How to Make the Most of a Conference Without Talking to Anyone Important

Michelle Ule

Blogger: Michelle Ule

Filling in for Rachel Kent

The American Christian Fiction Writer’s Conference (ACFW) begins tomorrow in Dallas, Texas, and I, unfortunately, will not be in attendance.

I had a great time last year at the ACFW conference in St. Louis and learned an important lesson about attending conferences–particularly if you don’t get a chance to talk to your desired important person.

You know how that can happen–you miss speaking to the editor you’ve dreamed of pitching. The table talk at a meal never seems to get around to you, you can’t summon up the nerve to address someone you believe could change your publishing life, or somehow you can never get close to an agent, editor, or even a famous writer.

When that happens, it’s easy to feel like you’ve wasted your time. Even when you have daily access to agents like I do but are trying hard to get published, conferences can churn up all sorts of fear that your efforts are for naught.

That doesn’t have to be true.

At the ACFW conference last year, I could hardly see the editor at whose table I sat for lunch. A noisy hubbub of conversation made it difficult for me to garner attention without standing on my chair and waving. I decided to accept this situation as God’s will and turned to the gentleman sitting next to me. “So what are you writing about?”

He surveyed the same situation, shrugged and told me about his project.

It was fascinating.

I switched off my writer hat and put on my administrative assistant hat and took his card. (I didn’t tell him about my day job.) I asked him questions, discussed my reaction to his idea, and we were off on an engrossing conversation that barely could tolerate the introduction of our lunch plates.

The editor noticed our animation (possibly because my Italian hands were moving) and wanted to know what we were talking about.

I gave my lunch pal the floor–he had an idea significant for the Kingdom of God. It certainly was more important than mine.

I don’t know what happened after that other than I felt very good about the meal.

At several meals over the course of that conference, I found fascinating people sitting at the table. More than once I took cards from writers who had expertise in my subject area. The writers assured me they were happy to discuss any questions I might have about their experience.

Since I was writing a diplomatic tale that fall, I interviewed a table mate who had worked in embassies around the world. She even graciously answered a few questions I came up with off the top of my head. “I’d love to help you with your story,” she said and passed me her card.

I also took cards from writers with whom my critique partners might like to chat.

Keep in mind you’re spending time with clever, witty people who love words and know how to use them well. If all else fails, listen to the sprightly dialogue going on around you and pay attention to how folks from different parts of the country speak.

It’s also important to make contacts with fellow writers–because you never know who they might really be or know. One introduction can lead to something totally unexpected, even if it’s just a new Facebook friend.

One contact I made after an innocent comment on a friend’s friend’s Facebook wall gave me the line that set my proposal apart from the myriads of other proposals and gave me a new slant to a story. I obtained a publishing contract because of an innocent comment I made to an interesting person.

Don’t overlook the opportunity to make a new friend–even if that person isn’t “important.” Because you never know what God is really up to–especially at a writers conference.

Who is the most fascinating “unimportant” person you’ve met at a writers conference?

42 Responses

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  1. Rick Barry says:

    Michelle, such a thoughtful post today! May this serve as a reminder that not all divine appointments are appointments in which we are the recipients of the main blessing. God uses His children as tools in His hand to bless others. That’s a good reminder at moments when we hope to be the ones receiving special attention.

  2. I haven’t been to a writer’s conference yet, but I’m well aware that there is always a story behind the “average” eyes we see everyday. A friend of ours from one of the boys’ hockey team seemed like your average immigrant. Until one morning in the hotel breakfast area when he and his wife told me their story. It turns out that the man whom everyone saw as Mr Happy Hockey Dad was in fact a man who swan across the Danube River, hid in thorn bushes all day, then made his way across Yugoslavia(back when there was a Yugoslavia) into Western Europe, lived in a refugee camp and made it here. He left a country that had the “shoot on sight” policy for anyone wanting to leave. He either heard or saw his brother die trying to escape. His Jewish grandmother gave up her baby boy during WW2 and didn’t find him for 42 years. That baby was my friend’s father. Now my friend lives free and wakes up each day knowing his government won’t kill him or his family for disagreeing with their politics. He might let me write his story one day, but for now, he said the pain is too fresh. But as he reminded me, “we are free, I am FREE!”.

    • Jennifer, I’ve done a lot of WWII research the past few years and have read some horrific accounts. Even so, your story brought tears to my eyes. I hope you get to write this man’s story. It should not be forgotten.

      Michelle, loved your title and your post. I’m flying to Dallas this evening and so looking forward to the conference. And to making interesting new friends!

      • I truly would love to tell his story and almost had him agreeing to a newspaper interview with me. But his ingrained fear of speaking out won over his desire to tell about his appreciation of his freedom. He’s told me that IF anyone gets to tell his story, I would be me. Which is sweet and sad at the same time.

    • Jennifer, would he let you write it if you changed the names?

      • Hi Janet, I have thought about that. But if the story did make it into the paper, and even if I did change the names, he would know exactly who the story was about and that I’d broken his trust. I just can’t do that to him or his family. I work for small newspaper in a small city, a whole lot of people would be asking questions. It’s just not worth it.
        But thank you for your suggestion.

  3. Anne Love says:

    My first conference was a close to home, less costly one that signed up for with trembling uncertainty. I signed up for a critique from Doc Hensley who wound up becoming the essential link for my daughter to choose Taylor University’s Professional Writing track this fall as a freshman.
    At the same conference, a call home to my family landed me the last available seat at the dinner table–between Doc and Chip MacGregor. I had absolutely NO clue who Chip was but had a delightful dinner conversation about Oxford University and many other things. At the end of the conference he asked to look at my WIP, graciously made comments about my query letter, and directed me to My Book Therapy where Rachel Hauck coached me through some great help for my first WIP and launched me miles ahead of where I’d been the year before in my craft.

    I would NEVER have chosen to sit by Chip had I known who he was–but God already knew that about me! :o)

    At 2010 ACFW I too missed getting an agent appointment or contact. But having already experienced God’s divine appointments in the past, I worked to accept this as God’s will and instead celebrated that it had become the year that I connected with a critique partner I’d been praying about–Jaime Wright, whom I’d sat beside at a “first attenders” table in Denver 2009. Who knew?

    God did.

    • Anne Love says:

      Eww, run sentences. Oh well, it’s from my heart to yours! I had my internal editor off!

      • Ann, only the best writers apologize for their grammar. The rest of us dont worry about are stuff makin sense.


        Between Chip and Doc? COOL!

        We never know how God will trump our best laid plans, do we?

    • Michelle Ule says:

      You really don’t know who you’re going to meet. The first Mt. Hermon Conference I attended nine years ago, the first person I sat next to when walking in, was Becky Germany–who has now contracted me for four projects.

      Who would have guessed?

      Not me.

      And that’s a reminder, too, to be lovely, gracious, kind, positive and friendly to everyone you meet–because you simply don’t know where God/life/the publishing world will take you and with whom. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Sarah Sundin says:

    I met most of my writing buddies and critique partners at writers conferences. Most of us were bumbling through the submission years – and now we’re bumbling through the published years together. I had no idea how important those people would be in my life – I just found them interesting and fun.

    Now my favorite conference moments are connecting people. At ACFW last year (I can’t go this year either. Sob.) In the elevator, an acquaintance who knew I write WWII mentioned Editor A was actively seeking WWII. I already have a beloved publisher, but I thanked her. I got off the elevator to meet with Dianne Burnett from – who had Writer B with her, whom she’d been talking to at lunch. Dianne gushed over Writer B’s wonderful WWII story and her contest wins. OOH!! I told Writer B about Editor A, ORDERED her to talk to her, then later told Editor A about Writer B. It was so much fun. Now Writer B has a contract with Editor A for that novel. Dianne and I feel like proud aunties. I’m sure when Writer B sat next to Dianne, she had no idea…

  5. Janet Grant says:

    Many years ago, as a recent college graduate,I attended my first writers conference. I knew nothing.
    Before the conference began, I was sitting in the hotel lobby and had a lovely chat with a fellow attendee who mentioned he was “doing some teaching” at the conference.
    Later, as I settled into my seat in the ballroom for the opening session, I noticed that the nice fellow I had chatted with was sitting on the stage. Hm.
    I checked the program and discovered my nice conversation had been with the keynote speaker, Richard Foster.
    I’ll always remember that he felt no need to tell me how important he was.

    • I grew up at a fairly big church on the West Coast. We had oodles of hoity and plenty of toity in and out the doors every Sunday. I was over at a friend’s house and there was a display of some really lousy looking pottery in a lit and secured cabinet. I asked what the big deal was about the beaten up looking pot. My friend replied “Oh that? That’s some pot thing that dad dug up. It’s from where Abraham’s village was.”
      Uh huh.
      The prophet Abraham.
      Her dad was Christianity’s version of Indiana Jones. All I know is, I tip-toed around the house and didn’t touch anything!!

  6. At Mount Hermon a few years ago I struck up a conversation with the man next to me. When we got to what do you write, he told me this incredible true story about the death of his wife and son, murdered by someone hired by his other son. Kent Whittaker went on to publish Murder by Family and appeared on Oprah and any number of other shows.

    What stuck, of course, wasn’t the fact that I met someone who would become well-known, but I’d met someone who exemplified Christ in his forgiveness. He’d made the decision to forgive before he knew his son was involved.

    Then there’s the year I sat at Janet Grant’s table, only to be bumped from the seat next to her reserved spot by two writers there ahead of me who were carefully arranging the seating so they could be next to the ubber agent. My seat ended up as far away as possible–on the opposite side of the round table. And guess where Janet started her conversations? Yep, opposite her. ๐Ÿ˜‰


    • Michelle Ule says:

      Rebecca LuElla Miller ยป Well, yes, the agents are on to the machinations! And of course, I met you at Mt. Hermon all those years ago as well!

  7. Kiersti says:

    What a wonderful post. I met my critique partners when we were all first-timers at Mt. Hermon Christian Writers Conference. We all were pretty “unimportant,” I guess, but these three ladies have become some of the most important people in my life, among my very closest friends–though we only see each other at conferences, living as we do in different corners of the U.S. It’s such a gift the way the Lord has knit our hearts together.

  8. Michelle, you’ve also illustrated the need for business cards. I’ll be at the Indianapolis Christian Writers Conference in November. Like Anne did, I hope to meet with Doc Hensley. And I think I better get started on those cards. . . .

    • Great point Meghan. Both about grace winning over someone else’s plans and about business cards.
      Michelle, do you recommend a ready supply of business cards, even for the non-conference days?

      • Michelle Ule says:

        Jennifer Major ยป I carry business cards all the time and hand them out whenever someone needs my address. My old friends get really excited that I have a card and the professionals I deal with (bank or whatever) look at me differently when I hand them a card instead of shouting out my email address, etc.

        So, yes, I’d recommend having business cards.

    • Michelle, can I bother you with a question? You said “address.” Do you put your physical location on your address or just email? I’ve read advice for both ways. Thanks!

      • Michelle Ule says:

        Meghan Carver ยป My current cards have my physical address on them. Subsequent cards will have only my e-mail address, phone number and web site addresses. Of course that will defeat the prospect of impressing the banker . . .

    • Ann Bracken says:

      Hmm, I wonder if my day job business cards would work?

  9. Sarah Grimm says:

    Indianapolis? That is so much closer to me! Maybe … that doesn’t leave me much time to shed my shyness though.

  10. I love this post, Michelle. Because I feel everything will happen in God’s time, I don’t stress myself out about conferences now. I know he’ll put me in touch with people for one reason or another.

    Last year, I was blessed to sit at the lunch table with a group I had never met before. We all got a chance to talk about our various projects and share advice. Afterwards, one of the women came up to me as she was leaving and thanked me for my advice. She is returning to the conference this year, and I am eager to catch up.

  11. I love this post. It never ceases to amaze me how God will orchestrate the best for us if we only let Him. Being able to humble ourselves and put others first so often ends up elevating our own interests in a bit of divine irony ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. I have attended three conferences during the past eleven months. Yet this particular topic of who you are seated next to at a conference has me re-evaluating how to approach my next one. I have decided to start praying right now for the upcoming ETBU Christian Writers Conference in Marshall, Texas. I will be praying for God to seat me next to the person He has in mind, just as Rick said–we may not be the recipient of the blessing. We may need to be a blessing to someone else. Thanks, Michelle, for exploring this topic.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Carole Lehr Johnson ยป Speaking as someone who has benefited from the kindness of strangers at a conference dinner table, (I’ll never forget Ingrid who prayed for me on one very discouraging night), I thank you for thinking ahead like that, Carole. One of the blessings of attending a conference with Christians is, we should be able to minister and be ministered to by the other conferees. That’s one of the special blessings of attending Mount Hermon or ACFW, among others. Writing for the Soul would be another.

      I remember thinking just that thought when headed to my first Mt. Hermon. I prayed, “You know, Lord, this is a lot of money for me to be spending to help someone else, but if that’s what your will is, so be it.” It was.

      And I’ve been blessed ever since as a result! ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Great post, Michelle. You just demonstrated that EVERYONE is an important person and that it’s important to value each person, not for what they can do for you but for who they are. I find it interesting that you couldn’t get near the agent you wanted to talk with, yet when you focused on the person who was right beside you and the two of you got excited interacting with each other, the agent became interested in YOU. There’s a great lesson there. Also, as you pointed out, the gentlemen you spoke with had no idea that you worked for an agency, but since he was willing to give up focusing on the agent and engage with you, his card and his ideas have now reached a literary agency. It’s amazing what can happen when we surrender our plans into God’s will.


  14. Kathy says:

    I don’t think you are unimportant, Michelle, but you were the most fascinating tablemate I encountered at Writing for the Soul a couple of years ago. I was feeling pretty overwhelmed and insecure among all the professionals, and you put me immediately at ease. You reminded me to trust God to lead me where He wanted me to go as a writer.Thanks again for that.

  15. Jenni Brummett says:

    At Mount Hermon this year (my very first Writers Conference) I met a gal from my neck of the woods in the SF Bay area. She writes NF and I write fiction, but we’ve critiqued each others work and been able to encourage each other, rejection letters and all. She has become far from ‘unimportant’ in my life.

    Before going to Mount Hermon I looked up more information about the ‘professionals’ who were going to be there. I wanted to discover details about their lives outside the industry. If I had the privilege of meeting them during the weekend I made a point of touching on some of these other attributes of their lives. There’s value in letting people know that you’re genuinely interested in them, not just what they can do for you.

  16. Ann Bracken says:

    The night before a conference I attended I sat at a table with a group of ladies I’d never met. Turns out one of them was an agent I was pitching to the next day! She didn’t accept my manuscript (too inspirational for her tastes), but gave me a very nice, detailed letter with changes she’d recommend for both my query letter and manuscript. She said she usually didn’t do that, but remembered me from the conference.

  17. Some of my closest friends are people I met at writers’ conferences. There are no unimportant people there.

  18. Peter DeHaan says:

    I’m amazed at the positive responses I get from people when I ask sincere questions and actually listen to what they are saying.

    Good things always seem to be the result.