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Making the Most of Your Conference

A good conference can kickstart your writing practice. Here's how to get the most out of your experience.

· Writing Tips,Travel

The publishing industry traditionally slows down in the summer, and as a writer, it's tempting to do the same thing. There are vacations, festivals, and backyard barbecues all vying for your attention. Not to mention kids on break. Mooommmeeeee, why are you always staring at the computer? What are you typing? Slightly distracting.

But now it's September, and pumpkin spice is everywhere. It's autumn in all but name. Kids are back to school, and the Publisher's Marketplace daily deal announcements are multiplying by the day. I'm eager to get back to my usual writing pace. And what better way to kick things off than to attend my absolutely favorite writing conference, the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold? The 2016 session is less than a week away. Just in time, I've got all the tips you need to make the most of any writing conference experience. With a little planning, you'll come away refreshed, inspired, and ready to do your best writing yet!

Choosing a Conference

If you can't make it to this year's RMFW Colorado Gold, no worries. There are lots of writing conferences held all over the country, all year long. Start by looking up a list of writing associations, if you haven't already. There are both national organizations and local ones, tailored to a wide variety of genres. Many of them hold their own conferences, or will post info about conferences that their members might like. Typically you'll need to register months in advance for a conference, especially if you'll need to travel or book a hotel, so plan ahead.

Obviously, you'll want to pay attention to the cost of attendance, the location, and the timing. Many fantastic conferences are held in New York City, which will require a trip if you don't live there. But you might also find some really nice conferences closer to home. Do a little Google research and you'll turn up a big list of possibilities. Then you can start teasing out the details. Has the conference been around for a long time? Is it associated with a reputable organization? Does it have a great lineup of writers scheduled to speak this year? If you can find reviews or testimonials, give them a careful read. Some conferences accept a few hundred participants; others will draw thousands. It's up to you to know what will work best for your needs and personality.

Always consider your genre. If you're writing a commercial mystery or romance, then a conference geared towards literary might not be the best fit. Do the lectures and classes sound interesting? Is the conference aimed at writers of all levels, or just writers with finished manuscripts? If you're published, are there courses for experienced pros? Then, take a look at the list of editors and agents who are attending; are they looking for books like yours? Lots of conferences offer pitch appointments to all attendees. Will you be able to pitch to an editor or agent you're really excited about, and who has a great reputation?

Make a Plan of Attack

So you've picked your conference and registered. Your next step: study the schedule! Read the class descriptions, review the bios of the teachers, and plan which classes and events you want to attend.

Inevitably, there will be more than one class you'd like to take scheduled for the same time slot. Some conferences require advance registration for each class, so in that case, you have a tough decision to make. But other conferences, like the Colorado Gold, allow you to pick your classes as you go (big plus!). Create a list of back-ups, just in case one class isn't working for you. You can make a discrete exit and slip into another. On the other hand, if you have an open time slot, check out a class that you're not sure about. It might turn out to be great!

Feel free to keep your schedule flexible. You might love one teacher and choose to attend all her other workshops. Or maybe you'll feel burned out and need a little break to hang out in the lobby. It's all good--take the opportunity to check out any swag tables, or books for sale.

And don't skip the panels, dinners or keynote speeches! You'll learn more about the publishing industry than you can imagine, make friends, and get inspired by stories of author perseverance.

Before you head to the conference for the day, pack a bag. You'll probably want:

  • some snacks; 
  • a laptop or tablet if you want to take digital notes; 
  • business cards or promotional material for your published books; 
  • cash for happy hour; 
  • and layers! Those conference centers sometimes jack up the air conditioning. Brrr!

Pitch Appointments

The pitch appointment might sound intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. Think of it as your chance to have a conversation with a seasoned professional. Yes, you can pitch your manuscript, but bring questions too. It's your opportunity to learn about the current market and how it might impact your project. You can even pitch a project that's not finished, and ask for feedback on your pitch itself.

Practice before you go, bring some notes just in case, and take a deep breath. Come early so you'll be ready when called, and be friendly. The agents and editors claim to be just as nervous as you are. That's a little hard to believe, but I'll take them at their word!

Social Networking, Old School

This is probably the very best thing about attending a writing conference: the chance to meet other writers in person! I've met so many incredible, talented people at the Colorado Gold in the past, and I look forward to meeting more this year. Anytime I come away from a conference with new friends, I call it a success.

A few tips:

  • Say hi! Whether you're waiting for a class to start, relaxing in the lobby, or standing in the buffet line, say hello to the person next to you. Ask what genre they write in; ask what books they're reading now. Where they're from. I know--it's not always easy to break the ice. Writers are often introverts, myself very much included. But I've also found writers (especially at the RMFW Colorado Gold!) to be incredibly warm, laid-back people. Take the initiative and say hello.
  • Don't be afraid to say hi to agents and editors, too. But don't pitch your project unless it's an official pitch appointment. They like to have breaks and hang out, too. Be cool, people, be cool.
  • Bring business cards with your contact info to share with other conference attendees. Lots of people do, and it's very handy for keeping track of all your new friends. Have a pad and pen in your pocket as well to write down others' info if they don't have cards.
  • Follow up! After the conference, follow the writers you met on Twitter. Friend them on Facebook. Send an e-mail to say "hey" and ask, "What did you think of the conference?" Keep in touch. Before you know it, you'll have a network of mentors, potential critique partners and moral-supporters.

Do you have to go to conferences to make it as a "real writer"? No. Of course not. If you don't have the time, or the funds, then don't sweat it. But conferences can be a wonderful way to learn both the craft and business of writing. More importantly, it's a great way to meet other writers and start forming your own writing community. Your work will improve, and you'll have a lot more fun doing it.

I'm counting down the days until this year's Colorado Gold! If you see me there, say hi and introduce yourself--if I don't say hello to you first.

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