Wednesday, 26 October 2011

How to Get the Most out of Writing Conferences - Guest Blog by Harry Bingham

When I was setting up our first Festival of Writing, I had a sneaking feeling that the whole thing was a fraud. After all, I’d long told authors that all they had to do was write a wonderful book, send it off to literary agents, then sit back and enjoy the ride. Sure, there were some basic things you could do to ensure that your submission was likely to be looked at more positively. You needed to pick agents in a half-sensible way and write a covering letter that wasn’t awful, but that was it. Write a wonderful book. Don’t be an idiot when approaching the industry. Everything else was guff.

I still half-believe something similar now. Or rather: if you hate conferences and don’t want to network, you can still succeed. The quality of your manuscript remains by far the most important thing. Get that right and the rest won’t matter.

On the other hand, having now organised two massive writing conferences, I realise that for countless people our Festival of Writing has acted like an epiphany. More precisely, it can set in place a series of detonations that propel you forward, changing how you think about yourself, the industry and your book. More about that in a moment, but first a word about what a conference actually involves.

Our Festival of Writing, like most other writing conferences, offers a mixture of workshops, talks, seminars and one-to-one pitch sessions with literary agents, or one-to-one editorial sessions with book doctors. Ours is an ‘on-campus’ event, meaning that accommodation and food is all provided on the same college campus, which means you may find yourself sharing breakfast with a bestselling author or sitting up boozing with a well-known literary agent.

Those chance encounters are as important to the overall experience as the workshops and seminars themselves. If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself encountering some critical and essential plotting point in a seminar, getting feedback from a publisher that really heartens you, hearing some words of advice from a boozy agent that give you a flash of illumination as to why your chapter two still feels a little dead. The sequence and propinquity of these things can make for an incredibly intense, nervy, but uplifting event. I also know that we get far more writer-agent connections established at our Festival than you’d expect from simply popping your manuscript in an envelope and getting it out to agents that way. In the last ten days alone, I’ve heard of one writer whose book has just been sold to Random House, via an agent he met at the Festival. Another writer has just had his book optioned for film, again from a Festival-forged connection.

The writers who do best at these things are the writers who have done the most preparation. First, if you are coming to a conference hoping to get taken on by a literary agent, your manuscript must be agent-ready. No one will want to represent you just because you’re charming, or buy lots of drinks, or have a great idea. You have to have a wonderful manuscript, well presented. In an ideal world, you’ll get there all by yourself. In the world most of us live in, you’ll probably want to get professional feedback and advice on your writing somewhere along the way.

If you do decide that professional feedback is worth it, then you should schedule it in early. Most festivals will probably need agent submissions a month or so beforehand (so agents have time to read your work). An editorial assessment will take a few weeks – allow a month – and you should give yourself a good few weeks to respond to any advice and feedback you’re given. That means that, at the latest, you should be sending your manuscript out for feedback three months before the event. And, of course, it makes no sense to solicit feedback until you’ve edited your manuscript as hard as you can first, which pushes the timeline back further still.

All that sounds arduous – and it is – but agents can easily tell which manuscripts have been loved and worked at and which ones are simply underripe. No prizes for guessing which one they’ll be most interested in.

Secondly, you should come to a conference with notes about who you want to talk to, what their background is, which authors they represent – anything that means you’ll get the very most from the encounters you have. I know one author who came to the Festival with a colour-coded list of all the people she wanted to talk to, with short notes on each one. That was a brilliant piece of preparation – and she ended the Festival with a couple of literary agents eager to read her completed manuscript.

And finally, a couple of social points. It makes no sense to be too pushy with agents. They’re there to work, sure, but they’re also there to have fun. If you are pleasant, tactful and responsive when talking to agents, you’ll do a lot better than if you’re not. If you start talking to an agent and you see they’re tired or just not in a place to chat, then leave it. They’ll thank you for it – and you’ll have other chances to make those connections.

Additionally, if you don’t like turning up to these events knowing no one, then go along with some of your friends from your local writing circle, or join an online community (like the Word Cloud) so you don’t feel isolated. These events are fun, but they can also be quite high pressure. Having some friends there with you is a good way to share the load. (Oh, and our conference, like most others, can probably be persuaded into offering discounts for multiple bookings, so it’s well worth calling up and seeing what you can haggle.)

Harry Bingham is an author and boss of the Writers’ Workshop, which offers help with literary agents and feedback on your writing. It also organises an annual Festival of Writing – scheduled for September 7-9, 2012.

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