by Christina Alexander
February is upon us and that means conference season approaches.
If you are attending your first writing conference, CONGRATULATIONS! You have made the first step to furthering your writing career. While each conference is unique in the opportunities it offers, there are some universal tips to remember in order to get the most out of the conference.
1. Choose Wisely
Conferences are expensive. Often, it’s an issue of saving up money all year before being able to afford to go. Between registration, cost of travel, hotel, food, and other goodies (not taking into account the prep beforehand), you can easily spend up to $2000 per conference. In this case, choosing the right conference is just as important as deciding to attend a conference. Is it hosted by a genre specific organization like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, or is it a general conference for all authors like the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference? Each has its own benefits and drawbacks depending on what you are looking to accomplish, and what they provide.
Pro Tip: Last year when many of my writing friends were attending Romantic Times in Las Vegas, I was tempted to attend. But after some careful consideration I decided to attend the Romance Writers of America conference in San Diego, CA instead. While RT is fun, and many of my friends were attending, it offers more for published authors. I realized that at this point in my career I would benefit from the networking opportunities and workshops of RWA. I can always attend RT after my books come out. (Admin note: The first ever conference for 10 Minute Novelists will be held in 2018. Watch this spot for more details.)
2. Plan Ahead
Once you decide on the conference that best suits your needs, plan ahead. Most conferences release workshop schedules to attendees a few weeks before the event. Sit down with the list of workshops (and their room numbers) and a map of the conference facility. Go through the list and see which workshops you want to attend and figure out where they are. Most workshops run 45-minutes, with a 15-minute break in between. You’ll have just enough time to get from one room to the other, and maybe stop by the bathroom on your way.
Pro Tip: I have a confession to make–I am addicted to spreadsheets. When I attended RWA last summer, I went prepared. I took a map of the conference hotel, a list of the workshops, and put them on a spreadsheet. That way I had a visual of what was happening where and at what time. I even color coded it based on the type of workshop it was (craft, chat, research, career, etc). It was a thing of beauty…
3. Time Management
Hand-in-hand with knowing the schedule ahead of time, is knowing what the best use of your time is. With many workshops occurring at the same time, it’s sometimes difficult to decide which to attend. If you face this dilemma, sit towards the rear of the room. There is no shame in ducking out of one workshop to attend another. It’s common to see people coming and going to listen to different speakers.
Pro Tip: When I found out that some of the workshops I wanted to attend were occurring simultaneous of each other, I panicked. Then I regrouped and took note of which ones were recorded. RWA records many of its workshops and offers them for sale to members. That way I was able to attend the unrecorded workshops and purchase the recordings for my library. Check with your conference, sometimes they’ll offer them for purchase ahead of time at a discount.
4. The Hunt For Representation
Are your conference offers pitch sessions, and you are seeking representation, it is important to research the industry professionals who will be taking pitches. If you attend a general conference like Writer’s Digest or the Southern California Writer’s Conference, be sure the agent you pitch to represents what you write. It will be a waste of time for both of you if you pitch your literary fiction novel to and agents who only reps children’s books. Even if you are attending a genre specific conference, not all agents or publishers represent the same books. A publisher who produces romance books for the LGBTQ community will not be interested in a small town contemporary romance with straight characters.
Pro Tip: I know it’s tempting to bring your completed manuscript with you to a conference, but I don’t recommend doing so. Most industry professionals will not have time to read with an eye for acquiring, and they do not have the room to pack multiple manuscripts. If you get a request for your manuscript, you will be given specific instructions on how to submit the required documents.
5. Pitch Perfect
You did your research and made a pitch appointment with your dream agent. Do you have your pitch ready? If you don’t, now is the time to write one. If you are having trouble with it, think of your pitch as the back cover copy on your book. What would it read like when your book is published?
Most pitch appointments run anywhere from five to ten minutes. You’ll have a few minutes to give your pitch and some time afterwards to chat with your prospective editor or agent. While you can memorize your pitch, it is always a good idea to keep some notes handy in case your mind goes blank. Don’t worry if your delivery isn’t perfect, industry professionals know most writers are introverts and public speaking–especially in front of strangers–isn’t their thing.
Pro Tip: When I pitched my story I made sure to write it on a 3×5 note card. It kept me on point, and also gave me a place to write questions of my own. The pitch itself only took two minutes, and that left time for the agents to ask me questions about my story and where I see my career going (hint: they’re looking for longevity!), and for me to ask questions about the agent, their agency and how they could help me achieve my goals.
6. Be Prepared
I can’t stress enough how important it is to be prepared. Not only for your pitch, but also for your workshops. I’ve known some people who get so focused on their pitch appointment, they forget about the workshops and networking opportunities available to them. Make a list of things you will need to bring with you. If you like to handwrite notes, be sure to bring a notebook and pens with you. If you are more technically inclined, a tablet, laptop or mobile phone may be more your style–just be sure to bring a portable charger or two to make sure you are fully charged at all times.
Pro Tip: Many conferences are held at hotels, but the little hotel notepads don’t offer much space for note taking. I always bring extra notepads and pens in case someone needs one. If you’re published, you can even bring a pen with your website or logo on it. What better way to be remembered than as “that nice writer who gave me a pen when I needed one.” Who knows, you may meet a new friend or writing partner this way.
Opportunities abound to network with other authors, editors, agents and other industry professionals. Aside from the pitch appointments and workshops, there are evening socials, publisher parties, and the ubiquitous hotel bar. I know, writers tend to be a solitary lot but a conference is the perfect time to break out of your shell and make connections. Here are a few things you should have in your networking arsenal.
- Business Cards: If you haven’t done so yet, now is the time to have some business cards made. They should include:
- Your name
- Your email and/or phone number
- Your social media handles
- Your website, if you have one
- What you write
- Optional items include:
- Your tag line, if you have one
- A photo headshot
- Elevator Pitch: You may run into editors and agents in unexpected places and should be ready with your elevator pitch. The premise is that it should only take as long as an elevator ride.
- Having trouble thinking one up? An easy way to create an elevator pitch is to summarize your story into one sentence of 20 words or less. Similar to how the old TV Guide movie entries used to read.
- Elevator Introduction: You should be able to introduce yourself at a conference. Confession–I get super nervous around big name authors and editors, so I fan girl. A lot. Which usually means I forget my own name. In order to combat this and at least look like I know what I’m doing, I have a little introduction that I keep handy.
- “Hi, my name is Christina. I’m a 911 dispatcher by day, historical romance author by night.”
- It’s fun, it’s quick, and a shows a bit of personality. It’s also a nice ice-breaker to use at the bar and social events.
Pro Tip: I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but I’m going to say it again. The bathroom is not the place to pitch your book. You can wait a few minutes for your target industry professional to exit the bathroom before you launch into your pitch.
8. Pack and Dress Wisely
Don’t know what to wear? You can’t go wrong with business casual. While most conferences don’t have a dress code, you will want to present yourself as a professional. Shorts, jeans, t-shirts, and flip-flops may be appropriate for your hotel room or walking about town, but not necessarily for you pitch session or workshops.
I mentioned before that many conferences are held at hotels, and hotels are notoriously cold in their public rooms. Be sure to bring a sweater and to dress in layers.
Pro Tip: Packing also goes hand-in-hand with being prepared. Make sure to check, and recheck, what you have in your suitcase before you leave. Do not be like me and get to your conference destination only to realize until the first morning of the conference that you forgot to pack appropriate shoes. Luckily, there was a shopping center across the street from the hotel where I was able to buy an emergency pair before things got underway.
9. Take Care of Yourself
Conferences are busy events. Lasting three to four days, they pack as much activity as they can into such a short amount of time. Workshops start early in the morning and go all day. Then there are the after parties, the publisher parties, the meet and greets, the hotel bar, books signings… the list goes on. It can be an introvert’s worst nightmare, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get the most out of it without having a nervous breakdown.
- Be sure to wake up early enough to eat some breakfast, grab a cup of coffee (or two), and mentally prepare for the day.
- Bring non-perishable snacks with you. Granola or protein bars are small enough to stick in a bag, and can stave off hunger until the next scheduled meal break.
- Be sure to stay hydrated. Being inside with air conditioning can dehydrate you, even though you’re inside. Water bottles are easy to carry and refill as needed.
- Try to avoid snacks and drinks that are heavy on the sodium and sugar, as they can dehydrate you.
- Sitting for long periods of time taking notes can make everything tense up. Take some deep breaths and stretch your back and limbs, and flex your wrists.
- Stay healthy! Wash your hands frequently, or use hand sanitiser. To prevent your skin from drying out too much, keep a travel size hand lotion in your bag.
- Don’t forget your mouth! Stick lip balm is easily portable and will keep your lips from chapping in the air conditioned rooms, and a tin of mints will keep you fresh for your networking opportunities.
- If you find yourself overwhelmed by the crowds and activity, take some time for yourself. If it’s close you can go to your room or, if your conference offers it, take advantage of the Quiet Room for a few minutes and recharge.
10. Have Fun
This is the most important tip I can give you: have fun.
Yes, writing is a business and a conference can go a long way to furthering your career. But this is also a time to listen, learn, laugh at the jokes, and make new friends.
When I attended my first writing conference, I didn’t know anybody or the first thing about writing a book. I went with an open mind and an empty notebook. I thought I would learn some new skills and, perhaps, come out with a story idea I could play with. Was I nervous? Absolutely! There’s nothing like being a new person in a new place completely unsure of yourself. I did not expect to walk out of there with new friends, friends who have turned into colleagues and have helped me grow as a writer over the years. You may go in as a solo writer, but you leave as a member of the community with everyone encouraging you on your way.
And that is truly priceless.
Christina Alexandra is a romance writer from Southern California. Always looking for an adventure, she has held many different jobs including both medical and veterinary offices, music teacher, law enforcement instructor, service dog puppy raiser, emergency grief counselor, coroner’s assistant and, currently, an emergency services operator. Christina writes stories set in Georgian and Regency England and credits her varied experiences as the foundation from which she builds true-to-life characters and emotional stories with a unique twist on modern issues. When not researching, writing or working, she spends her time traveling and cooking–oftentimes with a historical flare.
You can connect with Christina online at her website ~ facebook ~ twitter ~ instagram ~ g+