Road trip to Dallas! I follow several agents & authors on Twitter that raved about how amazing the Dallas/Fort Worth Writers Conference is (plus, I needed to see the Gong Show in person), so I decided to give it a go this year. Met some wonderful people and learned A TON of useful information. Best of all, the agent I pitched to requested my FULL manuscript. SQUEE!!!
Summarized for your convenience (and mine!) by type of info, here are the top 10 things I learned from this year’s DFW Writers Conference.
10.) DO NOT use Courier when submitting query letters and requested chapters. I’ve always read that using either Courier or Times New Roman are considered “Standard Manuscript Format” when submitting, so this was news to me. Almost all the agents had strong words to say about Courier vs. Times New Roman, and none of them were positive. The consensus was that it looked old-fashioned and was harder to read… especially at 11pm after a long day of reading tons of other query letters, manuscripts, emails, and various other agent-y type activities.
9.) When writing a query letter, shorter is better. The DFW Writers Conference has a highly anticipated event called the Gong Show, where an anonymously submitted query letter is read aloud and a panel of agents bangs a gong whenever they would have stopped reading the letter. After 3 people have rung the gong, the agents who banged the gong explain why they rejected the query. Brutal, but helpful. Only two query letters were read in entirety and only one of the two had agents request pages. A running theme throughout the approximately fifty query letters was that they were just too long. An agent doesn’t have that kind of time, and extensive plot details should be saved for a synopsis. A query letter should read more like the back cover blurb: short enough to give you a clue what the basic plot is, and enough left up in the air that the agent asks for chapters—or even a full manuscript!
8.) Do Last Minute Recon! DFWCon was kind enough to provide an Excel sheet listing which genres each agent/editor represented. Unfortunately, by the time the conference rolled around, some of the agents were closed to submissions for several of the check-marked genres, and the authors didn’t find out 'til they were actually pitching the agent in person. This is why it pays to do last minute research on your agent—check their webpage the night before your pitch to see if anything has changed, and if it has, ask if you can change your pitch session to another agent. Everyone is there to make the best book connections possible, so neither the agent nor the conference personnel will be offended. If that doesn’t pan out, make sure you’ve researched all the other agents/editors and elevator-pitch your 2nd choice agent after a panel, workshop, social, etc.
7.) Huzzah! You pitched an agent and they requested your 1st three chapters! After a Muppet flail of joy, and texting everyone you know, exactly how long do you have to get everything in order and send if off to the agent? Answer: 24 hours.
Just kidding! Undo your heart attack, and take a deep breath. Agents know you want to put your best foot forward. If you’re lucky, you learned a bunch at the conference or from your critique group and can put those improvements into your novel. If you just need a breather so the panic of Oh-My-Gosh-An-Agent-Actually-Wants-To-See-Something! wears off, that’s fine too. Obviously sending it to the agent sooner is preferred so they have your concept fresh in their mind and some of the initial excitement from the pitch still remains, but agent after agent reiterated that they want it done RIGHT, not just done RIGHT NOW. So, send them the absolute best manuscript you can make, even if it takes a few months (yes, they said this was fine!) to get it ready, and just put a reminder note that they requested your 1st three chapters/50 pages/full manuscript at the ______ Conference/query letter/etc. Also, *high five* on the request! ☺
6.) Start making a list of blogs NOW. Even if you don’t have a book deal or even an agent, if you plan on doing a blog tour or promoting your book on the internet at all (which, unfortunately you will need to do), you will need to connect with bloggers, readers, and authors. Look for blogs in your genre, and focus on ones that have a large following. Read and follow them as much as you can and make comments so your name gets recognized. Why is this so important? Popular blogs book their guest posts 6-12 months in advance, so once you get rolling, you’ll need to send your requests to guest post ASAP.
5.) You need an author webpage, Twitter/Instagram/Pinterest/etc., & Facebook page ASAP. If you don’t have these, you need to get on it! Your biggest responsibility after writing the book is marketing it, even if you have a Big 5 publisher. Almost all of the agents preferred that you already have these set up BEFORE you even query them about your novel. Once again, it’s all about networking and setting up your reader base.
4.) Use your advance money for book marketing. Yay! I finally got paid for something I wrote! I’m going to buy a fancy Persian cat and a trampoline! Sure, that sounds awesome, but the advance is an ADVANCE on the potential of your novel to make money for YOU AND THE PUBLISHER. Use the money and put it back into your book by buying additional advance reader copies to give away, swag, bookmarks, and other marketing tools that boost awareness of your book. The greater your sales, the more likely your publisher will buy your NEXT book.
3.) Author business cards: make them! I got mine from Moo (and I love them!), and it was one of the best investments for networking with agents & other authors. Not only does it say you are taking this writing business seriously (words from an agent I pitched, not mine!) it helps you keep track of people you met without resorting to slips of paper torn from the program with an illegible name and email scribbled on them. Write a note on each card about the person to help remember them (sci-fi writer, likes fly-fishing, owns a retro movie theatre, etc.) and then KEEP IN TOUCH with these people—email authors after the conference, connect on Facebook & Twitter, thank the agents for letting you pitch them or ask them questions about the business, etc. You are starting/growing your author network.
2.) YOU get to beg authors for cover blurbs! So, I always assumed the agent or publisher asks famous author-types to do the cover blurbs, but agent after agent said that SURPRISE! the author is in charge of that…which is awesome since as a debut author I know so many* famous authors personally and have them on speed-dial.
This is where all the networking and social media and so forth that you’ve been working on comes in handy. If you’ve been doing it right, you’re following your favorite authors on Twitter/Facebook/etc. and interacting with them. Hopefully, some of these authors write in the same genre as you and you can request a blurb from them. Note---you must actually interact with them, otherwise you’re just another follower of their 20,000+ and that would defeat the point!
1.) Write your next book. Every single agent, editor, author, panelist, workshop presenter said this, and it makes sense. Yes, you’ve written the Great American Novel--if only an agent would take a chance on it. So while you’re waiting for agents to get back to you and piling up the rejection slips…write the NEXT Great American Novel. Even if the first book sells right away, your agent is going to ask what else you have. Most people take >1 year to write and revise their 1st novel. Once you’re published, the time crunch begins. For authors writing a series, publishers want book #2 written, revised, edited by their editors, and ready to publish NINE months after book 1. For non-series books that is only pushed back to 1 year from the previous book. Basically, you’re on a permanent deadline once your 1st book is bought, and the more of novel #2 you have ready, the better prepared you’ll be to handle the added stress.
DFW Writers Conference 2016 will be April 23-24. To get the *Super-early Registration* rate of $190 (vs. $399 full price this year), sign up here. Offer ends Aug. 18th. I had an amazing time this year and definitely recommend it! I’ve already bought my ticket, so I’ll see you there!
Lindsay Carlson is a pharmacist who lives in Houston, TX. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and was a Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for the Houston area for the past 3 years under the name CoffeeChick. She spends her free time consuming copious amounts of caffeinated beverages and building her wall of To-Read books while nurturing her growing fortune cookie addiction.