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.