Monday, May 16th, 2011

Many Genres, One Craft: Writing Conferences Part III

This is the last of a 3-part interview series of authors from the book Many Genres, One Craft recently published by Headline Books. Many Genres, One Craft is an anthology of instructional articles for fiction writers looking for advice on how to improve their writing and better navigate the mass market for genre novels.

While the book encompasses many aspects of writing, this series of interviews is all about coordinating and attending writing conferences.

Venessa Giunta Venessa Giunta is a senior editor for Loose Id, LLC, and edits fiction freelance. She wrote bad short stories and angsty poetry off and on through high school then took a very long hiatus. It was probably because of the poetry. When she turned thirty-five, she realized that what she really wanted to do was write.

After many short story rejections, it occurred to her that some sort of writing classes might be beneficial. She subsequently worked toward and was awarded her Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University.

Venessa lives in the metro Atlanta area and is lucky enough to reside with her muse who masquerades as her husband. And she no longer writes poetry. It’s better for everyone that way.

Why should a person attend a conference/convention?

For the professional networking opportunities, primarily. Agents and editors (like most people) tend to connect better face-to-face than through an e-mailed query letter. However, the entire ability to convene with your fellow writers is not something to discount either. Even if no worthwhile connections are made with agents or editors, there’s really something to be said for being with people who “get” you to some extent.

How can you decide (before you put your money down) if a conference is right for you?

Do some research on the guests. Are they people you’d be interested in seeing/meeting/learning from? Does the con welcome the sorts of things you write? Weigh the possible benefit against the cost of attending. Sometimes the cost of travel, accommodations, registration and food do not make the conference beneficial even if there are agents or editors you’re interested in.

What can you get out of attending a writing conference?
Learning about the business of writing. Some conferences offer classes on how to pitch, or how to query an agent or editor. These things require a skill set that is entirely different from the skill set needed to write a book. And they’re things most writers need. Also, conferences afford an opportunity to network, not only with other writers, but with other publishing professionals too. And simply being in the company of your tribe — writers — should not be downplayed. Schmoozing with other writers is one of the best things to get your creativity pumping, to get your enthusiasm going. And those things get your butt in the chair.

Many Genres Book CoverIf you’re pitching at a conference, what do you need to do?

First, breathe. Pitching is intimidating. Remember that agents and editors really are looking for someone new to work with, otherwise, they wouldn’t be taking pitches. So they want you to do well. Prior to the conference, study everything you can about creating good pitches. Not just 30 second elevator pitches, but three minute pitches and five minute pitches. Practice and speak naturally. If you try to memorize something word for word it will sound like you tried to memorize something word for word, especially the longer pitches.

Research the agents and editors before you go to the conference, so you know what they represent, whether you would be a good fit, and whether they prefer a certain style of pitches. Some prefer more formal pitches, some prefer a conversation rather than an actual pitch. If you can’t find this information out though, don’t worry. Simply do your best. When it comes time to pitch, take a deep breath and remember that they really are just people and they’re looking for great stories.

What are some conference dos and don’ts?

Do:

  • be professional
  • have a good time
  • step out of your comfort zone and socialize if you are not a social person
  • attend several panels and classes
  • listen — both to industry pros and to other writers
  • be professional

Don’t:

  • be unprofessional
  • get hammered in the bar (a few drinks over the evening is fine — too much and you may not want to hear about your antics in the morning)
  • pitch your book to an agent/editor at inappropriate times (bathrooms, while they are teaching, etc) How do you know when is appropriate? You can ask. “May I tell you about my novel?”

What if you get there, and find it’s not right? How can you make lemonade from the lemon?

It really depends on what’s “not right.” At the least, you can recognize what sort of due diligence that should have been done beforehand. But I think that even if there’s something that is not a right fit about the conference, that doesn’t mean nothing worthwhile can come out. If you are doing pitch sessions, it’s an opportunity to practice your pitch and get feedback for improvement. Networking is a big reason to go to a conference and I can’t imagine any conference being so bad that no networking is possible. Sometimes, that’s all you get out of a conference, but you never know when that one person you had coffee with is going to pass your work on to his or her agent. And then the next thing you know, you’ve got an agent and a book deal. Sometimes it works that way.

When should a person consider NOT going to a conference?

When the cost outweighs the benefits. Especially right now, with the struggling economy, it’s very important not to overspend for a conference. If the guests and programming of a conference don’t excite you, then it’s probably not worth the money. Look for conferences that are close to home. If you’re in a metro area, chances are there’s at least one conference in your back yard. Work out what is within your budget to spend and stay in that budget. Decide whether the offerings of the conference are worth exceeding that budget if it’s more costly (i..e – your dream agent is only attending one conference this year and this is IT!).

Coordinating Conferences

What’s it like being a conference/convention coordinator?

It can be hectic and stressful at times, but it is more fun than anything, to me. I love writers and the environment created when a big group of us get together and so I feel privileged to be able to help in providing an opportunity to do that every year.

What are top 3 knowledge/top 3 skills for coordinators?

I think negotiation, compromise and the ability to work with others are probably the things most necessary when putting on a conference. Once a con gets to be larger than just a few friends getting together, no one person can do everything, so being able to work with others is very important. Compromise is an aspect that comes in with working with other people and also in most aspects of organization. Sometimes the guests you want aren’t available, or won’t do something you’d really like to offer attendees. Sometimes the facilities can’t accommodate something, so a work-around is necessary. Like any organized event, compromise is necessary sometimes to get things done. And negotiation is important from dealing with hotels/venues to securing good guests to getting good deals on PR items.

What’s the best thing that’s ever come out of a conference for you?

Actually, I think the best thing that’s come out for me is that I’ve learned that agents and editors aren’t as intimidating as I had them all made out to be in my head. At least, the one’s I’ve met. That has really made me realize that a good portion of my stress as a writer had to do with being wary — perhaps afraid? — of the gatekeepers.

Are you paid as a coordinator?

I’m not paid, per se, though I get admittance to the workshop for free. I really do it for the love. And the opportunity to schmooze. 🙂

What’s exciting about running a conference?
I think when it’s all come together and everyone, from attendees to guests, give glowing praise about how great it was — this is the most exciting thing. Aside from that, seeing the year’s worth of planning all coming together is very rewarding as well. As far as the not-exciting bits, some of the organizational stuff can be tedious, but that goes for just about anything. The exciting far outweighs the non-exciting.

Many thanks to Venessa Giunta for answering a few questions about attending writing conferences and coordinating them. If you have others, please post in the comments. Venessa will be happy to answer them!

More information about Many Genres, including author information and other interviews is available on the Many Genres blog.

Order information for Many Genres, One Craft.

Other Parts of this Interview Series:

Part 1: author K.J. Howe
Part 2: author Lucy A. Snyder

15 comments to Many Genres, One Craft: Writing Conferences Part III

  • Tia

    I’m new to the publishing world and conferences, and I found this post very informative. I went to a small, regional conference this year and leraned so much. But the bigger, more expensive conferences can be intimidating. Thanks for giving me some things to ponder before rushing off to sign up for too many.

  • Wonderful tips! Thanks for dropping in and sharing 😀

  • It’s good to go with a friend or connect with a group. Conferences can feel a bit like high school if you’re new.

  • I second Lynda, that it’s good to go with a friend or a small group, in part because hotel room and other costs can be shared. Perhaps members of your writers group if you belong to one. Also consider volunteering to help out on panels or readings or, if you’re a newbie (or just shy), there’s also work needed behind the scenes. I find myself that it adds to the fun (hey, as a panelist you get to show off, not to mention hopefully impress both editors/agents and readers/fans) and sometimes it will even get you a membership discount.

  • Gayle G.

    Thanks so much for this post.
    When choosing a conference, is there a good method for finding out about the quality of the conference beforehand? Should you ask other writers or should you look up conference information through writers groups?

    • Hi Gayle! I’m not sure, but you raise some good questions! I’ll send a quick note to Venessa to make sure she’s seen the question and ask her to chime in. Kelly

    • Gayle – one easy way is to just Google the name of the convention; attendees frequently post about their experiences. Asking other writers is always a good way to identify helpful conventions. Past that, you can generally find out good information (“good” being roughly equal to “do these people know what they’re doing?” 🙂 about a convention’s guests and organizers just by taking a look at their websites.

    • I absolutely agree with Lucy that a Google search will give you an idea of whether a conference is “good.” Also, though, a good portion of the determination has to do with whether it would be “good for you.” A conference can be incredibly well organized with interesting speakers, but if its focus is on literary fiction and you write romance or thrillers, it will not be the best fit for you. Certainly, you will probably learn something, but your networking opportunities are severely limited and the classes would not be as useful as if they were geared more towards commercial/genre fiction.

      So a good bit of discovering whether a conference would be good for you has to do with knowing what you’re looking for in a conference and being familiar with your genre and the players in that genre (authors, agents, editors, etc). Once you’ve found a conference that you think could be good for you, then you do as Lucy advises and Google to see what others have said about it in the past. That will give you a better idea of whether you would benefit.

      It’s really all about educating yourself. 🙂

  • Gayle G.

    Thank you all for the advice.
    I really appreciate it.

    Gayle G.

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