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!