Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Conference Tips

Still not done with the book, but closing in on the ending. I can't add more than 2,000 words, though there are a lot of existing words that will likely be replaced. I hesitate to say I'll finish today because that will just mean that at the end of the day, I'll still have about 2,000 words to go. I just have a couple of big scenes to write.

The Romance Writers of America National Conference is next week, and summer is also a prime time for writing conferences, so I thought I'd share some tips for how not to sabotage yourself when you're attending a conference and how to make the most of your conference experience.

1) Remember the first rule of networking: Focus on what you can do for the other person instead of on what they can do for you.
If you approach someone with a vibe of expecting to get something, you'll probably turn them off. This applies to published authors, editors, agents or anyone else you think may be helpful in your career. As an aspiring author, you may not think you have anything to offer these people, but if you think about it, you can probably find something, and just thinking in those terms takes you away from the "do something for me!" impression. You could bring water to panelists, stop and say hi (or even buy a book) at the booksigning or even just allow the person to have a fun conversation that has nothing to do with "I've written this book about ..." At the very least, when approaching someone with the thought of getting them to do you a favor, have another conversation first. Don't just launch into "could you read and critique my manuscript/introduce me to your agent/give me a blurb, etc."

2) There is a time and a place for pitching. There are many, many more times and places where pitching is a bad idea.
Most writing conferences have formal pitch sessions available. It is okay to pitch your project then. Otherwise, don't, unless the editor or agent asks what you've written (which does often come up in conversation). When pitching, know when to shut up. Give a high-level, short description (think TV Guide episode description), then elaborate as the person asks questions. If they decide based on your pitch that it's not for them, don't push. You won't get them to change their mind because you say that everyone who's read it loved it or because you know it's a really, really good book (everyone thinks their book is really, really good). DO NOT EVER (never, ever, ever) take advantage of a captive audience to pitch your book. That includes bathrooms (and yes, that has happened).

3) Don't stalk, monopolize or interrupt.
At conferences and conventions, most authors are happy to talk with fans and aspiring authors. That does not mean they belong to you for the duration. There may be other people they want to talk to. They may want to conduct business with other writing professionals. When they do this, they are not necessarily being rude or snobbish and snubbing you. It's best not to approach an author to ask for advice or input when he or she is already engaged in a conversation. Once you do start talking to an author, be aware that he or she may need to end the conversation in order to stay on schedule. The author doesn't owe you anything other than common courtesy (and if the author has been helpful, it's nice to buy a book or go to the autograph session -- and if the book isn't your thing and you wouldn't be caught dead buying it, why do you want this person's advice?).

4) Remember that your personal behavior probably won't make your career, but it could break your career.
You're probably not going to get a book deal because you're cute and charming in person. You might get a faster read or get bumped out of the slush pile when you've met the editor or agent in person, but no matter how much they like you, that personal contact is not going to make them buy a book they wouldn't have bought if they hadn't met you. However, if you're a jerk in person, that can kill your career. Unless you're the most brilliant writer ever with a sure-fire bestseller, if editors or agents get the impression you'll be a real pain to deal with, they're probably going to avoid dealing with you. There are too many talented people out there to bother putting up with the jerks. So, while schmoozing at conferences and being charming may not put you that much further ahead than if you'd just submitted the normal way, being a demanding jerk in person can put you behind where you might have been if you'd submitted the normal way.

5) Keep questions pertinent to the workshop.
This is my number one conference pet peeve (aside from cell phones going off during sessions), and it takes a couple of forms. At every conference, there apparently has to be somebody who stalks editors and agents by going to all their workshop sessions, and then during the Q&A asks a question that's a thinly veiled pitch for her book, usually offered as a "hypothetical" example that's way too detailed (and consistent from session to session) to be off the top of her head. It's like she's just waiting for one of those editors, authors or agents to say, "Wow! That sounds like a great book! I must see it now!" and when they don't respond accordingly, she gets snippy ("but it's a really GOOD book, and all my friends said so"). Then there are the very basic "how do I get a book published?" questions that always seem to come up in what are supposed to be advanced-level workshops. When you've got a couple of big-name, bestselling authors talking about making the jump from midlist to bestseller, you're not helping yourself or anyone else in the room when your question is about whether you should use binder clips or rubber bands on your submission (here's a hint: that had nothing to do with these authors becoming bestsellers). At a big conference like RWA, there are usually beginner-level workshops or "ask me anything" sessions with authors. That's where you can ask the basic questions. Published authors get a lot of grief about elitism when they try to have published-only sessions, but that's a big reason. It's hard to have a serious session about issues specific to being published and building a career when there's someone in the group asking how to write a query letter.

6) This is not fifth grade.
I have school cafeteria flashbacks at any conference with a luncheon because of all the people who race into the room and save seats for all their friends, so that half the tables have all the chairs tilted forward (which the serving staff hates because it trips them). I realize that these conferences are a chance to catch up with friends you only see at conferences, but you're cheating yourself out of some excellent networking opportunities when you refuse to step outside your usual posse. My favorite thing to do with luncheons is wait until the line has gone down, and then find any empty seat. I often find myself sitting with an editor or agent who was also avoiding the stampede. That's also a great way to make new friends.

7) Also in the not fifth grade category, be careful about gossip and bitterness.
It's not just dangerous to gossip about people or make disparaging remarks about particular books while you're at a conference -- because Murphy's Law states that the editor, agent or best friend of the author in question will be within earshot -- it's also kind of rude to disparage entire types of books, whether it's a genre, e-books, "dead tree" books, etc., and you don't look smarter or more talented if you go on about how the publishing world only wants trite and stale stuff, so they can't possibly recognize your genius and innovation. The chip on the shoulder and bitterness that leads to the assumption that everyone who gets what you want has to be lesser than you is not too appealing. Also don't assume you're the big fish at the table and try to lord it over everyone else (because you'll inevitably find out that the quiet person on the other side of the table is a bestseller). Save the catty gossip session for your hotel room with your best buddy, and then keep your voices down and maybe turn on the TV because I have overheard some really good stuff from the room next door at conferences. My conference rule is to never say something that I wouldn't say to the face of the person I'm talking about, or someone who fits into the category I'm talking about.

8) Plan, pace yourself and allow for spontaneity.
I'm one of those people who likes to sit down with the program book and highlight the sessions I plan to go to as soon as I get to the conference (if I haven't already done so with the advance schedule). And then I just use that as a rough guide. I note the must-do sessions, and then otherwise I go with the flow. If I'm in a great conversation, I may skip the session and keep chatting. If something suddenly strikes me as interesting, I'll change plans. It never fails that one of the more useful sessions for me at any conference ends up being the one I went to on a whim that seemingly had nothing to do with my career. Sometimes, getting information from an unexpected source gives you a totally new perspective. On the other hand, if absolutely nothing on the schedule sounds interesting during a block of time, it's okay to skip it entirely and take a break. Hang out in the lobby and chat or go back to your room and rest or read. You'll be more likely to absorb more information later at other workshops or have more energy for the parties.

9) Remember that this conference will probably not make or break your career.
One of the reasons I've cut back on attending RWA national conferences is that the stress levels are so very high because there are a lot of people there who act like this conference is their one chance to get published, and if they don't have a good editor or agent appointment or don't make the right contacts, they're forever doomed. Just being in that atmosphere is utterly exhausting to me. I can certainly understand the feeling, though, because I was that way at my first conference, and I was already published. So, learn from my experience and relax and enjoy yourself. The best opportunities seem to come when you least expect them, and you'll be in a better position to take advantage of them if you're not so highly strung and not so focused on what you think you want that you miss something unexpected.

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