10 Ways to Be Awkward at a Writer’s Conference

Guest Blogger: Mary Demuth

My teenagers overuse the word awkward. As in… they say it a lot. Everything’s awkward, apparently. As a writing conference attendee, and now as faculty, I have learned the true meaning of the word. While the vast majority of folks who attend writing conferences belie the meaning of awkward, there are a few who embody it. In my benevolence, I offer you 10 ways to be awkward — in hopes that you’ll avoid them.

1. Stalk. Follow editors and agents around. Hog their attention. Know too much personal information about them. As my teens say, “creep on them.”

2. Play the God-card. Tell an editor, “God gave me these words; therefore, they are not to be changed. Ever.”

3. Choose not to learn the industry. Have no business cards (except maybe some index cards with your name scrawled across); ask what a proposal is; spend your time NOT going to workshops, but doing #1.

4. Aggrandize yourself. Tell everyone you’re the next John Grisham or J. K. Rowling, and honestly mean it. Bring an entourage to assure others of your importance.

5. Get noticeably angry when you experience rejection. Throw your pen. Call the agent a name. Huff and puff.

6. Avoid others writers because they’re your competition. Choose not to realize that those people are actually your best allies in the journey. Stay aloof and unapproachable.

7. Have no strategy for the conference or what you’ll do after it’s over. At the conference, meet with children’s editors even though you write prairie romances. When you leave, have no action points.

8. Don’t follow up. If an editor or agent expresses an interest in your project, neglect sending the project. Ever. Surely they couldn’t mean they wanted to look at it, right?

9. Try to hog the meetings. Steal other people’s slots for one-on-one meetings with industry professionals. Monopolize the conversation at meals with in-depth pitches of your project. Barge in on others’ conversations in the hallway. But don’t capitalize on casual moments that naturally lend themselves to discussion of your book.

10. Forget that editors and agents are people too, and actually enjoy relationship.

So there you have it. No more awkwardneses!

Have you ever been awkward at a conference? What did you learn? What is the most awkward thing you’ve seen at a conference?

Mary DeMuth is an author and speaker who loves blogging at http://www.marydemuth.com/.
Twitter: @MaryDeMuth
Facebook: facebook.com/authormarydemuth

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  3. […] bold, but not brash—read up on these tips from author Mary Demuth on what not to do at a writers’ conference.  Always be ready to make a solid first impression by never going anywhere without your business […]

  4. Carlene Love on February 1, 2011 at 11:07 PM

    >I have to say I am even more exicted about attending my first conference after reading this! Humor sure has a way of deflating fear!
    Jean–I'm taking to heart "no need to be awkward…so much to absorb."

    Carol–love this, "better to be prepared then just be myself."

    Nice to know that there are lots of us introverts out there just trying to work up the courage to let our charming sides shine!

    Good luck everyone and thank you for this blog topic!

  5. B L Maguire on January 23, 2011 at 3:06 PM

    >Having just attended a large conference, I found these suggestions and other comments humorous. In my professional life (I'm not a writer by day), I talk to many people and have taught many undergrad and grad courses and given workshops. But when I put on my "writer" hat, my true introvert seems to come out. I barely say hello to someone lest it look like I am a potential stalker! Agents and editors are on pedestals (in my warped mind), and I am just trying to get through without tucking a tablecloth into my pants and dragging table contents onto the floor! Sigh. I did four pitches, though, and gave out one business card to a fellow attendee. Small steps!

  6. Scooter Carlyle on January 22, 2011 at 5:47 PM

    >I was a complete idiot with Jennifer Jackson at the WFC. I interrupted her lunch before I thought about it. I'm so embarrassed about it that I'm afraid to query her.

  7. Michelle Sarabia on January 21, 2011 at 11:41 PM

    >Love #2!! I'm always amazed by that.

  8. Tamika: on January 21, 2011 at 5:22 PM

    >My life is a mini series of awkward moments. If I manage to remember my name without fumbling I'll be satisfied.

    Somehow I imagine me star struck:)

  9. Kerrie on January 21, 2011 at 4:12 PM

    >Great post Mary and oh so true. As the director of the Northern Colorado Writers conference I get to see and meet so many different writers. I haven't heard of any bathroom pitches happening at the conference, but that doesn't mean they haven't. The biggest thing I see is people monopolizing a conversation and not allowing others to ask questions.

  10. bloggEm on January 21, 2011 at 11:50 AM

    >Real human beings do these things? I never would consider myself to be a networking master, but wow. Just … wow.

  11. Latayne C Scott on January 21, 2011 at 8:20 AM

    >My two embarrassing moments:

    1) Sitting down next to someone at my first conference who was obviously very nervous and nobody was talking to her. She looked young and vulnerable (and a lot like my daughter) so I felt sorry for her, sought her out, sat next to her, chatted about the food and other things I thought would set her at ease, even patted her on the knee.

    She was nervous because she was the next speaker (and an editor for a large publishing house, giving insights for authors.)

    2) Sitting near the front at the Christy Awards banquet and having an agent (not mine) come up and tell me after it was over that I had my artsy jacket on inside out and the tag was displayed the whole time.

    Latayne C Scott

    • jessiethought on June 25, 2011 at 4:30 PM

      I feel for you, Latayne–Those are REALLY embarrasing!!! 🙂

  12. lauradroege on January 21, 2011 at 8:14 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle. I'll check that out.

  13. Sharon A. Lavy on January 21, 2011 at 7:56 AM

    >Where are you teaching next, Mary?

  14. Sharon A. Lavy on January 21, 2011 at 7:55 AM

    >Thanks for the reminders. =)

  15. Edwina on January 21, 2011 at 5:55 AM

    >Last year, at the ACFW conference, I was in a crowded elevator after the evening's workshops. One of the most distinguished agents, an older gentleman, was on the elevator and was cornered by someone "pitching" their manuscript. Anyone could see that the gentleman was exhausted and just wanted a peaceful ride to his floor and escape to his room. It was an awkward moment for everyone on the elevator and I had to bite my tongue to keep from telling the person pitching his manuscript to be quiet.

  16. Shawna Williams on January 21, 2011 at 3:06 AM

    >Reading this scares me to death. I've not had the opportunity to go to a conference, yet. However, I have a small amount of inheritance money from my grandmother and this September I'm using that to go (Yay). I can't blow it! I don't know when I'll be able to go again, so I'm trying really hard to absorb every drop of information to prepare. My problem is that I have enough awkward tendencies to mind as is. I get extremely talkative — and apologetic — when I'm nervous. I also want to cry. I'm usually able to ward this off by fanning myself (also awkward). If that's not bad enough, I get queasy. I can't imagine anything more awkward than puking mid pitch.

    • jessiethought on June 25, 2011 at 4:27 PM

      Puking mid-pitch? How funny, Shawna. …But of course, it’s not funny to you.

  17. Flower Patch Farmgirl on January 20, 2011 at 10:44 PM

    >Great post! Who knew there would be so many "restroom" stories? 🙂

    I'm excited about attending my first conference this Summer, so I'll gladly accept any information I can get!

    • Thiru on May 21, 2012 at 11:25 PM

      Dana,Thanks for your comment. Sometimes this may hpaepn for various reasons. It all checks out OK on our side. Can you give me a bit more information in case this hpaepns again? Which web browser were you using? What error message if any did you get? Can you describe exactly what hpaepned when you tried to download? Have you been able to successfully download ESN before? Can you download files OK from other sites? Are you using a relatively current version of Adobe Acrobat Reader? The answers to these questions can help me solve you problem.Blessings,Chuck Gianotti, editor of ESN

  18. Ashley on January 20, 2011 at 8:03 PM

    >Well, I know this is a silly question – But what is a conference/workshop-thingy? Sorry, I'm 17 and I'm trying to learn how to write and how all this crazy stuff works. What are they and how do you get involved in one?

  19. deb on January 20, 2011 at 7:36 PM

    >Mary ~ I just want to add that I love that you are sitting on a swing in your photo. There's just something fabulous about that.

  20. Rachelle on January 20, 2011 at 5:42 PM

    >lauradroege: You'll need to read my posts on writers conferences, and check other agent blogs for the same. See my sidebar and click on the category "Wriers' Conferences."

    Beth Mann: Wow, I didn't know you were here on my blog! Funny how we both still remember that. You were so sweet!

  21. lauradroege on January 20, 2011 at 5:30 PM

    >Funny post.

    Serious question. What's a good strategy for a conference? I've only been to one (and had writer's block for a month afterwards) and I didn't have any idea what to do.

  22. Beth Mann on January 20, 2011 at 5:00 PM

    >I actually just laughed out loud! I was the "nice young writer" in the bathroom you were referring to, Rachelle! I think I was washing my hands when you came out of the stall, and I couldn't even form a simple "hello" because my subconscious was shouting at me DON'T PITCH IN THE BATHROOM! You were very gracious, so thank you for that. 🙂

  23. T. Anne on January 20, 2011 at 3:01 PM

    >I haven't witnessed anything too odd at the conference I attended.

    I did feel bad after I waited in a long line to talk to a famous multi-published author who sat encircled with tons of her novels, and I asked 'which one is the good one'? What I meant was, which novel do you recommend? I was only going to purchase one.

    Turns out there was no one behind me in line, and we chatted about everything under the sun. She actually helped me untangle plot lines on my WIP. Once that book sells I'd love to ask her for a blurb.

  24. kelybreez on January 20, 2011 at 2:41 PM


    But what if the agent is cute, and God really does tell you that you're going to marry her (after she decides to represent your book, of course) and you're gonna live on St. Lucia and write together until Left Behind happens?

    What about when that happens?

  25. Kaye Dacus on January 20, 2011 at 1:19 PM

    >My most awkward moments are similar to Melissa's—but opposite: people recognizing me and coming up to talk to me (with no nametag in sight!) and I have no idea who they are. Yet they seem to know an awful lot about me and I feel like I should be able to speak to them on a personal level—and can't, because I can't remember (or don't know) who they are!

    Of course, this doesn't just happen to me at conferences. I'm really bad at connecting names and faces until I've known someone for quite some time.

  26. Laura J. Davis on January 20, 2011 at 1:17 PM

    >Thanks Mary for the post! Very funny.

    Rachelle, I heard that actually happened at a conference where the "stalker" followed an agent into the bathroom, waited until the agent was settled on the throne and then proceeded to pitch her book to the agent. Funniest thing I ever heard.

  27. Jean Reidy on January 20, 2011 at 1:03 PM

    >And the interesting thing is there's no need to ever be awkward – especially at your very first conference. There's always so much to absorb and learn that even if you don't put yourself out there, you take away something of value just by being present.

  28. Wendy Paine Miller on January 20, 2011 at 12:35 PM

    >I agree with you Mary, Sean's comment had me laughing pretty hard.

    And Rosslyn, I was thinking the exact same thing…that I'd do something like that. But I'd probably do something wacky like run out of the restroom and smack my nose into the door on my way. 😉

    Fun post.

    I needed this laugh. My arm almost fell off holding the sliding door of our minivan closed while driving (to the shop w/ it on Sat.). And my DD just asked if we could go to the zoo for her b-day today. Ha.
    ~ Wendy

  29. Heather on January 20, 2011 at 12:24 PM

    >Wonderful advice! I was blessed two years ago at my first conference to be armed with advice like this (I do believe from either this blog or Mary DeMuth's Wanna Be Published blog), and consequently, I was told that I was very professional and poised for a 19-year-old. Thank you to these wonderful ladies who try so hard to keep us updated and help us! ;0)

  30. Sarah Allen on January 20, 2011 at 12:15 PM

    >This is wonderful advice and hilarious 🙂 I will keep it in mind for the future, and hopefully not be awkward…

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  31. Rosslyn Elliott on January 20, 2011 at 12:13 PM

    >LOL! Rachelle, that sounds like something I would do.

    But Mary, please tell me you have never actually heard of someone throwing a pen after rejection…

    I know, we should never be surprised at the oddities of human behavior, but throwing a pen?

  32. Rachelle on January 20, 2011 at 12:05 PM

    >Last year at a conference, I was in the ladies room and couldn't figure out why this nice young writer, who was in the workshop I'd just taught, was trying to avoid me and wouldn't make eye contact. Finally while I was washing my hands I asked her if everything was okay, and she said she was trying really hard NOT to talk to me, because she didn't want me to think she was trying to pitch me in the bathroom!

  33. Beth K. Vogt on January 20, 2011 at 11:50 AM

    >Yep–I ran into an editor I wanted to connect with at a conference in the ladies room. And I proceeded to tell her, "Oh, I'm looking forward to talking with you about . . ."
    And then I gasped and shut up because I realized what I was doing. I even said, "I'm doing it, aren't I?"
    We laughed.
    I became her "don't do this" story at conferences. (Thankfully, she didn't use my name–but here it is for everyone to see!)
    And she accepted my article for publication and we became good friends–we still are.
    The worst thing that ever happened to me was when an agent let each of us sitting at dinner one night pitch our books. The guy sitting next to me dissed my book to make his book look better. I was speechless. I don't think you ever have to speak badly about someone else's project to make what you're writing look better.

    • jessiethought on June 25, 2011 at 4:21 PM

      And I think doing that could hurt your book and your reputation.

  34. Jill on January 20, 2011 at 11:38 AM

    >Posts like these rub me the wrong way. Yes, I get that people can be obnoxious. But I also hate the idea that we're training people to fall into line, dress correctly, and say and do all the right things. What kind of world would that be? Some of the less obnoxious actions in the list could be just simple, painful shyness–even the stalking (hovering around editor/agent but never summoning the nerve to talk to that person). And as for the truly obnoxious ones–I truly admire someone who has the guts to say something off-the-wall like "God told me to write this!" I can't imagine saying something like that!

    I also still remember my first meeting with an editor. I fell apart. I couldn't remember what I'd prepared to say–couldn't even remember what my own book was about. The editor was the nicest person ever. She kindly asked me questions to direct my thoughts and then requested my book.

    I like the world so much better with colorful people in it. I like the world with socially backward people in it. And most of all, I like the world with compassionate people in it. Any other kind of world stinks.

  35. wvdiane on January 20, 2011 at 11:20 AM

    >I was terrified at my first two conferences. Had a blast at my third, plan to have a blast again at this year's events.
    Last summer I was mortified when a woman asked a panel of editors and agents, "Who pays for the national booksigning tour? Me or you?" I wanted to find an empty eggshell and crawl into it on her behalf!

  36. Melissa Jagears on January 20, 2011 at 11:15 AM

    >My awkward moments were recognizing fellow writers (and critique partners) I knew solely from the internet before they recognized me. Had two of them have to pull my name tag from behind the books in my arms while I talked to them, knowing more about them then they expected a "stranger" to know.

    I'm really bad at making small talk (and evidently introductions), but you would have thought I would have learned my lesson after the first one grabbed for my name tag.

    I wonder how many other people I did that to who didn't have the guts to look for my name.

  37. Eric von Mizener on January 20, 2011 at 10:45 AM

    >It's been a few years since I've been to a conference. But the members of my workshop group? We're still cheering each other on.

    If you're honest, open, and prepared, great things can happen.

    Thanks, Mary, for a great post and some good laughs.

  38. Jenny on January 20, 2011 at 10:34 AM

    >So it's probably extra bad to tape your index-card business card to the back of the bathroom stall door?

  39. Mary DeMuth on January 20, 2011 at 10:30 AM

    >Sean, it's so good to know conference advice = dating advice. You made me LOL!

    Sarah, that's too funny. But if the editor asked, that doesn't count.

  40. Sarah Forgrave on January 20, 2011 at 10:28 AM

    >I've only been to two conferences, but I have a confession to make. You ready for it? I did the very thing everyone says not to do and pitched my story to an editor in the restroom at a conference. BUT in my defense, I was quietly washing my hands, minding my own business, and SHE asked ME. Apparently she saw my finalist ribbon and wanted to know more. My friends and I got a good laugh over it…I have a feeling that one will be in my record book forever.

  41. Beth on January 20, 2011 at 10:24 AM

    >What a great post. You can't be reminded of common conference courtesy too often!

  42. Sean on January 20, 2011 at 10:24 AM

    >These are also great ways to lose the girl as well. Especially, playing the God-card. They never fall for that one…

    Thanks for the tips, Mary!

  43. Jan Cline on January 20, 2011 at 10:10 AM

    >Forgive the spellng…..I really am a writer 🙂

  44. Jan Cline on January 20, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    >This is all so funny, yet not funny. Conferences are expensive. To waste valuable time with editors, agents, fellow writers and all the great people who put on these conferences. I am directing a conference in my area in March and I will be on the lookout for stalkers! Just kidding. Really, my first experience at a conference was so great and I had done my homework so I would know how to act. It payed off. Thanks for the great reminders, Mary.

  45. johnflurry on January 20, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    >This applies to every conference from video games to climate science. Brilliant post Mary.

  46. Mary DeMuth on January 20, 2011 at 9:31 AM

    >I have seen people monopolize, stalk, take appointments, dress weird, follow agents into the bathroom, etc. Yes, this post comes from experience.

  47. Jenna on January 20, 2011 at 9:27 AM

    >Ah-the famous God Card! This post made me smile. Thank you!

  48. Anonymous on January 20, 2011 at 9:24 AM

    >No, the conference I went to with the drunk had a published writer (but not a big name) got the penthouse with her students (she makes most of her $$$ coaching) to look like she had an enterage. They stepped into sessions, near the back, and left in groups. I thought they just looked silly.

  49. Tracey Neithercott on January 20, 2011 at 9:21 AM

    >I sincerely hope that you made some of those up (um, an entourage?), but I have a bad feeling someone out there has done each.

    Great tips!

  50. Lynne Connolly on January 20, 2011 at 9:20 AM

    >But it's all right to do all these things when you're famous, right?

  51. Heather Sunseri on January 20, 2011 at 8:21 AM

    >I've witnessed some awkward moments, but I would put my first and only writer's confernece on my list of top favorite things I've done as a writer. The friendships that grow from a writer's conference are simply amazing.

  52. Sue Harrison on January 20, 2011 at 7:32 AM

    >Thank you, Mary, for a post that made me smile AND think!

  53. Anonymous on January 20, 2011 at 7:15 AM

    >I sat at a table next to a man who'd had too much to drink. He kept calling the Agent the wrong name. And then started telling a story VERY LOUDLY, and started acting it out by touching me.

    I'm thinking drinking too much at a conference can make things awkward too.

  54. Roberta Walker on January 20, 2011 at 6:25 AM

    >Wow. I've yet to go to a conference (saving up for RWA though – heard it's great!) Really? People actually do stuff like this? I couldn't imagine!

  55. Marie Rearden on January 20, 2011 at 6:06 AM

    >So, wearing a cheetah tail with no explanation might be odd…hmmm. Well, there goes my blog marketing strategy. 🙂

    Sarah, I do the crazy smile too! So glad I'm not alone.

    Excellent post.

  56. Rosemary Gemmell on January 20, 2011 at 4:40 AM

    >Good post, thanks for the humour, Mary. I've been a long-time attendee at a Scottish writers conference and have seen it all! The worst are the occasional writers who back a guest editor or speaker into a corner and talks at them until the poor person needs rescuing.

    As a newbie myself to another big conference, I had to be careful to walk that fine line between not speaking to editors, publishers, and agents at all, or hogging too much time with someone!

  57. Carol J. Garvin on January 20, 2011 at 2:41 AM

    >It's nice to find you here, Mary. I love your list. I know the points are meant to be funny but as Melissa says, I've actually seen people do many of them.

    My awkward moments came when I tried too hard. As an introvert I pushed myself out of my shell and tried to be too cool. I didn't do 'cool' well. I tried to be professional when meeting agents, but my mind went blank and I nattered my way through appointments. I've since learned it's better to be prepared and then just be myself. At least then I'm coherent.

  58. Sarah on January 20, 2011 at 2:33 AM

    >Good post! The nice thing is, even if you're nervous, you can still avoid most of these behaviors.

    What about talking too fast and smiling too much, then quickly looking away anytime someone tries to make eye contact? I assume that's creepy. I'm working on it. I promise.

  59. Dawn Embers on January 20, 2011 at 1:16 AM

    >Great post. So far for me the most awkward moment is from the conference I went to in Denver. I didn't know how to explain what I write, at least not in a block full of words. Being multi-genre makes things a little difficult because I don't know what to claim. Took me more than a day at the conference to figure out how to explain the glbt characters that are the common thread in my writing.

  60. Katherine Hyde on January 20, 2011 at 12:57 AM

    >The most awkward thing for me is pitching. I write up these beautiful, concise, elegant pitch sentences, but when I try to speak them, they don't come out that way. It's just not natural to spout a pitch sentence when someone asks you, "What are you working on?" so I end up stumbling around and saying something like, "Uh, it's a book, sort of literaryish, and it's about this woman . . ." And finally I pick my tongue up off the floor and stuff it back into my mouth and go hide in the restroom.

    • jessiethought on June 25, 2011 at 4:12 PM

      That’s funny. Love your description of it. It makes me feel like I’m in your shoes.

  61. stephen matlock on January 20, 2011 at 12:50 AM

    >Oh Lord please don't let me do these terrible things even though I am tempted mightily to ask You for an exception for me Just This Once.


  62. Mojito Maven on January 20, 2011 at 12:38 AM

    >#2. My husband loves to say that when people use the God-card, they're essentially throwing up the "force field"–that anything that person says or does after is acceptable because God said it was okay, etc.

    Love it.

    Also, as a Colorado native myself, I love reading your tweets about CO!

  63. Melissa K Norris on January 20, 2011 at 12:27 AM

    >Sad thing is, I've actually witnessed writer's behaving exactly as you wrote. I wanted to take them aside and gently tell they were going about it all wrong, but I figured I'd be wasting my breath.
    Your humor is great!