4 Things You Reveal about Yourself at a Writers Conference

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

I just returned from the Write-to-Publish Conference, which takes place at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. As the conference progressed, some observations formed. The information writers reveal about themselves at these events might surprise you.

Knowledge of the Industry. It was easy to spot those attendees who are new to writing and perhaps attending a conference for the first time. With no previous writing experience but an idea for a book and a desire to learn what this writing world entails, they were taking this first step. Good for them! I cheered them on and encouraged them. Who knows what valuable message God may have put on their hearts to reach future readers for his kingdom? At the same time, it would have been a disservice to them if I didn’t offer a realistic view of the expectations and hard work involved in the journey to publication.

It’s true that a conference is a prime place to learn about the industry, but what new writers often aren’t prepared for is the amount of work involved beyond their publication-ready manuscript: the business side of the author world. Platform, brand and genre planning, networking, speaking engagements, list of possible endorsers—all those vehicles that communicate to an agent or editor that you have a significant number of potential buyers for your book. I saw quite a few faces with deer-in-the-headlights expressions at this point in our conversation.

RECOMMENDATION: Do your homework before attending your first conference and before you submit a proposal to an agent or editor: visit publishers’ and agents’ websites, familiarize yourself with their submissions processes and publishing terms, and follow author, agency, and industry blogs—commenting with your questions. You’ll have access to a wealth of advance information that will provide context for what you’ll experience at the conference. You will be better equipped to get the most out of the conference. And what you’ll reveal about yourself is that you are savvy about the industry. This in turn will communicate that you’re professional and committed to your writing career.

Level of Craft. In an appointment with an attendee, agents and editors try to discern a writer’s knowledge and experience. We agents and editors learn a lot from listening to the writer answer questions like, “Where did you learn how to write fiction?” and “What books have you read on writing?” or “What experience do you have that qualifies you to write about this topic?” If we don’t hear the writer accurately use terms such as plot construction, character development, creating a powerful hook in the first few paragraphs of the first chapter, and so on, yellow flags pop up no matter how much he or she elaborates.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Be prepared for such questions and do the advance work that will enable you to respond knowledgeably and with confidence. You can read many excellent books on writing and preparing proposals before going to a conference. Don’t overstate yourself. It’s far better to say you are not ready to present your book project but to learn and seek guidance than to try to promote yourself beyond your present ability. We agents and editors can spot that right away.

Which leads to the next revelation . . .

Teachability. In an appointment with a conferee, I pay particular attention to how well he or she listens. After hearing about the book project, the first—and fun—part is to affirm all that is promising and positive about the writer and the book. But if questions surface, for example, about the target audience or the assigned genre, does the writer appear to be listening with an open mind? If I suggest adjustments that would make the book more marketable, how does he or she respond? Immediate defensiveness shows a lack of understanding about the industry as a whole. It also reveals something about how easy it would be to work with this person as a client.

RECOMMENDATION: Remember that, in our hearts, agents and editors want writers to succeed and that these industry professionals have a current knowledge of marketability. Understandably, you are personally invested in what you’ve written—it’s become a part of you. We get that and wouldn’t want to see anything less from you. If you aren’t passionate about your book, no one else will be either. With these things in mind, be open and willing to learn.

Friendliness. One of the most gratifying things about conferences is observing writers who are encouraging each other. Strangers before the conference become friends—perhaps even critique partners—by the end of the conference. This openness to meet and mingle with other attendees doesn’t always come easily for the typical introverted writer personality, so when I see it happening—attendees helping other attendees, rooting for them—it reveals how pleasant they would be to work with, and beyond that, how well they would present themselves as they market their books.

RECOMMENDATION: Relax! If God has given you a message or story to tell, let him be in charge of it. “Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust him, and he will help you” (Psalm 37:8). Recognize that other conferees are in the same place you are. By giving help and encouragement, you will surely receive it in return. Consider this an important part of your growth as a writer and practice for future marketing opportunities.

What surprised you about my observations? What are your thoughts on my recommendations for preparing for a conference? What writing resources have been most helpful to you?

66 Responses

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  1. Thanks for breaking it down so succinctly — particularly on the level of craft. As a complete newbie, it’s nice to hear what an agent is looking for and how to prepare.

  2. Fabulous post, Mary. I learned a lot from it even though I’ve been attending conferences for years. I wasn’t all that surprised by the knowledge and teachability points, but the level of craft and using the right terminology didn’t enter my mind–at least not as far as talking about where one learned to write fiction or what books she has read about it.

    Friendliness is a big thing for me. I wouldn’t be able to work with an overly serious stick-in-the mud. Whoever my agent ends up being, I want him/her to be personable and outgoing. A sense of humor works too. 🙂

    Thanks for ending my week with a pick me up.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      You’re welcome, Cheryl. Being a veteran conference goer, I’m guessing you are able to relax more easily and show your warm, friendly self. And that will be noticed.

  3. Tiana Smith says:

    I’m interested in hearing any book recommendations from fellow authors on what has helped them improve their craft 🙂

    • Michelle Lim says:

      I listed some below, but I will add a few for further reference:

      Getting Into Character by: Brandilyn Collins
      The First Five Pages by: Noah Lukeman
      Kiss and Tell by: Susan May Warren
      Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by: Renni Browne


      Rachelle Gardner
      Michael Hyatt
      Word Serve Watercooler

      Hope these are helpful. Check out the ones I put below too.

      Oh, for marketing: Books by Michael Hyatt and Seth Godin are both great

    • Techniques of a Selling Writer, Swain
      Writing the Breakout Novel, Maass
      On Writing Well, Zinnser

    • Lisa says:

      I have really loved
      On Writing by: Stephan King
      Bird by Bird by: Anne Lamott

  4. Mary, what an encourager you are!

    Thank you for sharing such excellent tips and recommendations.

    I love connecting with folks at conferences. Friendliness always rates. Last year at ACFW, a real ice-breaker for me came when someone in the powder room stall next to mine began whistling. She proved that every facet of conference could be fun! Set the tone for the rest of my day. 🙂

  5. Sarah Thomas says:

    Love the friendliness section. My first conference was secular and friendliness was seriously tempered by competitiveness! It’s been a much different story with Christian conferences. The connections I’ve made there have been a delight.

    • I agree, Sarah. I’ve seen a big difference between the Christian and secular conferences about how much people share and help each other.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Sarah, thanks for sharing that observation. Isn’t it a blessing to witness that important difference.

    • I’ve never been to a Christian conference, but I luckily haven’t found that to be the case. The challenge for me is that my belief system is very different from many of the people I interact with, so I would really love to attend a Christian conference.

      • Dawn Aldrich says:

        There are numerous Christian writers conferences, but I’ve enjoyed the Proverbs 31 Ministries conference called She Speaks, mid July in Concord, NC. The encouragement, longterm connections, and opportunities for professional and spiritual growth are outstanding.

  6. Gayla Grace says:

    I love your post! I attended the Write-to-Publish conference several years ago and as a new writer, it was overwhelming to me. But over the years I have come to understand the industry much better and hope to return to that conference or another in the near future and present my book proposal.

    I like your suggestions about teachability. I’m not sure I showed a teachable spirit when I attended the conference because I was convinced God had given me a message and would work out the details for publication. However, now I understand the business side of writing and am willing to be patient as I work through the many steps required toward book publication. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and encouragement!

  7. Michelle Lim says:

    Thanks Mary, for the insightful post!I hadn’t thought about the specific language agents listen for in an appointment. But your comments match my experience at conferences.

    Teachability is so important and writers who lack this quality often miss valuable opportunities.

    As for resources that were helpful to me, I would have to say:

    Inside Out by Susan May Warren
    Writing The Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
    Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
    Deep And Wide by Susan May Warren

    There are many other great ones out there some written by Brandilyn Collins, Jill Elizabeth Nelson, Noah Lukeman,etc.

    Also, there are blogs like this one, The Write Conversation, My Book Therapy, The Ponderers, Seekerville, Wordserve Literary, etc.

    If we never stop learning, we will still have lots of knowledge to draw from for years to come.

    Thanks for sharing your expertise with us!

  8. I’ve just begun my journey to publication in February and I was tempted to sign up for the ACFW conference in September, because I’ve heard such amazing things about it, but I decided to wait until next year so that I can learn as much as possible before I make such a big financial investment. I don’t want to be a “deer in headlight” attendee! All of your observations were ones to ponder and prepare for. Recently I’ve read a Novel Idea, Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers (JSB) and right now I’m reading JSB’s Self Editing book.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Gabrielle, since you have just begun your writing career, you made a wise decision to wait a year to make the financial investment to attend ACFW. It’s a wonderful conference for fiction writers, and as you accumulate additional knowledge of the industry and writing craft, you’ll get a lot more out of the conference next year.

  9. Kate says:


    What didn’t surprise me is you encouraging others! Just as Cynthia mentioned…you are such an encourager. And it is much appreciated.

    Teachability ranks high on a list with me. I remember the tea room employees willing to change the way they were used to doing something without becoming defensive and what a joy it was to work with them.

    In the same way, I want to understand suggestions are not criticisms but are meant to help sell my manuscript. I need not be offended.

    Listing helpful writing resources is difficult. It’s such a personal subject. What spoke to my heart, may only elicit a “blah, blah, blah” response from another. Right now, I’m plowing through Michael Hyatt’s book, “Platform…Get Noticed in a Noisy World.”

    I forget sometimes, not only at a conference, but in my day to day writing to commit everything to the Lord…this is a helpful reminder. Have a “tea-riffic” weekend!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Kate, thanks for your practical example of teachability from your tea room. And yes, looking at suggestions–even rejections–as learning experiences, and therefore positive stepping stones in forward momentum to publication, it’s easier to develop the thick skin writers need in this industry.

      You have a great weekend too!

  10. Jenny Leo says:

    Thanks for the agent’s-eye view, Mary!

    Another good resource from Donald Maass is The Fire in Fiction. I’m reading it now.

  11. Mary Keeley says:

    Jenny, thanks for recommending another helpful resource. The title alone draws me in!

  12. Thank you, Mary. Your advice is always clear and practical as well as encouraging. The thing that surprised me in your post was that you observed whether or not writers were interacting with and helping others. I am an introvert, but I like connecting with people and I am a helper and encourager by nature. It never occurred to me that this behavior might affect whether or not an agent would consider taking me as a client. Now that you’ve said it, though, it makes complete sense. As you pointed out, how a writer interacts with her peers indicates what she’d be like to work with. Great insight.


  13. Great post. Thanks. I wonder what you’d think if you sat across from me at an appointment. What do you think about those people who have been around forever but who never sell? Do you ever think…”Just get a clue! You can’t write!” heh heh

    Seriously, I can write. I write well. I win contests. I get good remarks on my critiques. But how should one who has been going to conferences for a dozen years, present themselves, when they haven’t sold? Does it hurt your chances because people have been passing you up for so long? Does it look like there’s something wrong with you? Should I go to some new conferences and pretend I’ve only been at it for three years?

    I’m serious. I wonder if I need to treat my conference experiences the way a writer with bad sales goes at things. She’ll write under a new name. Maybe I need to start going to conferences and pretending I haven’t been floating around undiscovered for 2,483 years. What do you think?

    • What a great question, Sally, and my heart hurt for you as I read. While I understand that you FEEL like you’re carrying around a sign that yes, “Yep, I still haven’t sold anything,” I think you should get bonus points for your perseverance. Besides, with all your conference experience, it seems that you would be a seasoned professional, the savvy writer that Mary mentioned in her post. It is obvious that you are someone “who is committed to [her] writing career.”

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Christine said it right, Sally. I applaud your perseverance. Have you asked for feedback from the agents and editors you’ve talked to at conferences emailed submissions to? Many of them don’t freely give it but will respond with constructive criticism when asked. Or it simply could be wrong timing, wrong genre for what the editor is looking for at the time. Before considering using another name, I would start collecting this feedback, and take advantage of a paid critique from an editor at a conference. It should give you insight into what’s at play.

      • Thanks Christine and Mary!

        I buy paid critiques at every conference and I go to a couple of conferences a year. At my last, a few months ago, the editor from HarperCollins wrote “lovely!” five or six places in the margins of my ten-page submission. She said my strength was my characters and they’re lovely interactions with one another. She didn’t have anything negative to say. (And then, Duh! I didn’t even ask her if my agent could send her a manuscript. She didn’t invite so I didn’t ask. I had another book I could have pitched and I didn’t do that. And she was very friendly and willing to talk to me.) I have gotten a lot of positive feedback. I’ve been to pub boards, I’ve been pursued by editors from small and mid-sized houses. I’ve had an agent.

        But your post made me wonder about how I present myself. I’m going to finish a new book soon and I’m going to make a fresh push. So I’m thinking about whether I’m shooting myself in the foot by not having enough confidence in meetings and wondering if I need to invent a fresh, young, successful persona for myself. 🙂 Not sure how I can make myself young, of course, but maybe I can get a perm and be all sassy. ha ha Sorry. It’s late. I’m easily amused at this hour.

  14. Thanks for the awesome advice, Mary. I guess I didn’t think about being prepared in appointments at conferences to discuss myself and my writing background. I thought it mostly focused on my book!

    I’m attending ACFW this year, so this knoweledge will be fabulous to take with me!

    I echo what a lot of others are saying regarding craft resources. The most helpful to me have been Inside Out by Susan May Warren, Plot & Structure by JSB, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

  15. Thanks, Mary, for such helpful information. I haven’t been asked any questions about how I learned to write, so I’ll formulate an answer to that one for the Indianapolis Christian Writers Conference this fall…just in case.

    Have a terrific weekend!

  16. Dale Rogers says:

    Thank you for the sage advice. I hope to apply it before too long.

  17. Anita Mae says:

    Och, I’m sure yellow flags flew as I touted my latest. Possibly even a red one or two in 2007 when I attended my first conference. Back then I tried to memorize my whole speil and then drew a blank at the crucial moment. Now, I spend time in the Prayer Room before my appts and leave it up to God to put the words in my mouth. Even when the appts don’t get my desired result, I still come away the wiser for having gone through the experience.

    I can’t attribute my craft knowledge to a particular book since I gained most of it from the Harlequin website. They have such a terrific support group for writers in all stages. Sure, some people write them off as a bunch of erotic neurotics, but that’s not true, nor fair. For 2 years I honed my craft on their writing challenges, participated in boards led by multi-published authors who talked about hooks, pacing, and tension, and I accepted their support when a rejection found its way into my mailbox. Any question I had was answered efficiently by someone who’d gone through the process. I wouldn’t trade those 2 years for a thousand dollars worth of craft books.

    It’s also where I met authors like Margaret Daley, Janet Tronstad, Cheryl Wyatt and others who’ve unofficially mentored me. And some writers who knew as little as I and are now published. Yay, team!

    And of course, Rachelle Gardener’s blog instructed me on the industry side of things.

    I’m excited about the conferences I’ll attend this year. New opportunities, new friends, and new contacts. I know I’ll come back on fire for my writing. 😀

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Wise advice and reminder to pray first and leave your success in God’s hands, Anita. Thanks also for sharing your resource experience with Harlequin and, of course, Rachelle Gardener’s blog. I hope you have productive conference experiences.

  18. Since I’d be walking around with my nametag on upside down and still wearing my pj’s because I forgot to get dressed, I’m not even thinking about a conference yet. But when I do go, I plan on being ready.
    I liken conferences to massive business opportunities. I can’t imagine going without making huge plans and studying up on what I need to know. If someone told me I could walk into a conference room filled with antique restoration junkies like myself, I would have made my plans in advance. I would head straight to the tiger oak booth, then to the bird’s eye maple tables. Then I ‘d spend some time looking over the latest in orbital sanders and the scoot on over to the Dremel booth. If I had a chance, I grill Dremel about why they don’t have a blunt point sanding attachment for hand tooled scroll work, because the Victorian scroll work is extremely difficult to refinish by jury-rigging a minute, hand held piece of #230 grit paper.

    Did anyone understand that? It’s perfectly clear to me. Because have spent years learning that craft. So when I do attend a conference, I plan to be as well equipped talking publishing and books, as I am talking tiger oak vs sapele.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jennifer, I’m impressed. Thanks for that fascinating analogy. It brought the point home beautifully.

      • Thank you.

        You know, Mary, I am constantly amazed at how much I learn on this blog. Can you imagine if we all were in a room together and could just listen as the Books and Such ladies fired off questions and then listen to each other’s answers? It’s be so fascinating.

        Thank you all for such thought provoking and educational blog posts!

    • Anita Mae says:

      Did I understand? Well, Jennifer, as a woodworker, as soon as I read Dremel, scraps of wenge, persimmon, pau Amarillo, bloodwood, lacewood, zebrawood, sycamore and fishtail oak clamored for my attention. I am an intarsia amateur, and I would go to a woodworking conference to learn from the masters. Refined tools, new ideas, unique patterns. I wouldn’t know where to go first, but you can be sure I’d suck up the knowledge like a Shop-Vac.

      • I do believe, Anita Mae, that you and I were separated at birth!!

      • I would LOVE to see your work Anita, written and inlaid. Oohhhh! You should write about the challenges of intarsia as an allegory to the faith. Or not. Just an idea. 🙂

      • Anita Mae says:

        Nice thought, Jennifer, but my mind is already wrestling with the challenge of my current story. Do I dig deep and follow my heart or play it safe and regret it? It’s like fitting the intarsia pieces…you sand a bit more, and a bit more and suddenly, you’ve gone too far and the pieces don’t fit. But you don’t know how far you could have gone until it’s done.

        Now see, if you went to a conference, we could meet and talk Dremel over a latte. 😀

      • Follow your heart Anita!
        I’d LOVE to discuss Dremel with you! Unfortunately, it’ll be a while until I can afford a conference. But when I can, I’ll check and see if you’re coming!

  19. Nancy Ranieri says:

    Thank you so much for your encouragement and helpful advice. Wish I had read it before my first two conference. I will be much better prepared for the conference I’m attending this summer. Thank you!

  20. Laurie Evans says:

    Just attended my first conference in April. The deer-in-the-headlights look? That was me. But, I learned so much, and I can’t wait to go next year!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Laurie, you’ll be surprised at all the little and big ways you’ve grown in your writing career since your first conference.I hope you have a productive time.

  21. Mary —

    Thank you so much for such a practical post! I’ll be practicing everything here to lower my “babble factor” at the SheSpeaks Conference in July!


  22. Anne Love says:

    Thanks for the nice summary. I’m wondering more about NOT going to conference. What if a writer has been to several, is up to speed with most of the above things you mentioned, but still unpubbed and unagented, but decides to stay home from conference for a few more years to really work hard on polishing, writing, practicing craft, networking/platform, oh yeah–and saving money by NOT going? What price does she pay for not going?

    • Heidi Kortman says:

      Anne, I won’t be going this year either. I’ve spent my conference money replacing my computer. It is possible to buy recordings from the ACFW conference. With the things you’ve listed as your agenda for this year, it looks to me that you’ll still be doing good things for your career.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Anne, I’m sure you learned a lot from those several conferences you attended, even if you didn’t an agent or interest in your work from an editor. So your time and money wasn’t wasted.

      Yes, I think you are wise to take some time now to continue growing in your writing craft, knowledge of the industry, following trends of what types of books are selling, and of course, building your platform. You’ll get a lot more out of your next conference experience. And Heidi had a good suggestion: you can look on conference websites and order tapes of continuing sessions and workshops you think would be helpful to you.

  23. Lynn Moore says:


    Your post is valuable information! I think that the writer who wants to develop her career picks up on the times when she is that deer in the headlights. She focuses on growing as a professional in the industry and networking. Thanks for this post, Mary!

    Lynn Moore

  24. You asked, “What surprised you about my observations?” I am most taken aback by your mention of God. Whenever my work goes out, if there is even any mention of my characters sending up a quick prayer or the like, it seems to torpedo my chances. I have received back very angry notes from critique partners (!) who thought I was trying to “convert” them simply because I mentioned a character coming home from church dressed a certain way. I assure you I don’t preach either “religion” (or what passes for that these days) or humanism, but I do show the complexity of human beings, I hope. But that’s what surprised me. It also uplifted me. Keep on being brave enough to mention God. (When I see God mentioned in pop culture, it is generally through the sort of blasphemy one sees on the cartoons “Family Guy” and “American Dad” and so forth, and it’s disheartening to see such cavalier attitudes and such raw anger.)
    What would I say about conventions? That I have been to many of them, but I have given them up. When I attend, it seems that agents and editors are excited by my work. But after the conference, what I find is that I was played once again. I really hold out no more hope for networking in person. Probably all the online promo does more for writers than these in-person contacts, alas.
    Even though my novel NICE WORK has just won the 2011 Dark Oak Mystery contest and will be published this fall by Oak Tree Press, I still am not seen as a “real” author because I am not with Penguin Putnam or Delacorte or St. Martin’s. I don’t know what it would take to show people that my work is good, short of the President having my book on his nightstand. Maybe I’ll send him a copy! He seems like a nice enough guy.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Shalanna, it sounds like you and your critique partners might be mismatched. I encourage you to try a different writers conference next time. Google writers conferences and browse websites of those within traveling distance. Each conference has its own values, and you can choose which one more closely matches your own. As you mingle and get to know other attendees, you may find a new set of critique partners who are a better fit for you. Don’t give up on the in-person meetings with editors. Many editors won’t consider a manuscript submission from a new writer unless they’ve met the writer in person at a conference.

      Congratulations on your first published book! It may be a small publisher, but if you work hard to market and promote your book over and above what Oak Tree has agreed to do, and get great sales numbers, a larger publisher may be interested in your second book.

  25. Katie Larink says:

    Wonderful advice! I will take everything you have said to heart for an opportunity that may rise in the future. These are things I hadn’t even thought about until recently. Having them organized and written out so clearly is a definite help. 🙂

  26. I attended my first conference this past Friday. It was a small affair, but I felt it was a great place for me to start. I’m not an agent nor editor, but I did find the same things about the others who were attending. It was a fun place to be and I myself learned quite a bit. I’m hooked and this won’t be my last conference!

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Amanda, I’m glad your first experience was good, both in the learning and also with the other attendees. Perhaps you’ll even find some critique partners from this one or your next one. You’re on your way!

  27. V.V. Denman says:

    Wow. I’ve kept this post in my email until I had time to read it, and I’m so glad I did. What great advice. I’m looking forward to the ACFW conference in September, and this post makes me even more excited. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.