Writers’ conferences open several valuable opportunities to authors — the chance to learn from peers, to buy books, to network with other writers, to stumble upon new potential markets, etc. But before you sign up for every conference in a 150-mile radius, consider your goals and the conference’s agenda. Even a free conference might not be worth what you paid to attend it.

Suggestions:

  1. Have a point for going. Just because a conference pops up doesn’t mean you should attend. If you really require guidance about self-editing, for example, a series of panels about writing motivation may not be core to your current needs. Especially for events with several simultaneous sessions, attacking the agenda with a personal content strategy will help you focus session attendance based on your goals.
  2. Carefully fit your current level of expertise against the base expertise of the speakers. It’s frustrating to go to a conference, only to realize at the end that all the material you encountered was just a rehash of what you already understood. Likewise, it’s demoralizing to attend sessions with content that’s over your head. Read the agenda. If a conference is primarily about pitching an agent, for example, and you’ve never finished a novel, you aren’t probably ready to search for agents — and when you ask very basic questions about manuscript prep, you’ll detract from other attendees who don’t want to belabor what, to them, might already be obvious. It’s not always clear based on short paragraphs in marketing material, just what kind of info you’ll encounter — but it’s worth asking in advance. Your time, after all, is precious, and most conference organizers are happy to answer questions by email before the event.
  3. Research the speakers/panelists. You’ll learn a lot about the skills and expertise of the on-stage talent by checking their bios. For example, a panel about great poetry, staffed by people with no substantial published poetry, should be a warning sign. Likewise, a panel staffed by publishers will feel very different from a panel staffed by writers, or by editors, or by agents. Not every skillset or genre in the publishing industry is equally adept at helping you meet your goals for attending the conference.
  4. Take copious notes. Panels are like a box of chocolates: Some of them are larded with yucky coconut, but others are sweet, tasty dark-chocolate truffles. When you stumble across a truffle, you’ll kick yourself later if you neglected to bring a notepad or a tablet to record great take-aways. (And you’ll wish you had something to doodle on when the coconut people bore you to sleep.)
  5. Network. Even panels filled with Nobel-winning writers aren’t nearly as valuable to you as the benefits you’ll get by meeting your peers. Join writing groups. Join critique or review circles. Discuss the tools of the trade. Indulge in serendipitous small-group conversations. Sitting by yourself in the room, without making introductions, deprives you of a core benefit of attending. If you don’t want to network, then skip the conference and read a blog about writing!
  6. Buy books. When a conference includes authors or small presses, consider opening your wallet to buy their material — and it’s fair to ask for inscriptions, especially when those authors or editors or publishers are the speakers you find so engaging. Preparing to speak at a conference requires a lot of time for research, preparation and practice; keep those presenters in the speaking circuit by supporting their work. After all, when you publish your novel, don’t you want others to buy it? Karma is a wonderful thing.
  7. Come prepared with your own advocacy materials. If you have a manuscript to shop and you stumble across a friendly publisher or agent, it’s better to present a one-pager with a short passage and a synopsis and a brief author bio than to stammer incoherently about your idea or to offer a smooth elevator pitch that omitted one really important detail. And consider investing in author-branded business cards; if you have to write your contact info on a scrap of paper, then odds are good that said scrap will end up in the trash instead of in the recipient’s contact list. Attendees who present as professional writers will command more respect than attendees who present as literary tourists.
  8. Don’t mob the speakers. In general, speakers enjoy talking to attendees. But sometimes a speaker needs to prep for the next panel or take a bio break or wolf down a burger. Consider timing your approach to a period of extended downtime, to maximize your face-to-face engagement. No two speakers are the same, but many signs of body language are universal. So when a person looks away repeatedly, or keeps walking, or is obviously trying to do five things simultaneously, a brief introduction with a request to follow-up later might be a better strategy than following a speaker to the bathroom (which, alas, happens).
  9. Keep hypothetical pitches in reserve. Although many publishers and agents will likely smile and nod, we generally don’t accept theoretical submissions on the spot. It may be fair to ask a publisher or agent or editor if he accepts sci-fi or poetry or Steampunk romance, but it’s not helpful to take 5 minutes to offer an oral plot synopsis first, especially when other people want to talk to the same person. In general, you’ll be asked to read the published editorial guidelines and follow established submission procedures. So simple clarifying questions are usually welcome, but describing your not-yet-written children’s book in detail usually doesn’t work to your advantage.
  10. Ask on-point questions during a session. You’re there to get value, so get value. Although some conferences feature the same three or four people who ask 80 percent of the questions, if those questions are good, then be one of those people and fire away. The only caveat: Avoid asking a question that changes a panel’s subject. If the discussants are explaining ways to tighten an opening paragraph, asking questions like “How do I stay motivated to write when I get distracted by cats” isn’t really germane at that point in the panel. Questions that might be legitimate, but not relevant, are usually better reserved for the concluding Q&A or for one-on-one debriefs with panelists after the fact — or as a ready-made icebreaker to meet new friends among your fellow attendees.
  11. Take feedback forms seriously. Accumulated feedback forms give the speakers a sense on how well they did. An honest rating, coupled with pithy but targeted comments, are a goldmine to a speaker (especially new entrants to the speaking circuit). The best feedback addresses points the presenter did well, or poorly, and are presented constructively and without inserting too much personal opinion. For example, “Consider using a mic next time so the folks in the back can hear” is more actionable than “Couldn’t understand the speaker.” (Why couldn’t you understand?)
  12. Enjoy yourself. Ask any veteran conference presenter about audiences and you’ll likely hear that many attendees seem so intent on wringing every last nanosecond of education from a conference that they somehow forget to have fun. Relax. Ask questions. Laugh. Meet new people. Conferences can be serious business, but they’re also a time to sharpen your saw. Have fun while you do it.

If you show up with a spirit of inquiry, you’ll likely find value all over the place. If you prefer to have universal, step-by-step answers delivered, you might be disappointed; even craft-oriented conferences emphasize general best practices instead of specific, universal procedures. Keeping a sense of curiosity is crucial. Most conferences are not a good place to seek blanket self-affirmation. Prepare to have your biases challenged and your expectations flipped upside-down. If you welcome such paradigm shifts, even ho-hum conferences will provide a great learning experience.

If you’ve never attended a conference, try it. At least once. You’ll be glad you did.

Writers’ Conferences: 12 Tips for Success as an Attendee
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