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  • Jan Flynn

At a Writer’s Conference?

Do This, Not That: Seven Success Tips

Attending a conference can be a powerfully inspiring and educational experience, connecting you with published authors, agents, editors, and propelling you forward on your writing journey.

Or it can be an intimidating and frustrating waste of your money and time, and end up discouraging you. As if writing wasn’t challenging enough already.

Let’s say you’ve just signed up for a writer’s conference that fits your genre or that you’ve heard good things about. It may or may not be your first rodeo, but you’ve already paid your registration, booked your hotel room, and confirmed your flights.

Yay, you! You’ve just made an investment in your writing career. What else can you do to make sure your investment pays off? Here are a few guidelines to help you come home from your trip feeling energized:

1. Manage Your Expectations.

Do as much research on the conference ahead of time as you can. Comb through the conference website, check out the schedule and the links to the speakers and presenters. Figure out where your time is best spent and if possible, sign up for the workshops or sessions you want in advance. If there are pitch sessions available and you’re ready to take that step, research the agents and editors you’re interested in. You’ll almost certainly have to pay an additional fee for each pitch, but there’s nothing like meeting with someone face-to-face when you’re seeking representation or publication. So get your ducks in a row ahead of time.

But be realistic. You are not going to walk away at the end of the weekend with a book deal from a Big Five publisher. Nor are you going to have one or more solid offers of representation from agents. No industry professional is going to be packing your completed manuscript in their tote bag so they can read it with breathless excitement on their flight back to New York.

If you come home with some new knowledge, a larger and better informed perspective on your craft and/or the industry, and some new connections with other writers, your time has been well spent. If you’ve gotten the provisional interest of an agent or editor via pitching, that’s a big win.

2. Bring the Right Stuff (and not the wrong stuff)

Again, paying careful attention to the conference details ahead of time will help you here. If they offer critique sessions on query materials or first pages and they indicate you should bring copies of those, by all means do so. If you’ve signed up for a workshop and you’re asked to submit a story or other piece ahead of time (and perhaps read and critique other participants’ work as well), then do your homework.

Have some business cards ready if you can, stashed where they’re easy to reach. They don’t have to be fancy; they just need to have your name and basic contact info. You won’t be handing these to editors or agents or the famous author who gave the keynote speech. Cards are for networking with other writers. Keep the ones you receive from people you meet for later follow-up.

The conference organizers will generally equip you with a folder for handouts and schedules. I like to have my own dedicated notebook with me because I’m a compulsive note-taker, and a lot of pens because I have such a talent for losing them. There may or not be a conference tote provided, so I always bring one I can use for all the stuff I tend to accumulate as well as the books I buy (most conferences have a mouth-watering assortment for sale).

Your tote is also a good place to stash a water bottle and a protein bar or two. Conferences demand a lot of energy. Self-care is essential.

Don’t bring your full manuscript thinking you’ll hand it off to an industry professional. Those people don’t want to go home with a banker’s box full of typewritten pages from hopeful authors. Also don’t bring copies of books you’ve already published unless you know ahead of time that there is a suitable and appropriate venue in which to display or sell them.

3. Dress Strategically

By strategic, I do not mean plunging decolletage, whatever your gender. Your aim is to look professional and perhaps a bit memorable, while still being comfortable. Many conferences are in hotels or small college campuses, and you may be hiking around a considerable amount between meetings, so ditch the toe-pinching stiletto heels, and have a sweater or light jacket on hand. Air conditioning can be fierce when you’re sitting for long periods of time.

Think business casual, or at least Friday jeans-at-the-office level clothing. Looking somewhat bohemian and cool is fine; after all, you’re a writer. But don’t look sloppy; it doesn’t reflect well on your work. If you have an item in your closet that never fails to make you feel confident and stylish, by all means wear that. Avoid clanking jewelry; it annoys your workshop co-participants.

4. Prep for the Pitch

If you plan to pitch agents, make sure you’re as ready as you can be. Your manuscript (which, again, you will not be carrying with you; see #2 above) should be complete and as polished as you can make it, as should your query letter and synopsis. There are multiple resources to help you with prepping query materials, so do some homework ahead.

Lots of conferences offer live pitch sessions or workshops on how to query. Attend them if you possibly can; they’re some of the most valuable learning you can get at a conference, even if you feel you’re nowhere near ready to put your work out there. Some day you will be, and you’ll be ahead of the game if you know what rookie mistakes to avoid.

5. Hang Out In The Bar

I mean, if there is one. Writers are notoriously introverted, or at least they think they are; in my experience, get a writer talking about their work and you’ve got a friend for life, or at least until last call. My point is, many of the best connections you make at a conference happen between or after the formal sessions. You don’t have to drink (and if you do, keep a handle on it by all means; you’re still at a professional event). A glass of sparkling water with a lime wedge in it looks plenty convivial and gives you all the excuse you need to hang out and make conversation.

This is when you can find yourself hobnobbing with a big agent or a New York Times bestselling author. Don’t monopolize the conversation, but go ahead and introduce yourself. If you’re the shy type, don’t sweat it; ask them a question or two about their work, be a good listener, and they’ll take it from there.

6. Lighten Up

A conference can feel like a big deal, but it’s not a make-or-break experience. You may feel inundated and overwhelmed at times, but that’s normal, and you’re not alone. Keep an open mind and a sense of humor. Smile. Have fun. Happiness is attractive.

7. Share the Love

After conference is over but while the experience is still fresh in your mind, share your experience with your writing buddies. Reporting out to your critique group or local writer’s club is a big help to your colleagues and they’ll return the favor when they venture out to conferences you aren’t able attend yourself.

The trope of the isolated writer belongs in a past century. Supporting your fellow scribes with what you’ve learned helps you become a worthy citizen of the literary community.

And that will reward you in ways you can’t even predict. Enjoy.

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