Now that you’ve found the right conference for you, how do you maximize your time there? Part of it is your preparation.
Read all available information on the schedule, and the presenters, especially, of course, ones you might be pitching to.
Plan ahead so you know the sessions you especially want to attend. Know your priorities, and mark them so you don’t miss them. There may be some blocks with multiple sessions you’d like to go to, and others that don’t have anything that seems to jump out at you. At many conferences, it’s okay to go to more than one in the same time block (as long as you’re quiet) but at others you’ll be expected to stay for the entire session. Try to pick up handouts, if any, from the sessions you couldn’t attend.
And don’t worry if you need to take a break! If your brain is full, or you’re just tired of sitting in a chair, it’s okay to skip a session and take a walk outside for some fresh air, or peruse the bookstore/exhibit area, or get a cup of coffee… it’s good to get all you can from a conference, but you don’t want to get so frazzled trying to run to everything that you don’t actually learn anything.
You’ll want to take this opportunity to meet people, so say hello! Most people attend conferences on their own, and are happy if someone breaks the ice. There’s always lots to talk about – the speakers, sessions you went to, what you write, books you’ve read recently, etc. – so it’s easy to make small talk. Even if you hate small talk, it’s a lot of fun to “talk shop” with other writers, and you might get some good information. Speak to people at meals, in sessions, and in the exhibitor area. If you’re nervous about this whole “networking” think, set a goal to speak with a certain number of people per day – 5, or 10, or 3, whatever feels doable for you.
If there’s a workshop component, you’ll need to prepare your manuscript carefully, according to whatever instructions are given. If they ask for 10 pages, make it double-spaced, in a 12-point, easy to read font. Number your pages, and also put your name and the working title in the header or footer. It’s rarely necessary to bring a whole copy of your book, unless it’s specifically requested. If you meet with an agent or editor and they do ask for a full manuscript, they will most likely prefer not to haul it with them, but ask you to send it later.
If you’re pitching, don’t just think you can show up and wing it. Some conferences offer “pitch practice” sessions you can take advantage of, to throw your pitch out to someone and get their feedback. But you’ll want to prepare ahead of time what some call your “elevator speech” where you have to distill your project down to one sentence. The formula is simple: Who the protagonist is, What h/she wants, and Why s/she wants it (what are the stakes?). Be specific. Pitching is an art – one which I’ll go over in more depth in a later article.
Think about bringing some simple business cards. You can print them at Kinko’s or online at a site like www.vistaprint.com. This isn’t crucial – many people don’t have them – but they can be useful, especially if you’re a freelancer looking to pitch articles.
Finally, I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before: make a post-conference plan. This might entail making a list of specific agents or editors to query, or organizing your notes and handouts and figuring out how you’re going to apply what you learned in the sessions to a work in progress, or going over notes you received in workshop and making a plan for revision. It’s easy to just throw all your conference materials in a drawer when you get home, but making the most of it includes actually putting what you learned into practice. Without a plan, good intentions can evaporate in the chaos of real life. After all, you want to good energy and motivation from the conference to last as long as possible, right?
(And yes, the image above contains coffee and cookies. Because high-level action planning requires caffeine and sugar. And, increasingly, my glasses.)