I’m getting ready to attend the Northwest Pacific Writers Association Conference in Seattle this week. The first conference I attended was the Texas Writers’ League in Austin. While I can turn on the extrovert (I was a consultant for 20+ years, afterall) I have never enjoyed going to a big gathering of people to network. However, I had novel in hand and knew I needed to get it in front of agents and publishers if I wanted anyone, other than myself, to read it. I recall the conference as a pretty unpleasant experience. Something akin to being trapped in a crowded shopping mall during the Christmas season and a crowded terminal building in Atlanta or Chicago O’Hare. By the time I pitched my story to an agent I was so wound up I was left with a blurred memory of the encounter. Now this is from a guy who has spoken to groups of hundreds, led countless workshops, worked unscripted and often in situations where emotions ran high. How could I possibly be nervous?

Pitching a story is putting yourself out there. Here is the sum total of my creative work for the last year or more. And it’s natural to consciously or not, want agents and publishers to affirm your work and celebrate your greatness. “My God, where have you been, oh wonderful author, all of my agenting career!” Of course, most of the time what I heard was “Thanks, but not my genre.” “Thanks,it’s not what I’m looking for at the moment.” In one disasterous pitch, the poor victim of my presentation looked me in the eye. “I take it this is the first time you’ve pitched a novel.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t claim to be a virgin as I stumbled all over myself.

You might be wondering why I’m airing my dirty laundry here. As a whole, writers tend toward introversion. We like to sit for hours on our own writing our stories. Pitching a story, hobnobbing with agents, networking with writers are not on the top of the list of things to do for a good time. However, even if you’re terrified of pitching, have horror stories of pitches gone wild, hate crowds, don’t know what to say to colleagues or agents or publishers — go to a writing conference this year.

Attend the workshops — commit to taking away at least one piece of information to make you a better writer. I hear colleagues complain sometimes that they never hear anything new. If you’re in that category, then find one thing you already know, but need to be reminded of once again. Maybe you’ll hear a new idea, an old idea with a fresh angle, or just discover you’re not the only one challenged by passive verbs or too many adverbs or not enough character development or well, you get the picture.

Attend the keynotes — listen to and meet authors who have created successful writing careers. How did they do it? If the adage is true that everyone has a novel inside of them, the other truths are only a few of us actually write the novel, fewer still write a novel people want to read and of those, a tiny portion manage to do it over and over again while adapting to a changing marketplace.

Pitch — I hate pitching my stories. Hate it. However, there’s a discipline to pitching which forces us to have a killer hook and major points that grab attention. In addition, guess what your job is once you’ve gotten published, whether self-published or traditional? You are the marketing department for i-am-an-author-inc. The pitch is how you sell the book to readers. It’s the blurb on the back cover or the description with the digital vendors.

Network — Yes, you want to meet agents and publishers, although they often look like the hunted animals they are at conferences. Can you imagine listening to pitch after pitch for hours? No wonder many end up at the bar by the end of the day. However, the most important networking happens with your fellow writers. Be on the lookout for colleagues, critique partners, people who care as much about the creative art of writing as you do.

But Richard, the last time I attended one of these conferences, I stood in a corner, didn’t know anyone, worried about my pitch the entire time and generally wondered if I could talk my dentist into scheduling a root canal during the session just to get out of there.

I feel your pain. Here’s what I do. If I know anyone who will be going, I make a point to meet up with them sometime during the event–breakfast, lunch, attend some sessions together. Now I’m not alone. And if I don’t know anyone, volunteer to help with the conference. Now you’ve got a reason to be standing in the hallway, you’re talking to people because its your job to direct them or take their ticket, etc. And you’re meeting fellow volunteers. You’re no longer an outsider, but an insider. And with that bit of comfort, you just might find it easier to brave the crowd yourself.

If you haven’t been to a conference, go. If you’ve been, but are telling yourself not to go this year, go. If you don’t want to go because last time you totally screwed up your pitch, well, we’ve all been there. Go. Remember, you’re not just trying to get published. You’re building a business. And every successful business needs a network of people who support you and your success. And if you’re attending the PNWA conference this weekend, don’t know anyone and are feeling generally terrified, hunt me down. I’d love to meet you. I’ll be a volunteer and a presenter, not to mention the big name tag I’ll have around my neck, so you’ve got a good chance of finding me.

That’s my two cents. What advice you have for yourself and others about writing conferences?  Love to hear from you.

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