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Writer’s Conference 101 — Don’t Over-Prepare!

This is a repost of something I wrote last year before attending Realm Makers. And as I’m swamped with preparations for this year’s conference in Philadelphia (as I know some of my writer friends are), I thought this would be an important reminder. Enjoy!

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This week I’m flying to Saint Louis for the Realm Makers Writer’s Conference. This is my sixth writers conference, but only the second in which I’m part of the faculty. Nine years ago I attended 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. I mean, 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, 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 four more, continued blogging, kept up on social media, joined a writers group, attended more writer’s conferences, expanded my network of industry connections, and basically kept plugging forward with my writing career.

And something else has happened along the way: I chilled out. I stopped stressing out so much about writers conferences. I stopped worrying about having everything in order. I pared down my checklist. I made a decision to go with the flow. I stopped over-preparing.

I suggest you do the same.

Now, 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 endlessly winging it. I mean, you won’t win any points looking like an unprofessional boob.  I’m just saying that some of the most important stuff you need to know and experience, you can’t prepare for. Some of the most important conversations you’ll have, you can’t orchestrate. Some of the best connections you will make, will be completely spontaneous. Some of the most fun you will have will be unforced.

  • You’ll bump into someone in the elevator and strike up a friendship that will prove lasting.
  • 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 will have flashes of genuine inspiration.
  • You will be shocked by how much you don’t know about writing.
  • 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 or Facebook posts 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 over-preparing, 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 “be ready” and make something happen.

Memo: You will never be completely “ready” to attend a writers conference.

Perhaps it comes with age (I’m 57). 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 throw it all to the wind… and prepare for surprises.

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