There’s a woman sitting three chairs down. She’s wearing a beautiful maxi dress, ideal for Dallas in July, and her corkscrew curls have achieved a state of perfection I thought existed only in PhotoShop. She’s telling the people next to her about her book, a YA novel about something I can’t follow because I’m also trying hard to memorize the revisions I made to my own pitch five minutes ago. The handler in a conference t-shirt tells all of us, “Okay, authors, it’s almost time! Are you ready?” The woman opens the chic burgundy briefcase propped against her chair and takes out a plastic fairy wand, curling ribbon cascading from its glittery star.
“Here’s some good luck for all of you!” She cheerfully waves the wand in the direction of her new friends. They chuckle politely or beam big smiles and tell her, “Thanks! We need that!”
Then the door opens and we file past the handler, giving us all words of encouragement, into the agent room. There are fifteen or twenty small tables with two chairs each. On every table is a stand holding a large card printed with the agent’s name. I look for the agent I’ve requested an appointment with, shake hands with her and smile, and introduce myself and the type of story I’ve written.
Thus begins the thing DFWCon is best known for: the ten-minute pitch session. Unlike some writing conferences where you get three minutes to pitch your book to an agent and get feedback before the bell rings and you’re herded away from the table and into the line of another one––I’m told it’s like speed dating––the ten-minute pitch allows you the chance to discuss your story idea, to answer questions from the agent that prove you have writing chops, to make a personal connection. In ten minutes you can demonstrate that you’re a professional, and you can also get a sense of whether the agent’s personality will mesh with yours. You’re interviewing each other.
I’ve been to a fair number of writing conferences, and they seem to fall into two categories: ones which cater primarily to an academic crowd, and ones which cater primarily to writers who want to make a living as published authors. Both types are fun and valuable and filled with networking opportunities and great discussions about craft and whatever side of “the business” (education or publishing or a mixture of the two) you want to explore. DFWCon, put on every year by the Dallas/Fort Worth Writers Workshop, definitely falls into the second category, but academic types are quite welcome there. (In fact, they offer an educator’s discount on registration.)
Besides the pitch sessions, conference attendees enjoy significant access to agents and editors. These industry pros sit on panels, conduct workshops and seminars, are happy to chat with you in the corridors, and hang out at the Saturday evening cocktail party to hear pitches in an informal setting.
But let’s say you don’t have a finished manuscript to pitch. Let’s say you’re just starting out on your writing path. What can this conference offer you?
The classes and workshops at DFWCon usually have something worthwhile for writers at all levels of expertise. More advanced writers might enjoy taking advantage of limited seating workshops in which you practice editing techniques such as “putting your manuscript on a diet” (trimming your word count) or focusing on voice. One excellent session I attended this year, led by author Steven James, addressed how to create three-dimensional characters. Through improvisational exercises and discussion, we explored how power imbalances and status within a scene emphasize character and drive a story forward. Another talk I heard, given by author Kevin J. Anderson, had to do with the very practical dilemma of making one’s writing time more productive; he had eleven excellent tips for staying focused, avoiding distraction, and maximizing your time, especially if you’re a writer who also has a “day job.” It’s not uncommon to find seminars about the differences and trends in the traditional vs. self-publishing sides of the industry––and because hybrid authors are finding so much success now, industry information is generally presented in a welcoming way, without undue bias or negative judgment.
One of my favorite aspects of many conferences is the Ask the Agent Panel; DFWCon usually has more than one of these, probably because so many agents attend this conference in search of new writing talent. At this kind of panel, conference attendees are allowed to ask a panel of agents anything they want to understand better about the writing/publishing industry. Some really interesting information usually comes up here, including what sorts of things agents aren’t really interested in at the moment. (I’m looking at you, vampires and YA dystopian. Sorry. The market is glutted right now with these motifs, and publishing houses aren’t buying much of them.) Some of the best advice that always rises to the top in these panels is that writers should write what they’re interested in rather than following trends. Because it can take up to two years for a manuscript that has been accepted to see print, what’s hot right now isn’t necessarily going to be by the time your book comes out. That said, the rule is to write what you love and be original about it. Even those common motifs I mentioned can find space on the bookstore shelf if written in an original way.
Each year DFWCon offers a wide variety of classes on narrative craft and the business of writing and publishing that can educate or inspire writers anywhere on the experience spectrum, and they bring in some excellent speakers. In the three years I’ve attended, keynotes have included Jonathan Maberry, Charlaine Harris, Kevin J. Anderson, Donald Maass, Deborah Crombie, and Shiloh Harris. The individual classes are packed with experts, too, and they want to talk to you as much as you want to talk to them.
Conferences are in large measure all about networking. Neil Gaiman once gave the advice that the way to get your foot in the door as a writer is to go where other writers are: in short, go to conferences. This is solid wisdom. Writing can be a solitary practice if you aren’t careful. It’s important to continue to interact with the world, and at conferences you can find other writers who don’t necessarily live in your area, whom you get along well with but might not have met otherwise. A weekly email message or online chat to check in with each other, to see if you’ve completed the word count you were hoping for or sent off that manuscript you were prepping for submission, provides the kind of low-pressure external accountability that some of us need to stay focused. If you don’t have a local critique group, you can also find beta readers at conferences––though I recommend entering into an arrangement like this after you’ve gotten to know someone, rather than doing it with strangers.
One more thing DFWCon is known for is the Query Gong Show. Typically the last session of the conference, this is an opportunity for anyone to have a query letter read––anonymously––in front of the entire assemblage and be critiqued by all the agents there. The emcee begins reading the queries, and the agents hit their gongs when they hear the point in the letter where they would stop reading and just send a rejection. Once a letter gets three gongs, the reading stops, and the agents discuss where the query letter could have been better. This is often a funny show, but the real heart of the matter is that everyone there can learn what makes a query crash and burn or stand out from the slush. Every once in a while, a query letter makes it all the way to the end, and when that happens, the author has the option of identifying him- or herself, and some of the agents there will usually ask that author to send pages. In fact, occasionally an agent will ask for pages even after two-thirds of a query is read. Writing a successful query isn’t the same as writing a successful manuscript, and most agents recognize this. The bottom line is that they’re very nice people. I guess that’s another thing going to a conference can do: it humanizes those whom so many people call the “gatekeepers”––agents and other people in the publishing industry––and makes the entire process of trying to get a book published less mystical.
When I started going to conferences aimed at people who wanted to write books for a living, I wasn’t sure what I was in for, but I’m really glad I did. I’ve loved the chance to meet industry professionals and other writers, to learn more about the business of being a writer as well as about narrative craft. This is professional development worth giving up your weekend for.
The dates and location for DFWCon 2016 have been set: April 23-24 in Fort Worth, TX. Go here to register.