Friday, May 20, 2011

Guest Post: My First Writer's Conference - What's the Worst that Could Happen? Part I

I welcome guest blogger and YA writer Lisa K. to MuseInks. When I heard of her experience at a recent writer's conference, I asked her to share her insights with my readers.

Ami asked me to say a few things about the last conference I attended on April 29-30. This was my first writer’s conference so I didn’t know what to expect. It was geared to children’s writers and illustrators and since I wrote a YA novel, I thought I would fit right in.

Yes and No.

Day 1: Friday

I drive three plus hours to the hotel where the conference is being held. Check in and am excited to begin my journey and “wow” the reputable agent and publisher who reviewed my manuscript.

At night about twenty of us hopefuls gather in a meeting room to have a two minute read (there is a bell that stops you when your time’s up) to the group. Listeners have 20 seconds to jot down positives and negatives of the read. The agent and publisher are among the audience.

Since I am early, I sign up to be number 4 – not the first, but still in the top so people won’t be too bored. I have read my chosen pages to my writer’s group so I know it’s not that bad.

I read two pages, get belled and sit down. The next 10 writers do the same. I sit through many picture books, rhyming books and who knows what else. My piece is the only YA.

I paid for this?
Photo by Dani Simmonds, 
During writer number 12’s reading, the agent and publisher get up out of their seats and leave. Right during the reading! I am floored to say the least. They never return. This is my first taste of the two.

Day 2: Saturday

Next day starts at 8, I try to forget about the rudeness and want to “Wow” them and soak up all of their knowledge. After all, they are the “professionals.”

I listen to a writer’s motivational speech on the hardship of being published and see her collection of rejection letters. It is a wonderful speech which shows the progression of the publishing process. The woman has been published for the last ten years and has a diverse collection of children’s verse.

Now I am inspired. The room is freezing, but I am ready to get published. If she can do it, so can I.

The next speaker is the Big Time Agent on query letters.

I sign up to listen. (I paid to come here and hear her insight on “How to get out of the Slush Pile.”) I am ready to take notes and learn. Before the conference, writers could submit a one page query to get it critiqued. I missed the deadline, so I will have to settle for taking notes and absorbing the information.

Big Time Agent: “I am a twenty something-year old agent and work for a firm that you can only dream of getting in. I work in New York, not some hick town like we are in now. I am above you peon writers, so, don’t you forget that.”

Orange is beautiful.  
Photo by mxruben from
(BTA picks up a query) “Let’s see who wrote this. Oh, it’s XXXXY’s. Let’s see if it’s any good. Listen to this: it starts off with, ‘Is your favorite color orange?’ Of course it isn’t orange. That’s a stupid way to start off. You never start off with a question. Whose is this again? Who would like the color orange anyway?”

(BTA looks around the room; sees a cowering woman. Points her finger at the woman.) “Is this YOURS?”

Woman (trying to hide): “No, it isn’t.” (Points to her name tag.) “See, my name is YXXX.”

Big Time Agent: “Hmm, so it is. Well XXXXY, don’t ever send crap like that to me.”

Yikes! I am so glad Big Time Agent does not have my query!

Everyone at my table feels the same way. An hour of this ridicule goes by. Query after query of pointing and seeing people quivering in their chairs. I paid for this?

*** Tune in here on Monday to learn the rest of the story.

Have you had a similar writers conference (or other conference) experience? What behavior do you expect from presenters at conferences? Share your thoughts below.

Lisa blogs at YAEdgyDark. She's hard at work writing one novel while polishing up another.


Katharine said...

OMGoodness! So, can we put this in argument pile why self-publishing is so attractive? Can't wait to hear more!

Ami Hendrickson said...


Hair-raising, isn't it? I've been to many writers conferences on both sides of the podium. I've seen bad behavior from both speakers (mostly arrogance) and writers (mostly stalking). But I've never experienced anything of this magnitude.

Lisa's a lovely writer in my writer's group. Fortunately, she's tough. I can only imagine how the not-so-tough reacted to this.

I've said it before, and will keep on saying it: Publishing Pros, I don't care how big you are (or think you are), no one wins extra points for being rude.

Tune in Monday for the hair-raising conclusion... :)

Robert Brown said...

Yes. I'm a former literary agent and attended close to 30 conferences in my 12 years in that profession (Just quit in January) I've done panels with NYC agents and find that many to be kind of in-your-face, so to speak. But I've never known one to be as rude as the one you describe. Probably it's because she's a 20 something and full of herself. There are some great NYC agents. Don Maass for instance is a first-class gentleman and would never do something like that.

Amber Skye said...

.... holy crap.

Ami Hendrickson said...


I agree. I find the vast majority of agents, editors, and publishing pros to be wonderfully helpful, approachable human beings. I keep telling Lisa this. I hope at her next conference she meets some.

I have to admit, however, at the last screenwriting conference I attended I saw more of this sort of attitude from the pros than I've seen in the past 15 years. I pray these are isolated incidents and not a disturbing trend.

Elizabeth said...

What a horrible experience. At least you did learn who NOT to pitch and how NOT to behave at a conference, though. Who would want to work with that kind of attitude?

Liza said...

Oh dear, I'm sorry you had such a horrible perception of the conference! I also attended this conference (just on Saturday), and had a great time. Maybe because I enjoyed meeting my Twitter friends in real life?? But, I hope this doesn't negatively impact your writing-publishing journey!

My two cents:
I thought Agent and Editor delivered standard lectures, and the crits they delivered of the queries and first pages were also standard responses. I have my own opinions about the Agent (whom I never thought of as Big Time though Agent is affiliated with a Big Name Agency) and the Editor who attended, but my opinions are unrelated to the scenarios you shared.

Re: the Query Secrets session, I didn't "get" the rude or disrespectful vibe at all. Sassy, maybe. But not rude or overly critical. (Honestly, I found more critical responses via Query Shark.) My impression was that the Agent had more of a conversational monologue going, and we were privy to Agent’s thoughts as if Agent JUST received query in Agent’s inbox. Agent’s impressions were exactly what I expected and I often found myself agreeing with Agent’s opinions. I spend some time each week reading blogs and have gotten a feel for a “form rejection” query and a “send me a full, asap!” query. Speaking of which…

I *did* have the "I paid for this?" impression, but only because Agent didn't add anything new or different from any of the other free blogs out there. I AM glad that I attended though, because at least I have a baseline comparison for what may be delivered at a conference versus on a blog.

Re: the Orange Query:
The Agent simply stated that starting your query with a rhetorical question, though quirky or engaging, is not effective. The point of the query is to have the agent focused on the story, and hopefully request the manuscript of it. Asking a rhetorical question focuses the agent on themselves, and they'll start asking, "Hm? Do I like orange? What *is* my favorite color? Do I want to eat an orange now?" *goes off to find orange* In my notes, I wrote: "Keep the focus on the story: it's about the story and not the agent's favorite color." (Plus, I didn’t get Agent editorializing whenever Agent picked up a query, as described via: “Let’s see if it’s any good. Listen to this: it starts off with, ‘Is your favorite color orange?’ Of course it isn’t orange. That’s a stupid way to start off…”)

Which brings me to my confusion: Agent didn't point out names, so I don't understand/remember this nametag scenario. I *do* remember a woman who jumped back a little and had a funny expression on her face that Agent picked up on...but only because Agent thought that the woman had a question or comment. Also, Agent spent so much time reading the queries or iPad for lecture notes that I didn't "get" the whole pointing and quivering thing. Plus, the query crits were tagged on to the last 15-20 minutes of the hour-long session. Agent only had time to read 7 queries, so it wasn't an hour-long query crit session, though that would have been more effective than tacking the queries on to the end. *shrugs*

Anyway, like I said earlier, I’m sorry you had a negative perception of the conference, and I hope you continue on your writing journey with renewed vigor and know that Agent is not The Face of the Publishing Industry.

Happy Writing!

Ami Hendrickson said...

Thanks so much for commenting. Funny, isn't it, how two people can experience the same thing so differently? I've been to conferences I thought were *excellent,* only to hear of the most awful horror stories that happened to other attendees.

Conversely, I've been terribly turned off by the attitudes of conference or workshop headliners, only to discover that others attending didn't mind. (I remember one in particular, where the agent blew off her scheduled roundtables because a big-name photographer was there and she wanted to hold a glamour photo session of herself instead. I was appalled.)

Though perception plays a big role, I still maintain that when industry pros agree to attend a conference, they should remember that they are there to help the attendees improve their chances of breaking in. I'm no advocate of encouraging delusions of grandeur or handling with kid gloves, mind you. But I'm also not a fan of the in-your-face pedestal perching I see too often.

Perception is everything. I've been accused of being overly harsh and critical when that was never my intent. When I speak to writers now, I consciously work at dialing down my snark and sarcasm to minimal levels (with varying degrees of success). Perhaps after attending a few conferences, Lisa will see things differently.

Thanks again for your well-thought-out response.