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Getting the Most Out of a Conference

I’ve done several posts on writer’s conferences (some are here), and I know that the big NY SCBWI is coming up. What I want to hammer home to writers about to go to their first or their hundredth writer’s conference is that it’s all about what you make out of it, much like writing-related programs and work experience. Many people go to conferences in the wrong mindset, and it can impact their experience in a bad way.

For example, they put a lot of emphasis on their pitch session, thinking that whether or not they get a request will mean the conference either was or wasn’t worth the money, respectively. Or they enter a conference-sponsored contest and hang all of their hopes on winning. Or they expect to corner a visiting agent or editor and sell them on the book. It’s very rare that these American Idol moments happen at conferences, and expecting them is setting yourself up to have a bad time should the stars not align.

But before you think I’m trying to talk you into shooting low, remember that it’s very rare indeed for the stars to align. And even if you make a connection with an editor or agent, it’ll most likely be long after the conference when they’ve finally had a chance to read the manuscript they requested from you at the event. Because that’s how it has always worked for me: I request and read later, not at the table, while the writer is nervously staring at me.

Your primary job at a conference, therefore, isn’t to walk out of there with a book deal (though I can’t swear this has never happened), it’s to be cool, personable, and open to the experience. Most importantly, it’s to be without agenda. I know this sounds lame. You are paying a lot of money to be there, you’ve likely taken time off work or away from your family. You have a manuscript burning a hole in your hard drive. You don’t yet understand that publishing moves slower than molasses unless you’re one of the very few debuts that’s destined to set the world on fire. While it’s important to have a dream and a strong motivation, it’s more important not to only be there in obvious service of it.

This means chatting with your tablemates at lunch about things other than you project (though you can definitely discuss it). Maybe you’ll find a critique partner or learn about another genre. This means introducing yourself to visiting authors, agents, and editors without immediately launching into your pitch. (Most of my most successful conference matches have come from writers who chatted me up about something random, had a good sense of humor, and were very casual-yet-professional about getting a card and following up with business later.) This means using your pitch session as a fun practice exercise in distilling your ideas instead of The End All And Be All Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity you might think it is.

Expectations are hard in that they’re always present and always tied to emotion. Writing expectations, especially, because they have to do with something so personal and creative. But everyone has a different path to publication and a different path once published. Any of my clients will tell you that having a book out in the world is great but (and there’s always this but) nothing like they expected or imagined. The house is late in processing your payment. Your book does unexpectedly well or poorly. You get questions from readers that blow your mind. Your book gets banned because of one word from a school library. Your next book isn’t picked up or you end up scrambling to write a sequel because of demand. Your editor leaves. You switch houses. Your house announces a huge merger with another house. And on and on and on. Everyone is in a long learning curve together in this publishing business, and every time I think I’ve seen or heard it all, a new story emerges that changes my perspective on it.

The best way to go to a writer’s conference is to temper your expectations, be casual and professional, make a good impression by being friendly and curious, and take as many notes as you can on sessions that interest you. I recommend conferences 100% but I have been to hundreds of them and can tell you now that one isn’t going to change your life. That’s not to say that you won’t get an idea, have an “aha!” moment, or meet someone who is going to be part of your journey. Go into the experience with your head in the right place and be open to anything.

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  1. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    I kinda think that’s good advice for going out the front door every morning, too.

    Listen and be open to what you hear. If you’re too stuck on your agenda, you might miss some really interesting opportunities, or you might not recognize the great advice being served to you on a golden platter.

    SFWC is next month, and it’ll be my sixth time working as a volunteer. I don’t get that much from the sessions anymore (I could give most of the presentations by now), but I go for the people, the networking, the writerly “hall talk,” and just to hang out with many awesome, creative people.

  2. Melinda Viergever Inman’s avatar

    Thanks for the reminder. I head to a big conference out west this month. Of course, I hope for The Big Breakthrough when I pitch. But, at the last conference I attended, casual, professional, and curious proved far more effective for making friends and learning from the pros. We can all learn. Curiosity makes us better writers.

  3. Brendan O'Meara’s avatar

    I agree with you. It’s hard to toe the line of being casual, but also leaving the door open to future business. There’s always the trading of business cards. I say, “At the very least, this business card is good for getting a stubborn piece of food out of your teeth.”

    Then there’s the universal language that speaks to us all, “Can I buy you a beer?”

    Works every time 60% of the time.

  4. Alina K. Field’s avatar

    This is really great advice, and very timely for me since I’m preparing for a big regional conference next week and angsting about the manuscript I’m pitching. Thanks for the reminder to step back and see the big picture!

  5. Laura Stephenson’s avatar

    Thanks for the advice. I’m going to a conference in two months and was getting pretty worked up over it. Maybe now I can relax and calmly continue editing…

  6. Bernice’s avatar

    Thank you for the wonderful advice, Mary. Last year I attended my first writing conference. I met with an editor and an agent. I prepared and polished my first One Sheets, developed and polished my first pitches, and spent oodles of time the final week finalizing details. Although neither of those appointments led to a book deal (my book proposal did make it to the Pub Board :-)), they were vital in gaining experience–and contacts.

    I went to a conference this March without a BHAG. Sure, I entered the writing contests and submitted works for professional critiques. But I really went to glean. To rub shoulders. To make new acquaintances. I also brought two friends who’d never been to a conference, so I was focused on their needs as well. And even though I ate meals with professionals who didn’t mesh with the genres I currently write in, I gleaned a lot from the relationships and the conversations.

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