Survival Tips for Conferences

Survival Tips for Conferences
Terry Odell

Header of the Left Coast Crime 2023 Conference showing a setting sun, cactus and man wearing a black hat and coatI’m in Tucson for the Left Coast Crime Conference, so forgive me if I don’t respond to comments right away.

Left Coast Crime is a reader-based conference, which means the focus is on connecting writers with readers. The panels will be aimed more at “tell us about your book” and they’re a great way to meet readers and let them know what you have to offer. In a writer’s conference, a workshop on setting would tell you how important it is, and would give you a “lesson” in how to develop setting in your book. At a reader’s conference, the panel will be a discussion of where each author sets his or her books, and why they chose that setting. Same goes for characters, or genre, or anything else.

This year, I’m on a “Romance in Mystery” panel and who knows where that one will go! Ultimately, the goal is to entice readers to pick up the books, and also to let them know you’re a real, live, person. It takes a different mind-set when you attend a conference like this as an author. You’re wearing a marketing hat, not a writing hat.

However, no matter what kind of a conference you attend, there are some “survival” techniques I’ve picked up over the years, listed in no order of importance.

  1. Have copies of your receipts. Nothing like finding out they’ve lost your registration or meal choices or room reservation to start things off on a stressful note. Better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.
  2. Bring your own tote if you have one. Although most conferences hand out tote bags, they all look alike. If you bring one from a different conference, you’re less likely to have it picked up by mistake. (I also bring my own badge holder—the kind with compartments from another conference, just in case they give you a simple plastic one. This way, I’ve got a secure place for my badge, meal tickets, a little cash and other vitals—like business cards or bookmarks.)
  3. Don’t be afraid to meet people. It’s not required that you travel with a glued-to-the-hip companion. Take an empty seat, smile, hand over your business card, bookmark, or simple swag, and introduce yourself. This is one place where there’s an immediate conversation starter: “What do you write?” Or, in the case of a readers’ conference ‘read’? On the flip side, be polite and invite people to join you, include them in conversations. There’s a popular author who ignored me at a conference lunch table, and I haven’t bought any more of his books. Another good way to “mingle” is to volunteer. Most conferences are always looking for help.
  4. Bring comfortable clothes, especially shoes. You’ll be doing a lot of sitting, and a lot of walking, depending on how far apart the meeting rooms are. Also, bring layers. Regardless of the outside temperatures, meeting rooms can be meat-locker cold or steamy hot.
  5. Pace yourself. You’re not obligated to participate in every single event. Take breaks. Hide in your room for an hour if you need to. I long ago stopped feeling guilty about crawling into bed with a book at a decent hour. A lot of action takes place in the bar, so think about leaving some time for a visit there. Prioritize. Returning home with “conference crud”, or these days, the nasty virus, isn’t the souvenir you want.
  6. Speaking of books…bring either a bigger suitcase than you need, or some other method of transporting books. Most conferences are heavy on giveaways—and then there’s the inevitable bookstore and/or book signing. Another good reason to bring your own tote. Use the one they give you for books.
  7. Budget. Long ago, when I traveled with the Hubster on his per-diem, I learned how to save a few bucks. Think college dorm room. Almost all hotel rooms have coffee makers. They make hot water as well as coffee. There are all sorts of “just add boiling water” meal options out there. I’ll have instant oatmeal in my room for breakfast. This saves getting dressed early and going downstairs to a crowded hotel restaurant and blowing way too much money on a simple meal. And avoids the possibility of the staff not being able to handle several hundred people arriving at the same time. I’ll carry snacks as well. I’m not one for huge lunches at home, so for conferences that serve a banquet meal at lunch—well, that’s usually my dinner as well. A drink at the bar, maybe an appetizer or salad, and that’s enough for me. No need for another huge and expensive, calorie-laden meal. I can buy books with what I’ve saved.
  8. Scope out the facilities. Find out-of-the-way restrooms. Given short breaks between sessions and everyone on the same schedule, lines can get long.
  9. Giveaways. Odds are there are giveaway tables. Having swag is a great way to get your name in front of people. I’ve given away post-it notes, pens, lip balm, business cards, and bookmarks. I posted about pros and cons of some swag I collected in a previous TKZ post. Paper items such as bookmarks and business cards seem to be least effective based on what’s leftover at the end of the conference, but this year, I’ve had postcards printed with links to one of my books which will be a free download at BookFunnel. We’ll see how that goes.
  10. Have fun.

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

Speed Dating and Swag

Speed Dating and Swag
Terry Odell

author swagI’m hardly a marketing guru—it’s the least favorite part of writing for me—but I made some observations at the Left Coast Crime conference and thought I’d share them.

As I mentioned earlier, Left Coast Crime is a reader-focused conference, which means it’s a place where readers come to meet authors, both familiar and new. It’s an ideal opportunity for us lesser-knowns to make connections.

Any writing conference I’ve been to, whether reader or author/craft focused, has a giveaway table where authors leave freebies—swag. With several hundred authors vying for attention, it’s important that these items entice readers (and authors are readers, too) to pick them up. Anything left on the tables after the conference closes will be trashed by the hotel staff, so you might be carting home a lot of what you brought.

The most common items are paper goods. Bookmarks dominate. How effective are they? With so many people using e-readers these days, they don’t serve the same purpose—something that the reader will encounter every time they pick up their book.

author swagI think bookmarks are more effective when handed our personally, like a business card, but even then, they are likely to end up in the hotel room wastebasket. I stopped getting bookmarks made years ago, but I do have business cards with QR codes to my website and Facebook Author Page on the back.

author swagSome bookmarks that did entice people to pick them up were dual-purpose, like these.

author swagA tradition at Left Coast Crime is their Author Speed Dating event. How it works: Tables for ten (There were 40 this year) are set up in a large meeting room. Two seats at each table are reserved for authors. The authors rotate from table to table and each has two minutes to talk/pitch/promote themselves and/or their books. They also bring swag to distribute at each table.

My observations.

The two-minute rule was enforced, which means authors had to be well prepared. Since handing out swag eats up precious seconds, authors were advised to let their partner hand out the swag while they talked. A fair number of them weren’t able to follow this simple direction. Some overran their time, ignoring the bell and finishing their prepared talks, eating up their partner’s time or having to arrive late to the next table.

The presentations varied from rehearsed and memorized speeches to stumbling or rambling attempts to summarize the gist of their stories. The best ones were those who knew their material well enough to make it sound off the cuff. Those attending are going to be listening to eighty two-minute presentations in a room that’s probably not going to have the best acoustics. Being able to be heard was challenge enough for some.

Takeaway: if you’re doing a presentation like this, adhere to the time constraints. Practice your material until it doesn’t sound practiced. If the organizers offer advice, take it.

And now, back to the swag. Handing out swag to a captive audience is better than leaving it on a giant table. But remember the purpose of the swag. To make people want to know more about you and your books.

Here are some swag items handed out at the Speed Dating event that, in my opinion, missed the mark.

author swagFrom left to right. A nice, sturdy magnet. A vial of perfume. A cute magnet. A pin-on button.

Problems with all of them: What are they about? Would you even know they were from an author? Because by the time you get home with them, you’ll have no recollection of who gave them to you. (Note: some swag was handed out in cute little pouches and may have included something about the author, but once you take the items out of the pouch, all connections are lost.) With the perfume, you’re risking the recipient not liking it. With a pin, would readers wear them? Pin them to something else?

Better ideas are things that readers will have a reason to keep and use. Every time they use them, they (one hopes) will remember the author. One author had Hershey’s Miniatures relabeled with his book cover. Great idea—until you eat the candy. Will they save the label? Maybe. I didn’t, but they worked in that I struck up a conversation with that author and did look him up.

author swagI know my lip balm is what people remember about me. Sticky notes, pens, pencils, coasters, magnets that do mention the author, and even a jar opener/gripper thing make for better swag. More expensive, yes. But if you’re spending money, it ought to be working for you.

Your turn. What swag are you likely to pick up? If you hand out swag, what’s been effective?

Available Now. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy.

Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.

Terry OdellTerry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Reader Conferences – Sliding Back Into the Groove

Reader Conferences – Sliding Back Into the Groove
Terry Odell

Left Coast CrimeI very recently returned from my first in person author/reader get together since the pandemic began: Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque, NM. I refer to this as a way to ease into dealing with being surrounded by people, inundated with information, and having to speak in semi-coherent sentences.

Left Coast Crime is a Reader-based conference. Presentations are panels of authors addressing a topic, not craft workshops. Thus, in a Writer-based conference, a workshop or discussion of setting, for example, would focus on how to deal with setting in your books. What to include, what not to include, examples of vocabulary, why it’s important, etc. In a Reader-based conference, the panelists will be authors selected because their books are set in “interesting” places and they’ll talk about the locales they use.

A Reader-based conference gives you the chance to talk to … readers. If you’re me, it’s likely very few have heard of me (unless they’ve picked up my lip balm—I get lots of “I love your lip balm”; very few “I love your books.”)

If you’re an introvert or just need to get away, for a writer, a Reader-based conference allows more chances to escape to your room or a quiet corner without the guilt of missing Very Important Craft Information.

However, there was the opportunity for learning craft in a pre-conference add-on workshop given by David (Rambo) Morrell, and I attended it. Four hours, even with breaks, is a lot of brain time, but I survived—in part, I think, because he spent quite a bit of time talking to aspiring or new writers, so I could coast in neutral for brief periods of time. Not that his “beginner” advice didn’t contain gems, but they broke through any mental meanderings.

Some of my takeaways from his talk:

He first addressed what it takes to be a serious writer, going into Myers Briggs personality tests. Basically, you have to know how long you can sit at the keyboard in isolation and maintain your focus. If you need to interact with people, this could be your biggest problem. Bottom line: whatever your approach, you have to have a schedule and stick to it. Morrell said Stephen King claims he writes 5 pages every day except Christmas and his birthday, which isn’t true. He writes on those two days as well, but he didn’t think people would believe it.

Next, you need to know why you want to write and what you hope to accomplish. (Hint: a goal of being a best-selling author and making a ton of money isn’t a smart move.) Morrell’s goal was to write something that would influence other people the way Stirling Silliphant, the screenwriter of so many shows Morrell watched as a youth, affected him.

Per Morrell: Being a writer is an insane thing to want to do. Become a hermit to write something other people will find interesting.

Two mantras Morrell gave as advice.

  1. Be a first rate version of yourself and not a 2nd rate version of another author.
  2. Don’t chase the market; you’ll always see its backside.

He mentioned Nicholas Sparks as an exception. He looked for a niche and found there were virtually no other men writing romance, so he exploited it.

Other bits:

  • If you set out to write the book you want, you’ve met your goal when you finish even if it doesn’t sell.
  • If your goal was to write a best-seller you’re imitating and you won’t have anything to show for it.

As a professional, if something interests you, you ask yourself WHY? Look at how it was made rather than plot. He spoke of the importance of awareness and told the story of not being able to come up with the character’s name in First Blood. He was busy working, and didn’t appreciate his wife interrupting to show him the apples she’d bought. He gave her noncommittal responses until she insisted he EAT one of these apples. Reluctantly, he did, and it was exceptional. He asked her what kind of an apple it was, and she said, “It’s a Rambo apple.” Ta Da.

He gave us an exercise to do when starting a project—have a conversation with yourself and write it out. Pages and pages of dialogue, what you want to write about and how you’re going to do it. Eventually, you’ll have enough information to start writing the book. It’s writing on the page. Writing is a perishable skill. If you don’t write something every day, it won’t stay with you. The conversation will help bring you back when you get stuck.

Other questions Morrell threw at us:

What can you do that nobody else can do? What is your dominant emotion? Examples: Anger, lust, envy, fear. Find yours and dig deep into it.

Morrell does his homework, probably more than most of us are willing or able to do. He studied photography, got a pilot’s license, drove race cars to be aware of what his protagonists could do.

Once you know your direction, you’ll find the questions you’ll need to answer. Fill in the blanks, one step after another until you find the story and where it begins. He adamantly cautioned against starting with a flashback. Emphatically. His example: “She woke up with the worst hangover she’d ever had”…and then the story shifts to where and what resulted in that hangover. If it’s important, start there. He related this to a sign Frank Sinatra had on the door to his house: “You’d better have a damn good reason for ringing this bell.” Because it felt right isn’t an acceptable answer.

  • We all find archetypal situations inherently interesting. “A stranger comes to town.”
  • Daydreams are an excellent source of information.
  • To tighten dialogue, take out every other response.

On the use of senses. Morrell suggests taking sight for granted, then including two others, but ‘sneak them in’ so it isn’t obvious. The object is to make the reader feel, not see. Be very light. Don’t tip your hand. Makes a book feel three dimensional.

(I liked this better than the “use all 5 senses in every scene” approach, which to me, often feels forced.)

The writer’s job is to keep the audience paying attention. You have to decide if the window they’re looking through is cleaned by Windex, or if it’s stained glass. Whatever you do, you need to be clear and not require the reader to do extra work.

One thing (probably the only thing) David Morrell and I have in common is part of our writing process. We both believe in printing out the day’s work and looking at it away from the “office.” I do it in bed at night, and he does it as his first step of work the next day. Seeing it “off screen” helps fool the brain into thinking we’re seeing it for the first time.

In his words: Yesterday’s work is terrible the next day. Writing is Fixing. We think, “In my head it was a lot better.” Our task  is to make them the same.

What about you, TKZ peeps? Have you joined the live and in person group yet? Did it take readjusting?

In the Crosshairs by Terry OdellAvailable Now. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy.

Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.

In Which We Talk Swag

Panorama pic of Left Coast Crime 2019 Swag Table

In recent years, the bags of free goodies celebrities receive for going to awards shows or film festivals has become the stuff of–well, if not of legend, then over-hyped fodder for gossip sites and their related television shows. These “swag bags” often contain things like  vacations, certificates for plastic surgery (booty lift, anyone?), jewelry, designer duds, catering, gaming systems, computers, booze, beauty products, therapy consultation, car leasing, protein bars, and much, much more.

If you’ve been to a book festival or conference, you know that attendees sadly must settle for less.

Back in the 00’s, a fan might pick up the occasional button, keychain, or bookmark. (Much to author Bill Cameron’s puzzlement, I still have a button with his LOST DOG (2008?) cover, and put it on my Christmas tree every year.) Now, it seems that the majority of authors attending conferences are giving at least a little something away with their name, website, and book cover to potential fans. When the number of authors at a conference can run well into the hundreds, you’re talking about a lot of stuff.

Over the years I’ve given away bookmarks, laminated magnets, flower seed packets, plain magnets, chip clips, lots of candy (not branded), postcards, and did I mention bookmarks? Those were all paid for directly out of my pocket. For THE STRANGER INSIDE, Mulholland Books created some kick ass keychains to give away at a Little Brown event at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. I snapped up the five or six left on abandoned tables after the event. (Never leave your swag behind!) I never could’ve afforded to sponsor such a high-value bit of swag myself, so I was very, very grateful.

As I’ve just returned from Left Coast Crime 2019, Whale of a Crime, in Vancouver, BC, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the immense amount of swag I saw there. No, I didn’t ask any of these authors if I could post photos, as the items are–I assume–meant to advertise their books. But I did take the photos, and they itched to be shared. If you’re promoting your own work already, or someday will be, I hope they’ll be useful to you. Pics are in no particular order.

KEYCHAIN: This was one of my favorite bits of swag. Janice Peacock/To Bead or Not to Bead. The cover is charming and colorful, and a keychain is one of those items that’s going to hang around a long time. Unfortunately, no website address.  $$$

CARD LIST: I wasn’t sure what to call this, so “card list” it is. I had to read the list and the headline a couple of times before I understood that it was just for fun. Used online, this would make a cute Facebook or Pinterest image. As clever as it is, I would’ve liked to have seen at least one of the book covers as well. I went to Becky Clark’s “Books” page to see that Mystery Writer’s Mysteries is a collection of books featuring mystery authors. When I first saw the card I thought it was maybe a group of authors who wrote them. Bonus points for eye-catching colors, website addy, and stand-out size. $

RECIPE CARD: How lovely is this?! Coincidentally I have been wanting to make scones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any identifying information–as though it’s at the wrong conference. I assume there’s book and author information, and perhaps a book cover on the reverse side. As you can see in the photo, the stack is similarly placed. NOTE: The swag table is a crowded place–you can’t expect a browser to turn every thing over to see what’s on the back. Be sure you have book and author information on BOTH SIDES.

Four-color printed, large card: $$


WINE STOPPER: Unique at the conference. Good author name presence, especially with the added bookmark. Alec Peche/Damian Green Series. Visited her website to see if the books were wine related. They don’t appear to be, but lots of people drink wine like they use keychains, bookmarks, etc. $$$

DRINKS COASTER: On theme, useful, and good information. Could use a website address. These went quickly. Leslie Karst/Sally Solari Mysteries $$$

SURGICAL MASK: Another unique item–meaning no one else brought them. I found this both charming and a little alarming. At first I thought maybe the books were Michael Crichton-type horror books, but they’re hospital mysteries. I breathed a sigh of relief! Card attached to the mask with good information. Again, these went fast. (There was no shortage of folks wearing surgical masks on the streets of Vancouver!) Very on-theme. Liz Osborne/Robyn Kelly Mysteries $$$

PRINTED SHORT STORY: Content! Smart offering. Eye-catching and large. (Large might be a drawback, as attendees take home many books and might not have much room for more.) Good to mention it’s a story in a series universe. No website address? D.R. Ransdell/MARIACHI MEDDLER $$

PAPERBACK BOOK: Not sure if this paperback was meant to be a giveaway, or if it’s related to the black pens in front of it. I didn’t see any other copies. Very cool cover. Henebury/SLEEP $$$$

Publishers often give away paperback ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) at conferences. It’s a pricey option, but there’s nothing better than getting an actual book, IMO.

PEN/CARDS: I liked this combo a lot. The pens were adorable, and had the book series name and website (as I recall). The cards offered every other bit of info you could want. Plus an author pic. If there hadn’t been colorful pens, I think I’d have wanted to see a book cover. Also, a rabbi writing about a rabbi is a fascinating combo. Rabbi Ilene Schneider/RABBI AVIVA COHEN Mysteries $$$$

When you have multiple items, there’s a chance they’ll get separated. (Note Alec Peche’s useful box above) And you’ll notice that the pens went way faster than the cards. So the pens need maximum info.


CONFERENCE CARD (large): It’s not just authors who promote. There were quite a few offerings from workshops and retreats. IDK if there’s info on the back, but there’s no website on the front. Again…Everything should be obvious and immediate. Colorful and eye-catching. $$

STICKY NOTES: Colorful, useful, informative. These sticky notes are a great giveaway. The author’s name and website is right there, along with the name of the series. Sticky notes can hang around a desk a long time. Pricey. $$$$

STANDING POSTER: See what I mean about things getting covered up? I had to rearrange things to get the full poster shot. It’s smart that she made it so large that it could tower over the stuff people put in front of it. Real estate is precious. I don’t know if there were copies of a short story to go along with the poster, but wouldn’t you think so? The cat kills me! Bonus points for excellent design. Website addy? Denise Dietz/Annie and The Grateful Dead.  $$ for just the poster, $$$ if story copies were included.

TWOFER, though it doesn’t look like it

MAGNETS: Magnets used to be super expensive. They involved sealing an image and putting a magnetic back on it. Now they can print on long strips of magnet.

This is my moment of shame: Great cover for THE STRANGER INSIDE, yes? Magnets hang around a long time on refrigerators or on metal filing cabinets, etc. Note the bits of white on the edges of my magnet. When the magnets were cut from sheets, they didn’t cut cleanly, and some of the black edge was exposed as white. Ugh. Also, this last magnet shows fingerprints. No website addy. $$

Note: You can’t tell the difference between the magnet and the four-color cards surrounding it. That’s a problem. Unless someone picks it up, they’ll never know what it is. Magnets are great to hand out directly, say at book festivals and signings. But they’re useless flat on a table. I did do bookmarks as well, though. They have all the info.

CARDS: The number of beautifully produced cards was astonishing. Michael W. Sherer’s were particularly high quality and had great variety. Useful if information is on the back. Book covers are striking. If they’re striking enough, people may be moved to pick them up to investigate. They also have a collectible quality about them, and make good bookmarks.

BOOK COVERS: Colorful, all the information about the author, and the book. Author Libby Klein had several versions of these. They seem to be bigger than postcard size. Maybe they are actual book covers? Interesting souvenir. $$$

FREE PROMO CARD: Deborah Coonts/AFTER ME. Striking size and design. Lots of good information, including cover, synopsis, blurb, and download code. No website addy? (I didn’t look at the back).  $$ or maybe $$$ including the download.

I did a free download of a short story on a bookmark for my sixth book. I didn’t have all that many downloads, but it is a clever gimmick and a great freebie. The idea that you have to type in the address and can’t just click on the picture is still funny to me.


BOOKMARKS: Bookmarks are the go-to swag for the thrifty author. They’re useful, colorful, have the book’s cover, and room front and back for lots of critical information. I also include blurbs, the pitch line, and website address. $

MATCHES: This was a first for me. I believe they are simply the cover, and matches. Talk about on-theme! Very cool. $$$

BUMPER STICKER: I didn’t know SNOPES was at the conference…Interesting concept, though I’ve never seen a book bumper sticker. Ever. Not even on that weird car that’s so covered with bumper stickers that you can’t see the color of the car anymore. $$$

PENS: Pens are stupidly expensive. I love them, but am very wary of poor quality. They also have limited room for your info. Book or series title and website seem to be the most common/useful. $$$$

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. Authors are very creative when it comes to promo.

Final thoughts. Look at that table! IMO the conference could have used a second swag table. This one was like a tiny, violent sea, with flotsam and jetsam constantly bobbing and bumping on its surface. It became a kind of game to see how my own magnets would appear and disappear, or pop up in different places when I dropped by. I was stunned when the big box of matches appeared, sitting on a dozen other offerings.

Keep in mind:

Swag costs money. Spend wisely.

Your stuff is going to get covered up by other stuff. Keep an eye on it.

Don’t be a jerk and cover up other writers’ stuff.

Don’t put out magnets unless you don’t mind spending the money to have people not pick them up because they don’t know what they are.

Don’t be hurt if you have swag left over. Take it home for the next event or to your library.


Include your website.

Buy the highest quality swag you can afford. But don’t go into debt for it. Who knows what the return is?

If you stick a couple dozen in your badge pocket, you can give your bookmark/magnet/card to everyone you meet.

Have fun with it!

Okay, TKZers. Have at it. What’s your swag experience? Are you fer it, or agin it? What’s your favorite swag? Has swag ever led you to buy a book?