How to Make the Most of a Writer’s Conference

Let’s say you’ve paid your registration fee and made your travels plans for an upcoming writer’s conference. You want to make sure the conference is worth your investment.

Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor for the online nonfiction blog, Brevity, and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines, coming in September from Coriander Press. Read her latest blog post below and how to make the most of a writer’s conference.

Making the Most of A Writing Conference

by Allison K Williams

You’re going to a writers’ conference! With workshops and panels and book sales and a lot of strangers and oh dear god what if none of them like me? What if all the workshops are too advanced, or too basic, and I have no idea what the Liminal Space Outside the Academy: A Feminist Perspective Through The Work of Dickinson and Gay As Realized In Graphic Novels panel is talking about? Am I too old? Am I too young? What if I haven’t had anything published yet?

Good news: we’re all welcome. Conferences are a great chance to meet and talk with writers of all ages and stages. Most conferences have purple-haired college kids, blue-haired seniors, and a variety of pantsuits, piercings, ties and tattoos in between.

I’ve just returned from the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster, PA. There were some terrific panels (none of them used the word ‘liminal’) on publishing and being a debut author and literary citizenship. It turns out the key to getting ahead as an author is pretty much the key to everything else–work hard, be nice to people, and don’t tweet “Buy My Book!” every hour because everyone else will mute you. Lee Gutkind opened his keynote with a story about a bat in the dining room and getting trapped in an elevator on his way to said dining room (both true), and Jane Friedman showed a fantastic video about the huge increase in available information in her keynote on the state of publishing.

Some thoughts on how to make the most of attending a writing conference.

Before you go:

1) Arrange to stay onsite if you possibly can. Yes, conference hotels are often expensive (join the hotel points club for free wifi), but the ability to run upstairs and change your shoes or grab a jacket between panels is priceless. If budget’s an issue, see if you can get a roommate–most conferences have a message board to share rides and rooms. When your day starts at 8AM and the last reading finishes at 11PM, it’s nice to have a last glass of wine and hit the elevator instead of the pavement.

2) If you have an author website, update it. Make sure your links aren’t broken and that your most current work is represented. If you have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc, check your page from a friend’s account and see what shows up first. Any embarrassing pictures? Is your top post a rant? Clean up your social media. You’ll be friend-ing/following a bunch of new people, and you want to give a strong first impression. What if an agent loves your query in a workshop and clicks over during a break? Be you online, but be the best you.

3) Pack comfy shoes, layers and a jacket. Most convention centers and big hotels are freezing, especially first thing in the morning. Dress code at most conferences is Casual Friday–professional but comfortable. Keep the quirky in the accessories unless your book is a Cat Lady Manifesto.

Always gather around the buffet table.

4) Get on Twitter. Specifically Twitter. If you don’t have it and you don’t “get it,” sign up and have a twentysomething help you figure it out (your teenager is on Snapchat and you won’t need that one). Find out what the conference hashtag is and follow it. Even if you never tweet again, Twitter is where people are commenting on the panels, making dinner plans, and announcing schedule updates. It’s worth it to be in the loop. (Check out the #Hippocamp15 feed here.)

When you’re there: 1) Go to everything. It’s worth getting up early, it’s worth staying out late. Sleep when you go home. That said,

2) Don’t be afraid to bail. If you’re exhausted and can’t focus, slip upstairs to your hotel room and take a power nap. If you’re overwhelmed by crowds, find a corner to eat your lunch in. Chances are another shy writer will join you.

3) Talk to people first. Don’t wait for an invitation. As the Victorians said about fellow houseguests, “The roof constitutes an introduction.” It’s OK to sidle up to a conversation in progress, make some smiley eye contact and start listening. Sit next to someone you don’t know at every meal. When in doubt, start with “How were your workshops today?” And the best follow-up question ever: “What do you write?”

4) Volunteer. If there’s a chance to be read or heard, jump on it. There’s always a pause before the first person volunteers–fill that pause. After the first person it will be a scrimmage and not everyone will get a turn.

Corollary: Ask good questions. Before popping up to the mic or raising your hand during the Q&A, ask yourself, “Will this be relevant to at least half the room?” If your question is “I’m writing a memoir about my mother, do you want to buy it?” phrase it as, “What topics are you seeing in memoir right now, and what are you looking for? Are there a lot of parent-child stories?”

When you get home: 1) Follow up. Everyone whose card you took, send them an email saying how nice it was to meet them, and/or connect through your preferred social media. If you’ve got free time, send out a few links to articles you think would interest specific people. Start building your literary citizenship by being useful and kind.

2) Keep the energy going. Register the domain for that blog idea you talked about. Query that agent who seemed really nice. Ask someone to be your writing buddy.

And of course, write write write.

See you at the next conference!

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