Updated November 2023
by Gilda Haber, Ph.D., Department of English Composition, Literature and Professional Writing
As instructors some of us love to write, and some of us also enjoy attending writers conferences. This summer I attended three writers conferences—one in Manhattan at Marymount Manhattan College, one at UDC, and one at Georgetown University, held by Washington Independent Writers (WIW).
Prior to the conference registrants receive a program and a list of available agents. It is wise for participants to choose the panels they wish to attend and to research and make appointments with agents in their genres prior to the conference. The writing conference is a good opportunity for the serious writer with an idea or a manuscript to network.
We meet other writers and authors, share our interests, attend specific panels of choice (such as fiction, nonfiction) or meet, one-on-one, with literary agents. Each member of a panel speaks on his or her expertise and takes questions on how to write and sell one’s work. Most importantly, serious writers usually sign up to meet agents who attend the conference. Although hard to get, agents are interested in finding new talent.
One of the goals of a writers workshop is to meet agents in person. But both panel speakers and agents are relentlessly focused on writing as a business. Either work is well-written and has possibilities of selling to the public or it isn’t. You may have one but not the other advantage. Agents and publishers also put in long hours without compensation for the love of bringing a book from conception to birth. You must seek out the agent right for you, one who has sold books in the field that interests you, and one with whom you feel comfortable. The agent not only judges your work, but judges you personally, as to whether he or she likes you. You do the same.
I came armed with business cards and with queries, hoping, in 60 seconds, to seduce some agent with the excellence, uniqueness, excitement, and salability of my work. Who else but a writer labors intensively, creatively for months or years for the love of writing, to create a work of art and with no sure reward in sight?
Frankly, I was terrified of meeting some of these agents in person, especially those who have represented famous people. So far I had only read agents’ credentials on paper and seen the kind of deals they made, the kind of books they sold. The agent I most feared seeing turned out to be friendly but strictly businesslike. From my experience and from agents met at writing conferences, I learned the following:
One needs talent to write but, to paraphrase Edison: “Success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” Work hard and be persistent in sending out your work.
Do not copy anyone else’s style. Be yourself and develop your own. Welcome constructive criticism. It is the highest form of friendship. Give constructive comments to friends’ writings. If your grammar is weak, find a good copy editor.
Writing groups are very useful for feedback. (I, myself, run a writing group.)
Find out which books are written on subjects that interest you and who was the agent, editor, and publisher for those books. Such information is often found in the book’s acknowledgments or by Googling the book’s name and author. Get to know that agent’s background, even his/her hobbies and interests.
There are books in public and school libraries on publishing markets. Buy one.
Do not send work sloppy in appearance or make spelling mistakes. (Writer’s Relief note: our proofreaders can help with this!)
Be professional. Make sure to spell the agent’s name correctly. Read the agent’s rules for submission, and strictly observe those rules.
Do not unduly flatter the agent or boast about your own work.
Research dates, times, names, events, even names of paintings for authenticity.
Use verbs. Avoid adjectives and adverbs; show and do not tell readers what happens. Where appropriate, use dialogue; but dialogue must move the action.
Prepare a query before writing to an agent. Your query can refer to one or two books that agent has sold but not to all the agents’ sales. This is gratuitous.
Your query should consist of: why you chose this agent; why you are writing this book; what the book is about; why you are qualified to write this book; and how it differs from other books written on the same theme; say who will read your book and what you can personally do to promote the book’s sales. All this information should be written on one page. This is one of the hardest parts of writing.
If the agent answers your one-page query and says he/she is interested, either you know what the agent wants you to send next or ask the agent what he/she wants you to send. Do not get too excited. This is only the first of many steps.
Only send material when it is your very best work. There are no second chances with an agent. Revise and share it with peers and/or an editor relentlessly.
Fiction should be complete before sending; nonfiction has different rules.
Do not expect to be accepted at once. Expect many rejections. Some famous books were rejected as many as 50 times before becoming best-sellers. Some great books never become best-sellers. Do not leave your job or expect to become rich unless, besides being a good writer, you happen to be lucky. When it is rejected, revise, revise, and share your work with other writers. As you revise early work, you will become more adept; writing ages like fine wine. Revisions with constructive peer comments or editorial assistance will refine your writing.
Keep a journal or a diary to write down interesting material, even dialogue as it occurs. This will make your writing fresh, even if you use the material years later.
Write what you know about, but be careful in writing about someone you know. People may sue a writer if they recognize themselves and object to your presentation of them, especially if their personal lives are revealed.
There are grave challenges and risks to take as a writer. One exposes all of one’s skills and charms, as well as one’s weaknesses and foibles to others. But what joy when I see one of my 40 articles or stories in print, and what a joy it is to write!!
Good luck! See you at the next conference!
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