Conference Dos and Don’ts

The Emerald City Writers’ Conference starts today, and for the past few weeks questions have been flying on the Yahoo loop about workshops, what to bring, and what to do.

I’m by no means an expert, having only attended a couple of conferences, but I’ve learned a few things.

Wear comfortable shoes. Honestly, I don’t follow this rule. I wear heels all day at work, and since I never buy a pair I can’t reasonably walk in, I call that comfortable. But have a pair of flats in your car to change into, should your feet start screaming in protest.

Bring business cards. Your business card should have your name and email address on it, as well as what genre you write, minimum. Mine has my phone number and my website, as well. Some people have double-sided cards. Others have their mailing addresses on them. It’d be nice if your card somehow matched up with what you write, but it’s not necessary. Someone give  you one of theirs? Jot down on the back of the card how you met them and a few things to help you remember why you have their card.

What else to bring? A water bottle, snacks, an extra pen (or four), a notebook, any worksheets that were available ahead of time for workshops you might want to attend. If you’re staying overnight, make sure you’ve got chargers for all your devices (laptop, phone, ereader, etc), in addition to your extra clothes.

Speaking of clothes… Some conferences are business casual dress. Others are not. In the end, what you’re comfortable in is what you should wear. On the last day of Write on the Sound two years ago, I wore sweats and no makeup. But at RWA this summer and ECWC last year, I was running around in clothes I’d wear to the day job. Rule of thumb? If you’re attending a conference where there are agents and editors you’re hoping to speak with, wear something you’d wear to an interview. Clothes often are your first impression. Choose wisely.

Speak up! Sit next to someone you don’t know at your next meal. Take advantage of outside excursions as a way to get to know other conference attendees. When someone told me at ECWC last year that if you wanted to meet people at RWA, you drank, I thought she was kidding. We’re grown ups. We don’t need to act like we’re at a frat party. She wasn’t kidding. The bar was full every night, and usually around happy hour, too. I hung out with some of my chapter mates each evening and spent an hour chatting with Jennifer Armentrout’s assistant just because I was standing next to her. It was pretty awesome.

But I’m tired! That said, I’m an introvert. All that conversating was exhausting. So when I reached my limit, I headed back to my room for a break – to read, to write, to watch a movie. At ECWC last year, I didn’t have a room, so I sat in the lounge and slid my headphones on. Yeah, it was a little rude, ignoring everyone else, but I figured I was saving them for even worse rudeness when I started snapping at them because I was cranky. So don’t be afraid to slip away for some “me time” if you need to recharge.

Agents and editors – they’re just like us! Last year, I arrived at ECWC about an hour before workshops started, so I headed to the lounge. I ended up making small talk with a woman, who told me her cat had grabbed her glasses off her nightstand and dragged them into the litter box. Turns out it was Carrie Jackson, editor with Ellora’s Cave, and I was scheduled to pitch to her the next morning. Pitching can be nerve wracking; the trick is to remember these people are human, too. They’ve got kids and plumbing emergencies and like to dye their hair fun colors (like Melissa Singer of Tor Books, who was sporting pink hair last year). Run into one outside of the pitch appointment? Don’t pitch your book unless they ask you about what you’re writing. Talk to them like you would any other conference attendee.

Confirm, confirm, confirm. Any conference worth its salt will send you a confirmation for anything you sign up for. You should have a confirmation for your registration. A confirmation for your hotel room. Presenting a workshop? Someone should have been in touch with you to let you know when you’re presenting and where, and to ask if you have an A/V needs. Signing at a bookfair? Most forms should send you an automated reply with a copy of the form you completed. Volunteering? The coordinator should get in touch to let you know when you’re needed and where. If none of these happen, there’s a good chance something’s wrong. DO NOT wait until days before the conference to find out what you need to do. Yes, authors tend to live in a bubble, surrounded by words and deadlines and revisions. But if you’re the forgetful type, set yourself a reminder and don’t ignore it. These things are often planned months, if not an entire year, in advance. If it’s a few weeks before the conference and you realize you haven’t heard about something you think you’re supposed to do, contact the conference chair. We (and I speak from experience here) will try to accommodate you if we can. We love it if you’re nice about it. And please understand that if nothing can be done, it’s simply because it’s too last minute.

Google Maps is your friend. Staying overnight often means having to find your own breakfast in the morning, and on a Sunday, that can be a challenge. Take a walk around the block and see what you can find. Chances are there’s a Starbucks nearby that opens at the same ungodly hour you have to get up at to make it to your workshop.

Check out the venue. Do they have parking? Is it free? What are the height restrictions? Is there a bus stop nearby? Are there other attendees who live near you that are willing to carpool? For RWA, someone posted instructions on how to take the MARTA (Atlanta’s light rail system) from the airport to the hotel. The directions were confusing as hell, so we found a security guard to help us get out of the light rail station. Which brings me to my last point…

Ask questions. You’ll never know the answer unless you ask the question. No question is too stupid! So ask away!

Other resources. Karina Cooper wrote this fantastic post about harassment at conferences. While I’ve never seen it happen, it is a possibility. She tells you what you can do about it. Need help figuring out what to pack? Jami Gold made up a packing list when she was attending RWA a few years ago.

Conferences are fun. They’re a fabulous way to meet other writers – it’s how I met two of my CPs! They range from small (like WOTS) to large (RWA National) and everything in between. There’s general conferences (Surrey International) and specialized ones (ThrillerFest). They even have cons for readers (Authors After Dark, RT Booklovers Convention). And that excuse you’ve been using, about how your writing isn’t ready for a conference? I call bullshit. A lot of these are about learning. Why on earth would you deprive yourself of an excellent learning opportunity?


One thought on “Conference Dos and Don’ts

  1. Thanks for linking to my post! Love that story about the editor and the cat. 🙂

    A similar thing happened to me at our regional conference a couple of years back. A woman asked if she could sit with us in the lounge (it was crowded) and we had a great conversation about Arizona (she’d never seen a cactus before). She turned out to be a Big 5 editor. They’re just people. 🙂

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