Guest post by MFA student Kate Tooley
When I first moved to New York almost four years ago, I knew I wanted to write, but I also was aware that I knew next to nothing about the world of publishing or how to get involved in New York’s literary community. I’d spent five years doing theater and I had a lot of catching up to do; I started going to readings, events and conferences, but without a lot of direction or intention. The Slice conference in Brooklyn especially helped me find my feet (and they have great scholarship options for students!), but there are tons of great events in NYC and beyond, and I’ve found that the times I’ve gotten the most out of them were the times I was most strategic and thoughtful about what I wanted to get out of them. With Brooklyn Book Festival going on this week, I wanted to share a bit of what I learned through trial and error, that will hopefully help you skip some of the error part of attending “bookish” events.
Research and Plan
Putting a couple of hours in beforehand to research the people who are going to be at and is invaluable. At conferences, knowing which agents you want to strike up a conversation with and which panels they’re speaking on is a great way to get an idea if they’re someone you want to query. It will also save you from missing seeing a favorite author or literary figure who may be making only a quick appearance. This year I wasn’t on top of things (thanks MFA brain) and I missed Monique Truong. I may never get over it.
Work on Your Elevator Pitch
The big things we have in common at lit events are typically that we’re all readers and mostly writers. Especially at conferences, people are going to ask you what you’re working on. It’s a great opportunity to practice getting that answer down to a few sentences instead of the half hour long storytelling event it tends to be. (Is this just me? It might just be me.) It’s an easy way to start a conversation and will teach you what people find interesting about your story, what might be selling points you never thought of, and what aspects of it might not be as clear as you think.
Plan to Attend Readings and Panels Outside Your Special Area of Interest
It’s good to hit panels that speak to your specific concerns, but it can be surprisingly useful to go to one or two that might not initially jump out at you. For example, I recently attended a panel on literary non-profits, and not only was it a great way to discover volunteer opportunities, I learned a lot about an aspect of the writing world I was unfamiliar with.
Talk to Everyone
It’s easy to think your only goal should be to meet agents and authors when you’re at an event, but I’ve learned so much from conversations with other attendees. I’ve found writers whose careers I’m still following and whose work I love, and made friends that have become invaluable writing buddies and great resources.
Talk to Agents
This one is conference specific, but important. I know I said don’t only talk to agents, but seriously do actually talk to agents. That said, you’ll save everyone a lot of time if you do some research beforehand: know who works with writers in your genre, who’s sold a book you love, who is passionate about some topic or issue you care about. If you have something genuine to say (instead of just spamming), I’ve typically found agents who come to conferences are more than happy to engage (and I’ve even gotten query requests I wasn’t expecting).
If you’re comfortable, speak up in sessions; ask questions after readings; chat with authors after their panels; get a book signed; do a round table talk; or strike up a conversation with the folks manning the booths at Brooklyn Book Fest. I (seriously) understand the urge to keep to yourself and the difficulty of approaching strangers, but I’ve also learned the value of pushing outside my comfort zone one small interaction at a time.
Embrace the Ambiguity
Agents and editors are individuals with unique preferences, methods, and pet peeves, and nearly every author I’ve heard speak has had a unique career trajectory. If I’ve learned anything after four years of going to events, it’s that if you’re looking for one set of sure-fire rules or a magic recipe for success, you’re not going to find it. One agent’s “must”, is another’s “never”. The thing that got one author in the door left another with the door shut in their face. (The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that you should follow submission rules and make sure you’re writing something you really, deeply care about.)
Take Care of Yourself
Events large and small can all be overwhelming, so making sure your mind and body have what they need is key to a positive experience. Try to get some sleep beforehand and bring snacks and water; if you need a few minutes to yourself, take them. Anxiety is a very real thing, and there’s value in showing up, no matter what level of participation you’re comfortable with. If you don’t have the spoons to talk to agents or authors in person, you can always follow them on Twitter or Instagram; live tweeting from an event is a lower-stress way to establish some contact and get on their radar (caveat: do make sure quotes are accurate and remember that most authors don’t appreciate being tagged in negative reviews). Additionally, following folks on social media beforehand can help you decide whether or not you’re comfortable approaching them in person.
More than anything over the last four years, going to events has helped me to feel like I was part of a community and helped me stay motivated, connected, and active. It has been the thing that gives me a fresh jolt of energy when I need it most. As a grad student, I have the privilege of being a part of a great community here at TNS, but I’m grateful to know that after graduation there will be conferences and readings, and Book Festivals to help me continue building my writing family.