Writers Conferences: How to Make the Most of It

Summer or spring time seems to be the time for writer conferences. Writers conferences are not only a treat but a great opportunity to network, get inspired and refreshed, and of course pitch your ideas to editors and agents. I have attended writer conferences for years, been involved in organizing it, and when I was an acquisitions for Ooligan Press, I had the opportunity to hear pitches and be on the other side of reading queries and going through the slush pile. Of course you want to make the most of it since you took time off work and spending your time and money on the event. Here are some of my tips or advice for your next conference.

1. Remember to smile, laugh, and enjoy yourself. Don’t take it too seriously. Relax and have fun. If you aren’t seeing it as a personal treat, then what’s the point? A writer conference is like a watering hole where you can not only get refreshed with fresh ideas but also a place to meet other members of the literati species. A writers conference isn’t stuffy. Go have drinks, catch up, and knock yourself out (no pun intended).

2.  Have a strategy. On the other extreme, don’t be too lax either. A conference is a great opportunity to network and receive valuable advice. I’m not pitching this year, since I’m working on the first draft of my novel. I took sessions on writing,  specifically plot, since I wanted to get some fresh input. My novel-in-progress has some plot issues that I want to address.
I also wanted to mix it up. Taking 5 sessions in a row about plot can be overwhelming and I’m not making the most of it with a tunnel vision. I took a couple of other sessions on the business side of things such as promotion and marketing. My goal was to meet people and exchange cards. I wanted to meet and make meaningful connection with at least 2 presenters, 2 agents or editors, 2 conference volunteers or Grubstreet staff, and 4, other attendees. I did it. Also, read up about your presenters and come up with questions.

3. P is for professionalism. As a writer, you are a creative entrepreneur. Be professional in how you dress and carry yourself. You don’t need a suit or interview outfits—even in Boston. It’s casual but professional. That means yoga pants and ripped jeans are out. There are people interpret causal as right-out-of-the-bed look. Don’t be a slob. Be yourself but appear presentable. You can get creative. I always remember one woman who rocked vintage hats. And, if you have tattoos and sport a Rockabilly look. And, if you are stuck in the 90s grunge trend, you can go for it too, I guess. Neat, clean, washed hair and clothes are a must. Greasy hair is one of my personal pet peeves and grosses me out. Dry shampoo is the greatest invention of our century and it’s my lifesaver. Be polite, professional, and positive in your conversations. Don’t bad mouth or speak negatively about someone. After all, who likes negative people? Negativity will bite you back. So will strange behavior. Here’s a story. Years ago when I was a volunteer at a writer’s organization and at our event, there was one one male attendee was constantly flirting with almost every young 20-something woman he encountered with the exact same pickup line. We were all laughing about him in the break room. He wasn’t too creepy about it, just making a fool out of himself. Be smart about meeting a date and don’t be that guy. Years ago, there was this fine film producer who showed up and I happened to be a timekeeper at a film script pitch session. I struck up a conversation with him and asked him about his job and questions. I didn’t think he was interested. Or maybe he had a girlfriend back in San Francisco. At least, I made my presence known. I left it there. Last tip, mind your Ps and Qs too cuz you don’t want to be known for boozing it.

4. Business cards. It is cheap to get cards that look professional. Let your creativity show through the design. It’s a good idea to let your writing style show through the design, font, and layout. Does your card reflect that you are a sci-fi, literary, or women’s lit writer? I put a picture of myself on the card because most people remember faces more than names. I paid attention to creative design since I wanted to use my card to showcase my design skills.

5. Meet new people. Make it an effort to introduce yourself and take the initiative to meet new people. It’s easy to stick to your circle but making new contacts is beneficial. Talking to strangers is easy for me since I’m an extrovert with commissioned sales experience. It may be challenging for introverts and shy people. Even as an extrovert, I find it difficult to break the ice with some people due to lack of commonalities and varying personalities. In those situations, my tip is to play the role of journalist. I ask them questions and let them talk. Who doesn’t love to talk about themselves and feel heard? And, you can learn about them. I enjoy hearing other people’s stories. Say hello and after introductions ask them about what they write. Showing genuine interest in another person is a great icebreaker. Thank the instructor after the session and ask a question or tell them something you enjoyed or found helpful. Everyone needs encouragement! Or, if another attendee said something insightful, approach them after the session and say that they made a good point and ask them another related question.

6. What to bring. Do not bring full manuscripts unless your agent specifically told you to do so (which is rare). Signing a contract doesn’t happen at pitch tables. A pitch session is equivalent to attending a job fair and speaking to a recruiter versus sending a resume alone. It’s a great networking opportunity and most people like to connect a name with a face in a competitive world.

iPad, notebook, or something to take notes . Take notes not during sessions but also when you are sitting down with someone for a manuscript critique feedback. If doing so at a critique session, out of courtesy ask them if it’s OK. I also take notes, after meeting someone to remember names, faces, and connection. It’s easy to forget.

A large purse, tote bag, or something that carries everything from iPad, cards, handouts. Thats why I say avoid carrying unnecessary things such as full manuscripts.

Comfortable shoes. You’ll be on your feet and walking around. Not sure about the guys but for us ladies, it’s something to consider. I made the mistake of wearing new high heels that were cute but not broken in yet. Sure, I got many compliments on my shoes but my feet had blisters and hurt by mid-day. Bad idea. I should have worn flats. Or, walked around in my home with those shoes. It takes about 2-3 weeks for new shoes to be “broken in”.

Snack bars or protein bars. Keeps me awake and focused. I find it hard to concentrate and stay focused when I’m hungry.

Even minimal preparation gives me a boost of motivation. Having a sense of purpose helps me make the most out of the conference. As a goal-oriented person, I have an immense sense of satisfaction afterwards. I feel that I had a fun time and escape from the daily grind yet felt accomplished because I have a direction and know my next steps after the conference.

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