Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Conference Tips

Well, I got half of chapter one written, but I think I've found my groove, and I found myself daydreaming the next few scenes, which is good. But since I had my dance class last night, I didn't have the extra writing time, and I pretty much got home, hit the shower and collapsed (though the class was tons of fun).

Now, since it's writing post time, and since there seem to be a lot of writing conferences and various fan-oriented conventions with writing components coming up in the next few months, I thought I'd offer my handy-dandy guide to making a positive impression at a conference. This may be old news to any veterans out there, so you can just take a nap or tell the newbies you know to come check this out. Then again, a little reminder doesn't hurt.

In no particular order:
1) Make sure you have a sense of what the event is primarily about and what's expected or acceptable behavior there.
A writing conference tends to be more professionally oriented, with the assumption that everyone attending has some hope of writing professionally or being published, so it works more like a business meeting (though there may be some fannish-type events, like a booksigning). Fan-oriented conventions may have events geared toward writing as a craft or publishing as a business, but that's mixed among more events that are just for fun. Therefore, if you're at a writing conference, even if your favorite author of vampire books is the keynote speaker, you probably don't want to wear your fangs and cape, while costumes aren't entirely out of place at a fan convention (though I would suggest that if you're trying to make professional contacts in the publishing world, you might want to leave your Klingon outfit or Stormtrooper uniform for just the masquerade or other costume events and not wear it to editor panels).

2) Prepare an elevator pitch about yourself, your work in general or a particular book you want to promote -- about 30 seconds worth of the key selling points.
The "elevator pitch" gets its name from the idea that if you found yourself riding an elevator with someone you really wanted to reach, you'd need something to say in the amount of time it takes to go to the next floor to get that person to want to know more. You will be surprised at how often during a conference you'll use this elevator pitch. Especially at a writing conference, the first question asked when you meet someone is, "What do you write?" You need to be prepared to answer, but keep it short because 30 seconds of full attention is about all you can expect of someone who has only just met you and who is in a pretty busy and chaotic environment. Don't waste the 30 seconds hemming and hawing and mumbling, but don't waste the opportunity by starting with the epic backstory of your main character before getting to the main gist of the plot five minutes later after your audience has lost interest and gone into a coma. Think TV Guide listing -- just one or two sentences. If the person you're talking to is interested, they'll ask questions, and then you can have a conversation.

3) Have some business cards -- your name, e-mail and web site or blog address, possibly the name of your book.
That makes it easier to swap contact info, and you don't have to worry about people reading your handwriting (or their own) later. You can get these printed pretty cheaply. Be careful about the ones you print yourself on your laser printer. Laser printer ink tends to react with plastic and rub off, so if someone sticks a card in a plastic card case, it may become unreadable.

4) When you get a business card from someone, as soon as possible after the encounter, write a note to yourself about the context in which you met the person on the back.
This will be very helpful when you get an e-mail and don't recognize the name, or when you see something about that person and want to make contact. You will look brilliant if you can then refer to the conversation you had in the lobby bar, or whatever. You may think you'll remember it, but it's amazing how those memories slip away once you're home.

5) Remember that editors, agents and published authors are human beings, too, and they have lives beyond the publishing world.
This ties in to the Golden Rule of Networking: focus on what you can do for the other person rather than on what they can do for you. You're probably not going to have a productive encounter with someone if your entire focus is on getting them to read your manuscript. It may not seem like there's much an aspiring author can do for an editor, agent or big-name author, but just trying to think in those terms instead of having tunnel vision about what they can do for you will change your attitude and approach. It may be that what you can offer is allowing them to have a conversation where they can feel like a human being after they've been bombarded by people who only see them as manuscript-reading machines. Other things you could do: offer to take their picture with their client/author/editor; if they don't have a camera, offer to take one with yours and send it to them; help carry things to set up a workshop; bring water during a booksigning; show up for a panel discussion or workshop (especially if the room is fairly empty). You get the idea. Any of these will make you more memorable in a positive way than if you stalk them while trying to tell them every detail about your book. And do I even have to say no stalking? It's better to have one positive encounter than to make a pest of yourself.

6) Don't overschedule yourself. Leave room for spontaneity.
The first few conferences I went to, I was so determined to make the most of my investment that I very carefully went through the program book and picked what I thought would be the very best workshop or panel in each session, and I made sure I went to something in each session. I've since learned that I sometimes get far more out of those conversations that happen in the bar, the lobby or the con suite than I get out of formal sessions. Besides, the brain needs a break, and giving yourself some breathing space will make it easier to absorb information. On a related note, try going to at least one session that you think will be utterly useless for your career. I try to do that at every conference, and it usually ends up being the most useful session I go to because it makes me look at things from an entirely different angle.

7) This conference or convention is not critical to the future of your career.
Networking is good, and it can be helpful to meet an editor or agent in person before submitting, but you can sell without those personal contacts. The personal contact may move you up in the slush pile for a faster read or may get you a personalized letter if you get rejected, but it's still all about the book. If they wouldn't have bought the book without the personal contact, they're not going to buy it after meeting you. If they buy it, they probably would have bought it without meeting you. I'd done tons of networking and seemed to know half the publishing world, but I'd never met the agent I ended up signing with or the editor who bought my books. It is possible, however, to break your career through your behavior at a conference or convention if you demonstrate that you're likely to be a nightmare by being rude or pushy in an unpleasant way. My general convention behavior rule is to not say anything about another author, a book, an editor or agent that I wouldn't say to that person's face, or to the face of someone associated with the book or person. You never know who's listening.

If you've got an editor or agent appointment, you can find my advice on pitching in person here.

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