Strategies for a productive conference experience

Dear Peggy,

Attending a national conference — or a regional one — is always an adventure. It gives us a chance to mix and mingle and learn and network — and to live exclusively in the guise of author for a few days. We all go hoping that the time will provide us with the contacts that will help us reach the next level in our publishing careers.

To have a productive conference, make a plan, several goals you hope to accomplish at this gathering. Circle the workshops you want to attend. Make sure they are right for where you are in your publishing career. There s no sense attending a workshop on marketing your published book if you’ve yet to finish a manuscript. Be aware of who is giving the workshop. Certain authors are conference perennials because they re such great teachers. You also may not want to attend a workshop every hour. It s easy to get overload if you try to see too much. Give yourself a chance to digest what you’ve learned.

Arrange for an editor/agent appointments. Or if the editor you want to talk to isn’t giving appointments, go up to her and introduce yourself after a Spotlight session. Do this especially if you have a manuscript under consideration. If there is someone you specifically want to see write ahead. Sometimes an editor or agent will meet with you one-on-one if you have business pending.

Use your contacts to achieve your goal. Published author friends can often point out the people you want to meet, and may even be able to arrange an introduction. But friends can t help if they don t realize what you hope to achieve.

Dress professionally but comfortably — especially when it comes to shoes.

Employ a divide and conquer strategy. Don t go everywhere with your roommate(s). Plan to attend meetings and workshops alone. I know that’s scary, but it gives even shy people the impetus to lean over to a stranger and say, So what do you write? It s the best ice-breaker in the world with the crowd you ll meet at conferences. Many of my best writing friends are ones I met just that way.

Spend time in public spaces during the conference and don t necessarily plan to sit with friends at lunch. The person who takes the empty chair beside you may turn out to be an author you particularly admire, or an editor you want to submit to. If you find yourself nose to nose with an editor or agent, remember lunch, a cocktail party, or standing waiting for an elevator is essentially a social situation. Don t lambaste them with a copy of your manuscript. Instead say something like, You edit XYZ line, don t you. I’ve always liked those books because… Then let them say (if they want to), Oh, and what is it you write…

Never follow an editor into the bathroom.

Another advantage of the divide and conquer strategy is that at the end of the day you and your roommate/friends can all come together and compare notes on who you’ve met and what you’ve learned. It can be highly enlightening.

Don t expect to sleep. Everyone gets overstimulated by the information you re ingesting and the people you re meeting. Being your public self for hours at a time is both exhausting and raises your adrenaline level. Then, too, one of the joys of conferences is sitting up in what can be all-night gab sessions. If you have things that help you relax, a tape of waves, a calming book (I always take E.B. White to conferences.) or a special nightie, make sure you pack it.

Know your body s rhythms and try to plan your important meetings for a time of the day when your energy is high. You want to put your best face forward if you can. If it isn’t possible to arrange things your way, a quick nap or a twenty minute relaxation in your room right before an important meeting can revive you. (Don t forget to set the alarm clock and allow yourself time to tend to makeup and re-dress.)

Plan to get out of the hotel. See things. Go shopping. Venture out to a restaurant for dinner. (Even by yourself ,if you re peopled-out.) The hotel concierge (or others on the staff) can help you find one nearby or with a particular kind of food you re fond of. He/she can also tell you if it s safe to be on the streets around the hotel at night. As always, be aware of your surroundings wherever you go. All the rules for maintaining personal safety are that much more important if you re in an unfamiliar place.

Don’t forget to have fun. Don’t be so focused on what you re at the conference to accomplish that you forget the joy of being spontaneous, of meeting new people, and having new experiences.

Try to have a light day the day you get home, if you can. You ll be exhausted, but also full of ideas about how to improve your work or your chances for publication.

Sally forth and have a wonderful, productive time.

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