Feb 17 2016

San Francisco Writers Conference: What to Expect

For two weekends in a row, I have not slept in my own bed. This is unusual for a homebody like me — who has handpicked my perfect pillow-top mattress and appreciates when all my stuff is in one ultra-organized location — but for the first half of February, I’ve been a traveling fool. We took our first-ever trip to Disneyland. And for the past four days, I was an attendee at the 2016 San Francisco Writers Conference.

I’d been wanting to go to a writing conference for years, but my teaching schedule got in the way, and then I got pregnant — twice — and then, and then, and then.

AND THEN, we moved to California, and even though I have a six-month-old, I told myself, No excuses. It’s serendipity. So I signed up. My mom flew in from Michigan to stay with P, and B came along with me. Before I went, I tried to do as much research as I could about what to expect; but to my surprise, there were very few thorough accounts of conferences past. I found a couple “What to Bring” lists, and one or two ultra-short blog posts from years ago, but nothing with the kind of specificity I wanted.

So, for any future attendees (and anyone else who might be curious about this kind of thing), I’m happy to share my experience.


mark hopkins international hotel

Mark Hopkins Hotel

SFWC16 was held at the Mark Hopkins International Hotel, as it has been for years. I live close-ish enough to the city that, in a different life, I suppose I would have been able to commute for those four days — but since I’m still a nursing mom, I needed a place for my baby (and, consequently, my husband) to hide close by while I attended the sessions. And I mean I needed them REALLY close by: with only fifteen minutes between sessions, I was forever sprinting up to the room to feed B and sprinting back down again, and I was STILL late to some of the things I really hoped to see. For the more popular sessions, arriving even a couple minutes late meant I was relegated to standing room only.

Even though I’m pretty sure I was the only person crazy enough to bring a straight-up baby, I think booking a room is the way to go no matter what. There are probably some more affordable hotel options — especially if, like me, you didn’t happen to book in time to get the SFWC special rate (which was $150 cheaper per night) — but you really can’t beat the convenience of staying in the same building as the conference itself. Breakfast was provided on two of the four days, and it started at 7:30 A.M. sharp. It was helpful to be able to get there via elevator instead of planning around an hour-plus commute.

All told, the conference was well-organized. A lot of the sessions seemed similar to the ones offered last year (although many presenters were different). There were several choices for each time slot, and I pored over the schedule for days beforehand and highlighted the classes that seemed to fit me best. For reference, here’s a sample list of sessions you could attend in one 45-minute period:

  • TELLING THE STORY WITH PICTURES: What Makes a Good Children’s Picture Book
  • BLOGGING FOR BEGINNERS: Creating a Blog That Sells Books
  • PLANNING TO SUCCEED: How to Create a Marketing Plan for Your Novel or Nonfiction Book
  • THE 10 HABITS OF HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL WRITERS: How to Go from Inspiration to Publication in 2016
  • USING POETRY TO STRENGTHEN YOUR PROSE: How Writing Verse Improves Your Writing

As you can see, it was a bit of a gamble — some sessions were much more informative than others, but you wouldn’t know you’d selected a dud until you were trapped conspicuously in the middle seat of a conference room.

I suspect that even for the 300-ish non-nursing attendees, the schedule sometimes felt a little TOO packed. We had to carve out time to wait in bathroom lines, visit the various vendors, attend one-on-one consultations (see the “Extras” section below), and eat. Let me tell you, fifteen minutes between sessions is barely enough time to scarf down the Nutri-Grain bar they provide in your welcome bag. Luckily, there was a plated luncheon on Friday and Saturday. These meals were great networking opportunities, by the way — the agents, editors, and presenters sit at tables with the writers, and I met some wonderful people. I even had the honor of eating beside Jane Friedman, one of the keynote speakers; she was humble, helpful, and interesting, and I think everyone at the table was rather awed.

You have to brave about four of these to get to a Starbucks. Suction cup shoes would be helpful here.

You have to brave about four of these to get to a Starbucks. Suction cup shoes would be helpful here.

During meals where we were left to fend for ourselves, the time crunch left us very few options; many people had to order room service or dine in the (hella expensive, for this Michigander) hotel restaurant. Unless you’re willing to skip sessions, there’s just not enough time to traverse the hilly mountainous terrain to a corner deli. And duh, I was definitely the Type-A psycho who felt like I should attend EVERYTHING I possibly could: especially after paying all that money to be there, there was a serious FOMO mindset dictating every move.

With everything going on, it was sometimes tough to find the time to work. So often throughout the conference, I wished I had a designated quiet hour to take what I was learning and apply it. I’m sure people who were sans baby had a much easier time of this, but I found myself editing my pitch in the wee hours of the morning while I was getting ready for breakfast, or begrudgingly skipping a session so I could practice.

One of the most brilliant things about the San Francisco Writers Conference is that they offered a plethora of one-on-one opportunities. This is SUCH a necessary perk in an environment where you often feel — particularly that first day — like the tiniest, most transparent minnow in the proverbial big pond.

There were several 8-minute consultations available with a variety of industry professionals. While there was something to be learned from each interaction, I was especially excited about the freelance editors. “CONTACT AN EDITOR” has been on my to-do list for a while, but I had no idea where to find someone who was actually reputable. It was such a privilege to meet a few of them face-to-face.

Something I didn’t expect: sitting down with these industry professionals, it quickly became clear that finding the right people to work with is about WAY more than just the industry. Almost everyone seemed to know their stuff on paper. But sometimes the 8-minute “Time’s Up!” bell chimed and you were still deeply engrossed in a conversation that felt comfortable instead of intimidating, and it was mostly about the writing, yes, but also partly about ideas and connections and your lives. And that’s how I learned there is a difference between perfect professionals and professionals who are perfect for you.

In my effort to maximize my experience, I also chose to sign up for the “Concierge Program” with author Kevin Smokler. Even though Kevin writes books like this, which are fascinating to the English-Teacher-Me but exist in a totally different genre from the Aspiring-Novelist-Me, all I knew is that I’d get to have 30 minutes with someone who had been there/done that, and I wanted to LEARN. As it was limited to just 22 attendees, the Concierge Program was an additional fee, but I found it to be well worth it. (Just a note if you’re considering this “extra”: I signed up a few weeks ahead of time, and it ended up selling out before the conference actually began.)

Kevin helped me with my pitch and pushed me to defend certain elements of my novel, which was an important step — I’ve made some very deliberate (and probably controversial) plot choices, and although I know why those elements exist, I had a hard time verbalizing it to someone who hadn’t read my manuscript. He got me to think about how I might discuss those ideas effectively, and I left with a much stronger sense of how to talk about my novel. He even met with me one additional time to make sure my revised pitch was better than my original attempt. And since Kevin seemed pretty well-connected, I was lucky enough to meet one or two wonderful, influential professionals through him.

I also went to one of several “no-host” networking dinners, for which you pay $39 to have a meal at a restaurant in town. It was awesome to forge a deeper connection with some of the other writers, and though only one literary agent attended that particular dinner, I happened to sit next to him.

Before I left for San Francisco, one of my good friends from Michigan said something like, “At the very least, this conference will be a rare insight into a closed-off world.” She was totally right (as she usually is), and I tried to remember her words during that no-host dinner. I wasn’t there to force myself down an agent’s throat at all times. I was there to learn about their world. So I didn’t pitch my book that night. I just tried to learn who he was as a person and as a professional. He even opted to walk back to the hotel with a few of us in lieu of taking a cab.

Bottom line: The “extras” are what made the conference for me. If you can swing it, take advantage of any personalized instruction that is offered to you.

When you hear the word “gala,” doesn’t it sound all fancy schmancy? A quick Google search confirms that a gala is, typically, a party of the more formal variety. So I brought a cocktail dress even though I suspected it would be unnecessary, and I was right — that dress never left the closet. Turns out, at the SFWC “gala,” whatever business-casual attire you wore all day is probably fine. We were treated to hors d’oeuvres, one free drink, and more networking. No sequins required, mmkay?

There were, as one of my new writer friends put it, some “crazies” in attendance. Here’s my translation: a small percentage of the population was uncomfortably overzealous. There were people who laughed much too loudly at every joke and people who pitched at mind-blowingly inappropriate times. Maybe I was just too reserved.

But for the most part, the crowd was an interesting mix of personalities, writing genres, and experience levels. Many people had finished manuscripts (or, for nonfiction, a mostly-baked idea or proposal). Some had come to pitch the same exact manuscript for the fifth year in a row (not recommended). Some already had agents. Still others seemed to be just casually curious about the process. It was a rich experience to be surrounded by so many people, since writing is usually such an isolating thing: Sit at computer. Hide behind screen. Talk to no one in an effort to “get in the zone.” Focus. Type. Try to remember to eat. (For me, that process is now punctuated with — and often steamrolled by — the needs of my children.) The San Francisco Writers Conference was the perfect remedy for that feeling of solitude. I left with a potential writers group, a folder full of information, and several business cards. Which brings me to…

Because I had no idea what to expect, I sort of over-prepared. I brought ALL THE THINGS, and I only needed about seventy percent of all the things. Here’s what’s helpful to have with you wherever you go:

san francisco writers conference materials

Not pictured: everything else I brought, including the unnecessary kitchen sink.

  • Business cards. These are strictly to give to other writers. Industry professionals (agents, editors, etc.) will probably not ask for your card: they’ll hand you one of theirs instead. I brought a million; I probably needed about three dozen. The next time I print them, I’ll probably remove my cell phone number and include only my email — I can always write my cell in pen depending upon the person receiving it.
  • A business card book in which to organize those aforementioned cards.
  • A notebook or notepad with a sturdy writing surface. Mine was small-ish and flimsy, which quickly became frustrating, as I was taking notes on my lap for much of the time.
  • At least one pen
  • At least one highlighter
  • A laptop case with laptop
  • Hand sanitizer, because you will be shaking A LOT of hands. Hi, I’m a germophobe.

Here’s what you probably will NOT need but will be tempted to bring: a full copy of your manuscript and/or several printed copies of your first three chapters. I knew no one would want to lug home hard copies of anything, but I brought them anyway because I’m a control freak. (One of my favorite lines from the conference came from Penny Sansevieri, who said, “I prefer ‘control enthusiast.'” Love it. Adopting it.) The conference provides a spare schedule, a handy book with photos and bios of all the agents and presenters, and a badge that you absolutely must wear at all times. Speaking of…

Clothing choices ran the gamut from jeans and T-shirts to full-on business attire. I was in a dress and boots every single day, because that’s just me. And MAN, I miss dressing like me. This nursing-tank-and-leggings thing I’ve had going on for months is starting to get old. Plan on comfortable shoes, though: that’s key if you want to walk around the city or if one of your sessions happens to be standing room only.

The whole idea of this scared the absolute hell out of me from the moment I saw it on the SFWC website. That’s how I knew I had to do it.

For 51 minutes, you can sit down with the literary agents one-on-one for three minutes at a time; you’re supposed to line up in front of each agent’s table and fit in as many meetings as possible with the intention of pitching your book. I’ve been slowly building to full-fledged panic about this since August, so when I woke up Sunday morning — the last day of the conference and also the day of the speed dating event — I rolled over and looked at Al and said, “I’m not going to do this. Let’s just go home, okay?”

I expected that my first writers conference would be informative, helpful, and a great networking opportunity, and all of those things were true. I did NOT expect the exhausting highs and lows. Granted, a two-child shopping trip to Target can fry my nerves, so if you’re considerably more chill, perhaps you wouldn’t have found it so intense. But I fluctuated between feeling wildly rejuvenated and completely discouraged.

On Thursday night, after my first day at the conference, I came back to the room in tears. “I made a mistake,” I told Al. “Everyone else gets to network in between sessions and I have to come up here to feed B. I should have waited to do something like this. This was a huge waste of money.”

On Friday, I had my first batch of one-on-one consultations, including my meeting with Kevin, and attended the gala and the no-host dinner. I finally felt like I could put some names to faces and realized I was definitely not the only one who’d shown up without an already-formed writing group in tow. Almost everyone else was just like me: alone, and eager to meet people. Even the writers who already had agents were friendly, approachable, and happy to help the newbies. Faith restored.

On Saturday, I attended a late-late session to get the first page of my manuscript critiqued. I thought it would be more of a one-on-one thing — or at least anonymous — but we had to read it aloud in front of a group of people and then get feedback from a panel of three agents, one editor, and one author.

Yes, for twelve years, I read words in front of hundreds and hundreds of students. But not MY words. The last time I’d done something like that was in my creative writing college workshops, and it semi-petrified me even then. Also, the first part of my manuscript has plagued me for a while. I wrote it with a specific audience in mind: I want teachers to be able to pick up my book and think, YES. This is my experience. This is what it’s like behind the scenes. THIS is what we want people to know. Someone is telling our story.

But people like ACTION. Nothing blows up on the first page of my book. There is no cliffhanger-y murder mystery contained within the first line. It was embarrassing to hear in front of a room full of people that my first page should be more gripping, more immediate, even though I’ve always known it was true.

So when I woke up on Sunday morning, my confidence was the lowest it had been in four days. All of the adrenaline and exhaustion from the entirety of the conference had combined with the crushing first-page critique, and I felt flattened in the bed, a 2-D replica of myself. Plus the baby had awakened three separate times in the night, and when I mustered all of my remaining energy to roll to Al and announce that I would not be going to speed dating, I meant it.

It was 8 AM. The speed daters had been split into four rounds to minimize lines — my group was scheduled for 11.

As I pushed myself upright, I thought, I might as well just shower and get ready. There was one last session I wanted to attend at noon, after all.

As it neared 11 AM, I thought, Well, maybe I’ll just peek downstairs and see what the lines look like. I could easily turn around and go back once I got to the lobby.

As I stood in line to be let in to the speed dating room, pitch in hand, I thought, Um, I don’t think so. But I was next to a couple of writers I’d met along the way, and we were talking and laughing and everyone was just a little nervous, and when the doors opened, I went inside.

I imagined that it would be akin to cracking open a hive, unleashing a swarm of bees and funneling them toward one flower, everyone battling for their space. Instead, we entered rather leisurely. Lines were short. I thought I’d get to see two agents — maybe three, tops. But I saw eight. Six of them invited me to send a partial manuscript.

Could it have been lip service? Sure. I think most of us were fully aware of that. In the end, that’s what caused my nerves to dissipate: the agents are just people who were there to help, maybe hoping for lightning to strike just like we were. I felt one last surge of adrenaline as they first opened the doors at 11-o-clock, but then? Zen. It was as important to get to know them as it was to sell myself. I didn’t even take it personally when one of them said, “Your book sounds like YA. Sorry.” (Trust me — it’s definitely not YA.) I just said, “Thank you!” and stood in line to see someone else.

As with REAL speed dating, not everyone is going to be your match — and what an incredible opportunity to realize that firsthand.

If you attended the SFWC this year, what did you think? If a future SFWC is a possibility for you, what questions do you still have?

san francisco street

The road home after an intense, invigorating experience.

About Melissa

Melissa is a SAG-AFTRA actress and former high school teacher from Michigan who (reluctantly) moved across the country when she was six months pregnant. She is the winner of the SmokeLong Quarterly Grand Micro Contest and a past winner of the Breakwater Review Fiction Prize (selected by Susanna Kaysen, author of Girl, Interrupted), the F(r)iction flash fiction competition, and The Writer's inaugural personal essay contest, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, New Ohio Review, HuffPost, Scary Mommy, and The Boston Globe Magazine, among others. She has been shortlisted for both the Bridport Prize and the Bath Flash Fiction Award and was recently selected for The Best Small Fictions and the Wigleaf Top 50. Melissa is represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

4 comments on “San Francisco Writers Conference: What to Expect

  1. An Michizonia is glad to meet a Michifornia! (I’m a midwestern transplant, too, and love the sunshine.)
    I also love your post and spot-on sharing of the events of the SFWriters Conference. I was amidst the nail biting debut novelists, too, and didn’t sleep much on Saturday evening either. I agree about staying at the Mark Hopkins where the conference was held and could not imagine having to travel about and still make 90% of the conferences. My husband wasn’t able to come and I am not used to traveling by myself, so I was especially anxious. I loved it all and was delighted to have 7 agents invite me to send my entire manuscript or parts of it. It was a great ride and I look forward to the next phase of our experiences. PS: Kevin Smokler was a tremendous helps as were so many of the editors, publicists and agents! Thanks for your great post and awesome photos! Trish

  2. “The whole idea of this scared the absolute hell out of me…. That’s how I knew I had to do it.”

    Love this! Sounds like a great step on your way to greatness!

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