How to Rock a Writer’s Conference

The reasons to attend a writer’s conference are as varied and compelling as writers themselves. Perhaps you want to meet other fiction-driven scribblers to celebrate and commiserate with, or to corner and dazzle your Dream Agent. Naturally, you want to attend informative workshops focused on honing your craft, learn the secret handshake along with tricks and tips of publishing, or to collect pearls of wisdom from a panel of glorious, enviable authors who have succeeded in this unique profession. Most writers go to conferences to see, and be seen by, others in our industry, and to hopefully make progress in our journey toward knowledge and publication. And to wear really great shoes.

But how do you make the most of each conference you attend?

You’ve shelled out money for this, after all. Maybe you’ve bought a fabulous new outfit, gotten some age-defying highlights, and most importantly, you have a book to sell. But be warned, if you go in naively thinking your manuscript is the greatest thing since Twitter, and that your dream agent will approach YOU, begging you to send her pages, guess again. It could happen, but don’t count on it. And don’t expect every conversation to be a game-changing exchange with your entire career hanging in the balance. Yes, it’s essential to dream big, but don’t let your hopes be dashed if your expectations of a conference are not met. (Yes, this is based on a true story. Mine.)

I attended my first writer’s conference, the fabulous BACKSPACE®, in 2009, full of rose-colored optimism and an adorable sense of certainty that I was about to be discovered. I didn’t have a plan, a pitch, a query letter, or apparently, a clue. Needless to say, it did not go quite as I expected. I realized almost immediately that I was a tiny guppy in a very big pond. A pond full of much more impressive, experienced fish. And I just about let that realization ruin my experience.

Looking back on it now, I can finally comprehend the wealth of information I picked up just by being there, surrounded by talent and expertise. But I can also see where I missed opportunities. So, as I headed to my second conference, 2010 RWA® in Orlando, I used strategery. I had a plan. I had goals. Some of them were tiny and easy, but that’s okay because achieving them gave me a sense of accomplishment and boosted my confidence. And confidence begets more confidence. I left that conference feeling great about who I’d met, and how I’d handled it.

My goals were personal to me and might not work for everyone, but then again, they might! If you are one of the 2300 writers like me, preparing to attend the RWA National conference in NYC this June, consider these tips on how to make sure your conference experience is all that it can be:

  1. Make a list of five agents and/or editors you want to meet, and add a few short, conversation-prompting notes about them. Like how you loved their blog post on trends in paranormal, feline erotica, or how they represent your favorite author, Tracy Brogan. Or maybe you read in their bio that they have a labradoodle and so do you. Anything open-ended which could lead to a conversation. And I mean that about writing it down. Trust me, if you end up in the Starbucks line with your Dream Agent, you wouldn’t remember she’s your cousin unless you’d written it down.
  2. Make the same kind of list for five writers you’d like to meet. Pick your favorite book that they’ve written and note a scene that moved you. Or mention how you live near their hometown. Careful when mentioning personal details about them, though. You want to be flattering and memorable, not make them get a restraining order. The idea behind these lists is that they provide a measureable achievement. They also help narrow down what events you want to attend. Or, they might give you the courage to approach Author X and say, “Hello.” After all, she’s on your list. (I confess, last year, Nora Roberts sat down on the couch next to me in the hotel lobby. I was so flustered by her majesty that I didn’t say a thing. But I did surreptitiously snap a picture with my iPhone. I got a great shot of her elbow and hip.)
  3. Attend at least one workshop on a topic you’re really uninformed about. If you write romantic suspense historicals, attend a workshop on world building for futuristic paranormals. Are you techno-phobic? Go the workshop on social media marketing. Attending workshops outside of your genre or comfort zone could lead to some miraculous epiphanies. Or it may make you even more certain you are writing what you ‘should be’ writing. Either way, you’ll hear stuff you haven’t heard before, and you’ll meet writers from outside your circle. Plus you’ll feel very brave and enlightened afterward.
  4. Have two or three standard questions ready for any person you meet. Simple prompts like, “Is this your first conference?” is a great start. Or ask which workshop they’re on their way to, or where they are from. Just be friendly and relaxed. If, after a brief exchange, you both head your own way, then that’s fine. But you could have a great conversation and discover you’re both high school English teachers, or both write Steampunk. Or that you both have a Wile E. Coyote tattoo on your left butt-cheek. (That last conversation might only happen in the bar.) Point being, you’ll never know if you don’t start the conversation. And rather than racking your brain for something clever to start off with, have a few questions prepared ahead of time.
  5. Have a casual pitch ready for your current WIP in case another writer asks, “What’s your story about?” It doesn’t have to be perfect (although perfect is obviously your goal.) But have some succinct idea of how to respond. Ideally it will be an agent or editor asking, but more often than not, it’ll be another writer just trying to make conversation. And have the same kind of response ready for your other work, too. I write in multiple genres so if at this year’s RWA conference, I happen to be chatting it up with Kristan Higgins (please, please, Universe, let me have a chat with Kristan Higgins) then I’ll talk about my contemporary stories. If I’m chatting with Sherry Thomas (please, please, Universe, let me have a chat with Sherry Thomas) then I’ll focus on my historical novels. Of course, you need your uber-polished pitch ready for scheduled appointments, too, but you also don’t want to get tongue-tied if someone spontaneously asks you about your story. And it does happen. My critique partner, Kimberly Kincaid was startled last year when asked to pitch by an agent – on an elevator, no less! (Of course, she pitched fabulously and I think they now exchange birthday gifts.)
  6. Keep your business cards accessible! If Dream Editor asks for your card, you don’t want to have to dump out your entire duffle bag full of books, pens, emergency tampons, and granola bars to find one.  Tuck a couple cards in your pocket or behind your name badge, or if you’re sassy, tuck one in your bra. Well, maybe not. You decide. But regardless, keep a couple cards handy at all times.
  7. And finally, the best advice for any conference attendee is have fun. Chillax. Yes, write that on your to-do list because you will forget. Yes, you want to mix and mingle with publishing’s elite. Yes, you want to dazzle everyone with your wit and charm and freakishly-amazing talent. And yes, you should have some goals devised before you step your pinky-toe into the conference. But, if nothing goes according to your plan, roll with it. Absorb the atmosphere. Realize that you are there to LEARN, not to show everyone how much you already know. And keep in mind, you may not meet your Dream Editors, or maybe you do meet her and have a less than memorable interaction. But don’t panic. Send a note after the conference. Send out more queries, adding a few lines about having just attended a wonderful event. Write, write, and write some more. And realize that nothing that happens at a conference is life or death. It may feel like it at the time, but it’s all really just part of your journey toward success.

So, that’s my advice. I have a list of five editors and authors I want to meet. I have my cards, and my pitches ready. And for the record, I do not have a Wile E. Coyote tattoo on my left butt-cheek. That was just an example…..

See you in New York City!


22 thoughts on “How to Rock a Writer’s Conference”

  1. Bria Quinlan says:

    Great post Tracy.

    Can I add one more for newbies? When in the lobby, go sit next to someone else who is alone. Often, they’re in the same boat as you. You wouldn’t believe how many amazing people I met this way.

    Oh, and also, sometimes you goof up and meet famous awesome people. I’m apparently well known for not recognizing some of the most beloved writers in our community. I’d say I’m working on that, but it always turns out great in the end, so why study those back-flap pictures harder 😉

    1. Tracy Brogan says:

      More great advice, Bria. You just never know who will turn out to be a friend, critique partner, editor…
      And I rarely recognize anyone either. Thank goodness for name tags!

  2. What an informative post. I love conferences and always come home recharged and ready to write the next “Great American Novel.”

    And here’s one I have only done on occasion and regret it. Go out of your comfort zone and sit with strangers for lunch one day instead of your usual pals. I found myself right next to an agent once. Since I already had one, we just shot the breeze the whole time. You never know what may come out of it.

    And take a sweater. The air conditioner can be brutal.

    1. Tracy Brogan says:

      YES! Take a sweater! I was freezing last year. Thanks for that reminder, Liz.

  3. Annette Briggs says:

    Great advice, Tracy. Hope we (Lana and I) see you at National. All the best, Annette

    1. Tracy Brogan says:

      Can’t wait to see you there! We should use our British names ; )

  4. As always, Tracy, a fun and informative post. And now I better go make a list of my 5 people to meet!

  5. Tracy, I love this post. So many great suggestions, and tons of humor. 🙂 I liked what you said about you’re there to learn, not show everyone how much you know. Now I just wish I was going to RWA! Maybe next year–and I’ll have all these great tips to use too. 🙂

  6. What great advice, Tracy. Thanks for the post.

  7. Patty Hoffman says:

    Might I suggest signing up to volunteer? If this is your first conference, it is one of the easiest ways to chat up other nice people. In fact, I met a really cool writer that way. What was her name? Charming personality, stylish dresser–oh, now I remember–Tracy Brogan! 😉

    1. Tracy Brogan says:

      Oh, you’re right! I should’ve added that, too. Meeting you was a highlight for me. Can’t wait to see you in a few weeks!

  8. What a great post. Conferences are wonderful but can be so overwhelming, so if a writer is prepared, it can make a much better experience. I love all your suggestions.

    1. Tracy Brogan says:

      Thanks, Anita! Maybe someday I’ll be able to write a post on Rockin’ a Book Signing. I’ll be calling you for that one!

  9. Great post, Tracy. Spot-on advice for everyone! The effort we put into conferences comes home as inspiration. There’s nothing like spending a few days with like-minded people. My favorite part is meeting other writers and listening to their process. There’s a comfort knowing we all go through the same struggles.

    And YES! No matter the season, bring a warm sweater. Those hotels are notorious for dropping the temperature below freezing. So that cute sleeveless dress you bought for the banquet? Make sure you have a coverup too.

  10. Anne Elizabeth Stone says:

    Good post, good advice, Tracy. Bria’s comment is similar to what I would say also. I think back to my first conference in D.C. — it was awesome. I was a newbie then and I knew hardly anyone. I probably walked with my eyes wide and my mouth gaping. I know I was a bit star struck when I met Janet Evanovich. But what meant the most to me was how friendly people were to me…a nobody. (well in terms of the writing world) The first afternoon one writer took me under her wing and sat with me for well over an hour by the pool giving advice and sharing stories. I befriended (or they befriended me) more than one person in the bar. And bless Roxanne St Claire who invited me to sit with her table at the luncheon. I had no idea when I sat down, I was at a table full of seasoned and talented author friends of hers. I was in very good hands.
    So I try to return the kindness whenever possible. When someone reaches out, I embrace it. That’s how I met Kimberly Kincaid at the conference last year in Orlando. She sent me a note via Facebook asking if I would like to meet up – sit together – and I of course, and very happily, said yes. Glad I did now. She became an immediate “unofficial” member of our Michigan group, A delightfully talented, ice cream eating gal.

  11. Please, please, Universe, let me meet Tracy Brogan…and great advice, Tracy. Can’t tell you how many friends I’ve made just by sitting next to someone I didn’t know. Including Sherry Thomas.

    1. Tracy Brogan says:

      Last year I made two fabulous new friends and got to know some casual friends better. It’s so fun to be surrounded by other people who don’t think it’s odd that you listen to those voices in your head! Thanks for your post, Kristan 🙂

  12. E.C. Smith says:

    Terrific advice, Tracy! I love going to RWA conference (maybe because I hardly ever get away on my own), and I have a blast at them. Network, network, network and have tons of fun while you’re at it. That’s the name of that game.

    But, having a strategy going about pitching, chatting with authors and other conference goers in is a great idea. I’ll be using your advice as I get ready for NYC this year. See you there!

  13. It’s very rare for me to sit down next to someone I don’t know, but I’m glad I did it in case of Kristan Higgins, whose quiet, serious demeanor totally intrigued me during our bus tour. And who turns out to be nothing like how she seemed on the bus tour!!! Good for her I like this version even better. 🙂

    Tracy, awesome advice. I’ll be looking for you.

    And to anyone who might be reading, if you can stand walking in them, bring you best shoes. Nowhere else will they get as much admiration as amidst 2,300 other women!

    1. Tracy Brogan says:

      Excellent point! I have some killer shoes for this year, Sherry! My feet may never forgive me, but I’ll deal with that after the conference! Thanks for your post 🙂

  14. Gwyn says:

    Fun post, Tracy, but filled with sage advice. Looking forward to meeting you.

  15. Great advice … I’m glad I finally got around to reading it, because I needed it. I wouldn’t mind meeting Kristan Higgins myself!

    See you in NYC!

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