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Surviving Your First National Conference

2001 marks my sixth RWA National Conference, but I can still remember how nervous I was that first time I attended. After I sent in my registration, I was filled with an enormous sense of energy and confidence. I was going to National; I had made my first significant investment in my writing. With more than a thousand dollars on the line, my dream of writing had suddenly become a very real goal of getting published.

And that's when panic began to set in. Was I ready for this? How should I dress? What workshops should I attend? What should I say in my editor and agent appointments? What if I freeze up and can't say anything at all?

Luckily, I was able to turn to friends in RWA who had been where I was (and lived to tell about it). They shared their conference survival tips with me, and now I gladly pass them on to you, along with a few personal lessons I have learned along the way.

First, try to relax. You're not going to make or break your career at a national conference (unless you plan on stalking editors and forcing them to read the brilliant manuscript you brought along just in case-but more on that later). Ideally, your first conference should be an enjoyable learning experience on all levels. Don't try to turn it into a do-or-die mission. Remember to breathe. And wear comfortable shoes.

If you're goal-oriented (as I am), give yourself a small task list of things you want to accomplish. Attainable things, such as: one face-to-face meeting with an agent or an editor; attend several workshops on conflict so I can fix the trouble spots in my manuscript; or, attend my targeted publisher's Spotlight session so I can see the individual editors and determine if my manuscript aligns with what they're buying. Keep your goals manageable, and if you feel you can accomplish more, go for it!

When it comes to workshops, the first thing I do when I get my registration packet is flip through the schedule and highlight the sessions I want to attend. I use two different colored highlighters: one color for must-see workshops, and the other for viable alternates in case the first one isn't what I expected. (Tip: Don't be afraid to leave a workshop if it doesn't meet your needs. Get up quietly and make your exit as unobtrusively as you can. And please, make sure your cell phone is turned off!)

Prepare to miss a few workshops due to scheduling conflicts. It's impossible to be two places at once, so take note early of sessions you might wish to buy on tape. My rule of thumb was to attend every publisher's (and agent's) Spotlight session that might be a target for my manuscript. I wanted to see the editors' faces so I might recognize them elsewhere during the conference, and get a feel for what they were like in person. I prefer to buy the tapes for craft workshops rather than Spotlights because house needs and staff can change from year to year, making the how-to tape a better investment for my reference library.

Okay, you've got your conference schedule all highlighted and you're ready to fill the creative well with information from dozens of fabulous workshops. Now there's the matter of this little appointment ticket that's making you break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it. Your editor/agent appointment. It seemed like such a great idea when you were signing up for it several weeks ago, but now you're tempted to gather your things and book the first flight home. Don't panic! You're here to learn, remember?

Consider your first appointment merely a rite of passage, the crossing of a threshold on your journey toward publication. Your main goal should be nothing more than to effectively communicate the basic elements of your story to the editor or agent you're meeting with-a skill you will need to further develop after you're published. Once you've pitched your book, be prepared to answer questions about it, and ask some questions of your own. If you're nervous, say so upfront. Editors and agents are human, too. They'll understand. (Tip: Ask for the editor/agent's business card if they don't offer it first. Likewise, make sure to bring cards with your name, address, phone number, and email on them. I also put a sticker with my manuscript title on the back of the card, listing any contest wins/placements. **For 250 FREE color business cards--all you have to pay is postage--click here to visit www.vistaprint.com!)

Editors and agents also understand that, surrounded by nearly a thousand hopeful writers, there are bound to be a few bolder souls who will think nothing of interrupting private conversations, dinner meetings, or powder room time to pitch a story. Do not be one of these rude people! No matter how brilliant you may believe your work to be, do not accost an unsuspecting editor or agent to tell them so. It's one thing to strike up a casual conversation if the situation warrants it, but being in constant sell mode will win you no favor from anyone.

Finally, after the conference is over and you have returned home excited, exhausted, and fully inspired to get back to your writing, take a moment to send a handwritten thank you note to the editors and/or agents you met. Don't wait to send it until after you've given that proposal one final polish; put the note (and your business card) in the mail right away. Remember, the more often you put your name in front of an editor or agent, the more likely they are to remember it when that brilliant manuscript arrives on their desk.

Here's wishing you a fabulous first conference experience!