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)
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.