"Getting the Most from Your Writer's Conference" with Karen Hammond.

Thursday, June 28, 2001

MODERATOR is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l00+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Karen is Karen Hammond, a national speaker and teacher. She has written fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and books, winning several awards for her writing.

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Hello, everyone! It's good to be here tonight. I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator for the evening and the web editor for this site. I'm pleased to introduce Karen Hammond, who will be talking about "Getting the Most from Your Writer's Conference." Karen is an award-winning author in many genres. As a frequent conference speaker, Karen often sees attendees getting much LESS than their money's worth for many reasons, and we'll talk about that tonight. Welcome, Karen!

Karen: Hi, everyone. I'm happy to be here on a beautiful summer night.

Moderator: Karen, let's jump right into tonight's topic: what kinds of writing conferences are available?

Karen: Truly there's something for everyone: specialized conferences for fiction writers as well as nonfiction topics like travel, health, and so forth. A great many are general and of interest to a variety of writers.

Moderator: What exactly is a writer's conference anyway? Who goes to one?

Karen: A writer's conference brings writers and would-be writers together, usually along with editors and agents. Most are open to all with an interest in writing, although some may be geared more toward professional writers or at least writers who have been published, while others are open to all, including those who are just thinking about getting into writing.

Moderator: Why spend the time and money going to a writer's conference?

Karen: It's really money well spent. From the working writers you will learn nuts and bolts tricks of the trade and from the agents, editors, and publishers, you will learn how to submit work and what they may be looking for at that particular time.

Moderator: What can beginning writers specifically get from writers' conferences?

Karen: You can learn how to write a query letter, for example, and what magazines are open to looking at work from unpublished writers. You can chat with writers who are a notch or two ahead of you and find out how they broke into print. You can listen to and learn from editors and agents. Take good notes and you will use it all eventually; think of it as part of your writer education.

Moderator: What about seasoned writers?

Karen: Professionals often attend conferences. There's always something new to learn. For example, you may want to meet a particular agent who's speaking, or you may be thinking of adding another specialty to your repertoire. So you might sit in on a panel or two to learn more about a new writing field. Often successful nonfiction writers will want to break into fiction and vice-versa. Another hot topic at the moment is writing for the web, and professionals are going to conferences to learn about opportunities there.

MBVoelker: I went to a small, local conference this winter. In one of the sessions I discovered that I was in the wrong place when the speaker started out saying, "In the literary market it's not about plot . . ." As a genre writer I was lost. The session title had been "Understanding the Editorial Process". Any advice about picking sessions wisely and what to do when you find out that you've badly messed up like that?

Karen: Unless the conference was billed as a literary fiction conference, you didn't mess up. I'd say the title was misleading. Maybe the speaker went on to discuss the differences between literary and genre fiction, but from your description that may not have been the case. Often it's possible to slip into another session when something like that happens. Find out ahead of time if this is possible or if you find yourself in this kind of situation and feel you will get nothing from the panel, slip out unobtrusively if you can and speak to an organizer. Often he or she can slip you in somewhere else.

cyndi770: What are your thoughts on an unpublished writer submitting a sample for a paid manuscript review?

Karen: You can often get a lot from this process, but you need to think about some things before you write that check. First, who is going to read your manuscript? If it is a writer with a good background in similar writing or an experienced editor or an agent who handles similar work, and if the price seems reasonable, then it may be money well spent. Think it through.

Moderator: Sometimes personal consultations are available with established writers and editors. What are they and how can you make the most of one?

Karen: I have personally participated in these as the established writer, so let me answer that from both sides of the desk. Normally the mentee, as we'll call her, pays a reasonable fee for a private consultation with a professional writer. Sometimes the mentee submits a piece of work in advance for discussion, but often the consultations are more nuts and bolts: how do I get published, can you guide me to decent agents, why doesn't any publisher ever send me a personal rejection, and so forth. So my first tip would be, understand what you are paying for. Don't come with a manuscript if that's not clearly spelled out as the purpose of the consultation. Instead, come with a list of questions that a professional may be able to guide you on.

Next, be ready to take notes and ask follow up questions if you have time. As the mentor, I often hand out my business card and tell people to follow up by e-mail if they want but obviously I cannot provide tutorials via e-mail. If a mentee respects my time and e-mails me with a well-thought-out question, I always try to help, but unfortunately sometimes this does get taken advantage of. So I guess that's tip number 2. Be nice to your mentor and she will no doubt be kind in return!

Sometimes consultations can be a bit more specific, such as getting you over a hurdle with a plot or character problem, but these are normally the ones for which you submit material in advance, and they are usually more expensive as well. My final tip would be of course to know who you are going to be speaking with. Your mentor does not have to be a household word, but he or she should have a proven track record as a professional writer, preferably in the field in which you are interested.

AnneKelly: When you do submit a ms. for review at a conference, they often have a page limit -- maybe 10 pages or so. If you're working on a book, do you bring 10 pages or are you better off bringing full articles or stories?

Karen: If you're working on a novel, I would say bring pages of the book--that's what you want help on. Try to bring a section that stands alone somewhat, such as the first ten pages, from which the mentor should be able to get a sense of whether an agent or publisher would read that far! Or bring a key scene that shows some of the essence of the book--a love scene for a romance novel for example, or a telling scene about your protagonist. For a nonfiction book, the first 10 pages tend to be your best bet, in my experience.

Tigger: I went to a regional state SCBWI conference last year, my first writer's conference. Everyone seemed to know everyone else and I felt alone and intimidated. How does a semi-introverted person make a professional impression on editors/speakers and well-known writers at a conference?

Karen: I was hoping someone would ask this question. I have a feeling most writers are quite introverted by nature, even if we hide it well. I guess that is what makes us observers of mankind. I think you will find that all it takes is a friendly hello from you and you will find someone to chat with. Ask a question of a professional writer, such as, "I'm writing a young adult novel, my first, and I'm undecided between these two panels that both meet at the same time. Which would you suggest?" Often you'll find that, along with good advice, you'll find someone interesting to talk with. If there's a lunch, sit anywhere and talk with the people on the left and right, exchange business cards, and don't be afraid to talk a bit about yourself and what you're working on.

Also, remember that it's actually not a bad idea to be alone at a conference. You can take advantage of opportunities to chat, go to panels that interest you, and move on to others if they don't work out. Sometimes I see friends arriving together and kind of glued to each other all day. While I understand shyness, they really are missing out on a lot.

As for approaching editors, just be prepared. Introduce yourself and hand them a business card and perhaps a sample of your published work if you have one. Be ready to answer the question you will hear constantly: "What do you write? "..." You want a more definitive answer than "children's stories" or "articles about women." This is your opportunity to quickly pitch a specific idea you are working on, such as your story on a children's festival in Indonesia or the latest findings about the effects of Vitamin E on breast cancer.

AnneKelly: When they ask "What do you write?"-- how do you answer if you have a variety of writing interests?

Karen: I write on several topics myself, so I know this can be a problem. This is not the time to mention all your interests, though. Think about what this editor or agent is likely to be buying and mention one or two things in your interest area that might be appropriate.

Moderator: Is a writer's conference a good place to meet literary agents?

Karen: It can be. Often there are panels made up exclusively of agents who will spend an hour sharing what they are looking for. This is incredibly valuable information, because each year there's a hot trend or two that agents will be looking to represent. Leave your business card after the presentation, and try to say a brief hello. However, at larger conferences you may be overwhelmed unless you are very aggressive. I'm not, but I'm very good at seizing the moment! When I was starting out, I made one of my best contacts in the ladies' room, a lovely chat while we both dried our hands and then I fished out my business card. We walked out together and she asked me to send her some samples of my work. So, you never know who you'll meet in the oddest places!

Moderator: Why would editors come to writers' conferences? Aren't they already swamped with submissions?

Karen: Yes, but as any editor will tell you, a huge percentage of those submissions are inappropriate. Editors need writers, but even more so, they need writers who know what the editor needs. So they come to conferences to meet writers, put faces and names and writing specialties together, and then get across just what it is they are looking for in the hope of getting more worthwhile submissions. Virtually all editors are looking for fresh voices which does not mean you have to be a new writer or a young writer. Just that you can look at a topic with fresh eyes.

storyteller: How does one find a writer's conference?

Karen: There are many ways, but one of the best is probably from the writer's magazines like Writer's Market, The Writer and Poets and Writers, which list conferences regularly. You can also find them over the Internet. A search will turn up other sources. If you want to stay local, ask your local writer's group, library, or community college or university English department.

Moderator: What about those online sources for writers' conferences?

Karen: Try these URL's: Writer's Roundtable Conferences at and ShawGuides has over 700 writers' conferences and workshops at (where you can get a monthly newsletter) and Writer's Conferences and Festivals at

Moderator: The lists of conferences are extensive. How do you choose the conference that's right for you?

Karen: Good question. You need to think of how much time and money you have to spend and then find a conference that fits your schedule, budget, and writing needs. This can take some planning, so it's good to start thinking ahead. If any of you have never attended a conference before, you might want to start looking at what's going on now in order to plan for next year. I am always amazed at people who come to nonfiction writing conferences hoping to find someone to publish their novel. It's sad, really. Such a waste of their time and money when they could be at a conference with other fiction writers and buying agents and editors.

Moderator: Some of the conferences are so expensive. Costs can range from $50 for attending a conference at a college campus within easy driving distance to a couple thousand dollars for a week away, including flying. Is there a way to get around this?

Karen: The obvious of course is to stay within a day's drive. That avoids the costs of lodging and some meals. If you must travel overnight to find an appropriate conference, be extra sure it's the right one for you. Then figure out a low-cost way to get there, such as sharing the driving with a fellow writer or taking advantage of low-cost air rates that conferences often arrange. Food's less of a problem. Big conferences usually include a major lunch as part of the conference fee and most people are happy with a drink and a slice of pizza in the evening. Some conferences have scholarships but don't advertise them widely. Don't hesitate to ask if one is available, or if there is a way you can help, such as working at the registration table, and reduce the cost of your fee. It never hurts to inquire, but do so well in advance. I actually was invited to a conference in Maine this spring that only cost $15! It was just for poets and the $15 only covered the conference cost (with food and any necessary lodging on one's own.) The idea was to make it accessible to as many as possible which I thought was lovely. My hat is off to the poets!

AnneKelly: I will be going to a regional SCBWI conference in September. I'm interested in writing both fiction and nonfiction. Should I try to find sessions on both?

Karen: This really depends on where you are with your writing. Do you have a fiction or nonfiction idea that you want to get on paper and just are not sure how to proceed, or are you just gathering background information for now? If you have an idea, let's say for a children's fiction book, I'd say why not stay focused on that for this year and see what you can do with it. Sometimes jumping from fiction to nonfiction gives a beginning writer so may ideas that one gets back into the loop of "which do I tackle first?" So if you have an idea, I'd say go with it, make it your focus for this conference, and learn all you can about how to get it into print.

MBVoelker: What are the benefits of a multi-day conference as opposed to a single day?

Karen: At a multi-day conference there is more opportunity, usually, to follow up with writers, agents and editors whom you may have heard speak on a panel but didn't have an opportunity to talk one on one with. Obviously there will probably be more sessions to choose from and probably more kinds of mentoring. Depends on what you want and how much time and money you can spend. On multi-day conferences writers and agents often hang out together afterward informally, perhaps going for a drink or a snack, and as we all know, it's often easier to talk that way. So that's a plus. And how's your stamina? Those long conferences can be tiring after a while even if you're having fun!

Tigger: Is there an organization, like SCBWI is for book writers, for magazine writers? Are there conferences just for magazines?

Karen: The largest organization for magazine writers is the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) which also has many book authors among its ranks. Many write both books and magazine pieces, all nonfiction. They host one of the country's largest conferences every year in April in New York City: two days, many panels, buying editors from top magazines, literary agents, etc. The second day is open to everyone. Mentoring is offered very reasonably with a professional writer in your field. It's always a big hit and they bring in two big-name speakers from the book world as luncheon speakers. Two recent ones I recall are Dominick Dunne and Gerald Posner, and Arianna Huffington came two or three years ago I believe. Of course the down side can be hotel bills in NYC. Ouch! The asja website is for anyone interested in next year's conference, which I believe is the third weekend in April. This may be the place to mention that if you are beginning to get some things published, it's time to talk with your friendly tax person. Conferences are business expenses for working writers, and that helps some.

AnneKelly: Will an agent talk to an unpublished writer at a conference?

Karen: Definitely. That's probably what he or she is there for, hoping to find the gem that will make her day. You should first be sure that the agent represents the kind of work you write. This is vital. You can research this in advance in a book like Jeff Herman's guide. I think the exact title is Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents. It will tell you all you need to know about most of the country's agents. If you feel there will be an agent there who might want what you've written, here's my advice: Prepare a copy of your manuscript and bring it with you in a neat envelope. Talk with the agent and tell him the subject of your manuscript and ask if he'd be interested in reading it. If he says yes, you can mention that you have a copy with you, but would be happy to mail it if he would prefer that. Sometimes if an agent is scooting out the door he'll say, "Sure, give it to me..." Other times he will understandably ask you to mail it, especially if he knows writers are going to be offering him manuscripts all day. But at least you've established contact and he knows there's really a manuscript there, not just an idea. Then follow up quickly when you get home by either 1) a quick thank-you for taking the manuscript and an indication that you look forward to hearing from him at his convenience (not "please give me your decision by July 1"), or by sending the manuscript with a polite cover letter that reminds him you are following up on his invitation to send it.

Let me back up one sec here. Do know what your book is "about." When an agent or editor asks this he wants what amounts to a one-paragaph summary. You need to put some thought into this and practice it at home. You may have only fleeting moments to make your oral pitch. Be prepared.

racemup: How about offering the agent the first two chapters?

Karen: Most have their own requirements; some want outlines and 2 or 3 representative chapters; some want just a summary; some want the whole thing. You can find that out in the Herman book and others like it. It will also definitely be among the things they discuss at the conference, so you will know what to bring next time.

Moderator: What kind of lodging and facilities should we expect at an overnight conference?

Karen: Gosh, that can be all over the place from college dorms to luxury hotels. Really depends on the conference and the location.

Moderator: How can you prepare for a conference ahead of time so that you get the most for your money?

Karen: Preparing for a conference should be fun. Research those that look interesting and ask to be put on their mailing list. I've found it helpful, when researching a new conference, to ask if there are any brochures left from the last conference or if the schedule is posted on-line. You can get a good idea of what the conference is all about that way. When you get your brochure for the current conference, make a decision quickly about whether or not you are going because some do sell out; housing may be at a premium at others; and for those that read manuscripts, there's often a tight limit on how many will be reviewed. By doing your preliminary research ahead of time, you should have a pretty good idea of how you want to proceed.

Moderator: Is it helpful to read books by the speakers and learn more about them ahead of time?

Karen: Agents and editors are the ones who are going to be accepting your work, so I think it's more helpful to review some of books they have successfully edited or represented through publication. Does your book seem to fit in with what this agent or editor does best? As for speakers who are writers, sure, it's always worthwhile to see what someone has written that has brought him or her to a position of speaking at a conference.

Moderator: What kinds of goals should attendees have in mind when they go to a writer's conference? What might they hope to accomplish there?

Karen: Well, be realistic of course. No one will be going home with a contract in her pocket! Try to exchange business cards with one or two agents whom you have gotten to know briefly and then be ready to follow up when you get home, because all those other writers will be. If you're not quite at that stage yet, your goal might be to learn to write a great query letter, something you can accomplish easily in a 20-minute session with a working writer. Or for a writer who has broken into print in little local publications, a goal might be to meet with editors of some midrange magazines, find out what they are looking for, and try to establish contact with a couple of them.

Moderator: What should you take to a conference? Pack a suitcase and book bag for us as if we were heading off to our first conference.

Karen: OK. For conference day, dress in business attire--a simple dress or suit for women and a suit or sports jacket for men. Wear appropriate, comfortable shoes. There's usually a lot of walking around to panels and so forth. I'd suggest some casual clothes for evening if you want to go sightseeing or just get out of the heels, which always seems to be my goal by the end of the day. But of course if you're in NYC for example, you may be planning to go to the theater, or if you're at the Maui conference it may be swimming under the stars, so you'll need to think about that on your own I guess! The point is, when you are meeting with the agents and editors during the day, you want to look like someone who is taking his or her job--writing--as seriously as any other job.

Now, let's fill that book bag or briefcase with samples of your work, business cards--lots of them--a spiral notebook, pens and/or pencils, and maybe a bottle of water and a power bar if you don't eat breakfast and lunch isn't until 1:30 (it happens!). Have some organized way of filing the business cards you'll be collecting so that you keep them separate from your own. And you're off.

cinnia2: I know this is not the subject but it was mentioned. What do you put on a business card after your name? Color? Graphics? Titles? And can you make them on your computer?

Karen: I get asked this a lot. First let me say that most professionals I know keep their cards very simple: off-white, buff, or maybe gray with black or blue ink. I don't see many graphics. There's nothing wrong with a tasteful graphic, but I think the feeling is that if you are a word person, you should keep the focus on words, not on artwork. You need your name and contact information, including your address, phone number, fax number if you have one, and e-mail address. After that it's up to you, but I think it's good to give some indication of what it is you do, so beneath your name it might say "Freelance Writer" or "Freelance Journalist." Or you might skip that and list a couple of your writing related memberships, such as "Member: American Society of Journalists and Authors" and maybe a specialized membership you have. I'm often asked about using "Travel Writer" or "Health Writer" etc. It's fine, if that's all you write, and many people do specialize that tightly. But this can be a problem if you suddenly decide you want to write a feature article on cancer and your business card and letterhead list you as "Home and Garden Writer." So think about what's most versatile. I'd suggest just "Freelance Writer" at least for a while. And if you can do a good job making them on your computer, sure. It's a good way to save money.

Moderator: We're told to "network" at conferences. What exactly is networking? And what opportunities for networking are there at conferences?

Karen: This means talking with as many people as possible, preferably those who can help you in your career. After all, that's why you've spent the money to come. Come early and chat with the editors over coffee before everyone else gets there, try to sit at a table with an agent or editor and ask lots of questions. Talk with published writers about how they got started and what tips they have. Spread your business cards around and...this is very important...follow up on promising opportunities as soon as possible after you get home. A lot of people forget to leave themselves some free time during the week following the conference so they can follow up with proposals or manuscripts while their name and face is still fresh in the agent's or editor's mind.

Moderator: I really hate to interrupt here, but we're out of time tonight. Thank you so much, Karen, for sharing with us your ideas and experiences on attending writers' conferences. Being prepared will help us all get the most from our future writing conferences.

Karen: I am certainly impressed with these questions, and thank you all so much for stopping by. Good luck, everyone.

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on July l2 when our rescheduled guest, Karen O'Connor, will be talking about "How To Keep Going When the Going Gets Tough." Karen is a much-sought-after inspirational speaker who has written hundreds of articles and many books, both fiction and nonfiction. She will be sharing experiences and ideas from her 25 years of professional writing. You won't want to miss her interview. Until then, happy writing! Good night, everyone!

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