The 2017 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference is just over a month away, and registration closes on October 15. So whether you are signed up or still considering it, what can you get from a writers’ conference, and how do you make the best use of your time?
Here are some tips from the Conference Committee’s members own experience.
1. Prepare before you go.
a. Research the presenters as well as reading the breakout session descriptions, then rank your choices. Unfortunately, you may arrive at the conference to discover that your top choices conflict. But if you have ranked them in advance, your decision will be easy even if it isn’t happy.
b. As a relatively young regional conference, Steel Pen doesn’t offer pitch sessions with editors and agents yet. If you go to a conference that does, however, you should look at their websites and review the types of books they accept before deciding to pitch them. (The same goes for critiques.) If an editor or agent specializes in adult science fiction and you write children’s picture books, you will be wasting your time and theirs. That said, there are a few conferences where editors and agents are there primarily to mentor rather than to acquire. In those cases, you may gain some benefit even when you talk to someone outside your genre.
c. Make sure you have plenty of business cards. If you are worried about giving out personal information, leave off your address. But make sure you include an email address and preferably a telephone number. If you have a published book, you should also take promotional bookmarks or postcards.
2. Know what you want to accomplish at the conference, but keep your expectations realistic and your goals flexible. You may go to learn about writing memoirs and come away with a great idea for a murder mystery. Or you may hope to sell a book but meet the perfect critique partner instead. Few writers sell their first book at a conference, but many develop relationships that eventually lead there.
3. Take notes at the sessions you attend. The notes probably won’t be as extensive as the ones you took in your high school or college classes, but if somebody says something that gives you an “ah-hah” moment, write it down. Steel Pen will give you a notepad and a pen, but that may not be true at other conferences. If you don’t know, take your own. And even if note-taking materials are provided, you may prefer your favorite portfolio and lucky pen.
4. While the rules about session attendance vary from conference to conference, if the conference allows (and Steel Pen does), don’t feel bound to spend the entire breakout session in the same room. If your top choices conflict, maybe you’ll want to spend some time in each. Or if that session on flash fiction reiterates information you already know, it is not disrespectful to leave (quietly) and head down the hall to the session on poetry where you may learn something new.
5. Whether or not the conference offers pitching sessions, it helps if you can describe what you are working on or trying to sell in one to three sentences. If someone asks you—and they will—about your current project, they are looking for a thumbnail sketch, not a dissertation. They can always ask for more details if they want them.
6. Part of the value of conferences comes from what the business world calls “networking” but is more accurately described as developing relationships. Writers tend to be introverts, but conferences are a good time to meet new people, so make the effort. Even if you don’t sell your book, you may find a new critique partner or meet somebody who has experienced the good and bad of hiring book cover designers and is willing to pass on that knowledge. But don’t lead off an informal conversation by talking about yourself. Ask about their current project or expertise or what they expect to get from the conference. At some point they will ask you the same question, and then it’s your turn.
7. If the conference offers pitching sessions with editors and agents, however, you will begin those sessions by talking about your book. The special rules for pitching sessions deserve their own blog post. Since Steel Pen doesn’t offer them yet, this tip is limited to the highlights.
a. Don’t pitch a book that you haven’t written (and rewritten and polished). There are some exceptions for nonfiction and experienced writers but none for beginning novelists.
b. As noted above, research the editors and agents in advance and don’t waste their time, and yours, by pitching somebody who doesn’t handle your genre.
c. Unless otherwise invited, limit your pitching to the pitching sessions. At other times, wait until an editor or agent asks what you are working on or selling. And give editors and agents some room. Don’t corner them or follow them into the bathroom. They may remember you, all right, but only as someone to avoid.
8. The last and most important tip is to relax and enjoy the conference. Writers’ conferences seldom make or break careers, but they can open doors.
Registration for the 2017 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference ends October 15. You can find more information and register at this link: www.inwriters.org/steel-pen-conference/.