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That Writer’s Conference Checklist? Chuck It!

Next week I’m flying to Dallas for the annual ACFW Writer’s Conference. Six years ago to the month I attended this conference. It was my first conference ever. And man, was I nervous.

Exhibit A: My editor appointment.

At conferences, much of the interaction with editors occurs apart from appointments. The protocol is, have a pitch ready, stalk the victim (good timing and location are optional), and share your book idea. While most of these professionals are very accessible, I must say, I scored a big fat zero in this category. My first actual editor appointment was with Dave Long. Not only was Dave an acquisitions editor for Bethany House (where he’s still employed), but he was a much sought-after liaison between writers and the industry. His Faith-in-Fiction site was a popular place for Christian writers to discuss fiction and the publishing biz, and Dave accommodated.

So we had our fifteen minute meeting. I was comfortable with my pitch, had the checklist in order: One Sheet, short blurb, comparable titles, blah, blah, blah. And I made sure to open with small talk. Mustn’t forget that. Dave was gracious and affable during our meeting. But my sweat glands weren’t complying: I started sweating like a pig. Really sweating! I could feel my face flushing, moisture pooling on my forehead. I knew I was in trouble when he stopped me mid-pitch and offered to get me a towel and a change of clothes. Okay, so it wasn’t that bad. It just felt like it. It was humiliating.

I left that appointment feeling like a complete failure.

Well, a lot has happened since then. I’ve been agented, dropped, re-signed, contracted for two books, had them published, self-published a third, continued blogging, built relationships, attended three local writer’s conferences, joined the staff for another writer’s conference, and started meeting regularly with a local writer’s group.

And something happened along the way: I chucked the checklist.

I suggest you do the same.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you attend a writer’s conference unprepared. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a good pitch or a One Sheet or comparable titles ready. I’m not suggesting you should be pushy and sloppily dressed and unprofessional. I’m just saying that some of the most important stuff you need to know, you can’t prepare for.

  • You’ll bump into someone in the elevator and strike up a friendship.
  • You’ll stumble upon a great conversation in the lobby, and join in.
  • You’ll watch in dismay as an aspiring author fumbles and fawns and blathers their way to embarrassment.
  • You’ll be shocked by how much good competition is out there. And feel very very small.
  • You’ll find you have something unusual in common with another writer.
  • You’ll learn how much sadness , sorrow, and disappointment lies just below the surface of many writers lives.
  • Someone you’ve never met will say they’ve been reading your blog for years.
  • Your cancelled editor appointment will lead to a fortuitous conversation with another editor.
  • People will stare at your name tag with a puzzled expression before dismissively looking away.
  • Struggling through your pitch will help you, in the long run, make it better.
  • You’ll learn that that author you dislike is actually very friendly and genuine.
  • You’ll learn that that author you think is bitchin’ is pretty stuck-up.
  • You’ll be reminded how goofy lack of sleep makes you.

Yeah, there’s a lot of things you just have to experience. No amount of planning, scripting, or rehearsal in front of the mirror will really make you ready. You just need to get out there. And that’s the downside of the conference checklist mentality. It can get in the way, make us robotic. It can keep things from unfolding naturally. It can even make you miss some potentially providential things.

So these days, I’m putting a lot less pressure on myself to make something happen.

Perhaps it comes with age (I’m 54). Perhaps it comes with simply being more familiar with the industry and the people in it. Perhaps it comes with being published. Perhaps it’s just better for my mental and physical health. I dunno. Whatever it is, I’ve come to realize this: Being published won’t fill the void in your life, it won’t make you feel any more validated. It won’t make those lunch meetings with editors and agents any less awkward. In fact, all that work and money you’ve invested in your career will probably be returned in ways you don’t expect.

The people I’ve met on my writer’s journey are a lot more valuable than anything else I’ve gained.

Maybe what I’m saying is, the less you demand of yourself, the more fun you’ll probably have. The lower — or more realistic — your expectations, the less pressure to make something happen. You’ll stumble and fumble and blush and tremble. And sweat, did I mention sweat? But be ready, because some of the most important stuff you need to get from the conference, you can’t prepare for.

So by all means, get your stuff in order. And then chuck the checklist.

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{ 24 comments… add one }
  • sally apokedak September 12, 2012, 8:06 AM

    I LOVE this post. Perfect. Really, really true. And life is so much better when we just enjoy the journey instead of sweating the outcome all the time.

  • Nicole September 12, 2012, 8:39 AM


  • Diana Dart September 12, 2012, 9:28 AM

    Story of my life: get your act together, and then roll with it. Things never go as expected.

    But yanno, Mike, my gut tells me that you’re not stuck up at all. Sweaty, maybe, but we can handle that (graciously handing you a towel).

    • Mike Duran September 12, 2012, 10:06 AM

      I’ve learned, unless it’s freezing in the hotel, it’s short-sleeved shirts only. Nothing will get me sweating faster than a sweater and an editlor.

  • C.L. Dyck September 12, 2012, 9:32 AM

    After attending in 2010, yes, yes, and yes. I’m focusing more on volunteering, and just connecting with people this time around, because that was the best part of last time–editors, teachers, mentors, or people on the elevator (or in my case, escalator).

  • Jason Joyner September 12, 2012, 9:37 AM


    This is my first writers conference, so this post was very timely and helpful. I’ve seen similar words from others, but coming from a guy and a man I trust, it carries more weight.

    I’m working mentally on being flexible, sensitive to the work of the Spirit, and to enjoy myself overall. A book contract would be nice, won’t lie, but I think my expectations are more about building relationships than hitting the home run on the first try.

    Hope to see you there.

    • Mike Duran September 12, 2012, 1:24 PM

      Yeah, you’ll meet a lot of cool, interesting people, Jason. Let’s plan on hanging out some.

  • Cathy Richmond September 12, 2012, 9:42 AM

    Amen! See you there! You’ll think I’m stuck up, but I’m either paralyzed by fear or zombified by lack of sleep šŸ˜‰

  • Katherine Coble September 12, 2012, 12:58 PM

    Everyone I know and know of who signed as a result of a conference did so because of casual connections at a meal or in a bar. I know and know of several authors who were contracted this way, so it’s rather common.

  • Heather Day Gilbert September 12, 2012, 1:44 PM

    So great that you get to go this year, Mike. Wishing I could join the fun! I don’t think I would sweat, but profuse blushing MIGHT occur if I ever got the chance to pitch in person. Hope you blog about the cool stuff you learn there!

  • Richard Mabry September 12, 2012, 2:00 PM

    Mike, excellent advice. Been through a lot of it myself. Thanks for sharing.

  • Lynette Sowell September 12, 2012, 3:51 PM

    Oh yes, never forget to enjoy the ride! See you there ~

  • Kevin Lucia September 12, 2012, 6:27 PM

    Yes, yes, YES. When I attended the Borderlands Press Writers Bootcamp – before I’d attended a single Con – they told us this exact thing. Networking is something that happens naturally after you make friends. Rub shoulders. Just hang out. If you go and do nothing but LISTEN and hang with people who love writing and books, all that stuff – if it’s meant to – will happen all by itself.

    Recently, I was solicited to write a serial novella – the one I’ve been blabbing about on Facebook – for the best pay I’ve ever received. And it came from a guy who’d served on a panel with me a year ago, and at that point, he hadn’t even started the magazine yet. And I certainly wasn’t worried about trying to impress him.

    I recently received two other solicitations for novellas the same way: an editor I’ve known for awhile who has come to speak with my students, who I love to chat with (he’s also an English teacher) emails one day and asks: “When do I get to read your stuff?”

    And several weeks ago at a Con, a good friend and mentor cornered me after her reading, asked me: “Can you write a novella for this guy?” Thumbing at some normal looking guy standing in the corner. “He’s an editor, and he needs novella for a novella line.” The best part was, I didn’t even attend the Con officially, or sign up for a reading, nor was I hawking my wares. Just did a drive-by to be with my friends….

    Friends. Make friends, make a family, hang out, and what’s supposed to happen will…

  • Diana L. Flegal September 13, 2012, 7:19 AM

    Such great advice Mike, you made me a fan. Re-posted and tweeted.

  • Caleb Breakey September 13, 2012, 7:29 AM

    Excellent post, Brotha Mike!

  • Dina Sleiman September 13, 2012, 7:46 AM

    I remember at my first ACFW conference being struck with that feeling you mentioned of how many qualified writers there are. I realized there were probably over a hundred of us who were “ready” and just waiting for that serendipitous moment when what we write fits a publisher at the right time. Scary stuff. This year I go with one book published and another releasing next month. My only real agenda comes from my good friend Torry Martin (who I met at a writers conference): to look for divine appointments and Holy Spirit connections.

  • Julie Jarnagin September 13, 2012, 7:56 AM

    This is the best conference prep post I’ve read so far. As an introvert and a perfectionist, conferences tend to be overwhelming and exhausting for me. This time around, I’m going to do my best to relax and enjoy things as they come.

  • Jennifer Major @Jjumping September 13, 2012, 10:14 AM

    I’m not going to ACFW this year, hopefully year.
    I’m not ready.
    But next year, I hope to go.
    BTW, I re-tweeted this.
    EXCELLENT advice.

    I find that Bounty papertowels fit nicely in the armpit if folded correctly.

  • Mary Potter Kenyon September 13, 2012, 12:45 PM

    Wonderful advice! I have gotten the most from the conferences I attended with the least expectations. In fact, I got my current agent because I ended up sitting at the same lunch table with his wife and SHE got excited about my work in progress. If you can, sit back and relax a little, keep your eyes, ears, and especially your heart open to what God has in store for you.

  • Judith Robl September 13, 2012, 2:52 PM

    Great advice, wonderful attitude, and especially helpful for novices. Do your homework and leave the rest to God. He has the perfect plan in the first place. Hope you have a wonderful time at ACFW.

  • Grace Bridges September 13, 2012, 3:02 PM

    See you there — look forward to meeting you!
    Connections is what I be there for.

  • Heather Sunseri September 13, 2012, 4:17 PM

    Dang!! Mike, I’ve gone the last two years, but have decided to sit this year out. So upset. Would have loved to meet you. Although, I would have walked away thinking, “He thought I was stuck up. I just know it.”

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