Friday, April 29, 2011

Some Conference Tips from a Social Dweeb

So, it's conference season in the publishing world and now that I've attended a handful of writers' conferences, I thought I'd share what I learned.  Now there are plenty of blogs and interviews from agents and other publishing peeps with advice on conferences.  Except for some great tips about how to pitch, most of the advice out there comes down to this: Don't be crazy.

Now chances are, if you're reading blogs looking for advice about attending a conference, then you probably aren't the type to pitch in the bathroom or get irate at rejection.

But I've learned there are so many more subtle ways you can screw up at a conference.  So here's some of my mistakes and what I've learned.

Start Early
  • It's intimidating to attend an event in different city with people you don't know, and all that possibility and potential hanging in the air.  And if you're like me, you might like to take a moment, or a day, to sit back, observe, and figure out how these things work before plunging in.  This is a mistake.  Don't wait until the closing cocktail party to pitch that agent or talk to that author. 
  • At the last conference I attended, most of the agents came to the first hour of the closing cocktail party and then left.  People have planes to catch and if no one is pitching them in the first hour, they figure they might as well go drink and talk amongst themselves somewhere where there's not a bunch of drooling writers staring at them from across the room.
  • So, if you see that agent you're dying to pitch hanging out by the coffee the first morning of the conference, go pitch him/her! Everyon waits until the last event of the conference to gather their courage, but then you'll have to fight off the other vultures or you'll be disappointed when the agent has to take off to catch a plane, or go get a tattoo, or whatever.

  • Ha!  How I wish I could tell you how to do this well.  I'm terribly awkward person with this huge, looming fear of social rejection following me wherever I go.  I'm timid and shy at first but once someone actually makes eye contact with me and starts talking, then something kicks over in my brain and I can't be stopped.  Once I realize I won't be rejected, I just talk and talk, getting louder and louder, making weird noises, flailing my hands about and knocking things over.  It's awful.  But I do it anyways.  Force yourself to talk to people.
  • The same start early advice applies here.  As soon as you have the name badge around your neck, start introducing yourself.  don't know what to say?  Here are the basics:
    • "Where are you from?"
    • "What do you write?"
    • "How's your conference going?"
    • "Which panel did you/are you going to attend?"
  • Found yourself awkward and alone? Go stand by the food or coffee, people will come to you!  Then hit them with one of the abover lines.
  • Also, don't be clingy.  Once you've broken the ice with that first person, don't follow her around all day.  Branch out and keep mingling.
  • Exchange contact info and follow through, it's easy to shoot someone an email or follow thier blog or twitter and say, "It was great to meet you at the conference."
Talk to the Published Authors
  • If you've read an author's work and loved it, tell her.  I've made the mistake of trying to give authors meaningful looks at signings, hoping they'll remember me.  Or I think, "Why should I say I loved their book?  They must hear that all the time, if I can't be original, then I won't say anything at all."  Stupid!
  • Also, it's ok to talk to an author if you haven't read their book.  I still quite haven't learned this one.  At my last conference, an author stood behind me in line at a signing and we just stood there in silence, awkward.  If we were at the grocery store, I would've talked to him, but I felt ashamed or embarrassed that I hadn't read his book.
Pick your Panels Wisely
  • I know you're probably attending conferences in hopes of getting an agent.  But there's also tons of other opportunities for learning and meeting other writers.  Don't attend a panel simply because the agent of your dreams is on it.  Giving strong looks from the audience will not make them offer representation, I promise.  And a lot of the time, the agent panels are usually about how to get an agent or trends.  Both of which agents usually don't like talking about and both of which you can learn an ENORMOUS amount from this thing called the internet.  Don't get stuck in a How to Query panel with the blue-haired lady asking, "What's a query?" and "Don't you just love rhetorical questions?"  You'll smack yourself in the head, wanting to scream, "HOW CAN YOU SPEND $300 ON A CONFERENCE BUT HAVE NEVER READ NATHAN BRANSFORD"S BLOG??!!"  Ahem.  In other words, try to attend panels where you'll learn something you can't find bu googling it.
So, I'm incredibly awkward and have made lots of mistakes, but I've managed to attend a few conferences without being blacklisted from publishing.  I've learned tons and met lots of great people.  If you're a social dweeb like me and the only thing holding you back from going to a conference is fear of going alone, then I say, forget fear, and go for it!  Be awkward with other writers!


  1. Hi Alyson, great post. I've never summoned up the courage to attend a conference. I'm socially awkward initially, and it takes great effort to remember how to speak. Once I get started,I tend to do the flailing of the hands and spilling of the coffee (generally on myself)too:)

    I think just knowing that others attendees are possibly going through the same wild range of emotions I am, would be an initive to step out of my corner by the scones and socialize.

    Anyway, I've rambled enough. Thank you for the wonderful advice. I hope to someday get the courage to use it.

  2. Angie- Writing is such a solitary endeavor that I think lots of writers are lack social courage. Don't let fear of social awkwardness hold yo back from attending a conference. It can be totally intimidating, but it's so worth it.

    I've found admitting your awkward feelings can be a great ice breaker. I've gone up to people and said, "So, hey, I know we're supposed to mingle and stuff, but this is weird and I'm really bad at this."

  3. Finally getting caught up on your blog! Thanks for the great advice. Hopefully, I will make it to a conference one of these days :)