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Ten Ways to Make the Most of a Writers' Conference

No matter whether you're a first-time author or you've written several books, attending a writers' conference can do wonders for you, in several different ways. This bonus chapter discusses some of the main opportunities of attending a writers' conference. So read on and see how to not only just attend a writers' conference, but also to get your money's worth.

Picking the right conference

When figuring out which writers' conference to attend, you want to select the conference that fits you and what you want to accomplish. A recent web search yielded more than 150 writers' conferences where memoir writing was a part of the program.

Obviously you can't attend all those conferences. Each conference offers something different, so you want to do an online search and discover which conference is the best fit for you. Conferences cost money, so you want to research and select a conference or two that best meet your needs and your budget.

When researching conferences, you also want to consider the type of conference. For example, the Miami Book Fair has a lot of publisher booths and many readings, but far less in terms of craft talks. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference also has a huge book fair and lots of booths for publishers, but it has more nuts-and-bolts craft talks than a person could ever get to. Plus this conference has dozens and dozens of readings where you can hear high-profile people share their work and talk about it.

Registering early

When you select the conference you want to attend, make sure you register early. Nearly all writers' conferences give an early bird discount for those who register far in advance. Although saving an extra $20 or $50 by booking six months or more before the conference starts is great, the real reasons to register early are the following:

  • Get the conference on your schedule so you don't accidentally book something else during that same time.

  • Reserve your spot in a critique session (refer to "Signing up for critique sessions" later in this chapter) and other opportunities. Many of them are first-come, first-served.

  • Change your mentality about your seriousness as a writer. If you drop a few hundred bucks on registration for a writers' conference, you'll darn well sure show up and try to get a few hundred bucks' worth out of it!

  • Avoid missing a spot. Conferences can and do sell out, so procrastinators beware.

  • Allow conference staff to plan ahead. The sooner a conference sells out, the better the conference staff can prepare for the event to be a success in every possible way.

Don't allow the cost of attending a conference to prohibit you from attending. The takeaways and payoffs from attending one can be worth it ten times over. If money is really an issue, attend a one-day event that you can drive to versus an entire weekend one that requires hotel stays and flights. Start small if you need to, though as you get better at writing and your manuscript gets closer to being done, you may want to invest in a longer, more involved conference.

Creating a conference plan

Whether you're attending a one-day conference or a multiday affair, you want to have a good idea of what events and sessions you'll attend. Make the most of your time there by carefully going over the entire schedule a few weeks in advance. Come up with a game plan that doesn't have you running around like crazy but still keeps you at the most useful sessions as often as possible.

Although conference coordinators do their best to keep things from changing, sometimes there's a last minute cancellation or replacement. Check the schedule a few days before you leave just to ensure there are no surprises, and adjust your conference plan accordingly.

Part of your conference plan should be to figure out who all the speakers and workshop leaders are. Experienced conference-goers know that you never know who you'll bump into in an elevator or stand next to in line, so read up on those presenters beyond their conference packet bios. Use the library and Internet to do some sleuthing. For instance, if an award-winning author is giving a reading or moderating a panel discussion on narrative structure, take the time to read a short story or interview he's done.

What if you want to attend two sessions at the same time? Don't be afraid to sit in on half of a session, and then skip quietly out to the other one that's running at the same time. Sit in the very back and don't make a ruckus when leaving or coming in. And feel free to pop in on a session that's completely outside of your area. Inspiration can come from anywhere.

Signing up for critique sessions

The critique sessions at writers' conferences are rare opportunities for unpublished writers to have established publishing professionals look at and offer feedback on their manuscript. Hint: This critique is one of the best, easiest ways to take steps toward getting your memoir published, so take advantage of these sessions and listen to the publishing professionals.

They know how to take an almost-there manuscript and carefully show how to adjust it to better grab and maintain a reader's interest, thereby making it more salable. They know how to push language from the right words to the best words. Why would you ever listen to anyone else?

In a regular neighborhood writing critique group, you might send in something that needs a good amount of help. With a critique session at a writers' conference, though, make a great impression on that workshop leader and bring your best unpublished work. No matter how good your manuscript is, you won't stump the experts. And if your work's good enough, maybe you'll leave that conference with a bit more than some good revision advice.

Having your materials ready

Peyton Manning wouldn't show up at the stadium on a Sunday without his helmet, cleats, uniform, and playbook, right? Neither should you show up at your writers' conference without the proper equipment. So, what's the proper equipment for a writer hitting up a writers' conference? Here's a good list, whether you're a regular paying attendee or a paid speaker:

  • A strong backpack or book bag

  • Plenty of business cards

  • At least two good, easy-to-write-with pens

  • A pair of sharpened No. 2 pencils

  • A marker

  • A disposable roll of tape

  • A clean spiral notebook or legal pad

  • A two pocket folder

  • Breath mints

  • Tissues

  • Some adhesive bandages

  • An elevator pitch

    An elevator pitch is a memorized description of what your writing project is about. How long should it be? A sentence or two, or something just short enough to fully get through in the time it takes to share an elevator ride with someone, at most 30 seconds.

  • A synopsis of your memoir (one page max, printed)

  • A single sample chapter of your memoir (printed)

  • A proposal for your memoir (printed)

  • A bio (half page max, printed)

  • A list of questions you want to have answered

  • A short list of goals and expectations for yourself for this conference

You're welcome to bring more than this list to the conference, but you should think like a backpacker. A backpacker has to weigh everything and think about what is truly needed rather than what is a mere indulgence. Dragging around a ton of stuff up a mountain — or from room to room in a conference center — can get old fast. If your hotel room is nearby, go ahead and take the bare minimum; you can go back if you need something. Also remember that most conferences have swag, such as pens, water bottles, notepads, folders, and so on, so expect to get more stuff to carry around with you.

If you have don't have a complete manuscript, you're okay. Bring what you have and use the conference to get inspired. If you do have a complete manuscript, don't lug around a briefcase full of copies. Editors and literary agents don't want to haul around dozens of 300-page manuscripts while they're there. It's also not appropriate to shove your entire book into the hands of someone you just met (or worse, slide your book under the bathroom stall you just saw a keynote speaker enter). It's unprofessional. It's bad form. It's a mistake.

Even if you ignore this advice and manage to get some A-list editor to stick your manuscript in her bag, odds are that it will wind up in a trash can later or get purposely left behind in the hotel room when that editor checks out. If you totally hit it off with an editor and he asks for your complete manuscript, you can give him your proposal, one-chapter sample, and one-page bio on the spot. You can then promise to send the entire thing via e-mail by the time you return home.

Mingling and mingling some more

Unless you come with someone, you probably won't know many people at the conference. So get out and start shaking hands and kissing babies. Okay, maybe don't do that exactly, but certainly start introducing yourself and speaking with people you don't already know. Don't do the middle school dance thing where you huddle off in the corner with another awkward person or two, and the group of you hopes someone will come up and want to befriend you. If you don't make the first move, no one else will either.

If you're a little on the shy side or need some help interacting with writers, try asking the following:

  • What are you working on these days?

  • What's the best thing you've run across at this conference so far?

  • Is this your first writers' conference? If the person responds yes, you can follow up with "Why did you decide to attend this conference?" If the person responds no, you can ask, "So how does this conference compare to other ones you've attended?"

  • How far did you travel to come here?

  • What sessions are you most looking forward to hearing?

  • What's the best book you've read recently?

  • Who's your favorite author?

If it becomes clear that you're speaking to a published author, you may switch to questions more along these lines:

  • What do you now know that would've helped you most when you first started writing?

  • What was the publication process like for you?

  • What kind of formal training, if any, did you get in writing?

  • As a published author, what do you hope to get out of coming to this writers' conference?

  • Who would you love to have your writing compared to?

Be sure to keep up your side of the conversation or it may seem like you're conducting an interview or interrogating someone. And don't ask a published writer you just met for a hookup with their agent. Most professional writers will recommend maybe one writer per year to their literary agent, and the reason is simple: If they vouch for you, their reputation is on the line. They had better completely believe in you to make that kind of recommendation, which means a quick meet-and-greet at the conference is never going to be enough to get that hookup. Down the road? You never know.

Staying out of vacation mentality

When you attend a writers' conference, you're working, so make sure you avoid falling into a vacation mentality, which means you switch the emphasis from uncovering as much as you can about writing and networking to relaxing and chilling.

Having a glass of wine and chatting with old and new friends is okay. You just don't want to slip into the "Hey, I'm away from home, and I deserve some fun" mode.

For example, in 2006, I met up with a few old college friends at the AWP Conference in Austin, Texas, which is a four-day affair. We hit up the hotel bar after the keynote address that first night, and one of my friends decided to drink a gallon of whiskey. While the rest of us were in bed at a semi-reasonable hour that first night, our drunk friend didn't crawl back until the wee hours. The next two days, none of us saw him; he wasted two days in bed feeling horrible and missing everything. He did make it out for the final day, but the insistent headache and complaining stomach made it miserable for him. He basically wasted the entire conference.

Meanwhile at the same conference on the second night, I met a hip young editor who worked with an upcoming New York publishing house. Years later, that editor moved on to a bigger publishing house. We reconnected, and eventually I sold that house a book.

If I had been operating in vacation mode, I might have ditched the late afternoon session where I met that editor to catch rays by the fancy hotel pool. Or maybe I'd have slept off a bad one in the bathtub of my hotel room. Or maybe I'd have joined a few friends who cut out after lunch to sightsee. Instead, I found a way to expand my network of publishing professionals, and it paid off huge. That should be the goal for anyone who attends a writers' conference.

You're at a business event and not a vacation trip, so dress accordingly. Suit and tie may be a little over the top (unless you're a presenter), but dressing business casual is a fine choice. If you're nervous about getting it right, see if the website for the conference has photos from previous years. See what other people are wearing and adjust your wardrobe as needed.

Talking to authors

Although you may want to attend a writers' conference to gain access to literary agents and editors, make sure you don't overlook opportunities to chat with other authors. The authors at a writers' conference range from the keynote speaker and major presenters to the many writers in attendance in the audience.

All authors are great resources. At one point, the published authors were starting out just like you, so they clearly have a blueprint for success. Make sure you listen.

Following up on leads

After you return home from the conference, your work isn't done. Take a day to catch your breath and catch up on your sleep — you'll likely need it. But don't let what happened at the conference just slip away. If you received business cards, send a quick "Great to meet you!" e-mail. If you met other writers, drop them a note, too.

Give the people a day or two to decompress and get caught up with things, too. If you fire off an e-mail the second you get back, more than likely, it'll get lost in the backlog of other e-mails they'll surely have. Plus sending it so soon after the conference ends can make you seem very eager — potentially overeager.

You should have one or two new relationships that you'll continue with, and one or two professional connections that you should wait until you're ready to fully use. Often, this is when a literary agent agrees to read anything swiftly from a conference they spoke at, often asking you to mark the envelope "AWP Conference 2012," and so on. This is a one-time offer, though, so don't burn it until you're ready to take your best shot.

Make sure you also send thank you notes. You can stand out if you do so. Send one to conference staffers who assisted you with something or attendees who were especially helpful in reviewing your writing. Send one to any particular speaker who shared something that really clicked for you. Send one to anyone who deserves it. Just be specific and clear about what you're thanking them for or it might come off as a bit generic.

Sending thank you cards won't ensure you get a million bucks for your memoir, but doing so is good literary karma, if nothing else. It's also just a nice, decent thing to do.

Expert conference-goers know that it's a good idea to return to the same conferences regularly. It's the best way to establish meaningful, long-term relationships. When you return, you already know how everything works so you can just go about your business.

Claiming your expense to the IRS

Even if you're a brand new author, you can write off your conference registration fees, your hotel, food, mileage, parking, and many other expenses on your taxes. Doing so can save you a bundle each year, especially if you invest a lot of money in your writing career. Just make sure that you save your receipts.

Work with a CPA or a general tax return company to figure out how to get back some of your writing-related expenses, such as attending a writers' conference, doing background research for your memoir, or even hiring a proofreader to go over your manuscript. Just make sure to follow the appropriate state and federal laws and/or guidelines. When in doubt, trust professionals to guide you the right way.

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