So I had a crazy weekend. I attended the 2016 ACFW Conference in Nasvhille, TN. My first time going to this event, and it's fair to say my nerves threatened to gobble me whole. But I made it, and here's the play-by-play:
The Week Before: It starts with a nagging tension, and within 48 hours, I'm certain an imaginary elephant has taken residence on my chest. In the past, I've had two panic attacks before, but those resulted in labored breathing and block spots floating in my field of vision. The pain before the ACFW Conference was relentless, a slow lingering panic that would return several times, like an aftershock, throughout the weekend. So yeah, I was nervous.
Day One : Thursday started with a first time conference attendee orientation. Perfect, since it was my first time and I had no idea what I was doing. I met awesome writers and got the run down about the conference, but the highlight came when we broke into genre groups and a small circle of men shuffled to the center of the room for their genre. (The ACFW Conference is predominantly female writers.) I stood in the general fiction group, a fellow writer to my side, and pointed to the group.
"Wanna take a guess what genre is filled with only men?"
"What do you think? Fantasy?"
"Yup. Definitely fantasy."
I was right. :)
That day, I attended an agent's panel where I learned that agents don't like to be pitched manuscripts while using the bathroom, Christian writers should never compare their book to The Shack, crying won't win sympathy points, and a writer should not say, "God told me you will be my agent". I also attended cool HarperCollins workshop and learned that if you sell a lot of books, you can buy a red convertible. (Okay, I actually learned a ton of amazing things, like how HarperCollins is divided into different divisions, how their submission process works, what sort of stories fit into their mission...but I also learned that a red convertible could, one day, be in my future.)
Day Two: Now, things really get going. A full day of networking, learning and stalking (just go with it for a second). I took an editing class, which gave TONS of helpful hints, which will come in handy as I get my manuscripts prepped to send off. Which brings me to.....*drum roll*......
The white board.
*reverent aww from the crowd*
This is when I became a stalker. Okay, let me break down how pitching works at this conference: You sign up many months ahead of time, reserving appointments with your agents of choice. Show up at your designated time, and presto! Appointment. Well, that's how pretty much everyone else did it. But because I love being unique and creating more stress for myself, I made appointments and then proceeded to cancel all of them. Then, I regretted it, but the deadline for sign ups passed. BUT my awesome-o critique partner told me to stand in the appointment line because people cancel and I can snag one of those.
Well, because I'm super calm and laid back, I lifted the situation up to God in a simple prayer, then chilled out, pushed it out of my mind, and waited to see what happened.
Wait. No. That's not what I did. Hang on, I'll try it again.
I obsessed about getting an appointment, praying over and over and over for contentment with whatever the outcome may be. I did it while FREAKING OUT that I had made the biggest mistake in my (non-existent) publishing career by letting an amazing opportunity pass me by. I lost sleep. I couldn't eat (well, I had chocolate. I mean, I wasn't in a coma) and when the appointment table opened for business, I stood tall, in front, with my list of agents in hand.
Every time a writer canceled, staff added that appointment to the white board. Let me see...how can I describe the line of writers waiting to snag dropped appointments. Hunger Games? Okay, maybe it was just me with this competitive nature, but I wasn't about to miss out AGAIN on a meeting, even if it was my own fault I didn't get appointments before the conference.
Luckily, I easily got two with two agents on my dream list. But I still had two more names, and three more hours of conference, so I stood next to that board as if it were my IV. I'm sure I looked crazy, but I was beyond caring. Adrenaline and determination married in my core and rooted me to that freakin' board. And guess what? It was totally worth it. I got one more appointment with one more dream agent.
Pitching: The big moment. After prayer, I entered the room where the first agent sat. I didn't cry, but I shook. I'd practiced my pitch 394,596.4 times and managed to get through it. By the second pitch, I did it without shaking and the third time, I had it down. So let me just say this about the whole pitching experience : If you're a writer and you have the chance, PITCH!
Day Three: This would be my last day at the conference since I opted out of the final Day Four session. (I'd already taken a two day workshop from the author teaching) This was my favorite day because it was divided into hour long workshops. I learned about the business side of publishing, pitching, proposals, one sheets, contracts...I got writing tips, character development tips...basically, I learned a bunch and it totally rocked. And I pitched to my final agent.
So what would I tell newbies who want to go next year? Tip #1: I think every Christian writer should go, at least once. I'd recommend waiting until you have something to pitch (and yes, you should sign up ahead of time. Even though I got appointments, it could easily have gone the other way), but even if you don't, you'll meet amazing writers, learn industry tips, and enjoy worshiping God with other Christians authors.
Tip #2: Know who you are as a writer and be honest when someone asks your POV. For me, this was huge. As most know, I'm a progressive Christian. I believe Christianity continues to grow as our knowledge deepens and our prospective change. I believe God grants us wisdom, and those who read the Bible centuries ago, interpreted it with the wisdom available at that time. But as humans continue to expand their thinking, we use our enhanced wisdom to take a look at the Bible and ask, "What does it really mean?" And sometimes those answers are different that the answers provided in the past. Progressive Christianity is famously (or infamously, deepened on your POV) known for supporting the gay community. I have a manuscript with a gay character.
So before the conference, I had to decide:
Do I pitch as my true progressive self, openly stating my beliefs so any potential agent knows exactly what he/she is getting if they sign me, even though I'd be setting myself up for rejection based on the types of stories I want to write, and also knowing that the market for progressive Christianity is barely, if at all, existent? OR......Do I keep it hidden, pitch a safe manuscript and simply try to get published, hoping that one day I'll be able to gradually introduce my POV into my stories?
In the writing world, my scenario is known as "pitting values against each other". The protagonist must decide between two competing values, and make a choice based on what she believes to be best decision.
For me, it was : my progressive faith vs a safer/more likely way to my dream career
I picked progressive faith. All conference, when asked "what's your spark?" or "what makes your story unique?", I replied "I'm a progressive Christian and that's the POV from which I write." Every time, this led into a discussion about progressiveness. For me, it was beautiful because I got to represent a chunk of Christians whom I consider my family. I got to speak for them, just for a moment, shedding light on a branch that grows stronger every day, and I took that seriously. I hope I served well. After I explained, I received mixed responses, but that's to be expected. No one said hateful things or became hostel. Mostly, people were curious and I wanted to answer their questions.
I write all this as a way to encourage others to be themselves, be honest, especially when talking to agents.
And finally, Tip #3 (I have more, but this is a crazy long post) Find a quiet place, breathe and pray. It's overwhelming, especially for an introvert. Relax. Remember, everyone has a different ACFW experience, so don't try to match someone else. If you need to retreat for five minutes of quiet, go ahead. Take some time to pray, and you can even ask someone to pray with you. (A sweet girl asked if she could pray with me before one of my agent meetings. :) )
So that wraps it up, or at least, this post. As I decompress, I'm sure I'll have tons more to say, but I'll reserve any future thoughts for future posts. Thanks for checking in with me and to all my fellow writers, I'll see you at the next conference!