Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Conference Goers, from Susan Hawk

This morning I opened my email to find a message from one of the fabulous organizers of the Kansas SCBWI meeting, where I’ll be in October, followed by a reminder about a dinner this week with a group of NJ SCBWI members here in New York.  Got me thinking about conferences, and other opportunities to meet editors and agents, and how writers can make the most out of these events….and tada!  Some ideas to keep in mind as you prepare for your own meetings and conferences:

One.  No need for nerves! 
I understand that just considering the idea of talking about your work can make your knees knock, I do.  Writing, coaxing your ideas into life on paper, is a delicate thing.  Sharing those ideas with people you don’t know can feel like inviting in the wind.  Will it blow soft?  Or, will it stir everything up beyond recognition? 

Here’s what I try to remember: we’re all in this together.  All of us are here because we love stories.  We want to fall in love with a character and we want to know what’s going to happen to them next.  So, you have something in common with most anyone that you’re going to meet.  And all of us have dealt with rejection – as writers, as agent and as editors.  Something else we all have in common!  See this commonality between yourself and others and it may help with the nerves.

Two.  Be ready to talk about your project
Sometimes at a conference, I’m chatting with a writer, having a great time comparing notes about recent movies or a trip, all while getting the feeling that she wants to tell me her project, but doesn’t want to be pushy.  When, and how, should you tell an agent or editor about your book?

If we’re chatting, that’s the right time.  If I’m heading off to a presentation, or we’re in the line for the bathroom it’s not – but in essence, if we’re having a good conversation, you should let me know about your project.  That’s the when.  As for the how: keep it simple and ask, Can I tell you about my project? 

That’ll probably do the trick.  I think it’s a good idea to practice what you’ll say next – not to memorize necessarily, because that can feel stiff (though if you know that you need to do that, go ahead) – but to have a couple lines or phrases ready, so you don’t have to dig for them.  The key here is to keep it short, a couple sentences only.  All you want to is to capture my interest, because with everything going on at the conference, I’m not going to remember lengthy descriptions.  So those lines should get right to the heart of your story, and leave me wanting more.

Three.  Be ready to talk about something other than your project
As much as you want to be ready to share your book, don’t let that readiness keep you from other conversations with an agent or editor.  Yes, you’re hoping to inspire interest, but it’s also your chance to get a sense of the person you’re meeting – is this agent or editor easy to talk to?  Does your taste in reading resonate with each other?  The right agent for you is someone who loves your writing and wants to represent you, of course, but is also someone you have a rapport with.  This is your opportunity to get a feel for that.

Four.  Don’t worry if I don’t want to take samples of your work on the spot
Basically, this boils down to one thing: how heavy my bags will be and how little I want to drag them through an airport.  And in the rest of my work I do everything via email, so your material will actually get more attention if it comes to me that way.

Five.  Don’t take criticism as a negative
This is a tough one, because of course criticism can be hard to hear.  Yes, it would be so good to have an agent faint with delight or an editor hand you a contract on the spot.  Who amongst us hasn’t polished up a little mental reel of a gracious acceptance speech of awards and accolades before an adoring crowd of our peers?  The truth is that everyone, everyone has gotten feedback that they weren’t expecting to hear.  Everyone has had to re-think something that felt just right. 

More often than not, I think part of what makes criticism hard to hear is that it’s so unexpected – after all, if you had noticed that passage had some clunky dialogue, you would’ve fixed it yourself.  Feel free to ask a question if something is surprising; dig into what your reader is telling you and really get to the bottom of their concern.  If you understand it, it may not feel so uncomfortable.

And finally, when you give your work to lots of different people, you’re likely to get lots of different feedback.  Responding to every bit of that may send you off in all kinds of directions, some of them opposing.  So, plan to filter the feedback you get – see what the thru-line is, what you hear more than once.  Remembering that you have a plan for using criticism may help you hear it when you’re meeting with editors or agents.

Six. Remember to listen, as well as to talk
As much as a conference is an occasion to discuss your work, and hopefully create some interest in it, there’s usually so much other opportunity available – to learn something about your craft, to understand someone else’s process, to find out what editors are excited about, to learn about various author’s paths to publication.  All of that is enriching to you and your writing; take advantage of it!

Seven.  Plan to make connections with other writers
This is the most important piece of advice I have.  Some of your writing may be meant for you alone, but if you’re going to a conference, you have writing to share.  You’re hoping that your words will have meaning for others and you want to connect through that.  Paradoxically, writing is a singular task and it can be lonely.  Plus, without the person on the other end to respond to your writing, how do you know how it’s going?   If you don’t already have a writing partner or group, that’s probably the most important thing you can find at a conference.  So, keep your eye out for a like minded writer and see what they’re up to!

Finally, this feels like it goes without saying: have fun!  What tips do you have?

Happy Summer everyone--Susan


  1. Thank you for this! The timing couldn't have been better. I'm attending SCBWI-LA next week. It's my first conference and I'm terrified! This really helped calm my nerves.

  2. Thank you for the tips. The reminder has the same effect as your feedback tip about making sure I don't go in too many directions. Very helpful!

  3. Hi, Susan!

    It's Donna from the dinner :) Kim Pfennigwerth posted the link to this on facebook which is why I'm here.

    I really enjoyed reading this, especially since you're an agent and not one of us "Joe Shmoes" who only sees it from our side. Getting the professionals take on it is invaluable.

    And you know what? YOU are easy to talk to, and SO lovely :)
    Thanks for this, Susan :)

  4. Jenny,
    I recently found your blog and am loving it!
    Want to thank you for your great advice, stepping into the shoes of the writer and being authentic to the core!!!

    I've attempted to leave a response for weeks but my comments keep being shot back. Hopefully this one comes through.

    Pattie Welek Hall

  5. Jenny,
    I concur with you wholeheartedly and agree with you concurrently. Thanks for the pointers.