Writers’ Conference Tips

I’m simultaneously energized and exhausted, and anyone who’s ever attended a writers’ conference knows how that can be possible. I just returned to Seattle from a fantastic time at Bouchercon in Cleveland, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to provide a few tips for those writers out there who have never gone to a conference and are thinking of trying it out (I heartily recommend it for those who intend to pursue writing fiction as a career).
First of all, I should clarify that Bouchercon is actually a mystery fan convention. As with other fan conventions, such as the RTBooklovers Convention, Bouchercon provides a chance for readers to meet authors whose books they enjoy, listen to them speak on panels about a variety of topics, and get signed copies of their books. The whole weekend is dedicated to readers, and writers love going because they get to meet fans and network with other writers who are going through the same trials and tribulations they are. It’s also the one place writers are treated like celebrities (there’s nothing more exhilarating than have a stranger on the elevator tell you she loves your books).
As opposed to fan conventions, writers’ conferences are geared toward authors, particularly those who are interested in learning the craft, understanding the business, or finding an agent or publisher. Confusion between the two may arise because authors tend to use the term “writers’ conference” generically.
With both types of conferences, I get a lot out of the long days and nights spent swapping information about writing with my fellow authors. My voice often ends up hoarse and I always need to catch up on sleep when I return home, but I’m also inspired with newfound energy to tackle projects that may have bogged down during my solitary confinement in front of the computer. Although I always learn something about the business and the writing craft, I especially enjoy hearing that someone else has the same doubts and challenges that I do, that I’m not alone.
I’ve been to over twenty conference and conventions over the last six years, and I consider every one of them time well spent. I list some of my lessons learned below, but I’d love to hear if anyone has their own helpful hints to add in the comments.
1.     If you can afford it, stay in or near the conference hotel. Trekking back and forth between a distant hotel and the conference center is a chore and doesn’t allow you to run up to your room to drop something off, get something you forgot, change, or simply recharge.
2.     Book as far ahead as you can. Popular conferences can fill up quickly, and there are only a limited number of hotel rooms reserved at the conference rate. I usually book the hotel room when I register for the conference because I can always cancel the hotel for no cost. If you do book late and the hotel is out of rooms, try calling the hotel daily in the hope that you can snag one of the cancellations.
3.     Dress in layers. Even if it’s warm outside, ballrooms can get chilly. Wear comfortable shoes during the day, and try to avoid wearing heavy perfume or cologne because it can be overpowering in a crowded room. Check to see if there will be any formal banquets or costume parties that might warrant snazzier duds.
4.     Target the panels you want to see ahead of time. You can usually download the programming schedule from the website a month before the conference.
5.     If you’re lucky enough to be chosen for a panel, be a generous panelist. Hogging the microphone is tempting because we all want to share our wisdom, but keep in mind that there are four or five other writers up there with you.
6.     Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to people, even bestselling authors. That’s why we all go. I’ve made many good friends simply by joining in on a fascinating conversation, and writers tend to be very welcoming.
7.     Include people you don’t know in your discussion. You never know who’s going to have an interesting story or background or is just a really cool person. It may even be that bestselling writer you didn’t recognize.
8.     Have business cards to hand out. They don’t have to be fancy; just the basic info of name, email address, and website (if you have one). Ask for cards from people you talk to.
9.     Write down notes about people that you meet (if it’s an author, you can jot them down under the author names in the conference program). If you return next year, it’ll be a great way to remind yourself about the people you’ll see. When you see someone only once a year, it can be hard to remember the circumstances. I’m terrible with names, so please don’t be offended if this method doesn’t work for me.
10. When you’re in a discussion, always ask the follow-up questions to learn about why writers did what they did. It’s interesting to know what someone did to get published or how they wrote a book they way they did, but the reasons for their decisions can be even more illuminating.
11. Invite people to join you for lunch. I often strike up a conversation with someone I’ve met in an interesting panel and continue that discussion over a noontime nosh, usually with a boisterous group of friends who welcome the new person into the gang.
12. Check the schedule to see if there’s dinner provided. If not, plan to go out with your new acquaintances. During weekends, you’ll also want to make reservations if you go out to a local restaurant.
13. Spend your evenings at the hotel bar. It’s the place we all gather to shoot the breeze and meet new people. That doesn’t mean you have to drink; I know plenty of writers who are teetotalers.
14. If you do drink, do it in moderation. No one enjoys being around a sloppy drunk. Besides, writers love telling stories, and that kind of reputation gets passed around quickly.
15. Tip well. The waiters at this past Bouchercon were run ragged, and it doesn’t hurt to share your appreciation for them making your weekend enjoyable.
16. Wear your name badge, even when you’re in the bar. This will help me out a lot on the name problem.
17. Introduce yourself to booksellers, who also hang out at the bar. Don’t be shy about going around to the stores that are set up in the on-site book room. They love meeting writers. That’s why they’re in the business of selling books.
18. Take a nap. If you’re staying at the conference hotel, it’s easy to do.
19. Be nice and considerate, particularly to the conference volunteers. They’re putting in a lot of time and effort to create a great event. Not everything is going to go smoothly, but a little understanding and a friendly smile go a long way to getting past those rough patches.
20. Enjoy getting to know your peers. These are the colleagues you’re going to know for the next twenty years or more.

12 thoughts on “Writers’ Conference Tips

  1. Terrific list, Boyd. I enjoy Bouchercon and regretted missing it this year. Maybe next. I agree with Jim about naps. Conference or not, I can’t get through my day without my nap. Sometimes I even take a pre-nap. 🙂

  2. Hey Boyd, I just received this message from Kris Montee:

    I tried but can’t seem to get thru to the blog while here in Paris. I have great wifi but when I try to post a comment it reverts into FRENCH google and i can’t get the damn thing to accept my password.

    Anywho, please pass along to everyone that I am reading the posts! Tell Boyd I liked his Bcon advice, esp the part about not being shy about introducing yourself and about “adopting” folks who look like orphans.

    a bientot!

  3. Great list, Boyd. I was at Bouchercon & had a blast! Your tip about including people in your conversation, introducing yourself, & hanging in the bar are great tips. I had several readers & aspiring authors who braved a handshake & got way more than they hoped, from free books to a drink in the bar. Connecting with fellow authors & wonderful readers & librarians is a highlight for me.

    I spent time with Michelle Gagnon & Sweet Joseph Hartlaub from TKZ. Wish we had found you. Thanks for this post.

  4. Although I attended Bouchercon as a debut author, I am also a reader and met so many of my favorite writers there this past weekend. Everyone was so warm and kind and funny. I learned a lot. It was awesome meeting you and hearing you speak. I also thoroughly enjoyed the Romantic Suspense panel that Jordan Dane spoke on–that was a good one. Great tips!

  5. Sorry we missed you, Jim and Joe. It was a great time.

    Although I didn’t get to talk to you, Jordan, I did attend your fascinating panel on YA books. Very interesting discussion.

    Glad you had fun, Lisa.

  6. Boyd, this is a great list. One of my few regrets at this Bouchercon was not getting to meet you. Hope we can do that soon.

    I did get to spend time with Jordan and Michelle. We are very blessed to have such wonderful people as part of our group here. They are the best.

    I can add one thing to your list, if I may: if you go offsite for dinner or one of the many parties in the evening, buddy-up for the trek back to your hotel if you are walking. The more the merrier. Two blocks can make for a very long and lonely walk at night, particularly in downtown areas.

  7. These are all good tips. I’ll often sit at a table of strangers at a conference lunch or dinner. It’s a great way to make new friends or introduce readers to your work.

    I’d also add to start compiling your promo materials far ahead of time. It is a lot of work to lug this stuff. Don’t forget to throw in a couple of your books to show at panels. Bookmarks, flyers, swag, figure out how to pack it. Being well organized ahead of time will reduce the panic as the event approaches. I’ll even determine my outfits ahead of time, what I will wear each day or to each evening event.

  8. Great list, Boyd. I am looking forward to going to Bouchercon next year (will be a lot easier to do this living in Denver rather than Australia!). I agree on the naps, but then as my family will attest I can nap anywhere, anytime! You also need to pace yourself as conferences like Bouchercon can quickly become overwhelming.

  9. I had the best time at Bouchercon. It started when I met you and Randi on the train ride in from the airport. You were both so nice to me as I struggled with my baggage. Thank you so much! I met many other wonderful people: fans, writers & authors. I’m exhausted & sick, but it’s worth it. Thanks for the intro & advice!

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