If you're new to the publishing scene, or perhaps contemplating publishing, you can't afford to skip reading this.
This is a picture of my first writers conference, taken three years ago, and the only reason I ever attended was because one very passionate author sat down with me and demanded it. And I am SO thankful she did, because this is where my publishing journey changed from a stagnant dream to a reality.
Me: I've heard a ton of good things about writers conferences. Really, I have. But they're $400, $500, $600 to get into sometimes. I'm working summers and part time during the school year to put myself through college right now. I live on a very strict $40/week budget, not to mention these conferences are out of town. I can't afford to travel, or to get in. Maybe someday.
Jody: Halie, you can keep sending query letters to agents and telling yourself that's going to get you somewhere, but it's not. Don't do what I did. Don't wait six years, sending query letters and HOPING. You have to get in front of them, in person, and speak to them. You can either figure that out now, and pay the conference fee now, or you can figure it out in six years, and pay the conference fee then. Don't lose out on six years.
I really was in an oatmeal-rationing phase of my life at that time, but when I reordered my priorities, I ended up scraping together enough to attend a conference. In. New. York.
Let me start by saying - not all conferences are created equal. Don't run out and drop $600 on a conference just because I told you to. Make sure there are industry professionals of value who are going to be there. Agents and editors. Make sure your $600 is going towards real exposure, and an actual route to possibly seeing your name in print.
And ONE other piece of advice before telling you about the conference itself. If you find a hostel to stay in, in New York City, and it's only $50 per night, YOU ARE TAKING YOUR LIFE IN YOUR OWN HANDS! I should have known something was wrong when I got to the airport and they were like, "Sorry, this place you're staying at doesn't exist," and I was like, "It has to exist. I already paid for it." About an hour later, one of the airport shuttles dropped me off in an alleyway, where dead MOTEL sign, covered in signs of age, hung crookedly over a door in the wall. I toughened up, walked in, and there was a front desk guy, covered head to toe in tattoos. He looked at me. I looked at him. And I was like... "Is this where I check in?"
The stairs creaked when you stepped on them, there were no windows, and the room I was staying in had bunk beds with blankets full of holes and a heater that I couldn't figure out how to work. My one saving grace was that I had a stranger from Argentina staying in the same room, also a woman travelling on her own, and we pretty much barricaded the door shut that night.
Anyway, I digress. I made it to the Alagonkian Writers Conference in one piece, got checked in, made a couple friends, and then they split us into groups. Our group was like... Sci-fi, fantasy, young adult - that kind of group. We had already submitted some of our writing to be accepted into the conference, so we knew everybody in the group had talent, and we'd also prepared a one minute pitch that we would be working on before pitching to editors.
Michael Neff, basically the guy in charge of the conference, was the one helping us perfect our groups’ pitches. And he was mean mean MEAN. (I'm just kidding Michael.) What I mean is, Michael was brutally honest and tore our pitches apart, pitch by pitch in the group setting, so you could see what was wrong with your own, but also hear the advice everybody else was getting. I'd already spent... probably a hundred hours on this one minute pitch (over the years of writing and rewriting it for my query letters), but I'd NEVER thought of half the things he was saying.
We all lunched together and groused over how harshly we'd been torn apart, and then we rewrote our pitches and did it all again.
I have never grown closer to a group of people in four short days than I did at that conference. We wrote and rewrote, and eventually made our official pitches to the VIPs of the conference, the editors from the biggest publishing houses in America. If they liked your pitch, they requested to see your whole manuscript. And I can honestly say, without those brutal critiquing sessions, I don't think any of them would have looked at me twice.
At the end of the conference, I came away with more than I'd ever bargained for. My best friend from Baltimore came up to see me before the conference ever started. I have a killer story about the scariest hostel I've ever seen in my life. One of the girls from the conference realized where I was staying and rescued me, let me stay at her house in Brooklyn. I can still tell you the names of every person in our group photo because we're all still in touch. Ginger ended up being the amazing cover artist for Secrets of The Tally. I went to visit Sarah and Anisha last year. Five of them came out to join me at a Seattle writers conference last year too, to GREAT success - we even tracked Michael Neff down to laugh and catch up. I made all these friends, saw New York, oh yeah, and Penguin and Simon&Schuster both asked to see the full manuscript of Secrets of The Tally.
This was just the beginning for me. My successes in New York led to another extremely successful conference, a contract with an agent, exposure to the best publishers in America, and eventually seeing my book in beautiful print. If you ever have questions about this process, I seriously welcome you to ask them. The very best advice I can give to new writers is this:
The conference fee it worth it.