Writer’s Conference Do’s and Don’ts or How to Avoid Abject Humiliation

A virginal experience can be frightening and take you out of your comfort zone, but it can also help you in ways you could never have imagined. This is exactly why I attended my first writer’s conference. I compiled a list of tips just for you!

Be on time.

The morning of the conference started with master’s classes and critiques which writers had signed up for weeks and months in advance. I registered the week before, but decided to sit in on a critique session. No biggie right?

When I finally made it through traffic, I was 30 minutes late. Volunteers chatted at a table set up in the entry of the hotel. I was told, “You’re late.”

“Yep. I know, but can I still audit a critique class?”

“I guess that’s alright.”

“Where do I go?” I looked around the vast atrium.

She pointed behind her. “Up the stairs.”

Think before you speak.

“Is there a particular critique group I should look for? I write paranormal thriller and wouldn’t want to end up in a non-fiction group.”

“Ma’am, we are the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. There are NO non-fiction critique groups.

My cheeks scorched while I continued to show my vast intellect. “Oh yeah. Duh.”

Bring a sweater.

The conference rooms with familiar mountain town names like Breckenridge, Keystone, and Aspen resembled their high altitude locations. The temperature plummeted.

Be bold and brave.

I peeked into the quiet rooms where groups of eight sat at round tables. There were no empty seats. An hour away from home, I refused to admit defeat. I walked down the hall to another room and spotted a table with two empty chairs. SCORE!

I took a deep breath. I’ve defeated breast cancer. I can walk into a room of strangers. Let them stare.

Be yourself.

After asking if I could join them, someone asked, “Are you the agent?”

“No, but go ahead and hand me your cards.  Book deals for everyone!” I guess I broke the ice. The agent appeared a few minutes later. She hit the same traffic jam.

Don’t be afraid to sell yourself.

Each writer had submitted the first 10 pages of their novel. The group had read and marked them up. They took turns critiquing. They talked about new conventions like only using, he or she said, strengthening verbs and avoiding adverbs, unneeded adjectives and metaphors that didn’t work. Sometimes, they had a question about the character or setting. Other times, they suggested started the book at a different place. They all included something positive. After each author’s work was discussed, the agent gave her impression.

Dang! A real live agent. I had heard about them, but had never seen one in real life. I wished I could interject something about what I had written without being obnoxious.

Before our mid-morning break the agent said, “I Googled all of your names and only a few of you have Twitter accounts or blogs. She explained how a following is important in this market and how she wouldn’t even consider an author who didn’t have a writer’s platform.

Here was my chance! I raised my hand and said, “I have a writer’s platform. I just need a book!”

The group giggled and for the second time that day, my cheeks burned. Why did I say that? I have a book! I offered my help to anyone who needed to start a blog and handed out my cards.

Use your indoor voice.

Right after my stupid statement, I left the freezer and strode into the ladies’ room. I said out loud to no one in particular, “I AM AN IDIOT!” Blood rushed to my cheeks again. I checked under the stalls for feet. Thank God. I was alone. I let out a sigh.

Somehow, I had to straighten out this misstatement.

Research your genre before attending.

I reentered the room ready for round two. After the last of the critiques, I said, “I signed up late, but I’m so glad I joined this group. I wrote a fiction novel and will keep this advice in mind during my last revision.”

I approached the agent and told her I really enjoyed the class. She explained that she was an agent for Christian books.  “By the way,” she whispered, “No one says, ‘fiction novel,’ since they mean the same thing.”

“Oh.” My cheeks heated up once again. I thanked her for informing me. I relaxed knowing the few cuss words sprinkled through my novel wouldn’t fly with her anyway.


Me and my new agent friend, Sarah Joy Freese

Make sure to bring a practiced pitch to hook an agent.

The night before the conference, my husband Danny and I had dinner with friends. I had no idea the host sold two and one half million copies of a book that became a New York Times Best Seller. He asked for my pitch and then pretty much told me it sucked. “For a paranormal thriller, it has no setting.”

During lunch, I heard rumblings about the free sign up to pitch an agent. I had to come up with something better.

Meet the Powerful Ones.

Agents are revered. When they enter the room, all eyes are on them. (At least mine were.) They have an aura about them since they have “the power.” The power introduce our work to the Big Five, (conference-speak for the last of the huge traditional publishing houses).  They are the gods and goddesses of the Writers Conference.

I attended an agent panel where four of them, including my new friend Sarah, gave their take on publishing and queries. Once again I heard about the importance of a writer’s platform. They also believed that traditional publishing still works in the age of e-books and would survive.

They reminded everyone to add something personal to the query letter, but to avoid being unprofessional or insulting. Insulting? Wow. Some people are really stupid.

I didn’t get the chance to ask my question at the end of the talk. Later, I saw two of them in the bar.

Gods and goddesses are real people.

I asked if it was necessary to hire a professional editor before submitting my book. At dinner, my best seller friend had mentioned agents liked a rough copy.

They laughed and then said, “No. We prefer a polished story, but a critique group should be enough. Do you have one?”

“No,” I admitted.

“I’m sure you’ll find some people here to form a group. What kind of book are you writing?”

“A paranormal thriller,” I said and added words resembling abbada abbada.

“Good luck with your book,” they said.

I hadn’t signed up for my “free pitch session.” After perusing the booklet, I signed up with the agent I had just spoken with in the lobby. I had until 10:30 the next day to come up with an improved version.

Be open to new ideas.

I met Susan Spann at her book signing a few days before. She helped writers rewrite pitches at this conference, but was booked solid. She made room for me on her own time. “I’ll meet you tomorrow morning at 9:30.”

The next day, we reworked it using a formula of, character X must solve A, B, C, or the dreaded Z will happen. Wow! I was pumped until I checked the time. Whoa! I had 20 minutes to memorize it. I went upstairs and paced while rehearsing out loud. If I could remember the verbs, I could recite the 27 words without screwing up.


Me, Piper Bayard, and Susan Spann

Being nervous during a pitch kills your chance. Relax!

My heart pounding, I remembered a de-stressing technique of breathing in and out at a regular count. It did the trick.

I walked in with a big smile and said, “Hello again!” I explained that I had a new pitch and wasn’t sure if I had it memorized, so I brought a cheat sheet just in case. I nailed it. Then she asked what my book was about and I babbled on for the next 9 minutes. Then she asked if it was YA (young adult) or adult fiction. I said, “Adult fiction.”

**Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!** It was the correct answer. She handed me a card and said, “Send me thirty pages.”

I floated out of the room.

Listen to your most trusted critique partner.

I don’t have a critique group, but my husband Danny is an excellent critique partner. After my first surgery, while high on the general anesthetic, (you can see where this is going. I am making excuses already), I got a brilliant idea. I didn’t like where my book started. Instead of doing the work to clean it up, I added a new chapter with a big action scene. It started with a smoke metaphor.

Danny hated it.

Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.

Still walking on clouds from the successful pitch session, I floated into the Agents Read the Slush Pile Workshop. This should be a requirement for everyone at a conference. My head barely squeezed through the doorway.

Writers filed in and gave the agents copies of their novel’s first two pages.

The agents warned everyone this was going to be brutal, but reminded us, “The writer we are now is not the writer we will be six months or a year from now.”

How bad can it be?

The moderator read the first paragraph and the agents followed along. They hoped to be pulled into the story and looked for a great introduction of the main character and the setting. We held our collective breath until one agent would say, “I’m out.” The other would either agree or would want to hear a little more. They hated prologues and said they wouldn’t consider books with them. They said any backstory should be woven through the book instead. They also said to avoid description such as, blue plaid shirt and twinkling green eyes. “Let the reader use their imagination.” If it is unnecessary, cut it. They liked a “tight” manuscript.

Sometimes the words didn’t flow. One time, red painted fingernails threw them both out of the story. I made a note to delete the red painted fingernails from my book.

I sat in the front row and regretted not preparing for this class. They would LOVE my smoke metaphor. The first two pages of my novel were tucked into a folder in my purse. I hadn’t proofed them since I added the chapter weeks before. When I skimmed the first few paragraphs, they seemed wonky, but my puffed up ego had remained at an enormous size. I ran out to copy them during a break. I walked up to the elevated table and said to them, “Bring it on.”

Don’t antagonize those in charge.

They heard me loud and clear. Instead of the moderator picking one from the middle of the stack, they picked mine.

They read the first paragraph and looked at each other and laughed. They didn’t stop laughing until they read a few more sentences. They had misinterpreted my metaphorical smoke for a paranormal spirit. I wasn’t embarrassed. No one knew it was mine except for the agents and the guy next to me who asked, “Do you need a drink?”

I said, “No. I needed to be told and besides, I was on drugs when I wrote it.” Danny was right.

After class, I solved my book’s problem by talking it out with a new friend. The action scene will take place later. I threw the smoke metaphor into the circular file.


Chilling out after class and buzzing about books.

No pain. No gain.

The agent, who had tossed all but one author’s pages during the two hour class, conversed with writers in the bar. I thanked her and told her I loved the class. She couldn’t believe it. “Usually people run out of the room crying.”

“I have a lot to learn, that’s why I’m here.”

I am no longer a writer’s conference virgin.

Have you been to a conference?


Colorado Gold Conference

Poets and Writers – Writer’s Conferences, colonies, and workshops

123 thoughts on “Writer’s Conference Do’s and Don’ts or How to Avoid Abject Humiliation

    • Including business cards. I couldn’t believe how many people didn’t have them. It is a really cool experience to be with other writers. We are a different breed altogether!
      Thanks Barry!


  1. Hi Susie,
    I was at RMFW Gold too. Just sorry I didn’t get the chance to meet you. Hopefully next year. Wishing you all the best. PS – If you’re looking for a critique group Littleton Writers (part of RMFW) is always open for fresh voices like yours.


  2. Your experience brought back a lot of memories from my first writers’ conference. It was very scary to just walk up to strangers and pitch my novel which was a labor of love for years, especially for an introvert like me. You did much better than I did, I’ll tell you that much!
    It took many years of rewrites (and a dedicated writing group) to get an agent.


      • Not yet *cough*🙂
        But after another round of edits this summer, we should be going on submission in the next few weeks. I can’t tell you how nervous / exciting that is!

        Good luck with your ms. Is it ready for an agent, or are you still writing?


        • Good luck to you!
          I think I’ll send in my 30 pages Friday and pray all weekend. I am polishing the last part of the ms, so out it goes! I need to write a query and summary for other agents.. Work, work, work…🙂 It’s tough when I have to keep up with my blog too.


  3. Pingback: The One with the Orangutan | Jackie Cangro

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