Confessions of a Conference Junkie
A guest post by Jerilyn Patterson
I became hooked on writer’s conferences after attending my first one in 2010. Now, I attend an average of three per year, and I always look forward to the wealth of knowledge they provide, the encouraging community, and the opportunity to meet interesting authors and industry professionals. Over the years I’ve honed some strategies for making the most out of my conference experience. Read on for my tips!
Focus on Craft
First and foremost, I go to conferences to learn. When I consider the accumulative experience of everyone in attendance, including fellow writers as well as faculty members, conference tuition is a steal. I try to absorb every single drop of information and take nothing for granted.
Before going, I reflect on the specific areas of my craft I want to improve, and then peruse the conference schedule in search any sessions and keynotes relating to that. While most conferences don’t require advance registration for specific break-out sessions, I prefer to have a game-plan from the get-go, instead of leaving all the decision-making until I’m standing in the crowded lobby of a potentially unfamiliar place.
While there, I take copious notes like I’m back in college and yes, everything will be on the final exam. I read somewhere that information is best absorbed when taking notes by hand, and I’ve found this to be true. I bring a shiny new notebook, stock up on my favorite pens,
When I get home after the conference, I type out all my notes and save them in a file on my computer. This might seem extreme—why don’t I just use my laptop for note-taking at the conference to eliminate the extra step? Because typing them forces me to revisit what I’ve learned, which helps gel all that new information. After my last conference I ended up with seventeen single-spaced pages, and that was just for the first day! (I’m still working on transcribing day two.)
Throughout my years attending conferences, I’ve discovered an invaluable community that cheers me on and buoys me up. Yet I’ll admit that’s the last thing I expected when I stepped into my first conference. I was a brand-new, baby writer with nothing more than an intriguing idea and a can-do attitude and I had my game face on. My background is in music, a highly competitive field—even MORE so than writing, believe it or not! I expected everyone in the room to size me up and make snap judgments about my skills based on my outfit and hair-do. That had been my experience in the music industry, and I assumed writing wouldn’t be any different.
Nothing was farther from the truth. Everyone I talked to was warm and welcoming. I met new writers like myself who were eager to make friends, and veteran writers who were incredibly generous about sharing their wealth of knowledge. I left that conference with profound gratitude that I had finally found My People.
If you’re attending a conference for the first time, discovering your own community might seem daunting, especially if you’re an introvert like me. The good news is, every single person in attendance has something in common with you: Writing! Most will welcome the chance to talk about their latest project, their favorite books, or how their pitch session or manuscript consultation went. Don’t be afraid to reach out. And remember that while not everyone you encounter will become your BFF, everyone is a colleague. The children’s writing community is small and you never know who you’ll end up sitting with on a panel someday.
Connecting with Professionals—AKA Agents and Editors are people, too!
While I value craft and community immensely, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I also hope to someday make a connection with my future dream agent or editor. I know I’m not the only one—in my role as registrar for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI, I often receive inquiries about appropriate behavior when approaching industry professionals.
My first strategy is to sign up for a manuscript consultation or pitch session. Not only do these offerings allow for an authentic reason to talk with an agent or editor, they also provide invaluable feedback from individuals who have made a career of selling books.
In casual settings, my rule in approaching industry professionals is to remember they are people too and to put myself in their shoes. Would I prefer a stranger to walk up and start pitching out of the blue while I’m enjoying my lunch? Or would I instead want a writer to introduce themselves respectfully and maybe even chat about the latest Captain America movie? Option B hands down! Sometimes the conversation will naturally progress to what I’m working on. If not, I don’t fret and remember I’ve made a positive connection.
Or not. There was that one time on the last day of a conference when I rode down an elevator with a Very Big Editor from a Very Big Publishing House. Though the editor had sat on many panels throughout the weekend, I didn’t recognize them. Assuming the editor was a writer like me, I asked how long they’d been writing and if this was their first conference. I received a lifted eyebrow in response, noticed their nametag, and flushed bright red. I certainly left an impression! If something similarly embarrassing happens to you, laugh and move on. Agents and editors know that we’re people too.
If you’re thinking about attending a conference, give it a try! With a little preparation and a genuine interest in meeting and making friends with other writers and publishing professionals, you, too, can become a conference junkie.
Jerilyn Patterson has been writing almost since she could talk. No joke--she dictated her first journal entry to her mother when she was four years old. Eventually she learned how to hold her own pen and years later she's still keeping a journal. She also writes young adult fiction and serves as registrar for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI. A native of Colorado, she lives on the front range with her family and two neurotic gerbils. You can find her on twitter, (@jerwrites) occasionally tweeting about writing, legos, kickboxing or whatever else strikes her fancy.