In just over a week, I'll be presenting three workshops and moderating a panel at the LDStorymakers Writers Conference in Salt Lake City. As I prepare for my presentations, I can't help but think back to the first conferences I ever attended and how far I've come since then.
I remember sitting in the crowd and making a goal to one day be the one speaking to the attendees. It's still a bit mind-blowing that I am on the other side now, and I've even co-chaired a conference with Precision Editing's Heather Moore.
I've learned something new at every conference I've attended, since my very first one, which I believe was around 1996. While the types of things and the amount I learn vary, conferences are always a valuable experience.
Here are a few ways to make the most out of yours:
1) Look over the schedule in advance.
This is especially important if the conference offers more than one workshop at a time. You'll want to know where you're going and what you want to learn. It's miserable being on the spot, having to decide NOW between two or three great choices.
A couple of other reasons for checking the schedule in advance:
-Some workshops have limited seating, and you may need to RSVP for them in advance. If you miss the window, you're out of luck.
-Seeing the schedule tells you who is teaching what, which gives you a chance to familiarize yourself with the presenters and their work. (And that can help you decide which class to attend.)
2) Leave Your Comfort Zone at Home.
By nature of what we do, writers are solitary and often introverted, qualities that don't serve you well at a conference. One of the most valuable parts of any conference is networking with industry insiders, rubbing shoulders with other writers, and making friends.
Many critique groups form after the writers in them met at a conference, and deals go down thanks to contacts made there.
This is hard. I know it is. But force yourself to sit next to someone you don't know. Introduce yourself. Chat with other writers, both published and unpublished. It's not so hard once you break the ice, because after all, you do have one big thing in common: a love for writing.
3) Be Open to Feedback.
This goes hand-in-hand with leaving your comfort zone at home. If you are part of a critique workshop, a pitch session, or are getting feedback in any form, put on that thick skin, open your arms, and let it all in.
Remember that no one is there to attack you personally. Any feedback you get is given to genuinely help you grow as a writer and to improve your work.
4) Bring Your Supplies.
In whatever form they may be. Absolutely bring a notebook and something to write with. You may get a syllabus for note-taking as well, and a laptop is great too, but you can't guarantee you'll have enough writing space on a syllabus, and a battery can die. (This is a great time to use your AlphaSmart Neo if you have one.) A water bottle is also a good idea.
5) Follow Conference Etiquette.
Read any information on the conference web site and that the conference sends to you. Some basic things to keep in mind:
Don't pitch to an agent or editor at any time except in a pre-paid pitch session. (They tell horror stories of being pitched to in the restroom, in the elevator, at lunch . . . don't do it.)
Don't hog Q&A time, and pay attention so you don't ask questions that have already been answered.
If you made a meal selection when you registered, be sure to claim the meal you picked then (you can't change your mind now, or someone else won't get the meal they paid for).
Turn your cell phone to vibrate. Don't text during workshops.
Arrive on time. Be respectful during classes; don't talk to a friend in the middle of a lecture.
If you have suggestions for a future conference, feel free to leave feedback, often on a feedback form or web site. But be kind; realize that hundreds of man hours and months of work have gone into preparing for the event. Yes, people make mistakes, but there may be a reason for something you aren't aware of.
6) Most of all, HAVE FUN.
As far as craft goes, I learn much less at a conference today than I did back in 1996, simply because I've been working at it for so long, but I still find nuggets at every conference.
But even if I learned nothing new, I'd still go, for one big reason: conferences charge my creative batteries in ways nothing else can. There is no other place I can hang out where everyone there, literally hundreds of people, really get the writer part of me.
No one looks at me funny when I talk about characters having conversations in my head, or the latest cool fact I learned in my research, or how a plot twist just showed up. These are my people, and conferences are, in some ways, my Disneyland.