By J.M. Kelley
Prepping for an upcoming conference can be traumatic for an author, especially one who has issues with logic. Like me.
Last year, my first SCWW conference, I hadn’t even achieved South Carolina residency yet. Sure, that’s not a requirement. But a tiny part of me felt like I was cheating on my home state of Pennsylvania when I slipped into my car in the wee hours of the morning to slink off to visit my new paramour, the SCWW.
Logic isn’t my friend.
Luckily, this time, I can attend with a clear conscience. I broke up with Pennsylvania and moved to Greenville. Nearly a year later, my relationship with The Palmetto State is as strong as ever.
But, I digress. We were about to discuss conference prep.
We all know the basic battle plan for attending a conference with an unsold manuscript in possession. Some of the more important points are:
1. Know your story. Be prepared to sell it. Have your query ready. Memorize your elevator pitch.
2. Dress comfortably but professionally.
3. Have your classroom supplies ready. Bring notepads, pens and pencils, maybe a voice-activated digital recorder.
4. Choose your courses with thought. Think about what you want to take away from the conference. What are your weaknesses? Grammar? Marketing? Clueless about formulating a professional query letter? Focus on your needs, but don’t be afraid to mix it up a little.
5. Step outside of your comfort zone. We’re authors. We understand the introvert tendencies some of us experience. Make friends. Make contacts.
Pretty straightforward information, but always worth repeating, don’t you think?
Especially for a scatterbrain such as myself. I know the rules. Honest. But when it comes to applying them, logic often fails me. So let’s explore my brain in pre-conference prep mode. Consider it an exercise in how not to prepare.
Know Your Story.
I know my story. I can describe it to you. Do you have a half an hour? See, this girl, she has to come home to help out her father…
Okay, I know my story. And I’m working on the short version. I promise you that. It’s the elevator pitch that frightens me. How do you sum up a hundred thousand words in one sentence? This is the question that keeps me awake at night. And queries? Don’t even get me started on queries. My first novel went through about seven different queries before I finally found one that stuck. The first one will someday be featured on several agent sites to demonstrate what not to do when trying to entice an agent.
My biggest conference fear is that the following conversation will occur.
Random Agent: So what’s your story about?
Me: Huh? What?
R.A.: Your story. The entire point of you being in my presence. What is it about?
Me: It’s a book.
R.A.: Yes. Kinda figured that.
Me: It’s really good.
R.A.: Mm hmm. Excuse me. I have to go throw myself from the roof.
Me: Have fun?
Be Prepared To Sell It.
In my mind, that means one thing. Snazzy business cards. And when it comes to business cards, my idiocy emerges and I need the intervention of friends to return me to sanity.
Me: I think I found a business card design I like. Want to see?
Friend: Sure. (Views link to business card image) There’s a banana on this business card.
Me: Yes. It’s a very cute banana.
Friend. You hate bananas.
Me: I hate eating bananas. I like dancing bananas on business cards, though.
Friend: You’re an idiot. What does this have to do with your writing?
Me: I’m sure there’s a banana somewhere in the book.
Friend. Again, you’re an idiot.
Dress Comfortably But Professionally.
Exchanges like this are not productive when trying to decide on appropriate conference attire:
Me: What do you think of this skirt?
Friend: It looks good on you.
Me: Do you think I can wear my combat boots with it?
Friend: No. No combat boots.
Me: How about this dress? Does it make me look fat?
Friend: No. I think it’s a great choice for the Keynote Address Dinner.
Me: The skirt is longer on this. Definitely a combat boot kind of dress.
Friend: For the love of all that is holy, do not bring the combat boots.
Me: They give me an air of quirkiness.
Friend: They give you an air of Odor Eaters. Those things are ten years old and smell like death.
Have Your Classroom Supplies Ready:
Go to Target and spend an hour trying to decide between a neon pink Hello Kitty theme or a notebook that looks like a tropical garden just exploded from its recycled material innards.
Feel bad about leaving behind the giant wooden pencil I’ve owned since kindergarten.
Choose Your Courses With Thought.
This means you shouldn’t accidentally wander into the conference room hosting the Morticians of America Annual Meet and Greet and Crematorium Emporium.
This also means that the crumpled course list you’ve been nervously twisting and untwisting in your hands has another, more important, use.
Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone.
Last year, I was a wall flower. An unemployed wallflower who selected the Basic Package and somehow managed to leave the conference without realizing she’d been awarded a Carrie McCray Memorial Literary Award.
This year I’m volunteering. That, my friends, is a step outside of my claustrophobic box of isolation.
Okay. Clearly, I’m exaggerating my mindset as the 2011 SCWW Conference approaches. Well, a little bit. I really am logic-impaired, and really do have a Hello Kitty notebook that is trying to wriggle its way into my bag of conference supplies.
The real point I’m trying to make, all kidding aside, is this: Don’t overthink it. But don’t underthink it, either.
You’re a writer forging into territory where some pretty impressive names in the publishing industry will be lurking. It’s smart to be at the ready, just in case you manage to catch the ear of your dream agent or editor.
Don’t wander the conference rooms with three printed copies of your full manuscript, attacking editors and agents at will. But don’t be afraid to think positive. There’s nothing wrong with having a flash drive handy with samples of your work, ready to print out in the Business Center just in case you get that miracle moment where an agent begs to see the evidence of your brilliance. More than likely, if you get an invitation to submit your work from an agent, you’ll be emailing the requested material once the conference ends. But a writer can dream.
Don’t sweat the attire. But don’t wear your twenty-one year old Chuck Taylor All Star sneaks and a ratty pair of acid-washed jeans that looked great on you in 1986. Be comfortable, but be mindful of the image you project to publishing professionals.
Pick the classes that appeal to you and your particular writing niche. And be prepared to take notes. Don’t let all the free-flowing information go to waste. A year after my original SCWW Conference experience, and I still often peek at the notes I took to refresh my memory about a certain point.
Have the kind of fun that doesn’t end up with you doing the Macarena on the hotel bar with a lamp shade on your head.
The most important advice I can impart is this: Reach out. I emphasize this because I am too often compelled to blend into the scenery. Interacting with real humans is infinitely more stressful to me than creating fictional characters. Thing is, even the most introverted, shy person at a writing conference has the easiest conversation starter at their disposal. Look around you. Find a kind face. Walk up to them and say, “Hi! So what’s your book about?”
Everybody there will have an immediate answer for you.
Solidarity, brothers and sisters. Embrace the opportunity to connect with the milling crowds of people who know just what it’s like to have the one job in the world in which it’s perfectly okay to respond to the voices in your head. You won’t be sorry.
J.M. Kelley’s debut novel, Drew in Blue, is a contemporary romance available from Lazy Day Publishing. Drew in Blue was nominated for Best Contemporary of 2010 by The Romance Reviews, and is a TRR and Night Owl Reviews Top Pick. Drew is available for download from Amazon, B&N, All Romance, and OmniLit. J.M. dabbles next in the paranormal realm with her short erotic romance, Laws of Attraction, included in the Lazy Day Publishing anthology, Indulgence: Tales from the Cirque Romani, available via Amazon on October 19th. For information and news, please visit www.jmkelleywrites.com.