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Conference Checklist

I’m in Big Sur today, getting ready for my beloved Big Sur conference with all of my colleagues and some amazing editor and creator guests, like Marla Frazee (!!!). In the spirit of conferences, here’s a question from Melissa:

I’d like to attend the January SCBWI conference–my first. Could you maybe post about what a first-timer should bring/be prepared for to get the most out of the experience? Let’s say the writer has a completed book (that has been beta-critiqued) but has not queried yet.

This is a good question. A lot of the things you’ll end up “bringing” to a conference are actually mental, not physical. (For more thoughts on conferences, see “Should I go to a writers conference?”) Even so, I will try to make a list of things to bring and things to leave at home. Even though I now attend conferences as a faculty member, I keep these things and more in my head and in my suitcase when I travel!

Things to bring (mental):

  • An open mind: Lots of people go to conferences to learn and to meet new people (and ideas!), so approach every conference with an open mind. You don’t know everything there is to know and your work isn’t perfect. That’s not an insult…that’s a good thing! With that attitude, you’ll get the most out of a conference and take your savvy and your work to the next level as a result.
  • Your social butterfly hat: Conferences are very social and you get more out of them if you’re willing to engage, meet new people, strike up conversations, and, yes, *gulp* approach faculty (at appropriate times, of course). Even if you’re naturally shy, dip a toe outside your comfort zone and you’ll meet new friends, potential critique partners, other writers on the same journey, and maybe even a business connection.
  • Your relaxation tools: Conferences are stressful and overwhelming, especially for first timers. The days are packed, the nights offer lots of socializing/writing opportunities, and you’ll probably feel like you haven’t slept in days when you get home. Bring something to help you relax and unwind (pleasure reading, a journal, your sweatpants), or something from your home routine (jogging shoes, your iPod, a movie on your computer) to help you keep your sanity.

Things to bring (physical):

  • Journal/notepad and lots of pens: Conference panels and workshops are chock-full of ideas that you’ll want to jot down and take home with you. You’ll get to do very little actual processing while you’re at the event, so take copious notes so that you can revisit them once you’re home and settled down. If audio recording is your thing, take a recorder. Just make sure it’s okay with conference organizers (it may not be) before you record any audio or video at the event. Important: Your notes and/or recordings should be for your own use only. We all work very hard on our presentations, and they’re our intellectual property, so don’t reproduce, reprint, or transcribe our words verbatim for your friends or on your blog. Writers who may see us speak in the future may feel cheated if we give a talk that they’ve read a transcript from before, but most of us only have a handful of talks that we like to give.
  • Camera: Capture the fun (and the faces of your new friends) of a conference. Make sure you have your camera, film/memory stick, and your battery charger.
  • Networking swag: Before you go to a conference, make sure you have business cards, bookmarks, or another paper form of publicity for yourself that you can give away. Even if you don’t have an agent or a book deal yet, make attractive cards to give around. Most faculty will not take cards or papers from you — we don’t need the extra thing to lose, nor do we want it weighing down our suitcase. But you will meet lots of other people at the conference, and you will be grateful to have something with your name and contact information to give out to new people. It’s a lot better than having to scribble your email address on torn-off paper corners, and attractive and customizable business cards can be had for free (or the cost of shipping) from websites like VistaPrint.
  • Art and previous books: If you are an illustrator, have postcards made of your work to hand out as well (I get postcards printed by NextDayFlyers.com for my illustration clients). If you have a portfolio, bring a copy to show to attendees and faculty (at appropriate times). If you have previously published books, do bring them as an example of your work (but not to give away, see below).
  • Travel necessities: Don’t let anything stress you out at a conference. Check and double-check all the nitty gritty stuff in your suitcase: chargers, toiletries, etc. For me, forgetting to bring my phone charger or computer cable is enough to throw me off my game, as I’m always worried about the battery status of my gadgets. By checking the “duh” stuff and making sure you have it all, you’ll take them off your mind.
  • Good clothing choices: Bring comfortable shoes. They are a must. Also, bring sweaters, cardigans, layers, and light jackets, even if you’re going to Phoenix during a heat wave. A lot of conferences are held in big hotel ballrooms and meeting rooms, and those always tend to be freezing. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve made the mistake of bringing a flimsy cardigan and shivering my way through a weekend. The temperature in the conference city is for outside, ladies and gentlemen. The inside of hotel conference centers operates on its own climate altogether!
  • Food for thought: For the bigger weekend conferences, your registration fee will usually cover meals. Sometimes these hotel catering affairs are decent. Other times…oh boy. And food choices in an unfamiliar location can be a nightmare for people with dietary requirements. (For example, some hotels will just serve pasta at every meal to vegetarians…) If you like to eat consistently and not have to worry about food while you’re away, bring some snacks from home and check ahead to see if there’s a grocery store near the hotel. When I travel, I like to go grocery shopping on the first day. Most hotels will have a mini-fridge in the room. If not, you can have one delivered for either free or a small daily fee. If you have dietary needs or just plain think hotel food is yucky, having some of your favorite food will be a great comfort.

What not to bring:

  • Your manuscript: Nobody will take your 300 page manuscript home with them, even if they like your work. Most faculty will request samples after the conference that you can then send. Don’t come with printed copies of your work, unless it is required at a workshop-type conference and the organizers have explicitly given you instructions. It will, in 99% of cases, end up leaving the hotel with you after the weekend is over.
  • Bound books: The same goes for self-published or otherwise printed books that you want to give to the faculty. If there is interest, you can always send it after the fact.
  • A book contract: If you’ve been offered a book deal, don’t bring your contract in the hopes that a faulty member will be able to look it over for you. This type of thing, again, can be discussed and arranged, if desired, at a later date.
  • Your know-it-all attitude: Nobody likes a know-it-all. Don’t be hostile, combative, or pushy with faculty or other attendees. Most people come to conferences to learn new things, and those characters who show up with the wrong attitude not only disturb this atmosphere, but they get a notorious rap with the faculty.

I hope this is a good checklist to get you set for your first conference, or a reminder as you gear up for subsequent events. Speaking of conferences, I’ve updated my Events page for what I’ve set up so far in 2011!

Tags:

  1. Melissa’s avatar

    This is perfect, Mary! You addressed all my concerns. Thanks!

  2. Krista V.’s avatar

    Now I want to go to a conference!

  3. Kate B.’s avatar

    Hi Mary,

    So, in the “What not to bring” section you advise writers not to bring their manuscripts to conferences. However, in Janet Reid’s blog, she tells writers to always bring pages to conferences. She says not to offer them out but to at least bring them so you’re ready if asked for a sample of your writing.

    http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2007/11/forget-what-you-learned-in-kindergarten.html

    The conference that she’s talking about here is the 2007 Crimebake in Boston. It looks like a pitch rather than workshop conference. Is it just different for different agents or have things changed in the last few years?

  4. Melissa’s avatar

    Great info, Mary. I have two follow-up questions:

    What should attendees wear to conferences? Does it vary from conference to conference?

    Can you give introverts like me any pointers about when, where, and how to talk to faculty members at a conference?

  5. Dana Levy’s avatar

    Hi Mary-
    Many thanks for this! As a follow-up question, can you talk a little about what the major East Coast and West Coast conferences are (SCBWI, etc.) and how they differ – i.e., some have workshops, some only panels, some are exclusively for children’s and YA, some are for all authors…
    Many thanks!
    Dana

  6. D.D. Gibson’s avatar

    Man, I wish I was going to the conference! Oh well, maybe next year…

  7. Stina’s avatar

    At the first conference I attended (NYC SCBWI), I went to a session with an editor from Random House. She mentioned we could sent her our mss, and one woman replied in a very snootish voice, “Good, because I have twenty copies in my room.” We were all speechless.

    I’ve also heard of stories in which someone will try to pass his ms under the bathroom stall when an agent is in there. And it wasn’t because there was no toilet paper. Guess the writer confused Slushpile with Flushpile. ;)

  8. MaryZ’s avatar

    I’d love to hear about the Big Sur conference. Do you have any observations or advice you gave to the participants that you could pass on to us?

  9. Heather Kephart’s avatar

    You are in Big Sur (one of my favorite places on Earth) with Marla Frazee (one of my favorite author/illustrators)?!?!? Ooooh. Sigh. Enjoy. You have a very good life, Missy! Can’t wait to read about your adventures.

    EXCELLENT Conference Checklist. I’m guessing we will have to bring a page or two if we have an appt. with an agent or editor, but other than that all my questions about conferences have been answered. Soon I’ll be pitching a book about a certain bug. So you’re saying it would be wrong to distribute chocolate-covered critters? ;-)

  10. Isabel’s avatar

    Hello Miss Mary!

    Thank you for the wonderful checklist. I’m days away from my FIRST conference ever and I had been wondering about the subject of my what goes in (or not) into my suitcase. Excited to meet other writers, agents and you!

    Isabel Ibanez

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