How to Put Your Best Foot Forward at Conferences

The woman in shop chooses shoes July is an open month for topics here at CRC. It also happens to be when the Romance Writers of America National Conference takes place, so I figured what better time to talk a little bit about conferences and what to expect than right now?

Last year was my very first conference attendance in the writing industry. That’s right, I went straight in for the big guns. In retrospect, it might’ve been nice to dip my toes in the water with something smaller and more manageable. On the other hand, now that I’ve experienced one of the (if not the) biggest conferences, everything else will be easy peasy. (At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.)

Since I’ve only been to RWA (though I’ll be attending Moonlight & Magnolias later this year, as well), I’m going to talk about the pieces I learned there, though I imagine it will be very similar for nearly all conferences.

Workshops

Probably, unless your conference is strictly a reader conference, there will be workshops available for you to attend. Some will focus on craft, some on career, some on marketing. The great thing about this is that each conference, as the years go by, you’ll find you might need to focus on different areas of expertise. If you can, find a schedule beforehand and at least take a cursory glance at what workshops are being held and if there are any top priorities for you in your career right now. From there, you can work backward and see what other space you have open and fill in with workshops you think might be beneficial over the next year.

Luncheons/Key Note Speakers

Okay, I admit it. During last year’s RWA, I only went for the lunch. That’s horrible to say, isn’t it? Well, it’s the truth, and since we’re in the circle of trust here at CRC, why don’t you come and sit down on the rug and let Brighton tell you all about it…

I thought it was going to be a boring speech that I wouldn’t get anything from. I thought I’d yawn my way through lunch and count down the minutes until I could get to the next workshop to, you know, learn stuff.

I was an idiot.

First of all, hello, we’re writers. Of course the speeches aren’t going to be boring—they’re going to be funny and engaging and awesome. Second, these women who stood up and spoke knew me (and my CP and my writing friends and, dare I say, nearly every person in the room) because she was us. At one point—maybe five years before or maybe fifteen—she’d been there. The speeches were moving. There’s really no other word to accurately portray how they affected me. It’s a powerful thing to know that someone has been exactly where you are right now—maybe wondering why the hell you started doing this. Maybe wondering if you’re ever going to amount to anything, if your book is ever going to get picked up by an agent or publisher, if you’ll sell more than three dozen copies. They’ve been scared and unsure and insecure.

They’ve also made it.

It was empowering to think, “Hey, that could be me next year.” It filled my sails with more air than a thousand pep-talks from my wonderful CP (and she gives great pep-talks). These speeches, alone, were worth the cost of RWA, in my opinion, because they lit a fire under me and encouraged me like nothing else ever had.

Meeting Writerly Friends

I’m not going to lie: it’s kind of like a giant slumber party. You finally get to meet these writers you’ve connected with via forums or Twitter or Facebook. You get to talk work, but more importantly, you get to talk. In person! The connections and friendships you make and cultivate at these conferences are priceless. Bonus? I get to see one of my best friends as many times a year as I can manage while being able to write the entire cost off. That. Is. Awesome.

Parties

Young women in club or bar drinking cocktails and having funOh, dear, the parties. I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but let me tell you, we writers know how to party. If there wasn’t a scheduled party one of the publishers or chapters were putting on, the party was in the hotel bar. Everyone is there, letting their hair down (or putting their hair up…it gets hot dancing your ass off), and chatting. About work, about life, about everything. You can meet a lot of people this way. (Case in point: at my agent pitch appointment last year, I asked the agent if she attended the Harlequin party the night before. She said she did. I told her I was the one in the tutu. She said, “We shared a cab there!”) You never know who you’re going to run into. So, while it’s great to let your hair down, don’t get fall-on-your-ass drunk and embarrass yourself. Remember, even though this is fun, this is also a business conference. You don’t want to make a bad impression on an agent or editor and forever taint whatever future dealings you’ll have with them.

Pitch Appointments

These were the worst (best). I was sick a solid 73% of my time at RWA before my pitch appointment because I was so overcome by nerves. I’d never done an in-person pitch before (I’d never done a pitch, period! I’d only finished my book two weeks before going to RWA.). I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how the whole thing would go. Also, for as chatty as I am and how I can talk to anyone at anytime, put me down in front of people (or a single person) and tell me to give a speech? I’m a nervous, stomach-churning mess.

Your pitch appointment will go basically the way you lead it to go. In my first appointment with an editor, I took my note cards and I dutifully read straight from them, trying to remember to give sporadic eye contact every couple of seconds. The entire thing took maaaaaaybe two minutes. I had my hook, my short pitch, and that was it. The editor I spoke to said, “Wow, that was concise. I don’t think I have any other questions. I’d love to see the full,” handed me her card, and I was off on my merry way a full seven minutes before my time was supposed to be up, the weight of a thousand cars suddenly lifted from my shoulders.

My second pitch appointment with an agent took place the following day, after an amazing party at Harlequin, and I was pumped up. I sat down and started with small talk immediately. That slowly morphed into details about my book. She asked questions, I answered and offered a bit more insight. In the end, the timer buzzed signally our ten minutes were up before we were done chatting, and I hadn’t read one single word from my note cards (in fact, I think they were tossed somewhere on the floor because I didn’t have them with me anymore after I left that appointment). She also asked for a full (and later offered a wonderful phone R&R).

Basically, what I’m saying is, whatever you do in there, you can’t go wrong. There is no right or wrong way to pitch. Do what feels comfortable to you. If you need to get your bearings and read from the cards? Read from the cards. If you’re comfortable just having a conversation? Have that convo and charm him/her with your sparkling wit.

I’m sure I’m missing several points about the conferences (what to pack, what shoes to have along, if you should bring your laptop, etc), but I’m already at five times what our posts here are supposed to be, so… If you have any questions, pop them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them to the best of my (very limited) knowledge!

 


Comments

How to Put Your Best Foot Forward at Conferences — 9 Comments

  1. Great article! You may want to try Lori Foster’s Reader and Author Get Together next June. This was my second year and it was awesome. Since the guests are limited to 500, you get the opportunity for more personal time with the authors. It is inexpensive, the venue is really great and registration fills up quickly…normally in 48-72 hours!

    • Thanks, Annette! I’ve heard lots of things about that conference, though I’m not sure I’ll ever get it to work. My plan for next year is RT and RWA, and three conferences three months in a row will be pushing it. :)

  2. Fantastic post, Brighton, and great graphics. I haven’t been to a conference yet. I’m hoping to attend the Moonlight & Magnolias conference in October. Thanks for all of the great tips gleaned from your experience at the conference.

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