First of all, let me say WDCE is my third writing conference and I’m still slightly terrified. I’m going to chalk my nerves up to exhaustion; I took a redeye from Phoenix to New York and I’ve been awake since 5 AM. On the plus side, I wandered around the city for a while and got to see some pretty cool things: Argo Tea (my favorite chain from my undergrad days), Bryant Park, the New York Public Library, and 30 Rock. It’s been a comedy of errors – I sought out Argo and ended up getting directions to one almost two miles from my hotel, as opposed to the closer one less than half a mile away. I also got turned around and ended up literally turning a corner and seeing Bryant Park. My NYC knowledge isn’t spectacular; I had no idea the library was near Bryant Park. Seeing the “PL” and making the connection was a happy discovery (and diversion). I also just happened to look over while walking and see the familiar 30 Rock building. TL;DR I’m oblivious in NYC.
Anyway, conference expectations. Many folks have them. As someone who has only been to three of them, I can tell you that I am by no means an expert. However, that doesn’t mean that I won’t offer some eleventh hour advice and hopefully quell some anxiety.
Pitching: I cannot say it enough. You need to do your research. What is listed in the program is the bare bones to get you moving to some of the right people; your best bet is to Google the literary agent to obtain a better feel for who (s)he is (take a look at the agency, too!). Often you’ll see more information about genre preferences, such as favorite authors or authors the agent currently represents. Also, use your time wisely during the pitch session: if an agent mentions general preferences like “strong characters in strange places” in the program but doesn’t specifically mention your genre, it’s probably best to move on and not waste any time in that line. While you might have a strong character in a strange place, focus your efforts, energy, and time on agents that you know want to hear more beyond that. If you’re pitching to someone solely because you can fit your book into his/her buzzwords, that might be constraining. The agent wants to hear authentic passion for your own work, not parroting their passion about someone else’s work.
People: As James Scott Bell said in the opening keynote, we writers are weird folks. Just go with it. Make friends. Pass out business cards if you have them; acknowledge those who don’t have them. Seriously, having someone about-face and shun me when I didn’t have a business card to give her was a super awful feeling, and so unnecessary. She lost out on a potential social media connection there, not to mention a rousing conversationalist (I swear, once the awkward shield goes down I am hilarious). Look, we all know we have at least two things in common: we love to write, and in some way we are weird.
Pacing: Yes, it can be overwhelming. I saw co-attendees come out of sessions (pitches, panels, and everything in between) realizing they need to rework huge manuscript components. I’ve been at conferences and had light bulbs go off about what I need to fix or redo or cut out entirely. Sometimes I will try to do this during the conference; often, I’ve found I need a little time to let things simmer. Sessions are back-to-back, so you may also be rushing from a session that ran over to another session. At the end of the day, you might be exhausted from a mental overload, or you might be energetic and pumped with adrenaline. Keep plans loose and don’t push yourself.
Perspective: It’s a writing conference. You’re at the conference because you love writing. Loving something means sharing in the joy and sorrow and the satisfaction and disappointment. If you can walk into a conference and own the place, kudos to you. There’s a teeny tiny itty bitty chance someone will offer you a book deal immediately following a ninety-second pitch. There’s a much larger chance you’ll learn something and/or meet someone. Have fun; we all are.
Oh, also, a woman told me that angels were going to kill me. So I guarantee your writing conference experience started off better than mine, because it probably didn’t include death threats from on high.
I guess if this whole writing thing doesn’t work out, I can always take up holy haunting and celestial vengeance in the afterlife. Just call me Justice, Vigilante.