How to Prepare for Your First Writing Conference

Dress neat. Act nice. Bring cash. Ask questions. Drink whiskey. There, I just saved you ten minutes.

I’m typing this at a desk in a hotel room in Pleasanton, California. Cars and BART trains are roaring by just a few hundred feet from my door. The noise is ceaseless, not loud enough to be painful or even unpleasant, but also impossible to ignore. (The hotel, realizing this, has placed several cellophane-wrapped pairs of pink earplugs on the bedside table for me.)

Tomorrow morning, I will get up at seven o’clock, shower, dress, and partake of this hotel’s free continental breakfast (and woe betide them if their scrambled eggs are runny). At roughly 10:00 AM, I will stroll a few hundred yards east to the Dublin BART station and climb aboard an eastbound train. After a rattling, bumpy, hour-long ride, I will disembark from the BART train at Powell Street Station in San Francisco, walk nine blocks, and enter the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel on California Street, right about 12:00 PM. I will go up to the registration desk, get a badge and a goodie bag, and begin my first-ever



But how did I get here? What were the steps I took to prepare for this august occasion (the largest conference of its kind on the West Coast, a yearly gathering of the best and brightest among literary agents, publicists, poets, and fiction and non-fiction authors)?

I’m so deep into my first pint of Ancient Age bourbon that I hardly remember myself.

How to prepare for your first writer’s conference in 200 milliliters. 

So, like any great writer, I’m going to steal. I went to Writer’s Digest and The Write Life and looked at their articles about preparing for your first writer’s conference. There was some excellent stuff in there. The Writer’s Digest piece was written by Linda Formichelli, whose book (The Renegade Writer, an excellent primer on breaking into nonfiction freelance writing) I’m currently reading. She knows what she’s talking about.

If you’re like me—a first-timer, sitting in a hotel room in the East Bay or (you lucky sucker) San Francisco proper, biting your nails and wondering whether you brought enough business cards and book proposals and obsessing over how this weekend is going to go, maybe these tips will help.

(Just for kicks, I’m going to be perfectly frank and tell you which ones of these I did and which ones I didn’t. Should be a hoot.)

[Takes another gulp of bottom-shelf bourbon]

Ah, that’s the stuff. Okay, here we go. Step one comin’ at ya…

Step 1: Practice your “elevator pitch” ahead of time.


Yeah, I didn’t do that.

Elevator pitch? What’s that? Oh yeah, it’s a 45-second (some sources say 30- or even 20-second) verbal summary of your book intended to catch the ear of a publisher or agent and make them drool. A catchy, succinct sales pitch, that’s what an elevator pitch is.

Ask yourself: if you somehow wound up in an elevator with an agent you’ve been dying to pitch your book to, and had only as long as it would take for the elevator to reach a certain floor (20, 30, or 45 seconds, whatever)…could you sum up the plot and premise of your novel in such a way as to make the agent take you on right then and there?

Elevator Wallpaper.jpg
Fourth floor: home goods, camping supplies, nose hair trimmers, book deals. 

Most people can’t. And even if they do somehow boil their book down into a 20-second spiel, most people get tongue-tied when they’re finally face-to-face with a publisher. Or worse, they don’t get tongue-tied, and they just blather on and on and on until the agent feels like sticking his or her head through the elevator doors and getting it cut off Final Destination-style.

At the very least, you should be able to summarize what your book is about in one sentence. This is called a “log line.” It should adequately encapsulate the story you’re trying to tell (or, if you’re a nonfiction writer, the question you’re answering for your audience), and it should do it in a smart, sexy sort of way that catches the agent’s attention immediately.

Step 2: Bring business cards.

Nope…didn’t do this either. I had them made a few months ago, but I plumb forgot about them when I left the apartment this evening. They’re in my treasure box on top of my dresser, probably chuckling among themselves.

Anyway, this is pretty self-explanatory. At a typical conference, agents and publishers will meet with and talk to dozens if not hundreds of people. Make sure you have some way to make them remember you. A flashy business card with an attractive, uncluttered layout is just the ticket. Linda Formichelli suggests putting your picture on your business card to make it even more memorable. Names don’t jog a person’s memory the way a clean mugshot does.

Nancy (with the laughing face)…

Step 3: Dress appropriately.

If you’re like me (an aspiring author with a couple of manuscripts stuffed into desk drawers back home and looking to land a book deal), you should dress the part. Remember, the relationship between an author and an agent is a business relationship. Lots of companies are going casual these days, but you shouldn’t show up to a conference looking like you’ve been pulled backward through a combine harvester.

Linda Formichelli goes so far as to say that your dress should reflect your signature style. I’m a sci-fi writer. That doesn’t mean I should show up in a spacesuit, even though that would be frickin’ ace. My style is old-fashioned, genteel even, with a little bit of goofiness thrown in. Therefore I will be wearing a tailored brown suit coat that was made for me by a grinning tailor in Itaewon, Seoul, South Korea; khaki slacks (with an elastic band, because comfort); a black belt and brown shoes, just to make the fashionistas pop a capillary; and some truly ridonkulous plaid shirts. So I’ll still look nice, in a he-buys-all-his-clothes-at-a-thrift-store-from-the-1970s kind of way.

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Step 4: Have clear goals in mind.

I signed up for the San Francisco Writer’s conference on September 27, 2017. (Says so right here on my receipt.) If you had asked me back then what my goals were in attending the conference, I’d probably have said something like:


If my present self could reach back to my past self and give him a nice hard dope slap upside the head, my present self would.

Since September, I’ve worked hard on figuring out and memorizing what my specific goals are at SFWC 2018. They are:

  • Make four or five good, solid connections with key figures in the industry, be they fellow sci-fi/fantasy authors, literary agents, publishers, etc.
  • Practice pitching my magnum opus to at least 10 or 12 literary agents and see what kinds of reactions I get. (This is why I signed up for “Speed Dating with Agents.”)
  • Find out whether my other finished standalone novels (unrelated to my magnum opus) are salable.
  • OPTIONAL: Forge some lifelong friendships with other sci-fi/fantasy writers, some of whom are already established and can mentor me, and some of whom are still struggling and unrecognized and can be my good buddies and beta readers, the Ernest Hemingway to my F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Robert E. Howard to my H.P. Lovecraft, the J.R.R. Tolkien to my C.S. Lewis. You get the idea.
Dreams are jet engines. Goals are rails. You’ll need both if you want to get anywhere.

Step 5: Bring cash.

You paid a flat fee to be at the conference, but there are all sorts of extra classes and seminars you can sign up for. Don’t skimp on anything you think might give you an edge in your genre and in your craft. Also, don’t forget the countless networking opportunities you’ll be presented with: gala parties, dinner and drinks out on the town with other writers. Make sure you’ve got enough cash in your pocket to buy a few rounds for your fellow conference-goers during an evening out, or to buy your way into a few ancillary courses that can fill in any gaps in your knowledge and experience as a writer.

Step 6:  There is no Step 6.

(Sorry, Monty Python joke.)

If you’re going to SFWC 2018, look out for me! (I’ll be the guy in brown with the funny walk.) If you’re heading to a different writer’s conference soon, take heart! You can do this. With a little preparation, courtesy, and courage on your part, you can get your time and money’s worth out of any conference you attend. The hopes and prayers of your fellow writers go with you.

Now get off this here blog and get writing. And for Pete’s sake, pass the whiskey.