By Jennie Jarvis
As many of you may know, we are smack dab in the middle of Conference season, and hopefully this means that you have already attended a Writing Conference this year or you are planning to attend one in the next couple of months. If you don’t have a Writing Conference on your books for this year, I highly recommend you try to budget one for 2016. Writing Conferences are a great way to improve your craft, network with other writers and writing professionals, and to generally get away from your regular life routine and dive headfirst into what you love.
Granted, I’m a bit biased when it comes to talking about Writing Conferences. As the Faculty Chairperson for the 2015 Florida Writers Conference (which will take place October 15th – 18th in Altamonte Springs, Florida), I am a firm believer in the power of these annual get-togethers! My fancy job title means I was in charge of recruiting the faculty and picking which workshops they would teach, so if you don’t like anything on the Schedule, then you get to blame me! Since I’ve committed the last few years of my life to being a Faculty Chairperson, I probably don’t have to tell you how passionate I am about the educational and networking opportunities these kinds of events contain… despite the sometimes-heavy price tag that comes with them.
So, what’s the best way to prepare for a Writing Conference? I mean, let’s face it, if you are going to shell out all that money for the registration, the hotel, the airfare, the food, etc., then you want to make sure you get the best bang for your buck! The worst thing possible would be to arrive at the Conference without a plan and then, when it’s over, realize you missed something awesome because you didn’t know it was happening! Or maybe you tried to do everything at the Conference, and then left with your head spinning, feeling more lost and overwhelmed than when you arrived. These would be poor Conference experiences, and not the best way to spend your hard-earned money.
To help you avoid making these kinds of errors, I’ve prepared a brief list of tips to help you prepare for your next Writing Conference:
- Make a Conference Goal
Just like with all things in life, having goals is a really important thing to have when you sign up for a Writing Conference. I would argue, in fact, that you should have this goal before you even register. For example, if your Conference Goal is to improve your pitching skills, then make sure you sign up for a Conference that actually has workshops or panels that talk about pitching. You need to know what you want to get out of a Conference before you sign up.
Keep in mind your Conference Goal should be a Goal and not a Dream. In my mind, a Goal needs to be something over which you have complete control. A Dream can be a motivating factor for why you are setting your Goals, but it’s not the same thing. For example, a good Conference Goal would be to meet with Agents – not to get an Agent. Getting an Agent requires the Agent to agree to represent you, so that’s out of your control. This would make Getting An Agent a Conference Dream, not a Goal. It’s good to have Dreams, but by focusing on those things over which you have completed control (Goals), you are more likely to succeed or feel satisfied by your Conference experience.
Conference Goals can include finding local authors with which to network, attending workshops to help improve your grammar, going to panels so you can learn about the writing industry, and getting the information you need to decide if you want to go the traditional publishing route or to self-publish.
- Study the Schedule To Make a Plan
Most Writing Conferences are great about posting their schedules online well before the Conference takes place. After all, the schedule is what makes people want to register, so they need to have it listed for marketing purposes. If you want to see a sample Schedule, you can check out the one I created here.
Once you have your Conference Goal, you need to go through and really decide what you want to do or see when you get to the Conference. Print the schedule and start marking it up to figure out your plan. I’ve been known to print multiple copies, and highlight everything that looks interesting on the first copy before narrowing down my choices to THE workshops and panels I will attend on another copy.
The hardest part about this is that you will see lots of exciting workshops and panels that might pull you away from your Goal.
“Oooo…” you might say. “There’s a workshop on using Scrivener. I’ve wanted to learn about that program for years. Oh, and there’s a workshop on Sports Writing! That could be cool.”
If it’s a good Conference, then yes – there will be a lot of great things to do and see. But remember your Goal! If something doesn’t fall in line with your Goal, then you have to move that activity lower on your priority list.
If you want to improve your pitching skills, then you know you need to attend the Thursday night session on Pitching, even though you would really like to hear what that Acquisition Editor has to say about dealing with stress. And if your Goal is to meet with a certain Agent, then you know you need to attend every workshop and panel on which that Agent is participating, even if the workshop on writing about the afterlife sounds amazing.
Now, if there is a workshop you want to attend, and there is nothing related to your Goal that conflicts, then have fun! After all, you paid for it!
- Pick Your Networking Events
On the schedule, you should see not only workshops and panels, but Networking Events as well. These can be anything from Author Book Signings to Receptions, and Genre Breakfasts to Elaborate Dinners or Parties. Networking events are any activities that gives you a chance to talk to other people – to get to know them and ask them your burning questions. These are a crucial part of the Writing Conference experience, so even if you aren’t comfortable with the idea of Networking, you should plan to attend these as well.
Go back to your Goal and ask what the most important events to attend will be based on what you want to get out of the Conference. Obviously, if your Goal involves meeting with Agents or Acquisition Editors, then you want to attend any reception or party at which those VIPs are expected to attend.
But what if you just want to learn information? Which events would really help you outside of the workshops?
For those, I would recommend the Author Book Signings and general meal events, like Lunches and Genre Breakfasts. At these events, you can talk to other Authors who do exactly what you do – or what you want to do – and that’s write! You can ask them the questions you might be asking yourself: “What’s the best approach to world building?” “Should I self-publish before querying an Agent?” “How much money can I make from selling my books online?”
Yes, striking up a conversation can be rather awkward if you aren’t an extrovert, but it can definitely make your Conference Experience all the more worthwhile.
- Stick To Your Plan!
Once you’ve developed that Conference plan, make sure you stick to it! You might meet new people who invite you to attend a different panel, or you might realize that a last-minute faculty cancellation has resulted in a new, awesome workshop taught by someone else. But don’t be waylaid by these shiny objects!
Remember your Conference Goal and stick to your plan!
After a Conference is over, it’s easy to throw your bag of Conference goodies into the corner of your office and settle back into your regular life. This is the easy thing to do, but it’s not the best thing to do!
After the Conference is over, before you do ANYTHING else, it’s really important that you conduct a debriefing session with yourself. Do it as soon as you can after the Conference has ended. If you fly to the conference, doing this on the plane is great!
Basically, you want to ask yourself: Did I accomplish my Conference Goal? Why or why not? If yes, what else did I gain from the Conference? If not, what could I have done to better prepare myself to accomplish that Goal? What I can start to do now to help prepare me to accomplish that Goal at the same Conference next year?
Write down the answers to these questions so you can go back and refer to them again when you are preparing to attend the same Conference or a different Conference in the future.
This is a really important step because you want to make sure you accomplished what you planned to do. Sometimes, you might leave a Conference feeling a little overwhelmed because of how much you did in that one weekend. Your initial reaction might be “I’m so tired! I never want to do that again!” But once you realize you accomplished your Goal, you may look at your Conference experience in a completely different light.
Similarly, you might leave a Conference feeling fantastic. You might feel inspired and creatively-charged, ready to tackle the literary world. But then, when you realize that you were too busy having fun to accomplish your Conference Goal, it might be a nice wake-up call, reminding you about your priorities. After all, as writers, we want to have fun with our work, but if we can’t ever achieve our Goals, then we might just spend decades having a blast but never publishing anything.
Are you attending any Writing Conferences this year? How are you preparing for them?