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#AuthorToolBoxBlogHop: How to Prep for Your First Writer's Conference

I recently attended my very first writer's conference and let me tell you, it was a decision years in the making. For so long I had entertained the idea. I'd heard such great stories from other writers about how much there is to learn and all of the great connections one can make. Still, whenever it came time to purchase a ticket, I always held myself back.

If you are anything like me, an introvert with socially anxious tendencies, then the idea of a writer's conference probably sends a chill down your spine. Socializing with a large group of strangers, participating in discussions, and generally putting yourself, not to mention your work, out there can be intimidating.

However, over the years I've found that preparation is an excellent coping strategy for such nerves and will ultimately ensure a much more positive and productive experience. It was through my preparation that I ended up having the BEST time. Talking to agents, participating in sessions, and making some wonderful writer friends. (More on this later when I share my video recap!)

So if you're a writer who's always hesitated to take the next step or you've signed up for your first conference and are looking for pointers, this blog is dedicated to you.


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Here are all of my preparation tips for your first conference:


Research the Speakers/Agents

If you do nothing else before a conference, please, for the love of writing, do this. It was one of the primary takeaways from my research and honestly, it was the #1 most helpful thing when it came to pitching. Go to the conference website and read through it. This may sound obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people at the conference skipped this step and regretted it.

Small disclaimer here that a lot of the advice in this post will be geared toward writers seeking traditional publication. While you're always welcome to disregard any information in my posts that isn't useful, please keep in mind that if you are a self-published author or an author with plans to self-publish, some of the pointers in this post are not tailored for you. 

The very first thing I did was go to the list of speakers and scan for agents. What am I looking for, exactly? I want to see if the agent represents my genre, who they represent, and get a sense of their style, plus any kind of information I can use as a conversation starter to create a connection. Sometimes this is obvious in their bio, but you may have to go their agency website or social media to get this information. Write down each of the agents you find that are interested in your genre and memorize those names. When it comes time to pitch, you'll have the advantage of being one of the first in line.

So why is this important? For many reasons. More than I can go into in this one post. But you'd be surprised how many people approach agents not having a clue who they are or what they are looking for. This reflects poorly on the writer, as it seems that they don't really care who is representing their work, just so long as they get a book deal. 

And if what I witnessed is any indication of the average, most agents won't even want to hear your pitch if they don't represent your genre. So don't waste the precious time you've been given to form a valuable connection with an industry professional. 

Order Business Cards

This was the general consensus that I found online. A business card helps solidify a connection, whether it's a writer friend, a potential mentor, or an agent. Unfortunately, most people struggle with names and will likely forget yours within minutes of an initial encounter. A business card is a tangible reminder of who you are and a great place to provide additional contact information, such an email address, phone number, or social media handle.

But remember to include a picture of your face! It's likely that whoever you're giving your card to will have a stack of others just like it, so if they can't put your name to your face, it becomes a challenge. 

If you don't have business cards, I recommend vistaprint.com. They have a large selection of templates that you can browse through and find a style that fits your personality and genre. I was very pleased with the design I chose from their selection and received a ton of compliments. 

And it also doesn't hurt to have a stylish business card holder. You can find some really nice, affordable options. Here is the one I purchased on Amazon.

Know Your Story

You may or may not have a polished manuscript, which is why I'm leaving this category open to interpretation. However, whether you're in the early stages of writing your first book or you have several completed manuscripts under your belt, it is extremely beneficial for you to come prepared with a few of the following:
  • The genre of your book
  • The word count of your book
  • Comp titles
  • Your favorite authors
  • Authors with a similar style to yours
  • Your pitch
Throughout the conference, you will hear time and again the question, "what's your book about?" Even if you're early on in your process, it's helpful to have some information to share that will help you develop like-minded connections and who knows, maybe even a critique partner. But more than that, if you do have a pitch ready to go, you can get some valuable insight and constructive criticism. 

Now comp titles are a larger subject than I can elaborate on in this post, but I will have a video coming soon, so make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel if you're interested in that. And I'm definitely open to sharing what I've learned about the pitch, so let me know if you're interested in that as well! 

But taking the time to think through of each of things will pay off not only throughout the conference, but during your querying journey as well, if you're looking to traditionally publish. If you're planning on pitching to an agent at the conference, I advise you to have your word count, comp titles and pitch ready to go as these are the three key elements that agents will expect you to know if you're serious about selling your work. 

Items to Bring

Since I am a lover of lists, I thought I'd share a few of the items I brought with me to my conference that I found especially helpful:

  1. Tote bag - You'll want to bring a bag large enough to fit all of the following items, but light enough that it won't weigh you down.
  2. Light jacket - Even in summer, which my conference was, the rooms can get quite cool. I don't typically get cold in these environments, but at one point found myself using the table cloth as a blanket, if that gives you an idea. We were also blessed with early-morning thunderstorms, so a jacket that doubles as a raincoat is a bonus.
  3. Snacks - Depending on the venue, there may not be many options when it comes to food. And even if they have it, it may well be expensive. Save yourself some money and think ahead. Prep some snacks and pack a light lunch, if you can. 
  4. Water bottle - My conference had water available, but you may want to plan to bring an empty bottle that you can fill up at the water fountain, just in case. 
  5. Notebook - I have been loving this notebook binder that I found on Amazon. When I first found this product, I thought it was pure genius. The notebook style makes it super simple to fold over to write in small spaces, but it has the convenience of being able to sort and pull out pages like a binder. 
  6. Pens
  7. Business cards
  8. Extra Cash - Aside from food, you'll likely need money to pay for parking, so bring some cash to be safe. You may also want to set a little money aside to purchase books. Most of the speakers who have been published will use the opportunity to sell their work, and you could use the opportunity to get an autograph. 

Plan to Participate

One thing you'll want to get familiar with after you've purchased a ticket to your first writer's conference is your own personal pep talk. As Tony Robbins would say, make your move! Whatever personal credo that makes you feel empowered. I recommend doing this several times leading up to the conference and each morning throughout the event. Remind yourself why you're there, what your strengths are, and how much you love your work. This enthusiasm will really help to carry you through and give you the confidence to participate. 

Read through the conference agenda and see what kinds of activities invoke participation that you may need to plan for. My conference featured a first page panel where three industry professionals read through first pages and critique them on the spot, in front of everyone. The concept was to paint a picture of the agent reading through the slush pile and pinpoint the variety of reasons that an agent might pass on your novel. 

While at first I rejected the idea of sharing my first page for criticism, I reminded myself that this was my best shot at a personal, focused critique of my work. The most I'd ever gotten outside of college were form rejection letters. So I decided to take advantage of this valuable opportunity and I am so glad that I did. 

So plan to participate in whatever opportunities that come up. Ask questions during sessions. Say yes to invitations to lunch or dinner with other writers. If you're nervous, just remember: these are people who share the same passion as you. So when in doubt, ask them what they're working on and the conversation is sure to flow from there. These are ways to get the most of this experience that you've invested in for your career and for yourself.

In case you're interested, I attended the WriterCon conference in Oklahoma City. You can read more about it here

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If you're prepping to attend your first writer's conference, I wish you all the best of luck. These activities certainly helped me get the most out of my conference experience and I hope they do the same for you. If you have any questions about anything that wasn't covered, feel free to reach out and ask me and I'll do my best to answer them. 

If you've attended a writing conference, let me know your favorite memory or words or wisdom you received down in the comments!

This is the September 2019 Author Toolbox Blog Hop, hosted by Raimey Gallant. Be sure to check out the rest of the awesome bloggers here!

Comments

  1. Excellent article and spot on advice! My first conference was overwhelming. This article would have been a huge help to me then! Writing conferences can be such a blessing when we go prepared and with a clear vision of why we are there. Thanks for the wise counsel Christy.

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    1. Thank you so much, Lori! When I'm writing these kinds of posts, I always envision that I'm speaking to a past version of myself that would have needed an extra boost. Though I was intimidated at first, but I'm so glad I chose WriterCon as my first conference. The atmosphere was very warm and supportive, just like its attendees! :)

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  2. Some wonderful advice! I’m much happier sticking to myself too so I get what you are saying - it is vital to participate fully in the conference expetience

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    1. Thank you! I'm glad to hear I'm not the only introvert. :)

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  3. Great tips :)

    I thought about going to a writing conference over summer, but I haven't finished a draft yet. Are conferences useful if you've not finished a first draft or is it best to wait?

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! I think it depends on what you're hoping to get out of it. I made a friend at the conference who was in the early stages of writing her first novel and she was very happy to be there. You can make a lot of writing buddies if that is something that's important to you and our conference had several sessions about craft that could help with your story. We also talked about author branding and marketing, which is helpful information no matter what stage you're in. But if you're only attending to talk to agents and the money is a concern to you, it could be advantageous to wait until your manuscript is complete or at least until you have a solid pitch. If the agent wants to see your work, they're usually willing to wait until you've finished.

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  4. I feel like this post was written just for me! lol I've been avoiding conferences for ages and still haven't found the courage to go to one. For one, I keep telling myself I'm not ready - my manuscript isn't finished yet, so what's the point? I'm also incredibly shy and the thought of really putting myself out there makes me so nervous! But think your tips here are exactly what I need. It's comforting to know there are others who are just as freaked out about conferences as me! Thank you so much for sharing!

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    1. Thanks for reading, I'm so happy you found it helpful! I completely understand those fears as they are what kept me from moving forward ages ago. Although having gone through with it now, I can say from the other side that it's definitely worth it to push past those feelings of discomfort.

      One thing that really helped during the conference was to spot someone sitting alone and ask to sit by them. I'm better with one-on-one interactions, so that really helped me. Everyone was so lovely and said of course! And like I said in the post, if you ask about what they are working on it helps take some of the pressure off as it gets them talking about something they're passionate about and you can just listen.

      I said this to someone else who asked about attending a conference before your manuscript is finished, but you might be surprised how much you can still get out of it. Whether it's a craft advice, a writing buddy that could help you polish your work, a mentor, or if you had a solid pitch down, you could even get an agent's contact information and be able to query them once your manuscript is finished. One agent I spoke with told me that if the agent is interested, the offer doesn't expire. So even if takes a year to finish your book, you can still send it to them.

      Anyway, do what's right for you. But I hope this helped alleviate some of those nerves and feelings of doubt because they definitely affect me too and I still struggle sometimes to overcome them.

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  5. I just went to mine without any prep. Okay I lie, I did prep for pitching and did terribly. Nerves can ruin any pitch no matter how prepared I thought I was. I was also there to meet people and learn things. And in that I was a winner.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

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    Replies
    1. Sorry to hear the pitch didn't pan out for you. I agree, nerves can definitely derail you, no matter how much you practice. Glad to hear you still had a good experience overall! :)

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  6. I help run a writer's conference every May. Your advice is excellent. I follow all of it every year. And make sure everything is within reach in your tote so you can grab what you need quickly.

    Susan Says

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    1. Thank you so much, Susan! Yes, accessibility within the tote bag is key. lol I have to admit I packed mine a bit full so I had to fumble a bit when I needed to grab a business card or a pen. :)

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  7. Really great advice, Christy! And you have sold me on adding my photo to my business cards. One of the other things I have done for conferences is to try to familiarize myself with what the agents and speakers look like, which can be as simple as opening a word doc and copy and pasting photos beside names, etc.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Raimey! Glad to hear it! The photo on the business card thing isn't something I even thought about until I did the research online and when I learned the thought process behind it, decided that it made a ton of sense. I like that advice to get the agents photos into a document so you know who you're looking for and avoid possible embarrassment by calling someone by the wrong name! lol

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  8. A great 'survival' guide to conferences. I will be saving this for future use.

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