Writers in the Storm

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March 14, 2016

Socializing at Conferences – How to Come Out of the Box

Piper Bayard

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.


Actual Photo of Author Hiding at a Writers Conference

Actual Photo of Author
Hiding at a Writers Conference


These are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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?
  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. Don’t only talk to agents and editors to get them to ask about your WIP. No one likes to be used.
  3. Don’t hit on the agents and editors. That’s major bad juju for a writing career.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *



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.

34 comments on “Socializing at Conferences – How to Come Out of the Box”

  1. Great tips, Piper! As a extrovert on steroids (I make friends in check-out lines), I don't get this, but I know people who do. You covered my fave - talking to strangers seated beside you. All you have to do is ask, 'So, what do you write?' to a writer, and there will be NO lags in conversation!

    1. Glad you liked it. It's difficult for introverts to talk to strangers at first, but it does get easier. Does it ever leave you feeling drained?

      1. I guarantee you that Laura get completely energized, the more people she talks to at a writer's conference. I'm mostly an extrovert and I still get worn out, but she stays pretty perky.

  2. Wonderful tips! I was so nervous at my first writers' conference two years ago, until a friend pointed out that you'll never find more sympathetic introverts in one place than at these events. Plus, there's bound to be at least one person who shares your book crushes.

  3. I feel like Laura Drake here. This is me, too. One who talks to everyone wherever I am. In waiting rooms, check out lines, at church, restaurants - waitresses sometimes like to chat if the place isn't crowded. People always intrigue me. But you had some great tips. I especially like the one about not just jumping in with talk about our wips without an opening. And I do remember my first conference and how nervous and insecure I was then, but that was umpteen years ago when I was not an older writer.

    1. I find that many people who talk easily in the grocery line are still nervous at conferences. We don't necessarily expect to see the person in the grocery line again. At conferences, we're interested in building friendships, and that puts a bit more worth on the exchange. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  4. I've always considered myself an introvert. I love observing and listening to people. I feel like I learn a lot more that way than if I am talking a lot. Strangely enough, I am that person that others strike up conversations with in the check out line, the dr's office, etc. and when that happens I am very comfortable with it. My husband says he can take me anywhere and I will find someone to talk to. Kinda strange for an introvert. LOL But you throw me in a cocktail party to make chit chat and I'm ready to find that cardboard box to climb in.

    I will say my best friend for MANY years is someone I met at a writing function. We were instant sisters.

    1. I'm the same way. I'll talk to anyone in a grocery line, waiting room, restaurant, etc., but conferences and cocktail parties are another animal altogether. I think that's because we don't plan to see the person in the grocery line again, but writing is a small pond, and we want to build friendships.

  5. Great stuff. I would rather stand in a corner and watch than interact at conferences. I bit the bullet and decided to attend RT for the first time this year and am already waking up with angst. Ugh!

    1. Lots of wonderful people at RT. If you like, follow me on FB, and I'll see if I can connect you with a few of them before you go so that you'll have someone to say hello to that you already know.

  6. Great advice, Piper! I'd add one thing: do enough research prior to the conference on some of the key agents and editors so you have a handful of specific questions to ask them about THEM (everyone likes to talk about themselves!). Like: "I see you just launched 'The Adopted President's Redemption.' Is adoption a personal interest for you?" Or "I read that you like golf--will you have a chance to try the Excaliber Golf Course while you're here?" Any very specific business or personal fact you can use will open a real conversation with them. And anyone else listening in (another agent or editor?) will perk up too.

  7. Well, I tried No. 1 at a recent big conference. They nodded and that was that. When I approached a well-known author (No. 2), he engaged with a smile. My deduction is that sometimes it doesn't work. I had to Make Myself step out of my comfort zone and found there's more than one kind of rejection slip. I promised myself to keep trying, though. Thanks for the encouraging tips.

    1. There will always be a few cliques here and there, but if they don't welcome you, it will genuinely be about them, and not you. Most people are just happy to have someone break the ice. Glad you connected with a well-known author. Most of them are quite friendly.

  8. Great tip on how to drill down to a potent log line. It's so important to quickly get your point across and entice the person you're speaking with to ask more. We all have to be our best marketing machines, and without sound bites and hyper-speed pitching skills, success is going to be that much harder to achieve. Thanks Piper!

      1. I have to agree that that is a brilliant way to distill the gist of your book down to its simplest form. Will definitely take note of that for future reference.

  9. Piper, great stuff! All good. I have a tip and a True-Life Adventure. The True-Life Adventure is as follows: At one of my very early conferences i saw an agent I wanted to meet talking to a group of ladies, obviously old friends having a good time. I swallowed, and walked up to them. "Oh, uh, hi, . . . " The woman became my first agent. Later, i mentioned to her this group of old friends and how I had butted in. "Old friends? I'd never seen those women before in my life! I was so glad when you came up and introduced yourself."
    Which leads to my Tip: read the program carefully, word-for-word, before you go. Identify people -- agents and writers -- you want to meet. i highlight them so I won't forget.
    And have fun! Thanks again, Piper.

  10. Introverts don't need to worry that they are the only introvert in a room full of chatty extroverts. The chances are that at least half of the chatty types are actually introverts - most of us can pretend to be extroverts for a couple of days, especially when surrounded by like-minded people.

  11. Oh my goodness, this is so true: "leave paradoxically energized and drained all at once." Exactly how I feel! Interestingly enough, I have people all the time wanting to argue that I'm not an introvert, but that's only because I've worked so hard to move past all of my inner obstacles and mingle with people at these events. I still get that deep reluctance in my gut when I arrive and feel exhausted when I'm done. That's just part of being an introvert, and it won't ever change -- but I've learned to work around it because it's paid off with great friendships and amazing wisdom from fellow writers.

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