Monday, September 30, 2013

Making the Most of A Writer’s Conference

I was asked by one of my favorite writers for some advice recently. This writer (we’ll call him “Chris” because that’s his name) is gearing up for his first professional conference (which we’ll call “Crossroads” because . . . you know) and he wanted some tips on how to make the most of it. 

I’m a good person to ask. I’ve been attending writer’s conference for twenty years now, and I’ve made every mistake there is. Plus, I am proud to say, I invented a few. So here you go, Chris — enjoy my various missteps, oopsies, and oh-no-I-didn’t moments. Learn from them, grasshopper.

1. Don’t hit the guests of honor. 

I must confess — I have deep fangirl tendencies. When I meet someone whose work I admire, I tend to stammer, bumble, and knock plants over. Recently, I found myself sharing a bus stop with Margaret Maron (who was inducted this year as a Mystery Writers of America grandmaster). When she introduced herself, I actually smacked her on the bicep and said, “Oh no, you’re not! Get out of here!”

Lesson— you’ll meet enormously talented people, some of them your idols and inspirations. They’re writers just like you. People just like you. Don’t worry about making an impression — enjoy the interaction. And keep the right hook to yourself.

2. Don’t hide. 

Writing is a career for introverts. As I tell people, I got into this gig because I like to kill imaginary people while still wearing my pajamas. But when I go out into the world — as all writers must — I muster up whatever measure of extrovertism I can and make the best of it.

Lesson — the literary action is not in your hotel room. If it is, you’re not at the right kind of conference. Or either you have become the conference. Be able to tell the difference. 

3. But don’t wear yourself out either. 

Conferences are often back-to-back panels, receptions, interviews, dinners, and other meet-and-greets. If you’re exhausted, you’ll be overwhelmed with the information/names/choices coming your way, and you won’t be make those crucial unplanned connections that are the sweetmeat of conferences.

Lesson — pace and plan. Get the schedule. Map out your choices. Leave yourself room for some downtime. And eat as healthfully as you can. Get some fiber in you.

4. Don’t chase unicorns.

I don’t mean real unicorns (because if you see a real unicorn, OF COURSE YOU CHASE IT). I’m talking about the one person/one encounter/one class that you’re willing to sacrifice everything else for and that you’ll beat yourself up about for months if you miss. Unicorn chases are a waste of time, energy and — most importantly — they are the opposite of magic.

Lesson — Catch the flow of a conference. Be open to the surprises that come your way. There will always be nuggets of serendipitous goodness around every corner. 

5. Don’t drink every drink that some famous person wants to buy you. But DO say yes to one or two.

Apparently I have this knack for being at the bar when the ultra-titanium cards come out. And while the drinks have been excellent — especially the chocolate martini from C.J. Lyons — the most valuable part of the experience was the chance to sit at someone’s elbow and soak up the publishing and writing talk.

Lesson — some of the best conference moments happen during the downtimes. And whether you like bourbon on the rocks or club soda with a twist of lime, if one of your idols offers to set you up, resist the impulse to stammer and feel all indebted. It will be your turn one day.

And here’s the etcetera. Take business cards to share. Collect cards too. Follow-up with e-mails to say “it was great to meet you!” Talk to the people sitting to your right and left and in the elevator and at the buffet line. Watch. Listen. Ask “So what do you write?” Have a succinct practiced answer to that question when other people ask it of you. Published or pre-published or anywhere in between, you’re a writer —own it.

You’ll be great, Chris. Or whatever your name is.


  1. The slap in the elbow thing was hilarious. I don't feel so bad now about my own goof-ups.

  2. This is amazing advice. Thank you so much Tina! This conference is going to be great and I can't wait. And I'm glad to hear writing is for introverts, because for a while I was getting worried.

    I mean, that is, you know, great advice for this Chris person you speak of. Whoever he is.