Attending a Writer’s Conference: A Lesson in Crushing Disappointment

I attended a writer’s conference last week hoping to come away energized and inspired. I haven’t been able to write much lately because I recently started a new job, I’m taking an online medical transcription class, and I still have all the usual responsibilities of being a wife and mother. It’s just temporary, but it’s been years since I’ve gone this long without writing. Once I finish my online class I can go back to writing, but in the meantime, not writing makes me feel like I’m missing a limb. It’s hard for me to identify with writers who say they have trouble “getting motivated” to write. To me, there aren’t enough hours in the day to write as much as I would like, and that includes the 8 months when I was recently unemployed and I wrote pretty much full time. Which was awesome. I’m so grateful to have a job that I really like now, but to go from writing full time to working full time AND taking a class is quite a jolt.

            I hoped that attending this conference would be a great networking opportunity to connect both with other Wannabe writers and with literary agents and publishers. In particular, I signed up for a pitch session with a Senior Editor with Harper Collins. Harper Collins doesn’t accepted unsolicited, unagented submissions, so that rare opportunity was worth the price of admission right there.

            I didn’t get much advance information from the conference organizers. Typically, you should get information with directions, parking instructions, and at least some idea of what the workshops would be. All I had was an address for the University of Baltimore. I was already sleep-deprived and pretty burned out from all the work I’ve been doing lately. After driving around for more than 25 minutes and parking THREE different times, only to discover it was only 2 or 4 hour parking maximum, I nearly gave up. I was just so tired. I seriously thought about just going home. But how could I miss this golden opportunity of a pitch session I had already paid for? I finally found a spot and stumbled into the conference. I grabbed a cup of coffee and, within five minutes of sitting down, I promptly won a raffle for a $25.00 gift certificate for Amazon.

            Okay, things were looking up…

            The first session was kind of interesting. I took notes and learned some stuff. I felt kind of fidgety and nervous, though, since it was almost time to do my pitch with the Harper Collins lady.

            I was told in advance to send in my query letter and the first five pages, which I did. They also recommended that I bring the same with me, just in case. So I did. I sat in the hall and went over my quick 3 sentence logline and my 5 minute overall pitch.

            As it turned out, I never got to use either one.

            The New York City senior editor lady was pleasant and kind as she proceeded to critique my query and first five pages. Her comments were helpful and constructive, which was great. Well, it would have been if that’s what I had signed up for. Look, I’ve been to conferences before. You can sign up for a Query Critique OR A First Five/Ten Page Critique OR a pitch. A pitch is not a critique. A critique is not a pitch. A pitch means you verbally synopsize your script/novel and hope that the agent/editor/producer/whatever likes your idea enough to want to read the whole thing. I’ve attended a pitch session before when I pitched my screenplay to a whole panel of producers, which was terrifying but also cool. They said I got an “A” on my pitch. Sweet.

            So what should have been a great opportunity turned out to be a total bust. The lady wrote on my query “Interesting concept!” which almost depressed me further. She liked the idea. Too bad I never got to pitch the story to her. She critiqued the first five pages and then my “pitch” session was over.

            It was incredibly disheartening.

            I spoke to another Wannabe writer who had signed up for FOUR alleged “pitch” sessions for later that afternoon and she was horrified by what happened at my session. I told her that maybe my lady did it wrong and that hers would be better. I hope so. I would be incredibly pissed off if I ended with four different critiques of my five pages instead of being able to pitch my story to four publishers.

            For lunch, we were on our own. Of course, I didn’t know this ahead of time having received zero information on the conference schedule. This isn’t unusual, but the conference committee usually provides a list of local restaurants for attendees. Nope. So I went wandering off by myself in search of a place to eat. I found a nearby restaurant – Oriole Pizza and Subs. You simply cannot go wrong with a restaurant that serves an item called “Soup for the Yankee Hater’s Soul.” I saw a bunch of people sitting at a large table who were all wearing name tags from the conference. I swear, it felt like I was in the high school cafeteria on the first day of school. Awkwardly, I asked if I could sit with them and they said yes.

            I sat and spoke mainly with the people on my right. You know how it is when you sit at a large table, especially in a noisy restaurant. You can’t talk to everybody, so you kind of break into smaller conversation groups. The people on my right were all very sweet and nice to talk to. They were all Wannabe writers like me.

            It was only at the end of the meal that I realized that while all the people on the right were Wannabe writers, literally ALL the people to my left were literary agents from New York City.

            I walked out of the restaurant with tears in my eyes, mourning yet another lost opportunity. I can’t tell you how many literary agencies have listed right on their website that they will only read manuscripts from people who are referred by other authors or who they have met at conferences. I don’t know any published authors personally. Seriously, what average person does? Even when you go to conferences, you pretty much meet other Wannabe writers. And, though the agents to my left seemed nice, they pretty much drank pitchers of beer and chatted with each other. Even if I had been able to talk to them, what are the odds that the few agents I spoke to would represent my specific genre?

            The whole experience seemed like a big, expensive lesson in utter frustration. I feel like I’m trying to do all the “right” things that people tell you to do to break in, but nothing was working.

            I figured I would stay for one more session and then go home. The whole day just seemed so depressing and I felt more discouraged than I had in a very long time. Look, I’m a Wannabe veteran. I wrote screenplays for 15 years and now novels for 3 years. That’s 18 years of the Wannabe life, folks, and I’m proud to say that I NEVER wanted to give up. Never. Not once. Never even thought about giving up. I know the odds and I’m charging forward anyway. I’m not giving up. Ever. But I’m a big believer in going with what works and what feels right. Staying home and writing and blogging and social networking feels right. I meet lots of Wannabe writers that way and even speak to the occasional author or agent. I feel like I’m DOING something.

            This whole conference did not feel right. It felt like being at a club that didn’t want me. It’s probably just me, but that’s how I felt.

            On the plus side, maybe I can stop feeling so hopeless that I can’t afford to go to more conferences. It seems like I’m not missing out on as much as I thought. It seems to me that sending out 100 carefully tailored query letters to agencies that I know represent my type of manuscript is a better plan than hoping to meet the right agent randomly at a conference.

            I will say that the last session made me feel slightly more optimistic. There were two agents and the senior editor I spoke with earlier. The one agent said that she doesn’t even have an assistant and that she reads every single query she gets. Though it might take several dozen queries before I get a yes, people do says yes to me. I get my novels read. I’ve even had some interest from an agency lately.

            So maybe I’m doing okay with what I’m already doing. I totally get that writing is a business. That’s what I have a blog, a Twitter account, and that’s why I read blogs, writing craft books, and anything else that I can get my hands on. I take my writing career seriously. Always have. I treat it like a part time job at the very LEAST.

            I realized I feel the most inspired when I’m working at home or when I’m standing in a bookstore or a library.

            So maybe that’s where I need to stay.