I recently attended the Washington Writers Conference. Before registering I sought reviews or personal accounts of attendees and couldn’t find any, so perhaps this report will help anyone considering attending in future years. In short, I’m glad I went once, but that was enough.
First, some basics: “Washington” refers in this case to DC, but the conference actually took place in the northern suburb of Bethesda, a hefty 1.3-mile walk from the closest Metro station. The event took place over 24 hours: a cash-bar reception on Friday night and nine hours of invited talks and pitches to agents on Saturday.
The reception was, of course, a networking opportunity. Maybe fifty people filled the room at any one time, but I didn’t see any wallflowers. I was unable to tell whether any agents or publishers were there. Instead, I met a few other writers, swapped pitches with them, heard about their projects, gauged their reaction to mine, and had a fine time socializing.
The venue being a Marriott, my small, plastic cup of Diet Coke cost $5. A perfunctory veggie tray was provided without any extra charge.
Two sessions interested me: what interests publishers and how to pitch to agents. I attended others, but why I would listen to writers speak – as opposed to reading what they have to say – is beyond me. I guess one reason might be to share physical space with someone famous, but that’s not my thing either (e.g. I passed on the chance to go out for a late-night dinner with the Clash and Joe Ely).
This obviously was the reason that most attendees had paid for the conference – including me. While registering online, I picked four agents from a list, with the understanding that I’d get to meet with three of them. And I did. The conference also gave me time with a fourth, but she doesn’t handle novels. She had helpful advice anyway.
Here was the setup: the agents sat at little tables in a meeting room, and writers were herded in and out in groups. After five minutes (or so) of meeting time, a guy rang a string of bells to indicate that time was up. I didn’t know when my appointments would be until I picked up my registration packet on Saturday morning.
The agents responded to my pitch in various ways. One almost immediately invited me to query her in writing and had no apparent interest in discussing it further. ‘It all depends on the writing,’ she repeated. So I asked how I might strengthen my pitch, and she gave some advice. Another gave me a rapid-fire grilling, whereas the third gave me a more relaxed one. Both expressed concern regarding structural aspects of the work, so I know that I need to address them in the text or in my pitch. Finally, at least two of them said that the situation in my novel was unique, and it was clear that this was a selling point.
And that’s it: a moderate amount of new knowledge and three invitations to query them in writing once the manuscript is complete. Afterward, I read that, to avoid unpleasant scenes, agents at conferences usually invite pitching authors to query them. Another writer told me that an agent said she could send in her manuscript if she would also join a writers group. (All of this might be different for non-fiction pitching – I have no experience with that.)
In conclusion, what did I get for time, money, and effort?
- Now I won’t wonder what a writers conference is like.
- I have a better idea of how to communicate with agents when I query them.
- I was motivated into thinking about these issues more seriously than I would have otherwise. For example, I had to summarize my novel in an attractive way in three sentences.
That’s enough. But I learned another valuable lesson:
- For novels at least, the written query is everything.