Posted in Lists, Writing

10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Conference Experience

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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.

Badge

#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.

Me taking notes at the 2016 SCBWI Austin conference - Photo by Sam Bond,  sambondphotography.com
Me taking notes at the 2016 SCBWI Austin conference – Photo by Sam Bond, sambondphotography.com

#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!

Posted in Writing

10 Writing Tips in 5 Days: Day 2 – Join the Club

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Tip #3: Build Your Own Support Group

Historically, writing is said to be a lonely business. We’re all supposed to be depressed, nocturnal addicts angrily slaving away at our typewriters and dying early deaths. Or something like that. Except for the nocturnal part, it all sounds like a giant drag to me.

In my opinion, these days if you’re a lonely writer it’s because you’re choosing to be lonely, because the thing is, you’re not alone. At all. The reason why it’s so hard to get published is because there are SO MANY OF US out there trying to get published! Writers are not scarce. They’re not rare. They’re not exclusive. They’re not unique. Recently on a train, I asked a stranger what he did for a living. He told me he was a patent lawyer. I nodded and smiled, thinking, That sounds boring. Then he asked what I do, and I smiled even bigger and told him I was a writer. He said, “Oh yeah? I wrote a novel a few years ago. It never got published.”

WE. ARE. EVERYWHERE.

Wait! Wait. Don’t go jump off a bridge. Instead, embrace it! We are living in the age of connectivity, so connect! Find other writers and talk to them! Hang out with them! Write with them! Yes, building your own little writing community will destroy that image of yourself as a unique little writer snowflake, BUT it also makes the writing life less lonely and opens the door to all sorts of new opportunities for learning and growing in your craft.

Where to start? Well, there’s… social media, critique groups, blogs, organizations, discussion boards, meet-ups, hang-outs, play-dates, and stalking industry professionals in coffee shops. Wait, don’t do that last one.

There are so many opportunities to connect with other writers that it’s kind of overwhelming. Instead of trying to give you an overview of all the options, I’ll just tell you what my personal writing community looks like. My support groups include: two meet-ups that I attend regularly, membership in three writing organizations, participation in social media, and writer friends who I communicate with either in person or via email on a regular basis.

MyWritingCommunity
(For some reason, I thought a colorful web would be the best way to display my writing community. Now that I’m finished I’m not so sure anymore.)

Know that this web didn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of two years of venturing out of my writing cave and sending threads out into the world. Just like in Tip #1, I suggest you start small and find the appropriate groups and level of participation for your current situation.

 Tip #4: Go to a Festival or Conference… TWICE

I remember the first time I rode the Texas Giant roller coaster (back when it was still wooden) at Arlington’s Six Flags Over Texas when I was in middle school. The wait must have been at least forty-five minutes long, plenty of time to chew off all ten of my fingernails, consider chickening out a half a dozen times, and ask my friends just exactly how scary it was about, oh, every fifteen seconds. I remember how terrified I felt on that slow click, click, click ascent to the top of the first enormous drop. I remember worrying I might cry or pee myself or fall out and die (the last of which actually happened to a woman last July—I encourage you NOT to read the horrific details if you want to continue riding roller coasters). I remember my terror quickly transforming into terror-ific thrill as I made it down that first hill and experienced the rest of the fast falls, stomach-lurching turns, and bone-rattling excitement that the Giant had to offer. I remember exiting the car—legs shaking, stupid grin plastered to my face, friends bouncing circles around me—and doing what every middle schooler does after their first big roller coaster ride. Get back in line. The next forty-five minute wait was completely different. As my stomach both settled down and churned with anticipation, I stood proudly, knowingly, and when the youngsters behind me bit their fingernails down to nubs and asked their dad, “Does it go really fast?” I chuckled and rolled my eyes and thought, Amateurs.

Who doesn't love PhotoBooth?
Who doesn’t love PhotoBooth?

Joining the writing clubs and organizations available to you is only the first step. Next you actually have to participate. Read the newsletters, go to the meetings, attend the workshops and conferences. You’re not in high school anymore. (Unless you are, in which case, go do your homework.) This isn’t like joining the Honor Society just so it will look good on your college applications. If you’re going to be a part of something, then be a part of it. Get involved. (Wow, I’m suddenly sounding a lot like the mom in my middle grade novel.)

The first time you attend a conference or festival, you get to know interesting people, learn more about the topics presented, and come home with journals full of notes, new friends, ideas, and to do lists, all of which you can’t wait to start reading, contacting, drafting, and implementing.

But, as inspiring as conferences and festivals can be, they can also be confusing, humbling experiences. You don’t know where to park. You go to the wrong room. You realize you were supposed to bring a draft to work on (which you didn’t) or you notice that yours is the only laptop in a room full of moleskin notebooks and fountain pens. You nod and smile and ask “Who?” a lot. People around you hug and inquire about each other’s lives, calling children and novels drafts by first name. They say things like, “This is a nice space,” and, “Well it couldn’t really get worse than last year!” Everyone laughs and you nod and smile.

More than once during my first festival appearance, I thought to myself, Why don’t they make this easier on new attendees? And, Yes, yes, you’re best friends, I get that, but could someone just tell me where the closest coffee pot is? And, I am NEVER going to act so cliquish at a conference, EVER!

Still, the benefits far outweighed the annoyances, so the next year, I went back.

I parked my car in the free garage, knowing that they never check stickers on Saturdays. I interrupted my advice to a newbie about how to sign up for poetry readings to squeal and hug a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. And, when someone commented that the sound system made it a little difficult to hear, I caught the eye of a festival veteran like myself and burst into laughter, thinking of the rattling air conditioner that drowned out half the speakers in the venue the previous year. Then I noticed the blank look on the newbie’s face, stopped myself, and blushed.

I didn’t mean to make anyone feel left out. My actions weren’t malicious at all. I was just comfortable, confident in my surroundings and at ease about how the event would progress. I had a good time the first year, but the next year, I was in my element. That’s how it feels when you’re in the club.

So don’t be afraid to attend festivals and events. And if things don’t flow as smoothly as you’d hoped, don’t be afraid to go back. The second time you’ll be able to anticipate all the drops and turns and sharp corners, and it will be an even more enjoyable ride.

Advice for Event Attendees:

  • Get as much info as you can about the location and schedule beforehand. If possible, ask someone who has attended the event what to expect.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Start by saying, “This is my first festival” or “I’m new here” and people will be nice to you.
  • When in Rome… follow the social parameters of the event. If several other people are taking notes on laptops, go for it! If not, don’t be the only laptop geek. Come prepared with various materials so you can adapt to any environment, regardless of internet access, wall outlets, or available seats.
  • Find other newbies and band together. Safety in numbers!

Advice for Event Organizers:

  • Provide a detailed FAQ page on your website.
  • On maps and schedules, avoid phrases like “same place as last year” and “the usual parking area.”
  • Ask someone who has never attended the event to look over the website/information and provide feedback on omissions and areas of confusion.
  • At the end of the event, ask for feedback from attendees about improvements that could be made for the future.

[Note: This June, I’ll be attending the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference for the first time. If you have attended and have any advice for me, please leave a note in the comments or send me an email at cariejuettner@gmail.com!]

Bonus Links:

[Did you miss Tips 1 & 2? Catch up here!]