On the heels of my first writer’s conference (SCBWI in NYC), I decided to compile 10 tips to help you make the most of these events.
1) Use Twitter to make connections
Something like 1600 people attended the SCBWI conference in NYC this year. That’s a lot. It’s really overwhelming to be at a conference of that size all alone, knowing no one, and without that something special that makes people want to hang out with you. (By ‘something special’, I mean little things like a published book, or the fact that you’re an agent or editor, or something equally compelling and unlikely for the newbie writer). People are friendly enough, but only until they figure out where you fit in the pyramid of importance. You, FYI, are at the bottom. The great thing about Twitter is that you can use it to find like-minded souls with very little effort. Start by following the conference Twitter stream. Follow the conference hash tag and see who’s posting to it, then follow those people. Post your own interesting and juicy tidbits, and be sure to include the conference hash tag. Respond to people who are posting interesting comments, and voila! connections are formed.
New to Twitter? Check out this beginner’s guide.
2) Sign up and attend local events first
This may not be an option if, say, you’re reading this the night before the conference. But take a note for next time. Local events are a great way to meet people. To start off with, you already have something in common – you live in the same area! Plus, local connections mean you have people you can actually get together with on a regular basis for writing groups, or coffee, or just to commiserate.
3) Prepare with conversation starters
Have you sensed a theme yet? As in, there’s a lot of people you don’t know and that can be intimidating? Good, two points for Gryffindor. I’m mostly an introvert, except when I know you and then I’m an extrovert. I know that doesn’t match the way these terms are defined but that’s not our topic. Possibly the best piece of advice that I ever received for dealing with these situations was this: Prepare with conversation starters. Maybe you think it’s cheesy or silly or lame, and maybe you’re right. But the thing is, it works. Make a list of 3 or 5 questions to ask when you meet someone for the first time and interesting topics to bring up. They don’t have to be complicated — some of my standby’s include, “Where are you from?” and “Are you an author? Tell me about what you write.” And don’t forget to practice your elevator pitch including who you are and what you’re doing there. (But don’t lead with that.)
4) Have realistic expectations
I think it’s unrealistic to think that you’re going to run into an agent or editor, strike up a conversation, hit it off, and wham-bam you’re J. K. Rowling. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but I do think it’s unlikely. There’s nothing more off-putting than an air of desperation, and the best way to not appear desperate is to not BE desperate. Have realistic expectations. Enjoy yourself. That is enough.
5) Ask smart, generally relevant questions
I sat in a workshop with a fantastically bright editor talking about writing series fiction. When she was finished with her talk, she asked if there were questions. This woman in the side of the room raised her hand and asked, “Can you tell us how to get an agent?” I cringed. The speaker cringed. The moderator cringed. The audience cringed. This was not the topic of the session. There are a million resources available to answer this question. I’m going to give it to you straight: When you ask irrelevant questions, or questions where the answers are easily available, or questions that are specific only to you and not to anyone else in the room, you make yourself look stupid. DON’T DO IT.
6) Don’t worry about what you’re wearing. The fact that you have outrageously fantastic shoes is not going to get you published. Here’s an insight for you – authors are not judged on their looks. You heard it here first. And the truth is, everyone else is worried about what they’re wearing. Hey! A conversation starter!
7) Write down your key takeaways.
You think you’ll remember that amazing insight that changed your way of looking at things. You won’t. When you’re drinking from a fire hose of information, very little actually gets retained. Write down the good stuff.
8) But also let yourself absorb. Your role is not transcriptionist. The first keynote speaker at SCWBI was Chris Crutcher. In that hour I sat back in my seat and absorbed. I didn’t write a thing. I laughed, I cried… and I had an amazing and transformative experience. So amazing and transformative, in fact, that I lost my pen. Know when to take notes and when to just sit back and experience.
9) Bring an extra pen. See #8.
10) Go to all the sessions. Even the ones that don’t look relevant. On the first day of the SCWBI conference, one of the topics was Love Triangles in Young Adult, by Cassandra Clare. I almost skipped it. I don’t write Love Triangles and I don’t write Young Adult. The sky was blue and there was a shoe store on the same block. But then, something happened, and I decided to go. It was SO worth it. Much of what Cassandra talked about was applicable to what I write. Like: your readers think they want resolution and happiness, but they don’t. Keep making things worse for your characters… readers love the suspense. I also found two new series by the very same Cassandra Clare that kept me up into the wee hours of the morning. I devoured her books with a desperate primal absorption that I haven’t experienced since I was a teenager. What I learned is this (and I think it applies to life too): Take a chance. Widen your focus. You never know what you might discover.
That’s it… my top ten. Now go forth and conquer. And let me know, what’s missing from this list? What do you wish you’d known before you went?