How to Get Your Novel Noticed: Engaging Agents at Creative Writing Conferences

Spring is here, and that means the season of creative writing conferences is upon us. If you’ve splurged on an upcoming conference, you’re probably equally excited to improve your craft and anxious about pitching your novel. Most creative writing conferences have agents present—possibly even a chance to pitch to one—so here’s some advice on getting your novel noticed.

Before the conference

Apply early. Agent pitch sessions, critique sessions, and other special add-ons such as editor/agent-led workshops fill quickly.

Research the agents involved for genre acceptance. Go beyond the blurbs posted on conference pages—visit their publishing websites and get a feel for their personalities. Check their blogs for wish lists. Does your dream agent say they long for an edgy murder mystery set in multiple locations but rejects all manuscripts that don’t pass the Bechdel and/or Mako Mori tests?

Absolutely plan to attend sessions hosted by your preferred agentsbefore you pitch, if possible.

Choose all sessions ahead of time to save precious conference minutes. You’ll use the short breaks between sessions for networking, giving the dreaded elevator pitch, doing some inspired writing, or most likely—making friends in the lobby or bar. (Writing conferences are very easy to navigate socially. Who doesn’t want to answer the friendly question: “What’s your book about?”)

Have a first, second, and third plan for every session block. Sometimes room fill up, or you’ll watch a presenter close down the hotel bar with “Danny Boy” the night before and realize you’re no longer so keen on seeing their session on time management. Also, if you’ve also researched the presenters (agents, authors, editors), you’ll get a feel for if they can actually teach as well as they do their day job.

Prepare multiple copies of your query, pitch, and first pages. You never know when you’ll get a chance to ask questions or get feedback on phrasing. Don’t count on being able to do too much last-minute printing in the business center.

During the conference

During a pitch session, bring a query letter in case your panicked, blank mind can’t retrieve your carefully crafted longline. If you’re doing a ten-minute query pitch, agents will simply read your letter and give you feedback or ask follow-up questions. During first page critiques, you’ll share your entire page and get feedback and advice. Query, pages, and synopsis critiques led by an agent are a fantastic way to introduce your work to them. Take every opportunity to partake in these, and always keep your most recent files accessible. I once received a request for pages because I quickly emailed my first page for critique during a revision session in which an agent/editor spontaneously asked for a volunteer whose work she could dissect on the main screen.

Many, many sessions on craft will look good, but attend at least a few agent-led sessions, not just the one you signed up for. You’ll feel more relaxed and be better able to process agents’ comments when your leg isn’t shaking so much that you’re spilling coffee from that tiny, impractical, lidless hotel coffee mug. (Side advice—consider bringing a travel mug!) The agent critique sessions, often billed as “first-page critiques,” “query critiques,” or “round-table reviews,” can benefit the spectators as much as the participants. My fellow conference-attending friends agree: watching an agent explain why another writer’s pages work or don’t work has been immensely helpful. Also, if you have extra copies of queries or pages in your hand when you attend these extra sessions, you might get to fill a slot if there are any no-shows.

By attending extra agent sessions, you’ll also get a much clearer sense of what your own preferred agents are tired of seeing. And, since you don’t have to spend those precious minutes in between sessions choosing your next workshop, you can quickly revise that favorite darling line/opening/gimmick which you now know your agent would rather fly coach than ever read again. 

I can’t stress it enough: attend agent sessions and panels. This is the best way to learn current market trends and avoid pitfalls. For example: “diversity is a buzzword lately and we’re glutted with dystopian” (this is from last year—things change quickly). That doesn’t mean you give up on your six-novel dystopian series, but you will certainly revise your query and synopsis to highlight your protagonist’s marginalized status and downplay your novel’s “dystopian” elements to instead champion its speculative science-fantasy genre aspects. 

Opportune moments

It’s really okay to spontaneously pitch! Agents are there to gain clients and encourage attendees. Elevators, hallways, even the lobby or bar are all fair game. Agents will let you know if they’re too busy to talk. Keep in mind, they are often booked solid, so walking with them from one session to another might be the only chance you get. Use common sense—don’t follow them into the bathroom or push another writer out of the way to tout your soon-to-be-bestseller.

Meals are another great opportunity to pitch or get advice. If you line up early, you can usually head toward the table reserved for your agent. However, since agents are often bombarded during this time, my preferred method is to just sit wherever I please and enjoy meeting my table-mates. I’d rather converse with an agent during lunch or breakfast on the last day after the crowds have thinned. Do keep in mind that agents often rush to the airport right after the last keynote. 

Volunteering can also be a good way to network or meet an agent unexpectedly or casually. However, you’ll have less time for yourself and your creative process.

After the conference

The good news is that most agents, even those whose websites say, “closed to unsolicited queries,” will take queries from conference attendees for a reasonable period of time. So even if you didn’t get to pitch to Agent Schmoe, you can query them later with QUERY FROM BLAH BLAH CONFERENCE ATTENDEE in the subject line. Either way, you’ve got a solid foot in the door instead of a few likely-to-be-slammed fingers. After I return home and have had time to decompress and apply my newly-gleaned conference info, I tend to query any agent who takes my genre. Except of course, if it was the agent who was closing down the bar with “Danny Boy” so loudly that first night.

And then, let’s face it–I might even query them anyway.

Thanks for reading! Look for my upcoming posts on how to get the most out of conference sessions and tips on querying!

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