A couple of years ago, during my week of 10 Writing Tips in 5 Days, I wrote a post called “Join the Club” about becoming a member of writing organizations and attending events and going to conferences. At the time, I was talking to myself as much as anyone else, because I was still a newbie at the whole networking thing and I needed that push to get involved.
Luckily, I took my own advice and got out there, and I’m so glad I did. I’ve grown more as a writer, learned more about the publishing business, and met so many more people than I ever could have by staying in front of my computer. Now that I have a few conferences under my belt, I want to share my…
Ten Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Conference Experience
#1: Plan Ahead.
Personally, I love planning. Anything that involves a new notebook and different colored pens and schedules (ooo, schedules!) gets me all in a tizzy. But even if you’re not a super-nerd like me, it’s still a good idea to make some plans before you go.
Why bother? There are a few reasons. First, break-out sessions sometimes fill up. Hopefully you’ll be able to get into the ones you really care about, but if you don’t, you should have a back-up plan. Also, sometimes there just isn’t time to do the planning once you arrive. This Saturday I attended the SCBWI Austin conference, and it was ten hours of jam-packed inspiration. There were short breaks between events, but I spent them talking to people, asking questions, perusing the book store, or eating cake. (I highly recommend attending conferences where they serve cake.) I could have used my time to read through all the presenter bios and panel discussion options, but I’m glad I didn’t have to. Reading the info online beforehand meant time for more networking, more shopping, and more cake.
#2: Wear comfortable shoes.
Every time I prepare for a conference, I get out this really cute pair of heels that I own but rarely wear, put them on with my conference outfit, stare at myself in the mirror, and smile. Then I put them back in the closet and get out my flats. You’re going to be on your feet a LOT. Be good to yourself. Also, bring a sweater.
#3: Bring Business Cards.
Things I’ve learned about business cards:
- They come in handy, especially for people like me who have difficult-to-spell names. It’s a lot easier to just hand over a card than to try to spell out my email address in a noisy room.
- Think about what you want on them. I don’t have my full address on my cards, but I did recently add “Austin, TX” because I found that when I was out of the state, people connected to my hometown. As I’ve mentioned before, Austin is a thriving literary community. When people find out I’m from here, they mention the Texas Teen Book Festival or ask questions about the Writers’ League of Texas or start conversations about SXSW. I realized that having my city on my card is another way of connecting with people.
- Here’s a cool trick I learned at my very first conference: Carry your business cards in your badge holder and you’ll never have to fumble around in your purse or pockets again.
#4: Reconnect with old friends.
The best thing about going back to conferences a second time is reconnecting with people you haven’t seen since the last event. Facebook is great for staying in touch, but there’s nothing like LOL-ing (L-ingOL?) in real life, so make the time to track down old friends and catch up.
#5: Make new connections.
It feels great to have friends by your side at a conference, but don’t spend all your time with them. Move around, change seats, venture off alone. Remember how you got those friends in the first place and introduce yourself to new people so that your support system con continue to grow.
#6: Take good notes.
When the conference first begins, it will be tempting to think, “I’ll remember this… how could I forget it? It’s so inspiring/useful/timely! But what you don’t realize is that you have several more hours and/or days of inspiration and advice ahead of you. You won’t remember everything. Take notes. I err on the side of excess. I’ve always been the kind of person who learns best by writing (writing things down commits them to memory thereby making the actual notes both moot and essential), so I fill many pages with writing when I’m at a conference. It’s okay though, because one of my favorite things to do is to go back through those notes later. Good notes let you relive the experience, which is like getting inspired all over again. Also, some will disagree with me here, but my advice is to ditch the computer. Bring something lightweight and easy to carry around all day.
#7. Step outside your comfort zone.
Hopefully the conferences you attend will offer lots opportunities for learning in your field/genre, but even if they do, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. I write middle grade books, poetry, short stories, and horror, so these are the topics I’m drawn to. But I’ve attended panels and presentations on nonfiction, memoir, and romance, and came away from all of them with valuable information and ideas. It’s good to view the writing life from a different perspective. Plus, you never know when you might be inspired to write in a new genre.
#8. Just step outside.
Stepping outside of your comfort zone can be, well… uncomfortable. Meeting new people and talking about your work and being bombarded by information can be overwhelming. For some, simply attending the conference takes an act of courage. So be good to yourself and take a short break when you need it. If you’re staying at the hotel where the conference is taking place, retreat to your room for five minutes of alone time. If you don’t have the sanctuary of a hotel room, go outside. Step out into the sunshine or rain or night breeze. It only takes a few deep breaths to rejuvenate you for another round of extroversion.
#9. Follow up.
All those great notes you take won’t do you any good if you ignore them when you get home, so be sure to go back through and follow-up with the people you met and the ideas you jotted down. I usually end up with a long list of people to thank, people to connect with on social media, books to read, websites to visit, and writing ideas to implement. I recommend waiting a day or two before jumping in to these lists, but no longer than a week. You want the information to still be fresh on your mind.
#10. Be fearless.
Many writers are introverts who would prefer to stay home in their yoga pants and never venture out into the big scary world of conferences and networking, but if you make the leap, you’ll learn that writing conferences are filled with people just like you! This is your tribe. Embrace it. Talk to people, ask questions, be the best version of yourself. And when it comes to meeting agents and editors, remember that they are people too. Not just people. Book-loving, writer-loving people. They want to meet you just as much as you want to meet them. You can do it. Get out there.
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Got a conference tip to add to this list? Share it in the comments!