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L.T. Suzuki

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Merits of a Writers Conference
7/19/2009 6:08:20 PM

(Or making the most of your attendance at a writers conference.)
I finally had the chance to register for the Surrey International Writers Conference yesterday. This annual event takes place each October at the Guildford Sheraton in Surrey, BC, Canada and being my sixth year in attendance, it’s now become a yearly ritual I look forward to.

Reputed to be one of the best writing conferences in North America, hundred of writers from all over the world: across Canada, the United States, the U.K. and even Australia and South America converge on this hotel to attend the workshops hosted by publishers, editors and bestselling authors. It is well organized, supported by the help of many dedicated volunteers and is diverse in terms of the workshop topics.

One segment of the conference that many consider to be the highlight is the opportunity to pitch their work to agents and editors (appointments are free and only those who register can take advantage of this). Even if you do not succeed in landing an agent, it’s still a wonderful chance to hone your skills, as delivering a pitch in person is quite different, and some consider more intimidating, than writing a query letter. For one, you’re face to face with the person you’re querying to. Secondly, you don’t need to wait for a S.A.S.E. to arrive in your mailbox to get a response!

I always thought this was a wonderful perk until I had one newbie conference attendee tell me that her overall experience was unnerving because she said she could ‘sense the desperation in the air’: All these aspiring authors clamoring for their big break; all jockeying for multiple opportunities to pitch, and pitch again, their work to any agent or editor willing to listen or they could book time with.

I never really noticed this before, until I overheard some of the hallway conversations, chats in line-ups and even witnessed one anxious author attempting to pitch to my agent as she tried to leave the ballroom right after the opening speech from the keynote speaker.

Most were fairly new to the conference and the writing profession, speaking of their dreams of hooking up with an agent or editor. One such conversation that really stands out in my mind were two young ladies walking past a workshop on self-publishing. I recalled how they pooh-poohed the very notion of stooping to this ‘desperate’ level, and only a traditional, mainstream publishing company would do for them if they wanted to be taken seriously in the literary world.

Ironically, it was also these same two girls I overheard while I was setting up for the Book Fair at the end of the day, grumbling about how their pitches didn’t land them an agent. Apparently, it was the agent’s loss, not theirs (they had pitched to the same agent). Instead of analyzing what they could have done better to make an impression on the agent, they chose to point the finger at the agent, and her ‘inability to spot talent’ when it’s sitting right in front of her!

This is one of the most difficult things to hear when I happen to catch those new to the conference sharing in their plans to land an agent or make a deal with an editor. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with being optimistic or having a dream, but the truth of the matter is, just because you’re meeting one-on-one, it does not guarantee you’ll land a deal. Not to say there are not some wonderful success stories from those attending the SIWC, for it does happen, but here is the reality: One published author who had attended this conference said that when she first landed her agent, of the 700 conference attendees, only 1% were lucky enough to walk away with a contract.
I suppose this figure is not far off when I consider that one agent I spoke to on the last day of the conference said that in the 3 days of listening to pitches every 10 minutes, there were no writers he met that he had enough interest in representing. He walked away from the conference with not one new author.

Some aspiring authors who failed to garner his representation griped that he was being too picky. Well, he has to be in order to survive in the market. That’s the grim reality of this business.

Yes, the chance of landing an agent or making a book deal with a publisher or editor is slim, but it does happen. I was one of the 1% (twice now), but if you view this portion of the conference as your sole mission (the landing of an agent or book deal), there’s a good chance you’ll be setting yourself up for disappointment and missing out on the true purpose of this conference: To become the best possible writer you can be!

Instead, view the pitch sessions as a way to practice your delivery. (I recommend doing some research on the agent/editor first.) If it goes your way: Bonus! I consider it (the chance to speak one-on-one to a prospective agent or editor) to be the proverbial icing on the cake, as far as this conference goes. And the opportunity to partake in the Blue Pencil Session, to meet for fifteen minutes alone with your favorite author to discuss elements of your writing is an incredible experience to learn from the experts who’ve been there.

If your ultimate goal is to land an agent or a book deal, you may be setting yourself up for heartbreak and disappointment. However, if you attend this conference and use it as an opportunity to network with fellow writers; to find inspiration and to rub shoulders (or in my case because I’m so short, to rub elbows) with bestselling authors to share in their mojo; to take part in excellent workshops hosted by some of the best writers in the world and to enroll in some of the master classes to be taught by great authors such as Jack Whyte or agent extraordinaire like Donald Maass, then the Surrey International Writers Conference is the place to be.

For more information, go to www.siwc.com for a schedule of workshops, lists of presenters and registration details. If you’re serious about writing, this is the best place to be in October! Maybe I’ll see you there!


Comments (2)

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