Okay, so we’ve talked about how to pick a writer’s conference, and how to prepare for a conference. Now it’s time to talk about what to do AT THE CONFERENCE.
1) Be prepared.
By that, I mean, have your pen and notebook ready. There will be things you want to write down for later. Trust me.
Also, have your first chapter with you. Don’t leave it in your hotel room. If the elevator stops working, and you’re stuck in it with your dream agent or editor, wouldn’t you just die if you didn’t have pages and they wanted to see them? See my last conference post about your conference bag.
If you switch business cards with someone, it is a good idea to jot a quick note on the back to remind yourself of how you know that person. Two weeks from now are you going to remember the guy you spoke to in the Starbucks line on Tuesday versus the guy you spoke to in the Starbucks line on Thursday? I won’t. Make a note of the conversation, or if they talked about their project, or if you talked about the NFL. That’s more likely to spark your memory later.
2) Understand you will likely ingest an obscene amount of caffeine and be working on sleep debt.
(see last post about taking Tums or similar)
Writers at a conference tend to forget that they are no longer the 18 year old dynamo that they were when they began college. They run as if they were still eighteen. It will catch up to you. It’s okay to go take a nap when you get a chance, especially if you know you will need it to keep up with the evening activities of the conference.
Be prepared for long days. I have a tendency to run at full speed for eighteen to twenty hours straight when I’m at a conference. I do hit a wall. When I do, I hit it pretty hard. I have to remind myself to take breaks, at least to have downtime for the brain to reboot. Know your limits, especially if you have health concerns.
3) Ears open and mouth shut, within reason.
If you’re new to the writing thing, you are there to learn. It’s okay to ask questions, it’s why you are there. It is not okay to pontificate for an entire panel on what you think is wrong with publishing today. You could tick off the very people you are at the conference to meet and network with, which means that your money spent to attend has just been flushed down the drain.
For example; it’s okay to ask an agents/editors panel what they’re looking for. It’s okay to ask agents where they see the market going. It’s okay to ask about vampire fiction and the marketplace. It’s okay to ask for query advice. It’s okay to ask about specific writing questions, like prologues and first chapters and story arcs. It’s okay to ask forensics experts about bullet holes in mailboxes at a mystery conference panel. It’s okay to ask questions at a panel on fairy tales about whether the Grimm Brothers or Charles Perrault discovered Cinderella first. It’s okay to ask about the evolution of cozy mysteries, or to ask about the lines between different subgenres in fantasy or science fiction. It’s okay to ask about romances without a Happily Ever After ending (not usual, by the way). It’s okay to talk about whether J.R.R. Tolkien would have gotten published today. It’s okay to ask about queries and submissions and synopsis, and craft and dialogue and POV and voice and style and adverbs and word count and all those other things we have to learn about writing a novel if we’re serious about getting published.
It’s not okay to take the entire panel’s time to argue with them about why your book will knock their socks off. (sign up for a pitch session if you want them to hear your pitch; the right time is NOT during a panel, because you are sending the message to the rest of the conference, who paid the same money you did, that you are worth more then the rest of them. You are taking up their time to learn from the panelists. And, quite possibly, making yourself look like a jerk in front of the panelists…something you’d generally want to avoid.)
It’s not okay to argue with editors and agents as to Courier vs. Times New Roman for twenty minutes during an submissions panel. (I’ve seen this happen. I wanted to walk out. I could see the frustration on the faces of the panelists…they couldn’t walk out. I stayed, and asked some questions of my own, hoping to get off the formatting questions and back into the what-should-I-know-if-I’m-querying-you kind of stuff that I go to those panels to learn. It didn’t work, because the questions veered right back into an argument about whether it was right to use one space or two between sentences. At that point, I left, out of frustration.) Look, it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong on the grammar rules or the perfect format…it’s about what that agent/editor/publisher wants. If someone wanted my submission in 16-pt. Wingdings, you’d better believe I’d submit it that way (that is, if I could get past the appearance of insanity that such a submission guideline raises). I’ll say that it is okay to ask courteously during downtime, without interrupting another conversation, as to why they prefer one thing or another. I’ll bet you that the answer is ‘Because it’s easier for me to read and/or organize that way.’ And that’s really what it’s about.
4) Do not get drunk and stupid.
Okay, part of going to conferences is to hang out with and make new writer friends and professional contacts. I have yet to go to a conference that there wasn’t some place where people congregated during their downtime to do exactly that. Nine times out of ten, it’s the hotel bar.
I’m not going to tell you not to have a drink or two. If you’re like me, you go to conferences during your vacation time. It’s okay to relax and have a glass of wine and socialize with friends you don’t see on a regular basis. It’s fun. And part of going to conferences is having fun with writers and meeting people who understand the insanity of getting up at 5 am to add another 500 words to your book before you go to work, writing on the subway, writing on your lunch hour or during the baby’s nap or while the kids are in school, and making notes on an idea when you’re stopped at a stoplight. This kind of commiseration and socialization is rare. Enjoy it.
You’re also there to network. Meet new people. I’ve met wonderful friends at conferences that I still keep in touch with over Twitter and Facebook and this blog. I’ve met editors and agents and published authors and publicists and journalists and booksellers. It’s opened up a world of new people who share my obsession with books and writing. And it helps you make professional contacts down the road. At least three beta readers of mine are friends I have met at conferences.
HOWEVER, puking on someone’s shoes does not look professional. Stripping off your shirt and pole dancing for your dream editor will get their attention, but not in the way that you really want. Cornering them in the bar and being drunk and loud and demanding only convinces them that you are not a good business contact to make. This is not the impression you want to leave. Know your limit. Stick to your limit. Err on the side of sobriety.
5) Budget considerations and organization.
I mentioned earlier, in another blog post, that you should have a budget for the conference. Now, I’m not saying to be a Scrooge while you’re there. I’m saying that you should make an effort to stay close to your budget. Don’t max out your credit card just to be cool at a conference.
When I go, I figure up my conference costs, my travel costs, my hotel costs, and then I budget what I would spend per day at a conference for food and drinks and books and other stuff. I keep each day’s receipts together, so that I can see if I’ve blown it or not. My general consensus is that going $20 over is not a big deal. Going $50 or $100 over my budget for the whole conference is going to sting a bit, but I can make it work. Much more than that and I will be living on mac-and-cheese and ramen noodles for a month. I’m not a huge fan of either, having spent 4 years in college and 3 years in law school living like a broke college student. I ate my share of these things at that time, I don’t want to do it now. At the end of every day at a conference, I look at my receipts to see where I’m at. Maybe I’ll skip Starbucks in the morning, or go somewhere cheaper for lunch the next day to get back on track. Or I’ll realize that I’ve got a few extra bucks to work with that I might be able to spend in the conference bookstore the next day.
I don’t want a nasty surprise when I get home and have to pay bills. I’m here to network and have fun and to learn. I do not want to regret going. I don’t want you to regret it, either.
(Here’s another tidbit…if you get to the end of the conference and have money left, you might score some major deals at the bookstore from a bookseller who doesn’t want to cart everything back out of there.)
6) If you have a chance to do something healthy once or twice while you’re there, it’s a good idea.
Take the opportunity to order a salad for lunch. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water (some conference centers have really dry air; lack of sleep and a few drinks the night before only make this worse.) Step outside for a breath of fresh air. Go hit the exercise room to stretch out your legs on a StairMaster since you’ll be sitting a lot while you’re there.
Doing something like this helps you get through the conference and back to work on Monday morning without feeling like you’re a zombie.
If that doesn’t convince you; I do actually know someone who met their agent in the hotel pool while unwinding the night before a conference started. Agents and editors have to do things like this to keep sane during conferences, too.
NEXT TIME…AFTER THE CONFERENCE