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Wonderment: Three Things I Learned at My First Writers Conference

Now that I (think I’ve) found my writing style and voice, produced five books, and made a considerable amount of author buddies online, I decided that it was time for me to take it to the next level: Conferences!

Yes, the hustle and bustle of conference life in something I’ve dealt with in the past, but there is an element of excitement about attending a conference that’s not mandated by my day job. This weekend, I attended the fourth annual Chicago Writers Conference, nestled across the street from one of the most beautiful libraries I’ve ever set foot in: the Harold Washington Library Center. I thought that was humorously appropriate.

I was nervous, excited, curious, and naïve. Above all, I was determined. I’d invested almost three hundred dollars to be there and I wanted to get my money’s worth. I also wanted something blog-worthy to report back to you and, alas, I succeeded. I learned a lot about the craft of writing and the tools needed to become a successful author…but if I had to choose three of the most noteworthy lessons I learned during my weekend among some of Chicago’s finest budding literary talents, here goes:

1) Laurie Scheer was right: she is a media goddess!

My first session on Saturday morning was entitled How To Pitch. It was rather timely, as I had spent an extra $20 just to have eight minutes alone with an agent during CWC’s PitchFest (which was held on the next day – more on that later). So, there I was: Venti Starbucks Dark Roast Black in hand, composition notebook and pen in lap, and cute leopard print flats on feet. I was armed and ready – and so was the speaker, Laurie Scheer. A former veep of programming for the WE Network and an all-around industry know-it-all, Laurie shared her vast wealth of knowledge to my hungry self. She assured me that my platform was out there but I needed to find it. She issued a list of pre-pitch questions: Why should your idea be published? Why publish your idea NOW? Do you have wonderment in your idea that separates you from the pack?

Wonderment. I’d never considered the idea of an older woman/younger man carrying on as wonderment when I published The Cougarette. However, after hearing Laurie expand on that concept, I began to find the uniqueness of my own writing style and voice. No doubt, Laurie has a keen sense of giving you the straight-no-chaser when it comes to the writing industry and its entertainment counterparts. She was giving away no rose-colored glasses in her sessions!

Conversely, she inspired me to give my all during my pitch my and to believe in the wonderment of my creation. She even inspired me to go after a few impromptu pitches of my own throughout the weekend. I purchased her book, The Writer’s Advantage (highly recommended), at the book booth after the session and I attended two additional sessions headlined by her. (I even got an autograph AND she followed me on Twitter. I win.)

2) The Elevator Pitch is Dead.

During the Meet the Publishers session later that morning, I kept thinking about my pitch. I had already made up my mind that I was going to tackle at least one of those publishers after the session and give away my first business card. I had bought a box of cards and they were burning a hole in my pretty red CWC tote. You read that correctly: an entire box, y’all. Mama was on a mission!

As I took notes like a good student, one of the publishers said something that really made me sit upright: “If you ever want to turn off an agent or publisher, tell them that your book is a mix between two other popular books.”

I thought about my one-liner elevator pitch (as opposed to my 90-second pitch) and flipped to my folder to find the Post-It I wrote it on:

“My book is The Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce meets How Stella Got Her Groove Back

Whoops!

I furiously scratched it out, scared that one of the all-mighty publishers would see it and shun me forever. As I scribbled it away (no matter how true it was…because it is true!), she went on to say that the old school Mad Men-style elevator pitch is dead in the world of publishing. She suggested that an alternative would be: “This book is for fans of…”

That sounded smoother, I suppose – but I didn’t want to chance delivering it. I mean, I’m a salesperson by trade, I majored in Marketing, and I’ve got a pretty slick mouth, but I also embrace my limitations in life – especially when it comes to talking about my favorite authors that I tend to go a little too hard in the paint for:


Me: “This book is for fans of Candace Bushnell.”
Potential Agent: “I hate Candace Bushnell.”
Me, confused: “Okay…but she wrote Sex and the City. Have you read Four Blondes? Or her latest, Killing Monica? They’re both really good…”

Yep. Nope. I know me. Fuck that. I stuck with my 90-second pitch and found that…

3) Pitching is not THAT scary.

PitchFest was the following Sunday and to say that the atmosphere in the UIC Conference Center was abuzz is an understatement. When I arrived that mid-morning, people were talking to themselves, wiping away tears, smiling as if they’d won a million bucks, and shaking like leaves in a Windy City breeze. By ten, at least a hundred pitches had been spouted from the mouths of eager writers to the ears of seeking agents. My pitch wasn’t until 1:36 so I had time to breathe and observe others. It was intriguing to wonder if the other writers were as scared as I was. Most of them certainly looked like it. By the time I lined up for my pitch, I had already spit game at a publisher and another agent. Surely I was ready for this prescheduled pitch that I prepped for over the past two weeks, right?

But what happened once I walked into the room for my eight-minute pitch was a completely different feeling. The agent I met with was so warm and inviting. She asked me how my day went and if I was enjoying the conference – small talk to set my mind at ease. It helped me deliver my pitch in a smooth manner and she ended our exchange by asking for the first fifty pages of my project as well as the first three chapters of my second (as I had learned in the How To Pitch session with the great Laurie Scheer: ‘Never come to a pitch with only one idea. Come with two or three – even if you haven’t done anything with them yet.’) I’m not sure if it will lead to anything, although I hope it does. I will say that as soon as I left the room, I felt a wave of accomplishment wash over me. I had survived my first PitchFest ever and I didn’t need to be a fraction as scared as I was.

My first writing conference was an overall success. CWC ran smoothly and made a conference virgin feel safe, able, and determined. No doubt I’ll be back next year and this time – I’ll pitch twice (but let’s hope I won’t have to pitch at all!)

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