The Introvert’s Guide to Writers’ Conferences, or How I Learned to Stop Hyperventilating and Leave My Hotel Room

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I spent most of this past week encouraging (forcing) myself to leave my room at the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans. It was a nice room, with a lovely view of the city framing the not-so-lovely hotel on the next block. The first room I was assigned was on the fifteenth floor, but before I left the desk, five bucks and a request to not be situated near the elevator bumped me up to the twenty-third. (Also, the thing about being away from the elevator is in my Marriott profile. So much for profiles.) But if I hadn’t had a long list of plans and obligations, I would have been sorely tempted to stay in that room and write and look out the window and order room service and fiddle with the television’s satellite connection to improve its HGTV reception (HGTV is my secret hotel vice because we don’t have satellite at home).

Last week was, of course, Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention—four days of fun with crime and mystery lovers, readers, writers, agents, booksellers, and editors. I’m not exactly sure about the numbers, but I heard there were almost two thousand attendees, three hundred of whom were writers.

Writers. You know, those people who sit at computers (or with notebooks) communing with the voices in their heads instead of real people.

As a writer who has been in the business for a lot of years, and who doesn’t live in a major metropolitan area, most of my networking is done on the Internet or on the phone. Less frequently in person. Networking can sound a little off-putting: net working. I know what a network is, but the words, separated, bring to mind an image of a fisherman (fisherperson?) handling a huge net full of fish, gathering and sorting, selecting and touching. What if you choose the wrong fish? What if it bites? What if they all escape and you end up with nothing? What if they all dislike you? What if they think you’re pushy and rude? (Okay, maybe that’s not a great analogy.)

Conferences can be tough for someone who doesn’t get out much. I get overwhelmed, which is one of the reasons I often want to hide in my room. But I (and I think I can speak a little bit for other introverted writers) do it because it’s my job. When you meet someone, you never know what kind of influence they’re going to have on your life—or the influence you might have on theirs. You might be looking at your new best friend. Or your next editor. Or your next favorite author. Or the person who will spark your next story idea. Or the person who will talk smack about you in the bar because you didn’t bother to introduce yourself. Does it sounds like a minefield? A game of Risk? Well, it kind of is.

You can sit in your room at home or even at the conference hotel and write. And write. You might even sell your story from that room. You might become the next J.D. Salinger or Don DeLillo or Emily Dickinson. Or not. It can be scary, but in order to give yourself and your work your best shot, you have to venture out. I promise you that venturing out feels just as risky to ninety percent of the other writers you will meet. (You can always return to your room later and throw up, faint, hyperventilate, burst into tears, or tear off all your clothes and crawl into your bed and pull the covers over your head in relief. I have done four of the five.) Sometimes you’ll walk away thinking, “Oh, my God, I sounded like a complete idiot!” But more often you’ll be glad you reached out and risked rejection.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to pop out of your writing cocoon and go to a conference or other gathering of industry folk:

Be confident.

This sounds difficult, I know. Sometimes you just have to fake it until you feel it. The NYT bestselling writer waiting in the coffee line ahead of you sits in front of the same blank page that you do every day, thinking, “What comes next?” You have that in common. You’re there for a reason, so act like it.

Be professional.

This is part of your job. Be sure you note the name of the person you’re talking to. It’s okay to ask, and asking is far preferable to ending up halfway through an impromptu lunch, petrified that you’ll be called on to perform introductions if someone else shows up. If small talk is required, talk about a panel or interview you just attended, or a book you recently read. Not your gallbladder, kids, or most recent tooth implant.

Be ready to learn.

Immerse yourself in the conference agenda. People who are interested in the same things you’re interested in put the panels and events together. It’s not all about networking.

Be curious.

Most people love to talk about themselves. Ask questions about their work, their pets, their hometown, their (professional) passions. Most wildly successful authors are good at making other people feel special in a short space of time. Really.

Be modest.

We’ve all gotten the FB messages: “Hey, we’re friends now. Buy my book!” Every writer wants other people to know about their work. But don’t make that your main goal. Your goal is to learn things, make new friends, and reconnect with old friends. There’s always a good time to exchange cards or bookmarks or websites. Name-dropping is a bit gauche, but allowed in small doses if it’s relevant to the discussion—or makes a better story.

Be gracious.

Be as nice to the mid-list or self-published writer standing beside you as you are to the editor you would kill to have publish you. Chances are you’ll have far more contact with that writer in your career than you will the editor. Not everything is about getting ahead. It’s about being a decent human being. Few things are uglier than people who spend their professional lives sucking up and kicking down.

Be generous.

You didn’t get to where you are as a writer all by yourself. I guarantee that someone around you has less experience. Introduce yourself to someone who looks as uncomfortable as you feel. Make them feel special. It won’t cost you anything, and the benefits are precious.

Be on time.

Even if you consistently run five minutes late every other day of your life, when you’re in a professional situation like a conference, be on time. Schedules can be tight, and people often do things in groups. (But don’t fret about sneaking into panels late, or leaving during. Just be discreet.)

Be available.

If you’re not Cormac McCarthy, or Emily Dickinson, leave your room! Put on deodorant, brush your teeth, comb your hair, and attend a panel, a cocktail party, or a lecture. Or even go hang out in the bar. You’re over twenty-one, and you’re allowed. See and be seen. That’s the way it works.

As I said, you can always go up and hyperventilate in your room—later.

 

Have you ever attended a writing or publishing industry conference as a writer, or as a fan? Did you find it challenging, or just plain fun?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest suspense novel, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel, will be released on October 11th. Read an excerpt here.

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32 thoughts on “The Introvert’s Guide to Writers’ Conferences, or How I Learned to Stop Hyperventilating and Leave My Hotel Room

  1. This is such great advice, Laura! I have to psych myself up for conferences in a major stay–otherwise I hide out in local museums, or take bus tours around the city. Not the right way to go about the whole thing at al!! 😀

    • You should definitely make time for those things, too, though. I know if I leave a city without engaging with it, I feel disappointed and disappointed in myself. When Bouchercon was in Anchorage, I only saw Denali from the fitness room window–and it was probably the only time I’ll ever be in Alaska.

      You have so much knowledge to offer, Kathryn. I bet you’re killer on a panel, and a blessing to all those newbies in the bar!

  2. You are so much fun at a conference. Hard to believe you’re a bit of a recluse. I tend to sit in common areas or bars & wait for friendly faces to find me.

    Like you, I like my “downtime.” When I’m not participating or giving a workshop, I still need quiet time, alone in my room. Even if it’s for only a short time, it replenishes my well.

    Your BE GENEROUS points are a really good way to help someone else. There’s always someone who’s shy & reaching out to them allows you to forget your awkwardness.

    Have fun, Laura!

  3. I will always come and see you if you’re hanging out in a common area, my dear! Downtime is so important, and truly does replenish. In early years, I forced myself out too much, and I think that just led to more stress.

    Hope I get to give you a big, in-person hug soon. xx

  4. Laura, all so true! I remember my first conference 25+ years ago, where I was the only unpublished writer in a room full of award winners, including Mona Simpson. I later learned she broke out in hikes before leading the workshop. Greatness does not make one immune to anxiety.

    Additionally, my story excerpt was the first one read aloud in the workshop. I felt like the dog who’d wet on the carpet in front of an audience.

    One incredibly kind Hollywood screenwriter, Charles Eastman, took my quivering self under his wing and we remained friends until his death. I also connected with people who became the core of my first critique group.

    We’re all on the writing continuum, some beginning, some with great experience. We need to reach out to those behind us to pull them along and gratefully accept the extended hands offered by those ahead of us.

    • Debbie, it sounds like you really got a lot from that first conference. Wonderful! I empathize with you on having the first story excerpt read–that must have been terrifying. That never gets easier, does it?!

  5. I so very much appreciated your guidance (and the lovely dinner!), and going to that first party with people I knew gave me a shot of confidence to venture forth on my own later. Thank you!!

    • I had the best time, Dana. How fun that we had an extra party to go to, as well! I can’t believe we didn’t really even see each other much after that. It was such a happy, lively crush. Wish we could go back next year!

  6. Really great post, Laura. We’ve all been there. I remember my very first Bcon back when I didn’t know a soul. Thank god I had my sister with me. Around 5 on the first day, we wandered into the bar which was strangely empty. We sat there sipping our wine, looking pitiful, and feeling like we hadn’t gotten the invitation to the party.

    Well, we were sorta right. Finally, Jerry Healy came in, spotted us, and said, “Why are you sitting here? Everyone’s over at the other bar.”

    What? There was ANOTHER bar? Well, we found it and ended up having a ball because everyone we met — from the famous to the frightened — was kind and welcoming. (Okay, one diva wasn’t and, 15 years later, is still a bitch). But I remember how nice Reed Farrel Coleman, Eddy Muller, Ken Bruen, Elaine Viets, Julia Spencer Fleming and others were to us. You are so right — you gotta be willing to put yourself out there and try.

    At my second Bcon, I worked up the courage to talk to Lee Child. He icily asked me why I had stole his book title “One Shot.” (I had a short story out with that name at the time). I was horrified until I realized he was, with typical British dry humor, kidding with me. He is a real mensch.

    To this day, when Kelly and I are at a conference, we try to find one “orphan” and we invite them to join our table. But yeah, I am with you — it’s tempting to hole up, order a $20 hamburger from room service and binge on “Property Brothers.”

    • I wandered into the bar at the last SleuthFest and Kris and Kelly invited me to sit with them, insisted the bartender take care of me, and deleted all the apps running in the background of my iPhone using up battery.

      Living up in the mountains, I do forget how to interact with people sometimes, but just “getting out there” is important. And, the beauty of these conferences is you can always start a conversation with “What do you write?” (or read? depending).

      • Yes, that’s a perfect conversation starter, Terry. And “what are you reading” works for both writers and readers.

        Go, Kris and Kelly! They did you a real service. My son was using tons of data, and we couldn’t figure out why until we found out his phone was backing up every single thing to the Cloud.

    • Ha! That’s a wonderful Lee Child story. He’s one of the generous ones, for sure. He blurbs so many people–my agent is always bugging me to ask him, but, seriously, our books are nothing alike, lol. At a party on Thursday, I asked him where he’d had dinner. He said he pretty much only smokes two cigarettes and eats a Snickers bar, and that’s his meal.

      What a nice guy Jerry Healy was. He told me the most outrageous stories in the bar at my very first Thrillerfest in 2007. Christine Kling said that most of them were probably true!

      Love your habit of adopting a conference orphan–what a perfect way to pay it forward.

      • I miss Jerry.
        Every time I see a guy wearing bermudas and Topsiders, I think of him. He was very kind to us when we were starting out.

        • My other favorite Lee story:

          When he was SleuthFest GOH, Kelly and I offered to drive him to the airport. We got in a mammoth traffic jam on I-95 and he was going to miss his plane. I knew a back route but couldn’t get off the freeway. I was sitting at the bottom of an on-ramp. I said, “Should I take it?”

          Lee didn’t blink an eye. “Jack Reacher would.”

          We got him to the airport on time.

  7. Laura, thanks for confessing, and for giving some great advice. In talking with a number of writers, I’ve found that many of us–perhaps the majority–are introverts. But when we’re in public, we put on our extrovert face. Now you know you’re not alone.
    As the saying goes, “The introverts club will meet in the phone booth off the lobby.”

    • That’s a great saying, Richard. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before. Yes, I guess we do have extrovert faces–never thought of it that way!
      *shines up extrovert face for next event, puts in velvet bag*

  8. This is so me! But I recall once being told after a con that I was so quiet I seemed “Aloof and very wise.” (When in fact I’m just beyond shy) But this put me in the dilemma of not wanting to seem aloof, but afraid of opening my mouth and blowing up any thought that I was wise.

  9. This would so be me!! Lol. I hope to attend a conference soon, though the fear of mingling with the crowd might get the best of me. Maybe I should start small…

    • Oh, there are so many good ones to start with…Malice Domestic, Crimebake, Killer Nashville, Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee. I’m sure folks on here know them all. You have nothing to lose, Traci!

  10. I was there as well. The panels were great and spaced with a 40 minute break. I used each break to explore the french quarter. I knew I wanted to set a future story in this town so I was collecting emotions about the city. I spoke with probably six very different residents about what they liked about NOLA and their personal story of survival after Katrina. I was also looking for book cover shots and I had more than one set of tourists wonder what I had found to photograph in a dingy alley.

    I have about ten pages of notes from the panels I attended on craft.

    As a Pantser, I felt like this was a coming out of the closet convention. I couldn’t believe the number of speakers I heard admit to being flaming pantsers. I spoke with readers and played timekeeper for one panel in which the moderator fell asleep. It was hard to get him to see the 10-5-2 cards, but he woke up for the zero time fortunately, LOL.

    I found myself trying to light fires under some of my fellow writers (Just Do It!, publish your brilliant story) and advised other about social media, marketing materials, and advertising. I have seven novels published and feel like a new kid on the block next to the likes of Lee Child, Sara Paretsky, and others, but for the first time I felt qualified to share my experiences, my editor’s name and my book cover designer.

    I also find myself worrying about the future of readers when you look around most panels and see mostly gray hairs. Hopefully the next generation of mystery readers couldn’t get time off work to come or a convention setting isn’t their gig.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Alec. It really sounds like you made the most of the conference. I feel a bit hopeful about the next generation–I think newer writers will bring them along. Disposable income is a big issue, and it’s mostly people who have been working a while who have the means. The good news is that millennials like to have experiences rather than things, and cons are certainly an experience. Just look at how popular comic cons are!

  11. Pingback: Bouchercon 2016: NOLA - thummprints

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