How to Survive a Writers Conference: Dos and Don’ts to Making it Out Alive
By Dell Smith
Writer conference season is gearing up with the recent Muse and the Marketplace here in Boston on May 5-6th, and other New England conferences in the coming months—Wesleyan Writers Conference, Cape Cod Writers Center Conference, and Bread Loaf. So if you plan to attend a conference, it’s time to brush up on your writer conference etiquette.
Writer conferences offer:
- À la carte workshops and panels that usually cover both the craft and business of writing.
- The rare chance to have your work critiqued by a professional author, agent, or editor.
- Ways to meet like-minded writers interested in starting writing groups, networking, and trading critiques.
- The opportunity to compress months of online research and networking into a few days.
No matter your area of interest or level of skill, if you’re a writer planning to attend a conference in the coming months, consider the following guidelines to ensure you get your money’s worth:
Come prepared. Bring an iPad, laptop, or a note pad (paper-based application) to take notes. If you have a business card, bring a stack. This is your chance to meet and greet, to schmooze and show off, and exchange vital stats with other writers. Plus you never know who you might share an elevator ride or cocktail hour with.
Follow the rules. If the conference guidelines state not to bring full manuscripts with you, don’t bring a manuscript with you to hand to every agent and editor you see. Nobody likes a writer who’s too pushy, and you want to make a good impression. If the dress code is business casual, don’t wear your favorite stonewashed jeans, ripped at the knees from stage-diving that Ramones show back in ’87. Dress appropriately.
Put into it what you expect to get out of it. Don’t attend a conference if you don’t plan on doing anything while you’re there. If you don’t attend workshops, readings by guest authors, or panels on the state of publishing, then you will leave with the feeling that it wasn’t worth it. You’ve paid money to attend, so get your money’s worth. If you don’t get your first choice for a workshop or class, make the most of whatever event you’re signed up for.
Bring your open mind. Maybe you have one reason to go to a conference and that is to see your favorite author read or meet with the one agent you know can get your book published. These are good reasons to attend, but you’ll be missing out on other elements of a conference. For example, one year I sat in on a non-fiction workshop on journalism. As a novelist, I had low expectations for learning anything pertinent about fiction writing. But it turned out to be an instructive session where I picked up some great tips about research and how to self edit my writing.
Also, if you’re just interested in learning craft, you may be missing an opportunity to learn more about how to write a query letter or what types of books agents are buying this season. Conversely, if you just want to network, you might miss out on learning about how to fix your novel’s structure problems or how to write better dialogue.
Manuscript consultations. If you plan to meet with an author, agent, or editor to discuss your work, plan ahead and sign up with the person that can provide the most appropriate feedback for your project. If you want a general critique of your work in terms of where it fits into the current marketplace, consider meeting with an agent that handles work like yours.
A publisher, while offering no less wonderful advice, is thinking only of the specific magazine or publication that she works for and not what other publishers want. On the other hand, if you consider your writing perfect for a certain publisher, then this is a great opportunity to get the specific feedback you need to get your foot in the door.
Spend a little extra…. Often conferences offer additional opportunities and special events that cost a little extra but can be worth it. Aside from a manuscript consult, you might also have the opportunity to eat a lunch or two with a selection of literary folk and engage in casual business chat. A little extra might get you five minutes to try out your pitch on an editor or to receive feedback on your query letter from an agent. Who says money can’t buy happiness?
…but don’t spend it all. A few years ago I spent well over a week’s salary on a five day conference. It was a wonderful experience but the expense sent my finances into a hole for months afterward. If you can afford to attend a conference this year, go for it. If you can’t, start saving now for next year. Keep your eyes out for conferences offering grants and scholarships.
Enjoy after-hour events. An average conference day ends around 4 or 5. But that doesn’t mean the day’s over. Often there are related activities to keep you busy well into the evenings. Cocktail hours and open mics and after parties. Often events are coordinated in advance, but sometimes it’s just you hitting the closest bar with a few writer friends to compare notes and dish. If you have the time, these after-hour events are a great way to round off your conference experience. And who knows? Maybe that person you just struck up a conversation with at the bar is an agent who handles manuscripts just like yours.
Follow up. If you garner business cards and some face time with an agent or editor you would die to work with, don’t forget to follow up after the conference to thank them for their time, and remind where you met them and what you write. That way, when you send them a query, you’ll already have been introduced.
Have fun. Yeah, it’s an intense situation: you and hundreds of other hungry writers mixing it up with publishing industry luminaries. Just walking into the conference on that first day can be a fret filled journey of terror into the inky unknown. But remember, all the other attendees probably feel similar trepidation. So with that in mind, take a deep breath, push through that door, and smile. If your smile drops the minute you see that registration line, then go to Plan B: pretend everybody there is naked. Works for me every time. If you don’t know a soul, walk up to the nearest person and introduce yourself. And have fun. Seriously!
Do you attend writer conferences? Do you have any guidelines to add, any dos and don’ts of your own?
This post was originally published on Beyond the Margins.
Top photo by sheiladeeisme.
Dell Smith grew up on Cape Cod and left town to study filmmaking. He writes stories and novels, and works as a technical writer at a software company northwest of Boston. His writing has appeared in Fiction, J. Journal, Lynx Eye Quarterly, and Grub Street’s 10th anniversary anthology Hacks. He is a regular contributor to The Review Review and maintains a blog, Unreliable Narrator at dellsmith.com, featuring essays on movies, writing, and the publishing biz, along with book reviews and author interviews. He is currently writing a novel.