Today I am continuing my tips for maximizing your time at a writers’ conference. If you haven’t had a chance to read Part 1 of this two-part post, you may do so by clicking HERE.
I know. Most writers (myself including) aren’t exactly the outgoing type who love making small talk with strangers. The good news about attending a writers’ conference is that you already have something in common with the person sitting next to you: an interest in writing. Depending on the type of writers’ conference you may even have more in common (i.e. religion, genre). How does being sociable maximize your time? Speaking to people who sit next to you before and after the class starts allows you to make the most connections while you are there. It can be difficult (though not impossible) to catch people in the hallways or to talk while trying to enjoy your meal. Although you should definitely do this as well. The more people you talk to during the conference, the greater your chances of meeting those people with whom you will form a true connection that will last beyond the conference. If you don’t already know why these connections are important, check out this article on the subject.
Decide beforehand who you want to speak with and make a cheat sheet.
This begins with the faculty list. Aside from deciding who you want to make an appointment with (those are often limited), you should decide in advance which faculty it may be beneficial for you to chat with. Then go one step further. When you’re in the middle of the hallway trying to remember which class you wanted to attend next and whether it’s down Hallway A or in Courtyard B, and you suddenly notice that a faculty person you wanted to talk to is standing nearby sipping water from the refreshments table, you may recognize the opportunity to talk to this person, but will you remember what it was you wanted to ask them about? You’ve probably got 30 seconds to chat, start to finish. Are you ready? If you prepared a cheat sheet ahead of time, you are. A cheat sheet is paper you prepared before the conference with a list of names matched with one or two key questions that you stuck somewhere at the front of your binder or folded and tucked into your pocket for easy access. Just whip it out, skim the question to refresh your memory, tuck it away, and go take advantage of those 30 seconds! Bonus Tip: There will be a lot of names and faces to remember. Copy/Paste the faculty photos next to their names for easier identification.
Pre-compose questions to ask fellow attendees during the conference.
This goes back to being sociable and making connections. It’s one thing to chat with people about how much they like their lunch. It breaks the ice. It’s another to figure out whether this is someone that will be a valuable relationship to carry forward beyond the conference. Do you want to make friends? Absolutely! But you also want to be aware of people who may be able to help you with your career as well as those whose career you may be able to help. The best way to figure this out is to ask key questions. Which questions you ask will depend on what type of writing you do and where you are in your career, but some starter questions might be, “Do you write (my genre) or know anyone who does?” and “Are you on social media?” and “Do you have a website/blog?” Those questions are fairly general. To come up with questions more specific to you, consider your current career status and goals. Once you have some questions in mind, write them out and take them with you to the conference. Then, in the morning, at lunch, and even during those few private moments in the bathroom, take the time to review your questions so that they come easily to mind when you’re facing the stranger across the table.
Bring snacks & water to avoid getting ill.
The hectic rush of the typical conference schedule can leave little to no time for hunting down the gift shop snack section (if there is one), let alone time to pop out for a quick meal. Most conferences do provide a meal or two depending on the schedule, but sometimes they aren’t as filling as you would like or the food simply isn’t to your liking (or you’re disappointed to note an ingredient you are allergic to included on the plate) and you find yourself skipping the main entree or side dish. Or perhaps you were just too nervous to eat breakfast that morning, or spontaneously decided to remain for the late night session you had planned to skip. Whatever the reason, you need to figure out something to silence the rumbling of your tummy, because skipping meals while enduring the marathon of a writers’ conference is just a recipe for catching every virus your fellow attendees brought with them. The last thing you need is to have a cold take you out of action on the final day of your much-anticipated (very expensive) conference because you let your body run down. So be prepared. Pack snacks you know will keep your energy levels high and carry a bottle of water everywhere you go!
Organize your papers in advance.
I’m going to be honest with you. In this digital age, chances are no one is going to ask to see a paper copy of your sample work or book proposal. BUT. If they do, do you really want to have nothing to show? Or do you want to be digging hopelessly through your briefcase trying to locate something? You don’t want to leave the impression that you are disorganized or unprepared. So bring one copy of your proposal, one copy of a sample of your work and a few copies of your one sheet if you have one. I prefer to organize mine in sheet protectors in my padfolio or in a very thin binder, but feel free to organize them in whatever way suits you. Just make sure they are organized. Oh, and bring a ton of business cards. If you are networking properly, those cards will go like gangbusters and you never know when someone will ask for one just as you’re stepping into an elevator. So have them in a place that is easily accessible on the go.
Print and mark a map of buildings, classrooms, dining room, and bookstore if there is one available beforehand to avoid getting lost.
Most conferences will provide maps of the facility in advance. I strongly suggest printing one out and marking which rooms each of the classes you plan to attend will be held in. I usually color code mine by placing a colored dot next to the class name on the schedule and a colored dot in the room on the map. That way I can see at a glance which room I need to be in for which class. If you are staying off-site, I also suggest printing a map of the route from your hotel to the facility and including any notes on parking that will help your first morning go more smoothly – especially using Google Maps (or similar) to calculate how long it should take you to drive between your hotel and the conference facility. Be sure to include time for making a wrong turn or circling the parking lot. Nothing will triple those butterflies like arriving late on your first day because the street signs weren’t clear or you had to wait for a space at the very far end of the Walmart-sized parking lot.