Ask BHP: What Should New Writers Know Before Going to a Conference?

This month’s Ask BHP Question is from an aspiring writer: “I know one of the best ways to meet editors like the ones at Bethany House is attending conferences. I’m planning to go to my first one in the fall of this year. Anything I should know about appointments with editors?”

Here are some tips from one of those editors you might be meeting with. Raela Schoenherr is one of our acquisition editors and an all-around fabulous human being. Here’s how she answered this question:

  • Trust yourself. You know your story better than anyone, so don’t focus on whether you’re giving the “wrong” answer or pitch. If you’re confident in what you’ve written and your goals for it, that will be apparent to agents and editors.
  • Remember that agents and editors are regular people just like you, no matter how intimidating they may seem at first.
  • Stay positive. Agents and editors are taking pitches because they hope to find something that will be a fit for them. Remembering that they’re looking for opportunities to say “yes” rather than “no” will help you keep a positive perspective.
  • Listen to the advice of others and apply what makes the most sense for you. If you’re trying to do (or not do) everything anyone has ever told you, you may have a hard time staying focused on the main point. And you may end up feeling that your pitch wasn’t authentic to you.
  • An appointment is your time to speak with an industry professional, so take initiative to start the conversation and the pitch. Don’t make them drag details out of you.
  • Do your best to answer their questions as well as you can, but if a question surprises you and you don’t have an immediate answer, don’t worry. You don’t want the entire appointment derailed because you panicked over not having an answer to one question. You can gracefully ask for a few moments to think or acknowledge it’s a great question and say you’ll need to jot it down and spend some time thinking and researching when you return home.

Raela also made what I called a “red flag checklist.” It’s a quick, bullet-point list of some common mistakes that immediately brand a manuscript as not yet ready for publication or pitching at a conference. Here’s what she put on it:

  • Confusing point of view
  • Head-hopping (randomly changing point of view in the middle of the scene)
  • Uneven or slow pacing
  • Overly clichéd or predictable
  • Breaks genre or sub-genre standards
  • Word count too short or too long for publisher’s standards
  • Author doesn’t know or understand readership

Those are all great things to look at as you’re preparing a manuscript (or preparing yourself to pitch one).

I’m not an editor, but I am on the team that looks over proposals from new authors in our pub board, so here are a few tips on conferences and manuscript proposals from my perspective.

  • Research the basics. Good news! There are resources all over the Internet about how to put together a book proposal, one-sheet, or cover letter. The proposals we’ve gotten from new authors all have some things in common (like the word count of the completed manuscript and a synopsis), but they don’t ever look exactly the same. Different elements/sections are included in each. That means you can find out what your materials should look like, but you don’t need to stress over matching any template perfectly.
  • Think about what would make you or your book stand out to a marketing team and include that in the proposal. You may not be a megastar or have a huge platform, but if you have connections with author friends, a unique area of expertise, or some great ideas for promoting your book, be sure to mention that in your proposal.
  • Use the conference as a way to connect with other writers. Besides being enthusiastic fans who can spread the word when you do have a book out, talking with author friends and following them on social media will give you great marketing ideas and help you get a better sense of what your readership is interested in. This may end up being more valuable to you than the appointments.
  • If an agent or editor isn’t the right fit for your project, don’t despair! That was the main point of last month’s post of published authors talking about rejection. Be open to feedback, don’t take a “no” personally, and keep on writing!

Hope that’s helpful! If there are any seasoned writers out there who have gone to a few conferences, feel free to add your tips in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Ask BHP: What Should New Writers Know Before Going to a Conference?

  1. Lovely points here! As someone who has attended ACFW a couple of times, I’d also add that mustering up a bit of bravery can go a long way.

    It you find out you didn’t get an appointment with an agent or publisher you were really hoping to meet with, don’t despair. Find them at a meal. Chat in the hall or in the Starbucks line. Better yet, attend their spotlight session and afterward, simply tell them the situation and ask if they would be willing to hear your pitch then (with one sheet in hand) or at a later time. I have my wonderful agent today because of this.

    The worst that can happen is that they will say no (and rightfully so, as they are quite busy). But just as Amy said above, they are normal human beings, well aware of the emotional and financial cost of attending a conference. In my experience, they have often listened to my quick (and often stumbling) pitch and passed me their card to send along the manuscript.

    So my advice? Be brave! Just try! And have fun!

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