Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My Guest: Chip MacGregor, Literary Agent: Five Reasons to Attend a Writing Conference

I've sat in Chip MacGregor's class and listened to his recorded sessions from writer's conferences. It took a nano second to see his enthusiasm, professionalism, gift for communication, and genuine desire to help authors create great books.

Chip is a renowned Literary Agent. He's secured more than 1,000 book deals for authors with every major publisher. This is an agent who can answer my question :

From an editor/publisher/agent's point of view, why should writers invest their time and money to attend a writing conference?

Here is his take:
As a writer, you probably spend a lot of time sitting at your desk, banging out words, pondering your story. You do some research online, write a chapter, do some revising. Sure, you waste some time emailing friends to try and see what else everyone is up to, but for the most part the things you do as a writer are done alone. Writing is a solitary job. Every successful writer I know spends a lot of time alone with their thoughts, sitting at a computer, creating worlds and conversations in their head. 
If you're a novelist, that's exactly why you need to think about coming to a good writing conference. Because all of those solitary writers out there also have a need to meet with other people who love books and words, instead of always sitting by themselves at home. A writing conference is a chance to connect, to learn, to network, to hear about opportunities, to see old friends, and to make new ones. Let me suggest five benefits to attending a good writing conference...
First, it's a chance to LEARN. Just take a look at some of the workshops being taught at this year's conferences – I’ll bet you find information on creating strong proposals, on developing better characters, on using humor, on writing to specific niche audiences (there's sure to be a workshop on "how to write Amish"). There will probably be a couple dozen workshops you can attend, and many are taught by published novelists or experienced industry professionals (for example, I’m going to be at a conference this fall where participants get to listen to the editorial team from a major publishing house talk through what an editorial meeting is like – what a great way to learn about the industry). 
Second, it's a chance to POLISH. Most conferences offer continuing sessions, where you'll be able to get in-depth on a specific topic. Multi-selling authors will be there to talk about crafting novels. Famous writing instructors will be explaining symbolism and structure. Bestselling novelists will be helping you craft better scenes. A publicist or marketing guru is sure to offer ideas and experience to help you know how to market your books. And there will doubtless be editors and agents who have much to share about the industry. 
So have your proposal and sample writings as polished as possible before you attend, then use your time at the conference to see how you can make it even better. That's easier said than done, of course, but that should be the goal. A great idea, expressed through great writing, in a great proposal, preferably by an author with a great platform. All of those things take time and talent. 
Third, it's a chance to NETWORK. You'll see hundreds of other writers there -- people who love books and words as much as you do, and who want to explore how to get better at what they do. There will be editors there, representing a wide variety of publishing houses. You'll probably be able to set up one-on-one appointments, just to talk with them about your manuscript. There's likely a chance to talk with several agents -- in fact, a writing conference is one of the few place you can go and connect with literary agents these days. Between sessions, at meals, during the social times, and in the hallways, you'll be surrounded by industry professionals. Make sure to use those opportunities to meet people and get to know other writers. 
Of course, the focus of those meetings depends on what your goals are. Sometimes you'll talk with an editor just to let them see your work and offer their perspectives. If you're looking for direction in your writing, make that clear at the outset, so that you can get the most out of your conversation. If you sign up to talk with an agent, give them some sense of your expectation in the meeting. But be aware -- sometimes an editor or agent will have limited times available, and we hate it when somebody is clearly wasting our time. I'll offer an example... I don't represent children's books, poetry, or sci-fi novels. Ten minutes of research would reveal that to a prospective author. Yet I regularly have authors pitch me their sci-fi children's poetry idea during agent appointments. As though they expect I'm suddenly going to see the light, grasp their proposal, and shout, "Hallelujah! Poetry I love!"
A couple years ago, at a conference I did as a favor to the director, I could only be there for an afternoon. They made a big point of stating "Chip is here just for a couple hours, and we'd appreciate it if you would leave his appointment times for experienced writers." So who was my first appointment? A woman with her fourteen-year-old daughter, who began by saying, "I don't really have anything to talk with you about, I just wanted my teenage daughter to meet you." (I was polite. I figure seriously stupid people require calmness, in order to keep them from getting upset.)
Fourth, it's a chance to CONNECT with friends. You'll see some people you know, and be introduced to some folks you've read but never met. There will be an opportunity to link up with a critique group, or to simply meet other writers from your area. When I was a young writer, I went to a conference and introduced myself to people. I made friends that helped me get connected with the local writing scene, and that led to my first paid book-writing gig. 
If you are connecting with an agent who was a longtime editor, you might ask about the saleability of your work, or talk about your craft. If you're talking with an agent who is known for industry stuff, you might ask how your idea fits with publishing houses. If you were meeting with me, you might ask career questions. Do your homework. Be ready to talk about yourself and your book. Be clear about what you're hoping to get out of your meetings. Allow the editor or agent to respond to your questions. Don't push too hard. Understand these are just people doing their jobs, so they may not have fabulous answers to every question you ask. And when connecting with friends, talk about what you’ve learned each day, so you can retain some of it after you get home. If you're serious about writing, then you have to treat a conference as a business trip, not just a mini-vacation.
Fifth, it's a chance to REFLECT. There will be time to think, time to talk, and time to learn. Part of the value of being away at a conference is that it forces you to get out of your normal routine -- so you can use that to think through what you'd like to be writing, and how you'd like to approach it. You can join a small group for a quiet night of discussion, or you can grab friends and sit laughing in the lobby until all hours of the night. 
The value of a conference depends on your expectations. If you're going to meet people in the industry and get connected, you'll probably find it worthwhile. But if you're going with the thought that "an agent will have a ten-minute conversation and want to sign me" or "an editor will take one look at my proposal and offer me a contract," you're probably going to be disappointed. I suggest an author sit down and look at the list of faculty and the list of workshops being offered. If you need craft help, go to a conference with really strong craft seminars. If you are most in need of talking with agents, look for one with a long lineup of literary agents. With travel, meals, hotel, and the registration fee, you could be spending more than a thousand bucks on a big conference -- that's a lot of money, especially if you're a writer who isn't making a thousand dollars a year via writing. So you've got to think about what your expectations are and how well the conference meets them. A little research can go a long way.
I'm a huge fan of the writing conference experience. I’ll be at a couple this fall, meeting with authors and appreciating friends and trying to think of something to say in a one-on-one appointment that doesn't sound trite and shallow.

Thank you, Chip. Your insights and encouragement are sure to prepare us for our conference adventure. We appreciate the time you shared with us today.

Reader, do you have any questions Writer's Alley can address before your conference?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Superb guest post! I had a blast meeting Chip and his team last year and I look forward to seeing them at ACFW again this year. I miss Chip’s blog, so I really enjoyed reading his “voice” again. I also think it’s cool he added reflecting as a value of going to a conference. That might be an ordinarily overlooked benefit, but time away can do wonders for refreshing a vision.
~ Wendy

Mary Vee Writer said...

So true Wendy. The newby email group led by Cara P. has emphasized the Prayer room. I've appreciated that. Not only get away and reflect, but also focus on God.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Wow, what a great interview! I learned a lot from what Chip shared. Thanks for this enlightening, practical post!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

What a great post! Decididng whether or not a writer's conference will benefit you is tough and Chip addressed a lot of those concerns and questions here. Thanks for the great information.

Casey said...

This is really great information for the writer considering attending a writer's conference. I happen to be blessed to attend ACFW this year and I hope this will encourage others to jump on board too.

Thanks so much Chip for stopping by the Alley today! It's an honor to have you. :)

Casey said...

JEANNE, I agree with you! It's always so wonderful to soak up the knowledge that others are willing to share.

CINDY, I saw your comment from yesterday and saw you won't be attending ACFW. :( I was hoping to meet you! Hopefully it won't be too much longer of a wait. :)

Beth K. Vogt said...

Like Wendy, I miss Chip's blog. He knows the writing world like no one else and has great insights.
One of his best takeaways from this column is: "...if you're going with the thought ..."
This speaks to expectations--and how you can be disappointed. Thanks for helping me think of ways to be prepared, be open to what the conference offers, and look for ways to be encouraged.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Thanks so much for a wonderful guest post, Chip! This is so helpful!

BETH, I agree that one of the most important things is to adjust our expectations. That will allow us to get the most out of any experience. Thanks for stopping by!

Angie Dicken said...

This is such a great post. I love the "Polish" step...sometimes it is easy to feel like you have completed all you can, and you've done the best. But going into a conference thinking about "how can I make it better" helps you to be soft for the molding! :)
Thanks so much for the interview, Chip!

Sarah Forgrave said...

When Chip speaks, I listen. :) Wow, great post with lots of wisdom here.

Thanks, Mary, for hosting. And thanks, Chip, for visiting.

Casey said...

Sarah, my thoughts exactly. ;)

Pepper said...

Words of Gold!

I'm with Angie on the 'polish' idea. Making sure you're best work is out and in front of important people can make a lasting impression.

Thanks for being our guest, Chip. Hoping to see you (and the fabled kilt) in September.

Mary, brilliant idea! Thanks.

Krista Phillips said...

GREAT post. *sigh* all the reasons I WANT to attend ACFW... *sniffle* Alas, Annabelle is SO SO SO much more important! Maybe next year....

Mary Vee Writer said...

I sure hope we can see you next year...but am so happy sweet Annabelle has your focus.

Chip's classes and articles are great opportunities for learning. What an honor for us here at the Alley:)

So thankful the rest of you stopped by today.:)

Rachel Leigh Smith said...

Most excellent advice, as usual. I hooked up with my critique group through the ACFW conference.

ACFW conference is the highlight of my year. It's the only time I have the chance to surround myself with other writers and talk shop without boring anyone.

Carla Gade said...

I really appreciate your insights on attending writing conferences. I am involved in planning and attending our state conference which will fit well for me this year. Next year will be my first trip to ACFW and I'm looking forward to it so much.