Wednesday, August 3, 2011

WMW Introduces Jennifer Gracen

Jennifer Gracen is a women's fiction/contemporary romance writer.   I met her on Twitter and have found her to be a terrific encouragement.  Today she's sharing what her experience has been with writer's conferences. 

Are you thinking about attending a writer's conference, but not quite sure?  Read on, and maybe she can help make your mind up.

So Jennifer, tell us about yourself.

I grew up torn between two great loves: books and music. Most of my younger years I was unable to choose whether to be a writer or a singer. After spending my youth writing in private and singing in public, I now only sing in my car and have fully embraced my lifelong passion for writing.

Born and raised on Long Island, New York, I live there currently with my husband and two young sons. I worked as a copy editor before choosing to stay home full time to raise my children.

When I'm not taking care of the family, reading, or feeding my addiction to Twitter, I'm writing. Writing in my preferred genres of women’s fiction/contemporary romance, I have completed three full-length novels and one novella. Currently I'm pursuing my ultimate goal: to become a published author. I'm seeking agent representation.

I am a member of the Romance Writers of America (PRO status), and the Long Island Romance Writers (RWA Chapter 160).

Tell us about the conference(s) you went to.
I’ve been to two this year, so far. Both were held in hotels in New York City, my home turf, so that made it even easier to attend. The conference gods smiled on me this year.

The first was the Writer’s Digest Conference held at the Sheraton Hotel & Towers from January 21st-23rd, Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. It was the first writer’s conference of any kind I’d ever attended. What was interesting about it, to me, was that because it was run by Writer’s Digest magazine, it wasn’t genre specific. Writers from every genre were there, and that made it interesting. I may be wrong, but I think there were over 500 writers there that weekend, along with a few agents, a few editors, industry types -- the usual suspects.

I went by myself; I’m not afraid to go places by myself, I’m very outgoing and social, which are all huge bonuses going into a conference. At the opening session, held in a huge ballroom, I just walked right over to a table where a few women were sitting that had one empty chair and asked if I could sit with them. We all started talking: I was sitting with a contemporary romance writer, 2 YA writers, a mystery writer, and a non-fiction memoir writer. We ranged in age from 33 to 60. It was a nicely eclectic group. But we clicked instantly and stayed together throughout the weekend, even went out to dinner, etc. We have stayed in touch online on a weekly basis since then. We are an online writing support group, cheering each other on, critiquing each other’s work, trading articles and links about writing. We even all met for a writer’s retreat weekend, up in a cabin in Vermont, just a few weeks ago, and it was lovely to see them all again. I made genuine friends there, the best and most lasting part of it for me, truthfully.

But I digress. Okay, the conference itself! The workshops were great, covering just about every topic for every genre, fiction and non-fiction. I thought they did a good job of trying to make that even, attempting to have something for everyone. Information was yours to soak up at will, an incredible offering. I went to several workshops; a few on craft, a few on social media, and a few author and agent panels. I got to attend workshops with speakers like James Scott Bell, Donald Maass, and Hallie Ephron; I got to attend panels with industry biggies like Janet Reid, Jane Friedman and Chuck Sambuchino – and this is just to name a few. The many speakers they had were varied in their areas of expertise, and I thought them to be highly knowledgeable, encouraging, and forthcoming.

The biggest thing about the WD Conference that people may have heard of is their famous “Pitch Slam”. Being held in New York City, they had quite an advantage; they gathered 55 top agents into a huge ballroom, and every single attendee had an opportunity to pitch to as many agents in that room as they could. You got three minutes face time with each agent, and believe me, they had staff timers watching the seconds in the interest of fairness to everyone. That was a somewhat crazy experience… but more on that later.

The WD conference was where it was pounded into my head live, as opposed to before that only having seen it online, that building a media platform, your brand, was so crucially important in this day and age. It made quite an impression on me. I had a Facebook page, but after that conference, I went home and built a small website on Wordpress.com, created an author page for Facebook, and a few weeks later, joined Twitter. The rest is history, as far as the beginning of my social media immersion… or addiction, depending on who you ask about me. ;)

The second conference I attended was the Romance Writers of America National Conference. It’s held in a different city each year, and this year, lucky for me, it was in New York City. It started on June 27, but the bulk of it was held from June 28th to July 1st. Roughly 2,500 writers, agents, editors, and publishing industry people in general descended upon the Marriott Marquis in the heart of Times Square and gathered for workshops, networking, and fun. Yes, FUN! Hey, you get over 2,000 romance writers in one place, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. And it was. The vibe there was so much more relaxed and lively than what I’d experienced at the WD Conference. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was so unbelievably nice!!! It was a lovely atmosphere to be in, and invigorating as well.

The list of possible workshops was so enormous it was totally overwhelming when I downloaded it! Seriously, there were something like 100 different workshops offered to choose from, covering every aspect of the romance genre, social media, and publishing that you can think of.  You downloaded the list from the RWA website ahead of time and pieced together your personal schedule. Extremely well organized and attendee-friendly.

I attended a few workshops, again on craft, but none of the ones on social media this time, as I feel I more or less have a handle on that now. I attended agent panels and author panels; several book signings – where each publisher had their authors autograph books and give them to you for free!; and the big RITA (published authors) & Golden Heart (unpublished authors) Awards Ceremony that concludes the conference on the last night.

And there were also pitching opportunities here. You could pretty much pitch to anyone at any time, you never knew who would be standing next to you and ask! And, as part of the conference attendance fee, each writer was able to, ahead of time, make a ten-minute appointment with one agent and one editor of their choice to pitch their book. An invaluable bonus.

And again, for me, the best part was all of the amazing people I met! I got to meet people face to face who I know from Twitter, I met people through mutual friends, I met people just from sitting in the lounge area designated for RWA and talking to whoever was there. It was a very social conference, and I loved it. The energy was incredible, contagious -- everyone was just so glad to be there. A  fantastic vibe throughout.

What did you do to prepare for the conference (or them)? 
As much as I could, actually. I wanted to go in feeling prepared so that was one less thing to worry about. I usually am a pantser, not just in writing, but in life. I’ve never been great at preparing, doing my homework. But I felt this was too important to not do my homework; and especially with so much information out there to help newbies get the swing of going to conferences, there was no excuse.
So, the Internet was the biggest tool. I think that’s pretty much the standard for every conference now: there will be a website dedicated to it. You can get so many crucial details there about the schedule, the planned workshops and speaker appearances, etc. I immersed myself in everything.

I heard it’s important to have an “elevator pitch”.  Can you explain exactly what that is, if you prepared one, and if you had an opportunity to use it?
Yes, I prepared one, and yes, I used it more than a few times. It was especially important to have a ready elevator pitch for use at the RWA conference, where anyone and everyone will ask you, with genuine interest, “So tell me about your book. Hit me with your elevator pitch!” Most are other authors. But sometimes, it’s an agent or editor who asks you, and you want to be able to deliver. You never know!

My Twitter friend, published historical author and marketing gal Vicky Dreiling, had actually written a blog post on elevator pitches about a year ago, and when she heard I was having trouble preparing mine, sent it to me. It was tremendously helpful. I’ll quote some of her post, “The Pitch Begins With Premise” here, about what exactly an “elevator pitch” is:

“A slightly different method of describing the premise… start your premise with the Inciting Incident. The Inciting Incident is an event at the beginning of the novel that propels your hero and/or heroine into action. To get there, you start with one word: When. Use the Inciting Incident to create the two-line Elevator Pitch.”

With that in mind, I crafted mine, for the women’s fiction with strong romantic elements manuscript I was pitching. I didn’t start with “When”, already breaking a rule, and I didn’t even start with the Inciting Incident. But it did help me to streamline it down to two lines about the basic premise of my novel. It seemed to be effective on anyone who asked to hear it. Here it was: If you’re married, is a strong online connection, daily contact with a member of the opposite sex, considered cheating? Rochelle Barron needs to stop living in denial and figure out the answer to that question before her life unravels.  To my delighted surprise, people’s eyes lit up at that, and they asked to hear more about my story. THAT’S what you’re looking for with an elevator pitch, or with any pitch.

Were you nervous?  How did you overcome your nerves?
Huh. Well. Funny thing, that. I wasn’t at all nervous going in to the Writer’s Digest conference. I was excited. Pumped up, ready to take the place by storm, learn whatever I could, and just meet people. I know it’s called networking, but I’m a very social butterfly; I just love to talk to others, make new acquaintances -- so I didn’t think of it like that, even though that’s essentially what it was. Going to conferences is a fantastic way to do your social networking, but face to face. For some people -- outgoing, friendly, open people like me -- this is a plus. For others, who are shy and not as comfortable in a room full of strangers, it can be very difficult.

Anyway, I went in there like I was gonna own the joint, LOL. I’d done my homework, prepared like crazy, and had two solid books to pitch. And guess what happened? This social butterfly, an hour before the big Pitch Slam, was consumed by a full-fledged panic attack. No joke. I truly thought I was going to die, have a heart attack right there in the hotel and die on the floor. It was THAT bad. I could barely breathe.
But I was SO determined. I was mad at myself. I’d gone there to accomplish something, not give in to fear and let it trip me up just short of possibly achieving something major – pitching successfully to top literary agents. So I pushed through the fear. I just kept trying to breathe, even though I literally barely could because my heart rate was so high. I just kept talking. It’s funny now, but I literally talked to whoever was next to me, whoever was in a 5-foot radius, explaining why I HAD to. And they were all so nice! So supportive! Because they were nervous too! And talking me off the ledge gave them something else to focus on, LOL.

In any case, I finally got into the huge ballroom along with over 500 other aspiring writers – felt something like cattle being herded in en masse -- and sat down with the first agent. I told her flat out I was really nervous because she was the first agent I’d ever pitched to in person. She gave me a kindly smile and told me to breathe, then softly asked me what my book was about. I managed to tell her. She asked me to send her the first 100 pages. (Ultimately, she rejected my MS, but I’ll always remember her fondly for her graciousness in the face of my obvious anxiety.) By the time I pitched to the third agent, and all three had asked for partials, the panic attack was ebbing. I not only had survived it, I’d gotten three requests for partials! I felt invincible. It was a genuinely defining moment for me that I’ll never, ever forget. I didn’t like feeling like that, but I learned from it. I learned just how strong I am and just how determined I’d become to achieve my writing goals, and it put things into a new perspective for me. I’ve been in full speed ahead mode since that day. THAT was the day I truly felt like I was a writer.

Needless to say, when I pitched at the RWA National Conference, I was not nervous at all. This was partly due to knowing what I was capable of, having survived that massive panic attack at the WD conference, and partly due to everyone there being so unbelievably NICE. Welcoming, supportive, friendly – the community of romance writers is not one to be underestimated!! When it was my turn, I went in with calm assurance. I pitched, I got requests, and that was a great feeling. Very empowering.

What was it like to pitch your work to agents?
Um, see above, LOL. Look, the first time you do it live is absolutely terrifying. You feel like you’re going in there naked, putting your heart on the table for them to possibly squash. But it’s a part of the process to get your work published, and it has to be done. It helps thicken the skin, that’s for sure. I think it’s probably one of those things that the more you do it, the easier it eventually becomes.

Just try to remember that agents (and editors) are people. Just people, just like you. It’s okay to be nervous, they’ve seen that before. Maybe they’re nervous too! Some of them are very shy. Try to remember to speak slowly, always be professional and courteous, keep the pitch short and sweet, and smile. If an author does that, I can’t imagine a pitch not going well.

Do you schedule a time slot to see a specific agent?  Do you do this before the conference or once you’re there?
The two conferences I attended worked very differently in that aspect. I think I covered it above, but in case I was unclear, I’ll restate.

The Writer’s Digest conference featured their famous “Pitch Slam”. No appointments made beforehand, something of a cattle call, like speed dating. They gave the information on their website, a list of which agents were expected to attend, which genre each one was looking to represent, etc. That was very helpful. You targeted which agents you wanted to hit before the conference, and went looking for them in the Pitch Slam.

The RWA conference, as I spoke of before, allowed you to pick and choose which agent and which editor (one of each) you wanted to make your appointments with. The list was released about six weeks before the conference, and you scheduled your appointment online.

Would you recommend that other writers do this?  Do you believe you benefited from going?
Oh my God, yes. Absolutely! I benefited in so many ways: professionally, socially, and personally. I learned so much about the publishing industry, the writing mindset and craft, social media networking and platforms, how others in the business function and survive and thrive…  there’s so much information to absorb at writers’ conferences.

And, I think most importantly, being in that environment truly makes you feel like a writer. Writing is a very solitary profession. You do it by yourself, you spend many hours alone. So to be in a place where you’re surrounded by people from all walks of life, from all over the country or even the world, and find that they think like you, feel what you feel about your biggest passion – it’s an amazing feeling of kinship. It’s affirmation at the highest level. Every writer needs affirmation. I think it’s right up there on the top of the Writers Needs List, after caffeine and before sleep.

If you could do it again, what would you do differently?
I’d have stayed overnight at the hotel for the Writer’s Digest conference instead of commuting in every day and going home both nights. I live 45 minutes east of New York City; I simply couldn’t justify the hotel expense. So I was there all day until late, would then have to get to Penn Station to take the train home, to go to sleep and get up early to be back there in the morning. By the third day I was tired, functioning on adrenaline and coffee.

For the RWA conference, also in NYC, I was convinced by my friends/colleagues in the Long Island Romance Writers (RWA Chapter 160, my local chapter) who were also going to stay over at the hotel for the whole 4 days/3 nights, that the socializing was not only fun but important. You needed to make connections, show your face. I am SO glad I managed it and listened to them; I had the BEST time. The opportunity to hang out with other writers in the bar/lounge area into the late hours -- to talk shop, or not talk about writing, just laugh and talk -- is not one to pass up if it’s possible. It’s social networking, yes, but it’s also fun. To connect with other writers, to be able to, say, talk about the editing process to someone and not have their eyes glaze over? Wonderful. Worth every penny.

Is there anything else you can think of that would be beneficial for writers who are considering attending a conference to know?
I’d just suggest to do your homework on the conference beforehand. Every one of them now gives you information online; there’s simply no good excuse not to check it out before you attend. Check out everything: the area, the workshops, the speakers, the schedule -- immerse yourself in it! Be as prepared as you can be going in, and it will relax you. And when you’re relaxed, you can enjoy the experience – which, really, you should!

I think that every writer needs to attend at least one major writing conference. Not just for the professional aspects, which are very important, but the social ones. That first night of my first conference, when I looked around and realized I was in a room with over 300 other writers… this unbelievable feeling of kinship, joy, and love washed over me. I was among my people!!! It was one of those incredible moments I’ll never forget.

Where to connect with Jennifer online: