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:
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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!