Some creative-writing workshop leaders promote their sessions by advertising presence–and often imply one-on –one time–with “Agents and Editors.” Here are some observations, thoughts, and rules that may help you in your decision for applying to workshops.
A fair number of creative writing workshops invite agents and editors to the conference portion of the meeting. Most often, there are either panels, occasional lectures on publishing, individual appointments, or question and answer sessions.
“Panels” of agents and editors are rarely formed for structured presentations, but instead are scheduled for conference participants to ask questions. Questions and answers tend to be more personally oriented and may not inform everyone in the audience with useful information. “I sent a letter and I never got a response. Why was that?” kind of questions.
Talks on specific topics such as “How to write a query letter” can be very helpful when well done. It is always useful to find out how agents think, and to appreciate the variability that goes into the subjective decisions that are crucial for every agent’s success. They are looking for familiar traits and achievements in you that can be very individual, and important to know.
Personal, scheduled sessions with agents are not common at conferences, and manuscript critiques are rare. Still, one-on-one conferences, when available, are valuable to improve understanding of what an agent is looking for to complete their lists of clients. However, don’t expect too much. It is distressingly common that agents at literary fiction conferences have little or no interest in acquiring authors writing literary fiction. In today’s market, memoir, creative non-fiction, certain genres, are most profitable.
There are a few courses that teach only how to best sell your writing. These are only valuable if there is a guaranteed introduction to agents and editors. These workshops, no matter what the claims, will not do much to increase your writing skills or the quality of your work.
If your skill is writing quality fictional stories, you may find agents unreceptive. Agents today are focused not on literary fiction but on “based on a true story” or “tell us about you” kind of “fiction.” To be succinct, they want fiction that sells, usually from someone famous who will divulge gossip-secrets those who still read will want to discover. You may come away from a conference wondering why the agent was asked, and why he or she agreed to attend. For the most part, agents attend for a break in their daily routine, they get paid, they get exposure, they get to see friends. Don’t rationalize they specifically want to sell your works.
To set a tone, here are true quotes from agents at conferences for literary workshops. “I hate short stories. I have a stack on my desk and I refuse to read them.” “I only do ‘young adult’.” (These agents are invariably looking for another JK Rowling that will carry them into retirement as if copying JK Rowling, or any author, is what any serious storywriter should do to be better.) “I’m not impressed.” “I’m sorry, I’ve accepted only one literary novel in the last five years.”
Don’t choose a workshop in the belief that you will find someone eager to publish your work. Choose a workshop that is valuable for improving your writing. Exposure to agents and editors is secondary.
Don’t believe that many agents attend creative writing conferences to find clients. Most agents find clients by referrals from people they know or by reading something they love that is published and recruiting the author. Chances of any stranger author’s query resulting in a client/agent relationship are in the lottery range. And the chance of a writer introducing themselves as a stranger to an agent and talking that agent into a contract is minuscule.
Develop a Plan
Think about a plan for getting published that is separate from your plan to write your best fiction. Here is an example of an individual objective to publish, with activities that will give most success.
- Write well. Use credible critiquers to judge quality.
- Find reputable people to introduce you to reputable people.
- Understand who you write to please, and don’t try to market your work to the those who will never like what you write.
- Establish a platform that will make you economically attractive—you could win a Nobel Prize, or discover the meaning of life, or you could win an Olympic gold medal while taking performance enhancing drugs or have illicit sex with an intern in an oval office of power. You may find building a platform time consuming, but an invaluable credential for publication.
- Get a publishing history (in a literary magazine for example) and attract an agent to the quality and content of what you are trying to accomplish.