actual agents, after all) and that's huge, but don't waste your time by sitting in a corner.  Take a deep breath, walk up to your dream agent, and say, "Hi, I'm ____.  Thanks so much for coming to the conference today.  I saw that you represent young adult fiction and I was wondering if I could chat with you briefly about my project."  Keep it concise.  Think about what you want to say ahead of time.  And smile.  These agents aren't fire-breathing dragons--they're people.  They're human.  They aren't there to crush your dreams or make you feel stupid.  They're there to find writers.  When I went to Backspace, I approached seven agents.  Six of those seven requested my manuscript.  The agent who didn't recommended that I contact one of his colleagues.

After the Conference

1.) Polish your query and your pages.  Thoroughly.  Agents will not care if you wait three months to query them with a conference request.  Honestly, I don't even think they'd care if you waited a year, if you have something really awesome.  Don't rush your submission.  99% of work sent to an agent is not ready.  Use your beta readers, tighten your prose, cut extraneous details and useless characters and subplots that lead nowhere.  Make it perfect.  If you're sick of edits, put it aside for a couple of weeks, then read it again.  Don't stop editing until you can read it without a pen in your hand.  You get one shot with an agent.

2.) Build your online presence through social networking sites (especially Twitter) and your blog or website.  Believe it or not, some (not all) agents will check out your blog or find you on Twitter and ask you to query them.  It's rare, but it does happen.  Be cheery, positive, and authentic in your posts.  No one wants to read a bunch of malarkey about query rejections, and stupid agents, and how horrible published novels are compared to your work.  Don't be negative on the internet.  You'll carry those comments around like luggage the rest of your days.  Agents will see it.  So will prospective readers.

3.) Keep in contact with conference participants.  These people are just like you.  They know how it feels to get twelve form rejections in one week and they'll send e-hugs on Twitter when you get a request for a full.  Don't announce to the world the status of your querying, but do share it with your writerly friends.  Every writer goes through ups and downs and it's great to have someone who understands how you feel.  My Backspace Betas are more than a crit group to me--they're a support group! :oD

4.) Beta read for others.  Yes, it's nice to give back to someone who spent countless hours doing line edits on your manuscript, but you'd be surprised what you learn about your own writing by reading someone else's work.  While doing a beta read for one of my conference friends, I realized her "character soup" was so distracting I couldn't focus on the plot of the story.  It wasn't until then that I knew I had five characters in my own MS that had to go (kill your darlings, my friends).  I loved these characters, but they didn't move my story forward and they didn't affect the overall plot.  By finding a nit in another person's book, you just might see something in your own.

5.) Start querying and sending conference requests. Once you know your book is the absolute best it can be--you couldn't possibly change one single word--then you're ready to submit your conference requests and send off queries.  I'd recommend that you start by querying in batches of 5-7 until you get a feel for whether or not your query is working.  You should get 1 or 2 requests for every 10 queries you send out--if you're not, chances are your query needs work.  If you're getting feedback, use it.  If you're getting form rejections, call on your betas and your conference contacts to help you tweak it.  Don't get discouraged and keep pushing forward with queries, tracking everything you send out in a spreadsheet.

And don't forget to mention you met an agent at Backspace when you query! 

To all conference veterans, did I miss anything?  What would you suggest to a first-time conference goer? 

Good luck and have a great time!


Want an Agent's Perspective?

The AMAZING Meredith Barnes of Lowenstein Associates just announced her new blog series on writers conferences. The best part?  You'll get to meet her at Backspace in November!  She's taking questions now :o)


  1. I love this post, Laura! So well-said. I had a great experience with Backspace too (disclosure: of course, that's where I met you & my fab crit group! :D). Nice job breaking down the "before, during, and after" tips--and not just for Backspace, but for ANY conference.

    The one thing I'd like to add is a bit on Twitter. You're so right that attendees need to establish some sort of on-line presence before going to a conference. A huge part of conferences is connecting with other writers and getting involved in the writing community. If no one can find you after the conference, how can you be--and stay--connected? :D A blog--even a skeleton blog with peeks into more to come--is fantastic, but for those who haven't found time to craft a blog *guilty* Twitter is another (different but equally fabulous) avenue for social networking. It's easy, fast, and the return is huge. The writing community on Twitter is amazing--especially the YA writing community. I'd encourage everyone to sign up BEFORE the conference and then put your Twitter ID on your business card as Laura suggested. Last year at Backspace, many of the participating agents tweeted about Backspace during the conference, and so did many of the author participants and attendees. There was even a Backspace hashtag to follow during the conference! So cool! I think a conference hashtag to follow is pretty common for all conferences, and it takes your conference experience to another level (like adding sprinkles on your cupcake :D). Same on-line rules apply: be yourself, be positive, and be real. :D

    So get out there fellow writers! Pick a conference, follow Laura's tips, get ready and go prepared. And like Laura said, BE BRAVE. :D Writers rock. Have fun!

    ((hugs)) to you Laura!
    Great post!

  2. What fabulously helpful information, Laura! I've just shared the link to your post with all the November seminar registrants. This should be required reading for anyone attending a conference! Thanks for such a generous and thoughtful post, and good luck!!!

  3. Karen, thank you for your kind words! :o) If any conference participants have questions that weren't addressed in this post, I'd be more than happy to answer them if I can. ~L

  4. Lynne, you're so right!! Twitter is a great way to connect with other writerly peeps--including agents and editors. Excellent post!

  5. Such awesome info, Laura! Not sure where I'd be if we hadn't met at Backspace. My crit group has turned into a cheer squad of sorts. What fantastic people!

    A quick note about pen names! LOL! I use one, and made the mistake of not listing my real name on business cards. So, I'd introduce myself as Kelli, then hand someone a business card as Marie. Totally confusing! I've since purchased new cards with both names just for these early-stage introductions.

    Had a great, great time in May, and super excited about November!

    Thanks for sharing, Laura!

  6. Thank God for this post! Backspace will be my first conference, and I'm incredibly nervous/excited. This type of checklist is just what I needed.

    I actually have a couple of questions, if that's okay. Did you actually never use your laptop? I'm sort of glued to mine day and night, so leaving it at home is a daunting prospect. Also, what happens if you can't pronounce an agent's name (besides heinously awkward silence)?

  7. @Marie - EXCELLENT point on pen names. And, you're right, I would have been a lot less confused about who you were if you'd had both names on your card! (Remember how many times you had to write it down for me? LOL.)

    You'll definitely have to fill me in on the November conference! So excited for you!!!


  8. @Riley - Thanks so much for your questions!!!

    First, yes, I'm totally serious about leaving the laptop at home. I didn't even hit the power button the whole time I was in NYC. But, I also carry a Droid--which I used constantly to update my social networking sites, upload pics, send emails, etc. If you don't have a smart phone, you might be more inclined to lug the laptop along; but seriously, you won't use it during the conference at all and if you're anything like me, leaving it in the hotel room is enough to make your hair turn gray. :o)

    Second, regarding the pronunciation of agent names, truthfully, I don't think I actually SAID an agent's name out loud one single time (other than to my conference buddies). Conversations are extremely brief (1-2 minutes max) and you'll likely be too busy explaining your WIP to even think about saying, "Hi, Ms. Smith, so great to meet you." Just walk up, introduce yourself, thank him/her for coming, and ask if you can chat about your project. Then give a super-short description of your main character and the hook (major conflict) of the story. The agent will take it from there.

    And don't be nervous! You'll have a great time and learn a TON about the world of publishing, I promise :o)

    If you think of any other questions, let me know!


  9. Laura - Thanks so much for your generous and incredibly thorough post! I'm going to Backspace (my first conference) and was having a mild anxiety attack last week wondering what I'd been smoking when I signed up :-)

    Your advice is great, especially about the laptop and encouragement to approach agents. It's still daunting, but I feel more prepared now...thank you!

  10. @Lori - You're very welcome! And don't have an anxiety attack (even a mild one) because of the conference. It'll be great. :o) Make sure you stop back back afterwards and let me know how it went!


  11. Laura's the Backspace Writers Conference concierge! Very nice of you to make yourself available like this. You're hired! ;)

  12. You are a lifesaver! Thanks so much for the tips. I will conquer my nerves ... somehow...

  13. Laura, thanks so much for this info! I'm pretty excited about the conference. I can't believe it's less than 2 weeks away!

  14. I will be attending the Backspace conference next week and am very excited. I followed your advice and started a blog (kritzbits.blogspot.com), but I am skeptical about the need to bring business cards. Did anyone else find this useful, since you are not giving them out to agents or editors?


  15. @Dave - Yay for your new blog! Thanks for posting it here. And, regarding the business cards: It's totally up to you, but I honestly think you'll be glad you did. Every single person I stayed in contact with after the conference handed me a business card.

    I know it might seem like meeting agents and editors is Priority #1, but you'll be surrounded by 99 other die-hard book lovers.

    Book lovers.
    Book bloggers.
    Book buyers.

    Why in the world wouldn't you want to network with those folks?

    That's just my humble opinion, though.

  16. Laura--

    You rock. This is a great post for people who've never been to a Backspace conference. The advice you give here, is perfect, not only for Backspace, but for any conference.

    And your right, Backspace was awesome because it really give authors time to listen to agent critiques (and yes, they were brutally honest, but helpful).

    I also agree about using conferences to meet up with fellow writers. I met my critique group at a conference here in Colorado. So to answer Dave's question, yes, the business cards are extremely helpful. Instead of writing down your contact information with people you connect with, you can simply hand them a business card. At the last conference I attended, I collected roughly 50 cards (and I'm following them all on Twitter with most of them now following me). Think of it this way, they may potentially buy your first book, but only if you stay connected. :-)

    Good luck to those attending the conference. Wish I had the money to make it back to New York.

  17. Koreen - Excellent post! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your expertise!

    And you make an excellent point about fostering the relationships you make by staying in contact. I agree completely!


  18. Laura~
    AWESOME post for a writer attending any conference, especially The Backspace Writers Conference!

    Dave, I agree 100% on the business cards! I didn't do anything uber-fancy - mine were done at Kinkos/Fed Ex in black/white.

    I joined Twitter before I went to Backspace in May and "met" a few attendees before I even got there! Now, between twitter, facebook, and my blog/webpage, I really feel like a part of the young-adult writing community.

    I am a part of a fab five-some of talented writers which are beta readers/crit partners, all of whom I MET AT BACKSPACE! (The lovely Laura is a part of that group.)You never know who you could meet there - future readers, critique partners, agents, editors, pubbed authors, cheerleaders/personal fans!

    I highly recommend Backspace and in fact, plan on attending again in May 2012. In my experience, there is nothing quite like the interaction between writers, agents, and editors than what is scheduled and encouraged at Backspace.

    Go! Learn, make connections, & have fun!


About Me

I'm a writer of contemporary teen fiction. My bookshelf is SLAMMED with young adult novels and I should be on some sort of twelve step program for my spending habits in Barnes and Noble. And, for the record, I LIKE having real books, so no Nook or Kindle for this gal.