Volunteer’s Eye View of a Writer’s Conference

I’ve spent the last four days volunteering at the San Francisco Writers Conference. It was an amazing experience that came with many perks along with lots of responsibilities.

First, I want to answer why I decided to volunteer. I attended SFWC in 2012 and 2013 and felt like I’d already done the conference as an attendee. I wanted to participate as someone who soaks in the creative atmosphere and knowledge without having the pressure that I will make the right connection that leads to a book deal. I was interested in being part of the team, an insider who helps make SFWC a really fabulous event.

I got all that and more. As part of my responsibilities, either as timekeeper or host, I was able to sit in on some great workshops. I also worked as a wrangler who kept the crowds moving during the Speed Dating with Agents sessions. These are the sessions where writers have 3 minutes to pitch their work to agents. That was really exhausting for everyone involved: writers, agents and volunteers. It was also fascinating to witness all the different personal styles and the reactions of the agents.

I can tell you what made the best impression: being personable, prepared, and ready to listen. Steamrolling the agent with a 3-minute ramble was a waste of time and energy. You should be able to recite your pitch in under a minute and spend the rest of the time answering the agent’s questions.

I was a timekeeper during the freelance editor sessions, where writers could seek 8-minute consultations with freelance editors. This was actually an okay place to ramble a bit if you just wanted to approach someone with your idea, but it was still really important to listen. The people who got the most out of it were the ones who came prepared with their pitch and the first few pages of their manuscript.

When you are pitching to an agent or editor, you are making a valuable first impression. You want to be someone they want to work with. It’s okay to be nervous. They expect that. Along with being nervous, you can also bring your A game. That’s what makes the best impression.

Keep in mind that the most important people at the conference are the attendees. It’s funny, but that’s what I learned as a volunteer. The agents, editors and presenters are there for you, the attendee, not for themselves. They really want to impart information and make connections.

Most of the agents, editors, presenters, organizers and volunteers are writers as well. During the conference, there was a strong sense that we are all in this together. Presenters also attended sessions and keynote speeches, eager to learn.

Speaking of the sessions, you may be interested to know that the SFWC has generously made the session handouts available online. While it’s not the same as attending, you can still glean a lot of valuable information from these handouts.

You can download the handouts here: Presenters Handouts: 2014 List of Presenters Handouts for Download.

San Francisco Writers Conference 2014

San Francisco Writers Conference

The last couple of years I have gone to the San Francisco Writers Conference as an attendee. This year will be different. I’ll be participating as a volunteer. I’m super excited about this opportunity.

I belonged to several different writers groups in Boulder and I miss being part of that network. Volunteering seems like a great way to meet local writers and find out what groups are looking for new members.

The conference itself is always awesome and I’m happy to be able to give back after all I got from the past couple of years. As always, there are going to be some great keynote speakers and awesome breakout sessions. I am particularly stoked that Barry Eisler will be there. I’m a big John Rain fangirl. There’s something about a gentleman assassin that makes a girl’s heart flutter. 😉

The conference runs from Thursday, February 13 through Sunday, February 16 and, amazingly, it hasn’t sold out yet. If you can’t attend the entire conference, keep in mind that low cost writing classes are open to the public on Thursday and Monday.

There are also several events open to the public for free, including book signings, poetry readings and, for fans of Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fey series, a Faery Market. The Faery Market has room for a limited number of people, so if you’re interested be sure to RSVP here.

Check out the conference website for more information.

Writers’ Conference Resources

I’ve come to the end of my San Francisco working holiday. I stayed an extra week in the city, cat sitting the magnificent Spot.

Sun Spot

Spot has found her sweet spot in the sun.

I spent some time wandering around my favorite neighborhoods, walking through Golden Gate Park, and being inspired by the city of my heart. My Crossroads series is set in San Francisco and I took the opportunity to visit some of the locations I’m writing about. In particular, the Three Gems sculpture, located in the de Young Museum sculpture garden, which appears in both “Fake” and the following novel, “The Wayward Way.”

I also emailed requested materials to the agents I met through the conference. As I got back into the writing groove, both fiction and blogging, I thought about the lessons I learned at the conference. It’s hard to put it all into words, since so much of it was internalized. I went to the San Francisco Writers Conference website and happened to notice that the presenters’ handouts are still available as downloads. You won’t want to miss these valuable resources.

San Francisco Writers Conference Presenters’ Handouts

Of course, the handouts are only a taste of the sessions. If possible, I highly recommend attending this or another writers’ conference. Along with lessons learned at the industry and craft sessions, you’ll also have the opportunity to meet fellow authors and interact with agents and editors. I found a partial list of 2013 conferences and festivals in the U.S.

2013 Writing Conferences and Festivals

Doing a web search using your home state or preferred genre will probably yield more. For example, the Romance Writers of America has a huge annual conference, while its local chapters host smaller events throughout the year.

RWA Annual Conference

RWA Local Chapter Events

Can’t afford to go to a conference? Consider volunteering. Many conference offer discounts or even free admission to volunteers.

Can’t leave town? Too busy to leave the house? Don’t let that stand in your way! There are online conferences and workshops as well. One I can recommend is the San Francisco Writers University, which offers free and paid online courses.

San Francisco Writers University

Writing is an art, a craft and a business. Attending conferences and workshops can help you improve all aspects of your writing life.

Speed Dating with Agents

How I Pitched My Novel in Three Minutes

The most exciting, yet angst-filled moments for me at the San Francisco Writers Conference came during Speed Dating with Agents.

No, not that kind of dating, though that would have been interesting. Speed Dating with Agents is a pitch session in the speed dating format. Literary agents are set up at different tables. Writers take turns sitting down with the agents of their choice for three-minute pitch sessions. At this conference, there were four consecutive time slots for pitching, each one 51 minutes in length. That meant a writer had 51 minutes to reach each agent, which included waiting behind other writers who had queued up to see a particular agent.

So, no pressure, right?

Yeah, right. However, there are steps to take some of the pressure off and help you appear more professional. And it is to your advantage to be professional. Writing is an art. Publishing is a business. Here are the steps I took to prepare for the pitch.

Find out which agents will be attending the pitch session. They should be listed on the conference website or brochure. Find out which ones are interested in acquiring books similar to what you’ve written. Pitch to them. If you have a novel, do not pitch to someone looking for non-fiction and visa-versa. Agents will often state what they don’t want. Someone looking for women’s fiction may not be interested in paranormal romance and will probably say so.

Perfect your hook. A hook is your novel in a nutshell. Easily grasped high concepts work here. For example, my hook is “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.”

Know your novel length and genre. Don’t guess. Know exactly what you are going to tell the agent.

Know your audience. Who will this book be marketed to? I was asked several times and I had an answer: Readers who like stories with cross cultural fantasy and emotionally driven characters.

Have your novel synopsis ready. Don’t ramble. If you can keep it down to a paragraph, you’ve hit the sweet spot. I know it’s really hard to do. The best advice I’ve heard is to look at back cover blurbs of novels similar to yours. Those are usually about a paragraph long and condense the story nicely. I have my synopsis memorized, but I still had a copy on my phone displayed before me as I spoke. This is perfectly acceptable, as are index cards. Here is my synopsis:

After his parents are murdered, 15-year-old Paul Lau runs away. He winds up in Haight Ashbury, hiding among the ragged street kids who beg for spange. As he learns to survive, he runs into and afoul of other members of the Crossroads, an underworld society of warriors, wanderers, beggars and assassins. He makes an ally when he meets Rhian Nolan, an Irish gypsy trapped in a lie. She’s honest with him, but he’s fake with her. No one can know his true identity, not until he’s ready for revenge.

Have a pen and paper ready to take notes.

So, how did I do? Pretty good, I think. I targeted five agents and received requests for partials from all of them. This is how it went:

I greeted the agent. Introduced myself. Named my book, genre, gave the word count and hook. Then I moved on to the synopsis. All this took less than a minute. The agents asked a couple of questions about marketing and audience. Then they gave me their contact info and submission details. In most cases, I was done before the three minutes were up.

I probably sound more confident than I actually was. Believe me, inside, I was quivering jelly. What helped was that I had attended the 2012 San Francisco Writers Conference and went to sessions that helped me hone my pitch craft. I’ll forever be grateful to the editors and agents at the 2012 conference who patiently listened to my different versions and gave me valuable advice.

Will I get an agent out of this? I certainly hope so, but regardless, I’m glad for the opportunity to build my confidence as a professional writer.

Need more advice? No problem. I’ve listed a few resources to help you hone your pitch. One is about query letters. A good pitch fits nicely in query letter.

How to Pitch Agents at a Writers’ Conference

How to Pitch to an Agent at a Writers’ Conference

How to Write a Query Letter

If you are looking for a literary agent, AgentQuery is an excellent resource.

San Francisco Writers Conference Days 3 and 4

I’m putting these days together because I attended a number of sessions on blogging and platform building, and I wanted to discuss what I learned.

You may wonder, what is platform building? It is something that has filled many writers, published and unpublished, with frustration and confusion. Basically, your platform is your presence on the web. Ideally, it should brand and market you. A single static webpage, a blog you never update, or a Facebook page you share only with friends and family do not equal a platform. Your platform has to have solid planks: constantly updated websites and blogs, an active presence on Twitter, LinkedIn, Goodreads, etc., and a Facebook page dedicated to you as a writer.

You might be groaning right now. I don’t blame you. I certainly did. We can groan all we want, but resistance is futile. The editors and agents who attended the conference made it very clear they expect writers to have a platform and market their writing even before they are published.

Now, you might be hitting your head against the wall and wondering how you are supposed to write when you’re going to be using all your spare time on blogging and social networking. The good news is you don’t have to do it all at once. Your first step is to pick one and get really good at. For example, go on Goodreads and become active in the forums. Once you get that down, go onto to Twitter and tweet about the books you’ve read. On Twitter, follow the people you’ve met through Goodreads. It’s very likely they’ll follow you back. Follow authors you like. Follow agents and editors. If you have a blog, mention it on Goodreads and Twitter when you get a chance, but don’t be obnoxious about it.  Make it part of the conversation.

I know how difficult this can be. While I love my blog and reading other blogs, I have no real presence on Goodreads or Twitter. This needs to change. I’ll let you know how it goes as I figure it out.

In the meantime, I strongly suggest visiting the websites of Stephanie Chandler and Chuck Sambuchino. You’ll find a wealth of information and resources on these sites.

There was more to the conference on those two days besides platform building. I attended sessions on “Why Fantasy Beats Reality,” “Troubleshooting Your Novel,” and “Sex, Drugs and Violence in YA Fiction.” Since four-to-six sessions ran consecutively, I had to miss out on some good stuff, like “Making Your Work Rejection-Proof.” Luckily, one of the session’s presenters, C.S. Lakin, has helpful handouts posted on her website. You can find them here.

I also heard two great keynote speakers:

Guy Kawasaki is a well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Apple evangelist, and best selling author. He has no trouble securing a book deal with a Big Six publisher. However, after some technical frustrations and control issues, he decided to go the self-publishing route, which he refers to it as “artisanal publishing.” You find out more about it here.

R.L. Stine is the author of “Goosebumps,” a wildly successful series of humorous horror novels for young readers. To date, he has sold over 350 million books worldwide. “Goosebumps” was also adapted into a popular TV series. Stine spoke about his life and career. He was fortunate enough to get a job as Scholastic Books at a fairly young age. However, he didn’t publish the first “Goosebumps” book until he was 49-years-old. So, if you’re thinking it’s too late, too hard, taking too long, remember that success doesn’t have an age attached.

Click here for more information on the San Francisco Writers Conference.

San Francisco Writers Conference Day 2

Another sunny, beautiful day spent inside, but no regrets. I attended four sessions and two keynote speeches. The conference has full attendance, i.e. sold out, so the rooms were packed. All the presenters had great information to share. Here are the highlights.

Publishing in Transition: The View from the Big Apple

This session featured a panel of editors from Big Six publishing houses. Each one stated that they frequently checked the digital bestseller lists, looking for independently published authors who had good number and good reviews. Basically, the stigma of self-publishing is gone. Self-publishing is now considered an alternate track to starting your writing career. But, if you want the Big Six to take notice, you’ve got be really good.

Hot Plots: Persuading Your Readers to Turn the Page

Authors Robert Dugoni and Mandy Hubbard discussed the finer points of page turners. Two important words to remember: So what? So what if my character fails? Why would it be so bad? For example, so what if Dorothy had to stay in Oz and never return to Kansas? Would that be so bad? Yes. Why? Because the Wizard has shown Dorothy a vision of Auntie Em dying. Guilt stricken, Dorothy becomes all the more determined to return home.

Writing Dialogue That Brings Your Characters to Life

A panel on writing convincing dialogue. My favorite moment wasn’t so much about dialogue. One of the panelists was formerly a journalist. Once, she wrote a story about alternative families. She said that at each household she visited, the first thing she asked was to see the fridge. The contents of a refrigerator can tell you a lot about a person or a family. She suggested looking in our characters refrigerators. I think that’s brilliant.

Luncheon Keynote Speaker Anne Perry

Yes, the Anne Perry. She was fascinating. I could have listened to her all afternoon. She told lots of stories about her writing and her life. My favorite moment, though, came earlier, during the Hot Plots session, when she did the equivalent of a literary photo bomb. When Hot Plots opened the floor for Q&A, a woman in the back made a statement, something like, “You only need to know as much about a character as is important to the plot at that moment in the story.” I remember thinking, “Wow. She stated that so perfectly.” That woman was, of course, Anne Perry.

Feeding Your Daily Writing Habit: 4 Steps to Higher Productivity

The presenter, Ellen Sussman, actually had 10 steps. The two most relevant for me were “block the Internet” and “save editing for later.” This is especially true for your first draft. Just write, don’t let anything interrupt you, especially your internal editor.

Afternoon Keynote Speaker Bella Andre

Bella Andre is a contemporary romance writer. Her traditionally published novels were respectably midlist. When she decided to self-publish, her writing career skyrocketed and she has sold 1.5 million ebooks. She told us the story of her success. Main point is that to successfully self-publish, your book has to be awesome. Put out a polished product, not just something you slapped together.

Great first full day. By evening, I was exhausted, but happy and looking forward to Day 3.

Click here for more information on the San Francisco Writers Conference.

San Francisco Writers Conference Day 1

I left Denver in subfreezing temperatures, with falling snow and a delayed flight while the plane was de-iced. I arrived in San Francisco to blue skies and 70-degree weather. Needless to say, I was overdressed, sweltering in my heavy winter coat.

Not that I was surprised. I know that February can bring some truly lovely weather to San Francisco. It can also bring cold and rain, so it’s important to pack for both kinds of weather. It’s all about layers and the first layer I shed was that coat!

There were two class sessions being offered attendees that afternoon. Unfortunately, my plane arrived right before the first session began at 2 p.m. It might be just as well because I would have had a difficult time choosing between Bob Dugoni’s “How to Write Your First Bestseller” and Katharine Sands’ “Convincing Agents and Editors to See Your Work with a Dynamite Pitch.” Still, I would have liked to attend one of them, so phooey.

I arrived at the conference at about 3 p.m. and still had to register. Then I had to choose between “First Page-A-Thon” and “Making Your Work Rejection-Proof: Tips & Techniques from Freelance Editors. “ Dang! They don’t make it easy at this conference with so much good stuff going on.

In the end, I decided to go with the “First Page-A-Thon.” What is that? To quote the conference schedule:

Bring the first page of your novel without identification. A panel of agents and editors will give you feedback on it.

Unfortunately, I arrived too late to have my first page added to the queue. However, it was really interesting hearing the feedback on the pages that were read. The agents and editors focused on what worked and what didn’t, and if they would want to keep reading or not. They gave suggestions on how to fix problems, the most common being needless repetition and starting the story in the wrong place. Overall, it was an entertaining and informative class.

Looking forward to a full day of classes on Friday!

Click here for more information on the San Francisco Writers Conference.