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Six Ways to Make the Most of Writing Conferences

This year, I had the privilege to attend Thrillerfest, an incredible annual writing conference put on by International Thriller Writers, for the second time. The whole experience was a blast, and I learned a lot, both from the workshops themselves and from the rest of the week. Here are some ways to improve your conference-going.

1. Bring business cards.

I know this, I really do, but I was caught off-guard this year because I wasn’t sure I would be attending until somewhat late in the process. So my box of business cards sat, unused, in my closet in Denver while I was schmoozing in NYC. However, I did end up with a good stack of cards from writers and other professionals I met or reconnected with. Try to make note on the card or in a notebook of what you connected over and, if relevant, what you wanted to follow up with them about. Business cards add up quickly, and you don’t want to be left questioning who was who!

As far as your own business cards go, make sure they look professional and aren’t going to smudge easily, as they’ll likely get thrown in the bottom of conference swag bags. Different people prefer to do different things, but especially if you’ll be pitching, consider putting a very short pitch line for your manuscript on the back of the card. If you’ve got representation, it can be worth talking to your agent about this as far as branding goes.

2. Pitch to agents and editors.

Speaking of if you’re pitching — definitely pitch! I don’t have a manuscript that’s ready right now, but I’ve pitched at conferences in the past, and it’s absolutely worth doing. If the conference has a specific space for pitching that you can sign up for, do that. Research the agents and editors who are coming and find out who might be the best fit for you and your manuscript. Practice your pitch, which should be a succinct description of what the premise of your book is and what makes it compelling. Avoid memorizing something word for word, though — it’s your book, so you should feel comfortable talking about it! The editor or agent may well ask you questions about your characters, your plot, etc., so be prepared to answer them. They’re just humans, and they want it to be a good match as much as you do.

And if you don’t get a formal pitch appointment, or even if you do, don’t forget to sally up to the other most important pitching space: the hotel bar. Be courteous and respectful of the agents and editors there, but they’re at the conference on business, and you should feel free to (nicely) pitch them. Just try to remember you’re having a conversation with another human being.

3. If you get a request for more pages, follow up.

This goes without saying, but I’ve heard multiple agents and editors talk about this. It happens surprisingly often that they’ll ask an aspiring author for ten pages, or three chapters, or even the full manuscript, and that author will never send it to them. What a wasted opportunity! Don’t be that person. When you get a request, immediately write down who to send it to, where to send it, and what to send. Get those pages moving as soon as you can, and include in your subject line that they’re requested pages from X Conference.

4. Talk to the other attendees.

It can be tempting to spend all your time stalking the publishing professionals and instructors, but don’t forget to chat with your fellow conference-goers. The writing community is a great place to make friends, learn from others who are on the same journey as you, and hear about opportunities you may otherwise not have known about.

If you’re someone who has a hard time starting conversations with strangers but there are people you want to talk to, there are a lot of ways to make this easier on yourself. One is to know that a lot of writers are introverts, but most are also really open to meeting other writers. It’s always an easy conversation starter to ask what someone is working on right now, or what genre they prefer to write in. You can also ask if they’re planning on pitching, what’s been their favorite session so far, or if they’ve raided the bookstore yet.

5. Go to sessions, but don’t wear yourself out.

You paid good money for the conference, so take advantage of the sessions, receptions, meals, and other opportunities while you’re there. That being said, conferences are exhausting. You’re wading through a lot of new information and meeting a lot of new people all at once. Don’t feel like you have to go to absolutely everything; sometimes you need a nap, or a walk, or some solo writing time to put whatever you just learned into practice. Pace yourself so that you don’t crash halfway through the conference and miss some of the sessions you were the most excited about. And while the hotel bar and cocktail receptions are often the best place to meet people and make connections, don’t feel like you have to stay out late or meet every single interesting person who’s there. Take a look at the schedule and put stars next to the events you really don’t want to miss. That way, if you feel your energy starting to flag, you’ll have predetermined the gaps where you don’t mind taking a break.

6. Contribute to the community.

One of the best things about the writing community is that it really is a community, and the best way to get connected within it is to contribute. Sign up to volunteer with set-up or timekeeping at sessions. Buy fellow author’s books and get them to sign them. Help other attendees practice their pitches and give them feedback. Encourage presenters and nervous newbies. It’s the fastest way to make new friends and connections, and it makes the writing community stronger. Plus, the next time you go to a conference, odds are you’ll find somebody you know.

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