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How to Get Noticed at a Writer’s Conference—in a Good Way
by Kelly James-Enger

Planning to attend a writer’s conference this year? With the hundreds of conferences throughout the U.S. and internationally, you’re bound to find one that will meet your needs. In addition to helping you improve your writing skills and increase your chances of getting published, conferences provide opportunities to make valuable contacts with editors, agents, and other writers.

The problem is that it’s all too easy to make a bad impression that hurts your chances with a potential agent or editor. Read on to learn the difference between professional and pushy—and what you should do—and definitely not do—when attending a writer’s conference.

Do Dress like a Grown-up

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. I’m a writer! It’s my words that matter, not how I look! That’s true…to some extent. But at a conference, you’re meeting with agents, editors, and others who can literally make—or break—your career.

"If you’re trying to break in, pitch meetings are not the place to let all your quirks and ticks reign supreme," says former conference coordinator Elaura Niles, author of Some Writers Deserve to Starve (Writer’s Digest, 2005.). "The pros want someone with a great product who can go the distance through contracts and rewrites and revised editions, book signings, readings and maybe even the BEA [Book Expo America.] When you get those precious opportunities to make a first impression, make sure they remember your project more than you. Dazzle them with great craft, a professional attitude and a tidy appearance. A killer pitch doesn’t hurt either."

Do Prepare your Pitch

You’re spending time and money to attend this event. If you’re planning—or hoping—to make a connection with an agent or editor, you’d better think about what you’re going to say in advance. Practice what some agents call your "elevator pitch." That’s your book or screenplay or idea, summed up in a line or two that you could spit out in the time of a brief elevator ride. If you find yourself rambling past 20-30 seconds, work on it until it’s smooth, tight, and practiced.

Do Speak Up

Chances are that the person you most want to connect with isn’t going to seek you out during the cocktail hour to ask about your writing background. That means you have to make the first move. Don’t be afraid to ask a question of a presenter during the Q-and-A period after a session or introduce yourself afterwards. (Just don’t become a stalker or editor hog as discussed below.)

Don’t Go Overboard

While you want someone to remember you and your writing, you want that memory to be a positive one. "Writers are usually enthusiastic when it comes to pitching their stories to agents and editors," says Niles. "But there are some who are overly enthusiastic. At one conference I recall a couple, with matching haircuts and neon overalls, who tag-teamed the pros by acting out their story as their laptop played background images and music. It was pretty bizarre and any novelty their show might have had wore off quickly. So while they were memorable, they weren’t remembered in a positive way."

Don’t Stalk Your Prey

Elfrieda Abbe, editor at The Writer, enjoys meeting potential contributors at conferences. "I think it's just fine if a writer comes up and introduces him or herself," says Abbe, who has attended 20 conferences as an editor and presenter. "If they have ideas for articles, it's better to just say something like, ‘I'd like to send you a query.’"

That doesn’t mean you should pursue your target throughout the day until you can force him or her to listen to you. "Unless you have an appointment to pitch an idea, it's not the best time to pitch a story if you have just introduced yourself to the editor," she says. "You can, however, ask what the best way to submit an idea is, and give the editor your card with the gist of the idea written on the back. Don't follow editors or agents into the bathroom and pitch ideas or interrupt their meals. Believe it or not, this happens."

Don’t Hog Someone’s Time

Editor hogs! Every writer hates them. They’re the writers who glom on to an agent or editor and refuse to let the person go, even while others are waiting patiently (or not so patiently) for their turn. Don’t monopolize someone’s time. It’s better to ask if you can follow up after the conference. Then do it.

Don’t Snub the Organizers

Finally, consider the people who made the event possible—the conference organizers. Make an effort to thank and meet them throughout the event—they’re spent the last six to nine months planning and working to make the conference a success. And they may also be able to help you make a valuable contact.

"If you’re not having any luck meeting a certain agent, and a coordinator sees that you’re trying hard to network, you can often wrangle a personal introduction," says Niles. "I know this because I later became the agent and editor chairperson of the Willamette Writers Conference and got to help dozens of attendees this way. Remember, the organizers are writers, too. We want to see you succeed."

© Copyright 2005, Kelly James-Enger

Kelly James-Enger has authored more than a dozen books, including Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success (Writers Digest, 2012) and Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writers Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books (CreateSpace, 2010). Check out her blog, Dollars and Deadlines, for practical advice about how you can make more money in less time as a nonfiction freelance writer.

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