Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Jim McCarthy talks about writers' conferences

I’ve been to a dozen or so writers’ conferences over the past few years. A lot of attendees ask why I go. It’s a fair question. We’re not hurting for submissions. That week when I get back and find one or two dozen partial and full manuscripts? That week is rough. But the fact of the matter is that we have a good track record finding new talent at the conferences. Besides that, given how much misinformation floats around, I like being able to answer people’s questions honestly and put a face to the concept of an agent. And an excuse for random travel!

All conferences are not created equal, though. Many are geared exclusively to beginners. Some are kept purposefully small to keep advice and information targeted. Others are sprawling events with an impressive breadth of information available. And then, of course, there are those specifically geared to a particular genre. Given the amount of cash you’re often asked to lay out for these events, it’s worth doing some research to find out which are worth attending for your specific needs. Whether you’re trying to figure out how this crazy industry works, you want to workshop your erotica, or you need a class on how to handle taxes as an author, there is something out there for you. Check out the websites for a bunch of writers’ groups and see if they run their own events or if the members often go to the same conferences. You can usually find someone to drop a line and see if they can answer some questions about a particular event’s quality and specialties.

If you’re attending a conference to pitch your project, let me share a few pointers from the other side of the table:

Many of us are nice. So try not to worry too much. I know, you can’t help but be nervous, but the worst we can do is say we’re not interested in something. We probably won’t insult the work or put you down. You want your project to be front and center in our minds—not the fact that you can’t stop sweating.

Plan what you want to say, but don’t over-rehearse! The scripted pitch is awkward. Chances are you’re still nervous, so you’re going to sound stiff or drop a line. Approach it like a conversation, which is what it should be.

Don’t pitch in the bathroom! No one (seriously, no one) wants to be pitched when they have no means of egress. There is NOTHING more horrifying than a manuscript under a stall door except for maybe a pitch at a urinal. It has happened. It was not pretty.

Be polite. Sounds easy, no? Try explaining that to the woman who opened her pitch to me with, “So how long have you been in publishing. I mean, obviously you’re no spring chicken, but…” I have no idea what she said after that. None. But I do know that my next pitch started with, “You seriously looked like you were going to hit that lady.” Of the two, you can guess whose manuscript I asked for.

But don’t be too polite. A lot of us are from New York. If you’re overly friendly, we might get scared. For example: someone once asked if I wanted a mint. I declined. She offered me a bottle of water. There was a pitcher on the table. She offered me hot chocolate. No joke. At this point, she opened her bag which had enough snacks and beverages (including thermoses of tea and coffee) to feed the entire conference. I know she meant well. I do. But…kinda creepy, no?

Long story short: you can get a lot out of conferences if you choose wisely. Maybe you’ll get an agent. Maybe you’ll get some good writing tips. I’ve heard lots of success stories (and horror stories) from industry types. Anyone out there have a fantastic or terrible conference story?


  1. I'll verify that in the few times I had to pitch at conferences, the agents and editors were extremely nice. I always get the impression (and you confirmed it, Jim) that agents are sort of easy-going and will be kind, even if the book isn't their thing.

    That being said, I had one horrible experience, and it was my very first pitch ever. I was pitching the late, great sci-fi epic that proceeded Succubus Blues and was nervous to the point of shaking.

    I sat down with the agent and gave him the spiel. After several long seconds, he asked me coldly why anyone would want to read about a drug-abusing womanizer. I was speecheless because I figured who wouldn't want to read about a guy like that? I didn't really have much to say after that. I thanked the agent for his time and started to leave, at which point he suggested maybe we could hang out in the bar that night...

    Rest easy: I did not meet him in the bar that night, nor did I ever have a repeat of that experience.

  2. Yikes. Please ignore my typos. "Proceeded" instead of "preceded." "Speecheless." Writing comments with that many italics just gets me so worked up that my grammar brain stops working.

  3. I'm a newbie novelist with a completed manuscript trying to figure out if I should go to a conference. There's one in my hometown in a few months, but it doesn't seem like any agents will be there. Is there any way to tell, beyond looking at the schedule?

  4. Heh. Great post. I look forward to stalking you, er, meeting you at the next conference. ;-)

  5. Able, if you don't see specific agents on the schedule, you should look for anything labeled as pitch sessions. If it's still a few months off, they might not have a final list yet. There should also be a conference coordinator that you can contact who would be able to at least give you a sense of how many agents and editors they're planning on having.

    And Richelle, I still can;t believe what a putz that agent was. But hey, they can't all be as nice as me!

  6. I'm so glad to hear it's not American Idol and that you aren't Simon.

  7. Your conference stories are entertaining--the writer trying to force a snack or beverage on you is hilarious. I haven't been to a conference (yet), but now I want to go just so I can come home with some bizarre anecdotes!

  8. >>There is NOTHING more horrifying than a manuscript under a stall door except for maybe a pitch at a urinal. It has happened. It was not pretty.

    LMAO I can just picture it.
    Man: Hey, you have a nice package there."
    Agent: "Um, thank you..."
    Man: "You know in my scifi-horror-mystery-YA there's an amn with a package that looks a lot like yours. You should check it out."

    Luckly there are no conferences close enough to my area to be worth it for me. From what I've heard the general consensis is that they're not something to cry about if you can't make it. Plus I think better through my fingers than through my mouth.

  9. A few years ago, I was attending a couple of conferences a year, and it was a great experience. After about half a dozen conferences, however, you start to hear a lot of the same information.

    All the agents I've met at conferences have been really nice. My only complaint is that at the time I was pitching a memoir, and all of them said I should turn it into a prescriptive book. However, in a 10-minute pitch session, no one ever explained exactly what I should be "prescribing." I can't imagine many people need to know how to protect their 9-year-old when she's being advertised on the Internet for sex -- or that many people are interested in learning how to get a law passed. So, the advice didn't really help me much, although I spent a lot of time trying to spin the memoir into a prescriptive book. Maybe memoirs just weren't selling a few years ago? One very nice editor said he didn't understand why it hadn't sold, but his company didn't publish memoirs.

    So, what's my point? Conferences are great if you're new to writing, because you will get tons of information that isn't available anywhere else. You'll also see that agents and editors really are normal human beings with two legs, no wings, and no horns. Pitch sessions are an okay learning experience, but just remember, you can't get a lot of feedback in 10 minutes. And as one agent stressed at the first conference I ever attended, this is a VERY subjective business -- lots of agents and editors initially rejected Harry Potter.

  10. Well, here's my conference story.

    I had a fun experience at my first conference (I'm a newbie). This happened at a national conference of Romance Writers of America.

    I'd written a completed novel, but knew it wasn't at all ready to pitch, so my goals for the conference were to learn as much as I could, just soak everything up. After the awards ceremony (the social high point of the conference) I was kinda tired and wanted nothing more than to go to bed. But there was a fabulous post-awards dessert buffet, and I simply had to go. Eschewing the table where my companions sat, I slithered to an out-of-the-way corner in the back and sat at a table where I knew not a soul. My plan was to nod my head politely, scarf down some sweets. amd high-tail it outta there.

    The table I chose a table seated eight but was occupied sparsely by three young women, all dressed in black cocktail dresses. I asked one if I might sit down.

    "of course," she said.

    All I wanted was to sample the desserts, but to be courteous, I asked the charming woman next to me where she was from.

    "New York," she said.

    "Oh, fun," I said, "I lived in the city for many years. Part of my soul is still there."

    Turns out, everyone at the table lived in New York, so I shared a few of my memories of that fabulous city and asked a few questions about what it's like now. Since I knew the area surrounding the conference venue, I asked the women if they'd seen much of it. Thus began a chat about local attractions. I felt thoroughly relaxed with my charming and sociable table mates.

    Finally the lovely young woman seated next to me turned to me with a smile. "So what do you write?" she asked.


    Yep. They were all editors, from the same publishing house. Yours truly, the newbie, had no idea.

    I told her my book wasn't ready, I was only at the conference to learn. She wanted to hear about my book anyway. I told her. I also told her why it wasn't right for her line. She told me she might like it, and why.

    "Keep me posted," she said.

    Well, the dang thing still isn't ready -- I'm working hard to make it the best it can be, given my abilities and level of skill. But I do keep in touch with this editor, on a very occasional basis.

    Whenever I think of this encounter, I smile. I have no illusions she'll someday take on my book -- I'll need an agent for that. But the encounter left me a pleasant feeling that in spite of pressures and need to focus on bottom line, there are some very good humam beings in the world of publishing.

    We knew that already. But after all, you did ask. :-)

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