10 Things to do at Your First Writing Conference

So a while ago I wrote a  blog entry about my fear of writing conferences. Ok, maybe it wasn’t just about writing conferences, but a general fear of social situations IN GENERAL and writing conferences happen to be VERY SOCIAL events? 

Well, last weekend, I FACED THE FEAR.

And…the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s conference was a FANTASTIC experience. 🙂 I learned so much, I only had one soul-crushingly-anxious moment the entire weekend, and now I have become infected like a ZOMBIE and become one of those obnoxious people who always tells you, GO TO A CONFERENCE…there are *SO MANY BRAINSS*…

Ok maybe not that last part. I just listened to the audio version of  The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan and ~loved~ it. 🙂 My apologies for all zombie analogies in this post…

So to get away from the undead and RUN toward a much more productive blog entry, I give you:

Ten Things to do at Your FIRST Writing Conference

1. Walk in, register — locate the bathrooms. You will want to know where they are if you suddenly find yourself in need of them, TRUST ME. And don’t laugh at me yet – MANY drinks are consumed at conferences. Most of them either caffeinated or alcoholic. Nature calls, even if agents don’t. And the sympathetic nervous system is not your friend. Ok, I can’t make a judgment on that for you, but MINE is not my friend. Also…what was the green thing in your teeth while you were talking to that editor? Bathrooms are BUENO — they’re also a place to hide from zombies.

2. Get the “I am a NEWBIE” label for your name badge, or whatever equivalent tagging you can locate or create yourself.  This helps prepare you for number three (talking to people)… which was my BIGGEST fear going into RMFW. My NEWBIE label made everyone smile sympathetically and ask if I needed HELP, or if I was having a good time, which was wonderful — because sometimes I did indeed say “HELP!” and they were soooo nice about it! (disclaimer: being labeled NEWBIE puts you at risk for being thrown to zombies first, so STAY on guard, even when people smile.)

3. TALK TO PEOPLE and do not be scared when THEY TALK TO YOU. Unless they are moaning and shuffling toward you with milky eyes and fetid flesh…they don’t want to eat your brains! Ok, as noted, this was my biggest source of anxiety. When in social situations with people I admire, I either don’t say anything, get ridiculously giggly and say stupid things,  or manage to say something horribly offensive without realizing it until later. But ~everyone~ at RMFW was sooo nice from the moment I walked in (even going so far as to sit with my lonesome newbie self at lunch – SO not like high school!), and just remember you are armed with the ETERNALLY INTERESTING ice-breaker question that works on EVERYONE at writing conferences: “So, what do you write?”

4. Go to as MANY workshops as possible. Staying in an organized, structured environment at all times is a priceless tool when you need to pick a zombie out of a crowd. That person who just WON’T stop groaning at the back of the room and hasn’t turned their cell phone off? Probably a zombie. Or at the very least…not a serious writer. Also – you will LEARN THINGS! I found interactive workshops to be the most helpful – ones that help you craft a query letter, for example, and then give you feedback on the work. There were a few workshops I didn’t even like the sound of that turned out to be really informative — SO GO.

5. BUDDY UP. This may come as a shock, but…there are other people at the conference who don’t know ANYONE there either. I was lucky enough to find someone close to my age who wrote in the same genre as me. We hit it off pretty quickly attending the same classes, so I didn’t have to go hide in the bathroom (see #1) rather than try to “mingle” with others…as much. Also, when the dead rise again, having someone to run/strategize with increases your chances of survival.

6. DO Participate in a critique group/session, if you can. This is what you want most – for other people to see your work. You want feedback on it. THIS is where it’s at. Er…where it is. I was in a group with six other writers and one agent. Our agent had never participated in a critique group before, but I was WOWed by the grace with which she handled the situation. Each writer submitted ten-page samples ahead of time, and each writer got feedback from every member of the group. I received comments I was expecting, as well as some new insights, and it was just FUN to hear what people thought about what I’d written, whether good, bad, mistaken, or dead on. Knowing HOW people read your work helps you become a better writer.

7. EAT. Okay, this list is obviously in no particular order. Try to eat something ~lasting~ before you enter the conference each day, and no matter how nervous you are, TRY to eat lunch. If you don’t, I guarantee you WILL be a zombie by nightfall. I know this sounds like instructions for surviving the SAT, but…maybe those obnoxious test-prep people were onto something after all. Also…the RMFW conference had TWO separate dinners, which I was completely unprepared for. The sight of well-appointed tables with ZERO seat assignments in a huge room with 300+ people made me feel a little like um…a wounded vampire surrounded by hungry werewolves (though I was going to make another zombie ref, didn’t you?). Also, the tables at these things are SO LARGE you can’t possibly talk to the person directly across from you. It helps if you are good at interpreting facial expressions, but my advice is, smile a lot, nod, pay attention to what you’re eating, and try to LISTEN as much as possible. IT IS SO INTERESTING TO LISTEN.

8. Sharks don’t bite. I mean–agents are people too! Okay, some of them are more intimidating than others, for sure. But a writing conference is a huge OPPORTUNITY to get to know them! Say hello, introduce yourself, and DO NOT talk about your book — unless they ask. You may be thinking, um, but the whole reason I am THERE is to get them interested in my book! And that’s TRUE! But if you have a great conversation with an agent, and make a good impression, then you can QUERY them and say, “Hi my name is Emily Zombiepants, and we met at the RMFW conference in September…” which is the appropriate place to speak to an agent about your book (UNLESS they ask), and when they are at their desk in New York and you jog their memory, they’ll look back and go, “Ohhh yeah, Emily Zombiepants! The ONLY person at that whole conference who DIDN’T try to hock their book at me, AND she was cool — I am 100 times more interested in her query letter now!”

9. Dress for success! UGH I cannot stand that phrase — but it’s true. Go to a writing conference dressed as if it was a job interview — because it IS. You wrote your entire novel wearing pumpkin pajama pants, but get out the dress slacks, the iron, and pet hair roller before going to a conference (also, comfortable dress SHOES). Once you’ve topped the best-seller list for 52 weeks, you can wear NoPants, or All Black, or a Pink Sparkly Bodysuit, or just revert to (my fave) PJ PANTS! And if you’re worried about erring on the side of OVER or UNDER dressed, pick OVER DRESSED. Always. If everyone else is in jeans, you will SHINE. If everyone else is over dressed too, you won’t look like a sloppy ZOMBIE!!

10. GO TO THE CONFERENCE. Okay, this isn’t advice about what to do AT the conference, but how can you do all the other nine things if you’re home on your couch? FIND a conference, PAY the money (soooo worth it), and GET OUT THE DOOR. Don’t get me wrong, I am a total advocate of online networking when it comes to being a writer. You can do so much to connect with other writers, agents, and editors online — you can learn a TON that way — but we’re still human. Coming from someone terrified to answer her doorbell when it rings…NOTHING beats connecting with the writing industry face-to-face, getting a feel for writers, editors, and agents as people, in real time. You will come away excited that you could count yourself among them! AND you’ll have an advantage when fighting zombies.*

*NOT true…or I don’t think so, but someone let me know because if it is, how fast can I get on a conference committee?

12 thoughts on “10 Things to do at Your First Writing Conference

    1. Welcome to Colorado! Sorry you didn’t make it to RMFW, but I definitely recommend it for next year! And thanks for stopping by, nice to meet you too! 🙂

  1. Hooray for YOU! So FEARLESS. Well, except for the zombies, but I fear them too. I think I will print out your blog and tape it inside my writer’s notebook for easy reference when I go a’conferencing this fall. Bathroom found? Check. Newbie sticker? Check….

    Want to fly back East and be my conference buddy? Please?

  2. Tiffany, Linda, and Suze: THANK YOU guys! I would never have gone to this thing without you guys cheering me on. You are the best cheerleading squad I could ask for! *\o/*

  3. Late to the commenting game, but I am SO happy for you for doing this, bb! And your tips and entry are lulz + spot on. I love how even if I never go to conferences, I am armed with survival tips for the zombie apocalypse. YOU THINK OF EVERYTHING!

    1. I try to multitask in EVERYTHING I do, BB. Mebbe one day you will be able to USE my tips – not just against zombies!!! ~*~

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