I was privileged to attend the Atlanta’s Writers Conferences this weekend, and in addition to making some great contacts and meeting writers of every breed, I also learned a few things about conferences themselves. Of all the lessons I picked up, here’s the most important one: If you’re a writer, you should attend writing conferences, and you should talk to the agents and editors who acquire projects in your genre. That’s it. Plain and simple.

Why attend conferences? Because cold querying, as in sending an agent your query letter without having met him/her is the sales equivalent to telemarketing. Sarcasm aside, when’s the last time your phone rang with an unknown number and you were like, “Oh, boy, I can’t wait to see who’s calling to sell me something?” Okay, cold querying isn’t exactly like that, as the agents are expecting to have strangers emailing them all day, but you get the picture. It’s usually easier to conduct business with someone you know than it is with a complete stranger.

There are some other dos and don’ts I picked up on from attending the conference this weekend. Here’s a little list I compiled.

DO

-Attend conferences that agents who represent your genre are also attending.

-Research each agent, editor, or publisher who will be there ahead of time. Start with Google. Read websites, blogs, interviews, et. al. Make sure to look at pictures too. Sounds creepy, but it’s a legit practice. You want to be able to pick out your targeted agents from the crowd. Reading name tags also helps.

-Introduce yourself to people who work in your field–especially agents.

-Show genuine interest in your targeted agents. Here are some ice breaker questions you can ask: What do you represent? What’s your most successful project so far? How long have you been agenting? Do you write yourself? Where do you work (not to be stalkerish, but to determine what city s/he conducts business from)? Have you always been an agent?

-Mingle with fellow writers. Take the questions for agents above and tailor them for writers. Not only is it fun and encouraging to talk to people in the same boat as you, but it’s a great way to find out about writer’s clubs and activities.

-Have a verbal pitch ready to go. Many agents you talk with will ask you what you write. This is your chance to give a verbal pitch. If s/he seems interested, you can ask to query him/her. If this happens, your query just went from cold to warm. Warm = way better than cold.

-Sign up for pitches and critique sessions and bring the appropriate materials to these sessions (i.e., your query letter, or whatever the session requires). If you get good feedback from these sessions, then ask that agent if you can query him/her. If you get bad feedback, then that’s your chance to revise. Aren’t you glad you didn’t waste a query opportunity on materials that weren’t ready? Remember, all feedback may not be accurate, but it is all helpful–it tells you something.

-Follow up with interested agents. Go home, revise your materials, and then send them to interested agents. Make sure to mention that you met him/her at the conference. I can’t tell you how many writers I met who have told me that they landed agents through conferences, either on spot during a pitch, or later via email communications.

-Know thy genre! I met several writers at the conference who had completed manuscripts but didn’t have a clue what genre they were writing in. Either that, or their concept of the genre didn’t match the industry’s concept. Research, research, research. Yes, many writers blend genres. Just be cognizant of what genres you’re blending.

-Have a deep understanding for basic terms like query letter, synopsis, outline, tone, voice, conflict, plot structure, plot points, plot twist, character arch, character development, details, description, climax, genre, content, et. al. Don’t just have a surface understanding of these terms, as they’re the building blocks of a sound novel. These terms and the more specific terms related to these will come up all the time among writers and industry professionals. Study up.

-Be humble. In an industry filled with egocentrics, one way to stick out–in a good way–is to be humble. That doesn’t mean being weak, unassertive, or self-effacing. It means being gracious for any time an agent has spent with you, open to and grateful for criticism, sensitive to and understanding of your fellow writers, genuinely interested in others’ projects, sober-minded about your writing and skill level, honest with yourself about how much experience you actually have, calmly assertive and respectable in the face of cynical or biting remarks from people who might not be as understanding as you’re striving to be.

DON’T – Basically, take my “DO” list and do the opposite. In addition to that, here are some other pitfalls you may want to avoid.

-Be cynical. By nature, writer’s are critical, but too often, they also become cynical. Yes, this business is insanely hard to navigate, but it’s not impossible. Don’t despair. Don’t complain about how hard the business is or about how impenetrable agents seem. Don’t get angry. Don’t get sarcastic. Don’t rain on somebody else’s pitch just because yours got rained on and yours was so much more original. Bottom line: A bad attitude, no matter how right you think you are, is unattractive. If anything I’ve said here makes you cringe, you may be a cynic. There’s also the possibility that you’re not. Take a deep breath, brush yourself off, and keep writing.

-Lose faith. It only takes one “yes” to get a contract, and you want that “yes” to come at the right time and from the right person. It took some of the best writers on the market years and years and years to sell anything. You’re not alone in your seeming defeat.

-Seem desperate, even if you’re in a desperate situation. Agents, and people in general, can sniff out desperation from miles away. Desperation = bad for you and scary for others. Take a deep breath. Think about all the things you DO have, rather than the things you DON’T. Thank God that you’re alive, breathing, and able to even attend the conference your at.

-Put all your eggs into one manuscript. Who knows? The first book you write might actually become a best seller, but chances are that it won’t. So many writers pitch their first novel, thinking that it will sell. It might, but it also might not. In time, you might see that your first novel is a practice novel, and practice novels don’t sell. Even your second and third novels may be practice novels. Go ahead and pitch these books, but understand that you may have to practice more before any agents start biting the line. Hang in there. Persist. KEEP WRITING.

-Be gimmicky – Dressing up as a character from your book will certainly catch attention, but probably the bad kind. I could be wrong about this. There might be some agents who like your pizzazz.

-Outstay your welcome. If an agent doesn’t seem to be biting the line or clearly states that s/he doesn’t represent your genre, move on. There are too many other agents you need to talk to–either at that conference or at the next one you’ll be attending.

-Whip out a manuscript samples at a mixer or in the restroom–unless the agents asks. Patience is key and email followup is almost always an option.

I hope this helps. Happy writing!

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