7 Takeaways from the James River Writers Conference

James River Writers Conference

The 11th Annual James River Writers Conference was scheduled in Richmond, Virginia from October 19- 20.

Last weekend, I attend my first-ever writers’ conference–the 2013 James River Writers Conference in Richmond, VA. Besides re-experiencing beauty of driving through Virginia countryside (many years ago, I was an undergraduate at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg), I learned a lot about writing as well as what it means to be part of a writers’ community. Read below for my seven takeaways from the James River Writer’s Conference.

1. Be social – Writers tend to be a solitary lot but it is not advisable to keep to yourself when you’re hanging around with other writers. In addition to knowing that everyone in the sessions and during the coffee breaks writes, you have the best opportunity possible to learn from other writers’ experiences.

Example: on Saturday, October 19, participating attendees experienced the Library of Virginia‘s annual Literary Luncheon at the Greater Richmond Convention Center (site of the conference), which featured announcements of all 2013 Virginia Literary Award finalists. I was fortunate enough to sit at lunch with Christopher Tilghman, finalist in the fiction category and author of The Right-Hand Shore, and novelist and poet Virginia Pye.

During the course of the lunch, these two established writers graciously listened to the pitch I had for my literary novel and gave me some great pointers on how to improve it. Later, I sat with an attending literary agent for a one-on-one pitch session and took Christopher and Virginia’s advice to heart. More about that in the next point.

Beyond learning opportunities, socializing helps you feel like you’re part of a broader writing community. You can’t get this opportunity anywhere else but at a writers’ conference. Among the individuals I met were Lisa Hartz, co-director of the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, VA, Mark Meier, whose first novel is about to be published this year by a small press, Heather Kelly, a YA writer who is also volunteer coordinator for the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and Jason Winn who shares with me an addiction to James Bond as well as an addiction to writing.

What I found, too, was that even though this was my first writers’ conference, I still had enough history as a writer to share insights and expertise with other attendees.

It was both fun and instructional, therefore, to participate.

2. Take advantage of one-on-one pitch sessions -I won’t write much about pitching here. I will save that for my next post in a few days. However, one of the James River Writers Conference’s most attractive features was the chance to sit down for eight minutes with a literary agent and pitch your book. Success at these sessions is easy to determine: will the agent be sufficiently intrigued to ask you to send him/her pages for further consideration? I registered early enough and was able to schedule time to meet with April Eberhardt.

Whether or not the agent invites you to submit pages, the experience of meeting him or her face-to-face is a great learning and confidence-building opportunity. Too many writers’ experiences with agents is through the faceless process of querying via email. It can be daunting to meet eye-to-eye with these individuals who, we believe, should ultimately play such an important role in our journey to publication. The experience challenges you to know your story, to know what makes it attractive and to know what makes it different from anything else in the market at that particular time.

Finally, it is inspiring too, to learn agents are human. Several hours after my pitch session with April, I chatted with her at the food table where bowls of fruit had been put out for attendees. Personalizing the querying process as much as possible, including through one-on-one pitch sessions, is a great step every writer should take.

3. Bring business cards. Ask for business cards. Lest we forget, conferences are about business. Yes, this includes writers’ conferences too. As you would at any other conference, be prepared to represent yourself when you meet others and make sure you have business cards.

Since this was my first conference, I didn’t want to go overboard with producing cards. FedEx offers a fairly affordable service to develop and print business cards, which I took advantage of in the days just before the conference. You might consider leaving the back of your card blank to extend the same courtesy to others that you hope to receive in turn. What I mean by that is, you’re likely to meet a lot of other writers at a conference. No matter how stimulating your conversation with them may be, two full days of stimulating writing-related sessions will make your memory of any one conversation get a bit foggy.

So make sure you don’t only have business cards to distribute but that you also ASK other writers you’re talking to, to give you one of theirs. Have a pen handy and, after the conversation is over and they’re not right in front of you, flip their card over and jot a few notes about what you discussed and some follow-up items for when you reach out following the conference. This is why a blank card back is always convenient. See point seven.

4. Listen to good speakers as well as good topics. Let me give credit for this one to a blog post on the Folio Literary Management website entitled Writers’ Conference Etiquette. Agent Scott Hoffman writes that while, as a conference attendee, you’ll likely review the session topics to build a list that seems attractive to you, you should also consider following the bright and shiny objects (my language, not his), that is, rock star presenters who may operate in genres different than your own but who really have their stuff together and have a solid reputation. See point one in Hoffman’s post.

If you were in my position at the conference, that is, a writer with a completed novel, I concentrated largely on the sessions at which agents spoke including the “Desperate Authors” session featuring, among the panelists, Paige Wheeler of–you guessed it–Folio Literary Management and, on the second day of the conference, the above-mentioned April Eberhart, who led her session on the different routes available to authors beyond traditional publishing.

Yes, the topics were intriguing. I likely would have attended the session on the state of publishing regardless of the presenter. But listening to Ms. Eberhardt, the agent with whom I also had a one-on-one pitch session, gave me an opportunity to learn a little bit more about what is important to her as an agent. Important stuff.

5. Drink beer. Drinking beer was one of my recommendations in a recent post, too, about why you should belong to a writers’ group. What does that say about me, exactly? Let’s not consider that, shall we?

Look, your time at the conference can be pretty intense. You’ve got educational sessions, networking coffees and lunches, one-on-one pitch sessions. Oh and, by the way, where the hell is the bathroom and where can I get a good signal for my phone? Time moves fast, you need to move faster and it can be difficult to explore a conversation at any great length when you need to be somewhere in 8 minutes.

Fortunately, the James River Writers Conference scheduled for attendees, on the first night of the conference, a social event at the Capital Ale House on 6th and Cary Streets. I headed over there after the sessions with writer Jason Winn, who has penned his own blog post about the conference.  After grabbing a beer, I fell into conversation with Heather Gerry Kelly, with whom I am now friends on Facebook and Twitter, and Jeanine Broderick, President of the Happiness 1st Institute. Our conversation lasted at least 20 minutes and likely longer than a half hour. We discussed life priorities, happiness, what success means as a writer (being published or just keeping on at writing?) and an array of other topics that likely could not have occurred during the faster-paced environment of the formal conference programming.

Drinking beer also helps you with point number one: socialize. Let’s just say, it was a great evening. And, having never spent time in Richmond before, it was also great to check out a local watering hole.

6. Plan beforehand. Logically, this point should have been the number one point on this list since it involves doing something BEFORE the conference. But, uh, I didn’t plan this blog post very well. Hmm. That was a stupid joke. All right, a really stupid joke, I admit it. I shouldn’t make jokes. But I try…really, I do.

Know what you want to achieve before you go. There’s a tie-in here with point four, of course, which is to figure out beforehand which sessions you want to attend. But let me take this argument a step further so that point six can hold its own. Let’s say you’ve reviewed the conference program and have developed a schedule based either on attractive topic sessions or topic speakers.

You may also have an opportunity to research the speakers to learn more about them. In the event you have a chance to speak with them at the conference, you’ll then have some information about them already. The James River Writers Conference planners actually publicize the list of attendees a few weeks before the conference. I spent some time Googling different writers who were attending; in the end, it would have taken too much time to research all of them, but I was hoping to find information about one or two whose literary interests matched my own and who I might have kept an eye out for at the conference.

The voyage of discovery at a writers’ conference need not begin at the actual event. Resourcefulness and proactive outreach are all a part of, yes, advance planning, and can really help you maximize the benefits of attending a writers’ conference.

7. Follow up and stay in touch. I drove home after the conference with about 15 business cards. I’ve also since followed up with a number of attendees who I was fortunate enough to meet. Look, one of the great benefits of social networking is the ability it provides to stay in touch with people on a regular basis. The James River Writers Conference may have only lasted a weekend but it also provides face-to-face opportunities to meet people which, as I mentioned before, you cannot find anywhere else.

Everyone I’ve reached out to has been receptive to connecting online, which means one weekend has already started turning into a new community.  Writers should treasure this more than most others, as their work is so solitary. The James River Writers Conference was the first writers’ conference I have ever attended. But if I should anticipate attending another, it just may be that I will head down to Richmond again in 2014. The fact that I am already connected online to the writers I met this year will make seeing them again more meaningful.

For those who have attended the James River Writers Conference, or any other writers’ conference for that matter, what would you say are the main benefits for you?

(Oh, and by the way, the hard-working conference planners and volunteers deserve a shout-out and a pat on the back. Thanks so much, , Lana Krumwiede and all the other volunteers. It was a great conference. Y’all did a great job!)

About Joe Kovacs

I am a writer of literary and horror fiction pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, and a proud husband and father. To contact me, fill out the form in the right column and click submit.
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