Writing Tips From a Writer in the Trenches

Writing Conferences…A Survival Guide for Introverts

Yes, It Will Be Terrifying, But No, You Won’t Die. You May Even Have Fun.

The first time is the hardest.

The first conference I ever attended was The Surrey International Writer’s Conference. Held annually, it takes place in a hotel literally fourteen minutes from my house.

Michael Slade’s infamous Shock Theatre at the SiWC Photography by Leslie Wibberley

After a decades-long break, I’d just returned to writing. Thanks to a shoulder injury and subsequent failed surgery, which had forced to work only part time as a physiotherapist, I found myself with a little more time on my hands.

Always looking for ways to hone my craft, I was excited to discover what seemed to be a highly respected conference (SIWC is, in my humble opinion, one of the best conferences out there) so close to my home.

So I signed up.

The preeminent emotion that filled me on the first day of the conference was not excitement, although a certain giddiness definitely existed. It was pure, unadulterated terror.

The prospect of being surrounded by so many complete strangers was almost enough to have me bolting for the door.

Photo by Melanie Wasser on Unsplash

Almost…

But, I’d paid a lot for this conference, and I didn’t want that money to go to waste.

So, after turning on my invisible introvert’s forcefield, I walked up to the registration table to pick up my registration package. I grabbed my goody bag and headed off, without so much as a smile or how do you do to anyone. I just kept my eyes on the floor in front of me and headed off into the fray.

If I’d been a little more prepared, I have no doubt I would’ve gotten a lot more from the conference than I did. While it was still a great experience, I would’ve been less overwhelmed, and A LOT less stressed. So, to help you avoid making all the same mistakes I did…

I asked a group of writers what their best advice is for someone attending their first conference:

) If you can possibly afford it, book a room at the conference hotel.

The opportunity to escape to your room when feeling overwhelmed by so many people, or struggling with information overload, is invaluable. Some conferences even offer a way to connect to other attendees who are on their own, to set up possible room sharing opportunities.

My mistake: Because I lived so close to the conference site, I didn’t stay at the hotel. Which meant each night, when attendees were getting together in the restaurant and bar to chat and get to know each other, I headed home and missed out on the opportunity to network.

2. ) Check out the conference schedule online, well in advance of the actual event.

Jennifer Sommersby, and a panel of experts at the Creative Ink Conference 2019. Bob Dugoni presenting one of his amazing workshops at the SiWC 2019. Photography by Leslie Wibberley

Read about what is being presented at each workshop, and choose your top three for each block of time during the day. There will always be conflicts where two of your top choices are running at the same time. So always have options. If you head to a room only to find there is no space for you, or, if you realize after a few minutes the presentation isn’t what you thought it would be, you can quickly move on to your next choice. Print a copy of each day’s schedule and mark your first, second, and third choices.

My mistake: I arrived at the conference with little time to spare, picked up my program, and frantically tried to make a decision about which workshops to attend. I missed many great ones because I wasn’t prepared.

4.) Talk to people.

Introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you. Ask them about what they write. Writers have the reputation of being quiet introverts so used to spending hours of their day alone, tucked inside their nice safe writing space, that they aren’t interested in chatting. Not true. While they may be introverts, there’s nothing that excites a writer more than talking about writing. The opportunity to network with other writers, editors, and even agents is one of the best parts of attending a conference. Don’t miss this great opportunity like I almost did.

My mistake: As a new writer, I was so intimidated by being in the midst of so many accomplished people, I was frozen into silence. Thankfully, by my second day, a few incredibly kind and supportive individuals had welcomed me into their midst, and introduced me to other writers.

5. ) Dress appropriately.

Comfortable footwear is a must. Days are long, with a lot of standing and walking, so those killer stilettos might not be the best idea. Save them for the evening, if you must wear them. And guys, that goes for you too! If you own a fancy pair of shoes that look “so fine” but pinch your toes, you might want to rethink wearing them. Conferences rooms can be far apart, and with little time to get from place to place, you don’t want to your feet to be screaming so loudly that you can’t focus on the presentations.

Wear layers. Conference rooms seem to range between Saharan-desert-heat, and polar-frigidity. Neither Angora turtlenecks or spaghetti strapped pieces of nothingness are the best idea. Although, if you wear an angora cardigan over that flimsy top, you’ll be golden.

Present your best self. You will be meeting many individuals in the publishing industry, and as an author, you need to present yourself as someone to be taken seriously. Business casual is perfect. Jeans are perfectly acceptable if topped with a smart blazer, or fancier top.

My mistake: I’m always hot, so I wore a sleeveless top on my first day. And I froze. The only thing I had with me was a heavy jacket, which I ended up wearing for most of the day. Not only was it uncomfortable, but it garnered some rather strange looks.

The next day I was much better prepared, and a lot more comfortable. These days I always pack a blanket scarf, which is perfect for whipping on and off depending on the temperature of the room.

6.) Attend a pitch session.

If the conference offers the opportunity to pitch an agent or editor, do it. Many conferences offer pitch sessions ranging from five to ten minutes, where you can sit and talk about your manuscript with a publishing professional. Even if you aren’t quite ready to send your work out on submission, just chatting and asking questions about the process can be invaluable. Most agents never mind you asking questions, even if you’re not ready to submit, or giving you the chance to practise your pitch on them.

And, in-person pitches also allow you to make a personal connection to an agent, which can help during the querying process.

While the chance of anyone landing a book deal from an in-person meeting at a conference is pretty slim, you may get a few requests for a partial, or even a full manuscript. And if you do, the agent will ask you to tag where you met them in the subject line, which generally bumps you a little ahead of the general slush pile in priority—never a bad thing.

My mistake: I actually didn’t make a mistake in this area. I ended up pitching four different agents at my first conference, and received partial requests from all of them. Go me.

7.) Have fun and make connections.

Take advantage of any social functions offered at the conference. Be sure to attend the after hours events. Have a glass of wine or soda, and chat with your fellow attendees. Exchange business cards and social media contacts. Keep in touch. A conference is a perfect place to find writing groups, beta readers, and even a critique partner.

My mistake: I didn’t get involved. Partly because I went home every evening, partly because I was too shy to exchange my card, but mostly because I didn’t have a clue how important this part of the conference was.

These days, though, I’m at every event, chatting with as many people as will listen to me. I cherish the connections I’ve made, from around the globe.

My CP Bonnie Jacoby, and writing pal, Ronda Payne at the SiWC. Donna Barker, Eileen Cook, and CJ Hunt, the three amazing women behind The Creative Academy who inspire me on a daily basis. My writing buddies, Ruth Olsen, and Margarita Escobar…Photography by Leslie Wibberley

I hope you all find something valuable from my experience, and from the wise counsel of a group of talented and caring writers.

And, may your first writing conference be a huge success.

Now, go write.

Award-winning writer of CNF, short stories & novels—horror, magical realism, romance, speculative fiction—adult & YA. Presently in Shitt’s Creek withdrawal.

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