Several years ago, I attended a writers conference where I did nearly everything wrong. I wore uncomfortable shoes, I chose sessions based on popular authors rather than topics what would help my writing, I offended one writer by asking him a pointed question at a book signing. By the last day, I hadn’t met one person. Not one.
When the final session had ended, I decided it was my last chance to redeem myself. So, I turned around, bravely held out my hand, and introduced myself to the woman sitting there. Her name was L.L. Barkat.
Recently, I attended that same conference, eight years after my first experience. Though I am no expert at these events, I felt happy about the way things went this time around.
Are you planning to attend a writing conference this Spring or Summer?
Here are 5 tips to help you make the most of your next writers conference:
1. Know why you are there but be open to having that change throughout the writers conference. Some years, I’ve wanted to hear specific authors; other years, a workshop seemed very appealing. Sometimes, I have gone because of friends who also are attending.
You might be looking for inspiration; maybe you want to pitch an idea. Perhaps you are looking for a strategy or some practical how-tos. Knowing why you are there will help you make decisions about how you spend your time.
2. With your goals in mind, prioritize the sessions in the program so that you don’t miss the ones you really want to go to. Then, you also know which ones you can easily miss when an opportunity arises to just sit and chat, join a friend for dinner, or meet with that editor who finally has some free time. Don’t forget to include the breakout sessions, and not just the headline speakers, in your plan.
Sometimes, the most publicized sessions actually end up being lackluster. I’m usually surprised by how much I enjoy the concurrent sessions. And panel discussions seem especially fruitful because in the collaboration of several speakers. I often hear more from them than what’s in the latest book they are promoting.
3. Besides the teaching sessions, take advantage of other opportunities available at a writing conference—but only if you are ready. Many conferences offer manuscript review programs, editor/publisher meetings, opportunities to interact with agents. But if the meeting requires you to have a completed book proposal and you would have to throw one together to be ready, wait until next time. Instead, focus on meetings where you can further a relationship, ask questions about the process or the industry, or encourage someone else.
If you do have a completed book proposal or a manuscript, however, take full advantage of the opportunity to have someone review it or offer a critique. Writing conferences can also be a great place to garner interest for a recently completed project or book; develop a short “pitch” and possibly a giveaway postcard, business card, or flyer. Look for potential readers, reviewers, or promoters.
4. Between the presentations and pitches, though, make sure you meet a few people, and don’t forget to get their contact information. Then, when you get home, reach out to the people you meet by email or social media and tell them how much you enjoyed meeting them. Whether the person you met is just starting out as a writer, or has dozens of publications to his credit, building relationships with other writers is a win-win for you both. If you have business cards, take them. But before you stick a card in someone’s hand, ask them for their contact information.
Don’t pressure yourself to meet the “right” people, whoever they are. If you take the risk to talk to anyone, chances are they will become the right person. While I’m not much of a mingler when it comes to refreshment breaks or hors d’oeuvres receptions, I do try to fill in empty seats at sessions and when the speaker is done, I introduce myself to the person next to me. Often, that’s all it takes to make a great new connection.
5. Attend to your body and mind before you go to the conference and while you are there. If being around lots of other writers will cause you to feel jealous or inadequate, take time to understand why and plan ahead for how you will deal with those responses.
Also, during the conference, take some time to be alone if needed if that will help you process what you are hearing. If you will be walking a lot, take comfy shoes. If you have special dietary needs, take your own snacks, or even meals. And be sure to get plenty of sleep. You do all of these things naturally when you are at home, but you may forget to take care of you in the whirlwind of a conference setting.
In a recent Facebook thread, I asked a few other writers I know to share their advice about attending writing conferences. Here are a few of their tips:
Billy Singleton: Go with intentions of learning from other writers more than sharing your own creations.
Kelli Woodford: Know yourself. My first few writer’s conferences were not nearly as enjoyable as this one because I forced myself to go to ALL THE SESSIONS, meet ALL THE PEOPLE, and take ALL THE NOTES. These extremes might work for some (in fact, I’m sure they do), but they don’t for me.
Amber Robinson: Don’t just go to take, but to give encouragement to those who can’t necessarily advance your interests.
Darcy Wiley: Swap notes with friends for the workshops that you can’t get to. And, don’t be afraid to approach presenters for further insight after their talks.
Sandra Heska King: Get plenty of sleep before you go. And while you’re there, because you really don’t want to nod off in the middle of your favorite speaker’s session.
Laura Lynn Brown: Expect moments of serendipity.
Tricia Bock: Don’t get so busy taking notes that you aren’t “present” for the moment. Some of the greatest things to take away are from conversations among those attending on the topics of the conference. Writers are very interesting people! And great sources for writing topics!
Ed Cyzewski: My philosophy is that people come first. You can always get a recording of the sessions you missed. When else will you find so many other like-minded people?
What writing conference tips would you add to this list?
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