Conference season is gearing up for the year – a time of excitement, anticipation, and, for many writers, social angst. But with a few tips and a little preparation, it can also be a time of fun and founding lifelong friendships.
Most of us are introverts. Just thinking about mingling in a room full of strangers, sharing meals, and making conversation makes us break out in hives and run back to our boxes to play with our imaginary friends. As a result, some writers would rather suck broken glass up their noses than attend writers conferences. But we muddle through and make new friends, surprise ourselves with a good time, and leave paradoxically energized and drained all at once. In time, it gets easier.
These are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years:
- Feel free to walk up to groups of people and join in.
We’re all there to meet people, and most of us are shy turtles peeking out of our shells.
- This goes for famous authors, too.
It’s okay to walk up to published authors and say hello, no matter how famous they are. If they aren’t hiding in their rooms, it generally means they are open to conversation, and they are just as worried about not having anyone to talk to as you might be.
In fact, the more famous the author, the happier they are likely to be when we speak to them. One NYT bestseller I know went to a special event where she was the keynote speaker, and people were so intimidated that no one sat at her table. Let’s just say it was awkward for her. No one ever gets so famous that they want to be alone at a table.
- Be real.
We’re all writers. That means we’re all used to making up characters. That also means that we all can spot a made up character coming out of a person’s mouth.
Every life story is compelling when we live with honest passion. When we are passionate and honest about our own lives, no matter what we do, no matter what our experiences, others will find us interesting and engaging. We are always on solid ground when we keep it real.
- Ask people questions about themselves.
People love to talk about themselves, and when we show an interest in them, we convince them that we are positively brilliant.
Some good starter questions at conferences . . .
- Is this your first conference?
- Did you travel far for the conference?
- What genre do you write?
- Do you plan to pitch to an agent?
- Attend all of the dinners and parties.
Stalk a chair at a lunch of dinner table where your favorite author will be sitting. I do this by walking into the dining room early, finding their name placard, and placing a notebook at the table to reserve my seat. I used to expect scowls, but as long as I’m polite to the wait staff and stay out of their way, no one seems to mind. I've made some wonderful author friends this way.
Every conference has a courtesy suite or a cocktail party. Find it. Use it. This is where you will meet lifelong friends and make lasting connections.
- Don’t talk about your book unless someone asks.
We all have projects that we want to talk about. However, it’s generally considered bad form to interject unsolicited monologues about our WIPs into conversations with people we just met. Don’t worry. Sooner or later, someone will ask about your work, and that will be your green light to dive in.
- When you do talk about your Work In Progress, speak succinctly.
Most of us have done it, and all of us have heard it . . . “Well, it’s a story about a girl who is a fairy. But she doesn’t know she is a fairy. And she has some daddy issues, and there’s this guy she likes. Oh, wait. I need to back up . . .” Eyes glaze over, and people escape as soon as they can.
An easy way to prevent this disorganized conversation killer is to start by imparting your log line and then offering more if asked.
Formula for a Log Line:
Protagonist + Verb + Antagonist + Antagonist’s Goal
Example 1: A huntress must befriend her worst enemy to topple a despotic dictator before he exterminates her people.
Huntress + must befriend, topple + dictator + exterminates her people
Example 2: An ex-intelligence operative must destroy a billionaire cartel intent on flooding worldwide terrorist markets with stolen U.S. ground weapons technology.
Ex-intelligence operative + must destroy + billionaire cartel + flooding terrorist markets with weapons
No names or plot specifics are necessary.
For an excellent primer, see Marcy Kennedy's article, How to Use Your Logline, Tagline, and Pitch to Create a Stronger Story. When you are comfortable with your logline, tagline, and pitch, speaking engagingly about your work will be second nature.
- Agents and editors are people, too.
Feel free to walk up and talk to them, especially at the cocktail party, in the bar, or in the courtesy suite. They are at the conference to meet authors, and they want to talk to you.
- Unless it is your pitch session, talk about anything with them except your work. If you connect with agents and editors on some other topic, they will most likely ask you about your WIP.
- Don’t only talk to agents and editors to get them to ask about your WIP. No one likes to be used.
- Don’t hit on the agents and editors. That’s major bad juju for a writing career.
- Don’t fall for the “casting couch.” It is rare at conferences, but I have seen an agent working the conference circuit who used his profession to lure writers into questionable after-hours activities. This is also major bad juju for a writing career.
- If the agent or editor of your dreams appears to be exhausted, and especially if they are in an elevator or a bathroom, leave them alone. They definitely won’t want to work with you if you are annoying.
- Understand that writing is an art, and publishing is a business. If you get a “no,” it’s not personal. It’s business.
Have fun mingling! I look forward to meeting all of you. I actually really do. And then, because I’m an introvert, I look forward to going home again and sharing the experience with my imaginary friends.
So, WITS readers, do you have any other tips for us?
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Piper Bayard is an author, a recovering attorney, and the managing editor of the Social In Worldwide network. Her writing partner, Jay Holmes, is an anonymous senior member of the intelligence community and a field veteran from the Cold War through the current Global War on Terror. Together, they are the bestselling authors of the international spy thriller, THE SPY BRIDE. You can find Piper at BayardandHolmes.com.