A first-time conference attendee’s perspective
As an as-yet unpublished novelist currently submitting my manuscript to agents, my life sometimes seems to revolve around that little chime on my phone that heralds an incoming e-mail. Whatever support I might receive from my family and friends, in the end, it’s all on me to make those revisions, to send those e-mails, and, eventually, to receive those rejections gracefully—and to then turn around and keep right on submitting. Sometimes, I feel as though I’m all alone.
When a friend suggested that I attend a writers conference, I was willing to give it a shot, and I registered for CLMP’s 2017 Literary Writers Conference in New York. I’m a working mother living in Houston, so I arrived with a definite “this better have been worth it” attitude. I needn’t have worried. I was suddenly surrounded by people going through the same journey as me, and I learned more about querying and publishing in two days than I had in months of online research. A few of the most important of those lessons are:
1. Your query letter is how you introduce yourself to an agent, so obviously, it should be memorable. However, it’s the content that needs to grab the agent’s attention, not the way it looks. Agents prefer your letter to follow a formula: a single page in an easily readable, professional font in size twelve, opening with your book’s vital statistics (title, genre, word count, intended audience, comps), followed by a brief summary, and closing with a short bio and a list of your publishing credentials. “Dressing up” your query with a fancy font, a personalized letterhead, or illustrations, or writing the letter as a character in your novel and not as yourself, gives the impression that your idea isn’t interesting enough to stand on its own.
2. Agents want to read well-written, engaging stories… but they also want to know that the authors of those stories are going to be good professional collaborators. The author is someone with whom the agent will be working closely, so they have a vested interest in making sure that relationship is going to be as drama-free as possible. As such, an author who submits the first six chapters when the agent has requested three, or who sends their work as an attachment when asked to paste it into the body of their e-mail, is going to set off warning bells in an agent’s mind. If the author is unable to follow simple requests like these, how will they respond to constructive criticism? Are they going to be willing to make revisions on their manuscript? Will they consistently be able to make deadlines? Following an agent’s submission instructions, even if you don’t understand the purpose, sends a clear message: that you’re easy to work with, that you’re willing to do your part to help your agent do theirs.
3. Pitching your book to an agent might sound scary, but when it comes down to it, all you’re doing is talking about your work to a willing audience. When I sat down to my first “speed dating” session, I was a ball of nerves, but once I started talking about my novel, I immediately began to relax. I know my novel. I’ve been living within the pages of “Upstairs at the Cafe Pequod” for a year and a half. I know the characters, the plot, the setting, and the time period inside and out. I could wax poetic for hours on the importance of my novel’s central theme in today’s political climate. All I had to do was to condense all of this into a concise and compelling description.
4. Every single panel and clinic at the conference is going to have something to offer you, even if you don’t think so at first. Learning about artists’ and writers’ colonies might not seem worthwhile to someone like me who cannot possibly get away from home for weeks at a time, but I may be glad to have the information in years to come, when my life isn’t quite so hectic. Stay through the whole thing. All of the speakers were carefully chosen, and each one has something to teach you.
5. The writing community truly is a community, and being a part of it has two requirements. The first, of course, is that you have to write… but it’s equally important to support other writers. The most obvious way to do this is, of course, by buying books, but there are many other ways, some of them less obvious, but equally effective. Subscribe to literary magazines, or donate funds to better enable them to pay writers for their submissions. Join a writers group, attend readings, and learn to both give and receive constructive criticism. Get a library card, check out as many books as you’re allowed, and ask your local library to stock your favorite titles, if they’re not already on their shelves. Reach out to authors you admire on social media and tell them what their work has meant to you.
And, if you truly want to experience how amazing the writing community is, attend a conference. You’ll make friends with other writers, learn new things about writing and publishing, and receive much-needed professional feedback. You’ll leave, like I did, with a renewed sense of purpose, ready to get back to work and make that dream of getting published happen. Writing is, by nature, a solitary endeavor, but that doesn’t mean it has to be isolating. Attending a writers conference is the best way I know of to be reminded of that.
Natalie Hyde Collins is a former student of English and Dramatic Writing at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She lives in Houston, Texas, where she can typically be found dividing her time between obsessing over query letters, explaining overdue fines to library patrons, and desperately trying to pound out a few thousand words of fiction during her lunch break.