Thursday, April 24, 2014

Going to a Writer’s Conference – Tips for Survival and Success – Part Two, At the Con

This is the second installment of tips, as the original post grew so quickly I decided to split it up into three sections. The previous post discussed things you can do to prepare for a conference (Part One), and in this post we'll look at the star of the show, tips for while attending the con.

At the Con:
You’ve pulled up, checked-in, and dropped your stuff off in the hotel room. Before you do anything else, find the Registration Desk

At most cons you will receive a package containing a program book, a map of the hotel, perhaps some promotional-freebie material, and most importantly, your badge. If you have to write your name on it yourself, make it BIG and CLEAR. People don’t want to have to put on glasses to see who you are. This badge will allow you to attend all of the events. A few times I’ve run into people before registering and although I wanted to join them, I had to leave their company to register, awkwardly cutting off the conversation. So, get checked-in, get all officialized.

Got a buddy? Find them. Do you know what they look like? Do you have a planned meeting place? If they are carrying/wearing something unique it will be easier to identify them rather than reading a bunch of name tags as you walk around.

Tweet and Facebook-post live, and if you can remember it, use the conference hashtag. There might be other people searching for the hashtag who will join you online, or even look for you in person if they are also attending.

Bring your camera! You never know who you’re going to meet, or what kind of crazy things you’ll see. It will help you remember special events, you can share pics of you with other people (to remind them of who you are, too!), and to capture some of the strange things that turn into conversation starters for years to come. Do you remember when the life-sized Dalek blew steam and scared the restaurant waiter? Yes! I was there and got a picture!

Make your business cards easily accessible. I usually wear jeans where I have copies of my card in one back pocket, and the cards I collect in the other. Try not to fumble through deep purses or thick wallets. Nice and fast, ZIP! Here’s my card, and shake hands.

Which leads me to… Wash your hands a lot. It’s a small space for all of those people who are shaking hands. You don’t want to come home with “con-crud” which could be any sickness anyone had that weekend. You will be low on sleep, you might not eat enough, and a con will take a lot out of you, so give yourself a chance to escape healthy.

If you are NOT promoting any of your work…

Look through the programming and attend panels based on the people you want to meet, not necessarily the topic. You may not be interested in vampires, but the editor talking about them today might be in line with you waiting for coffee, or in an elevator later. And remember to keep the conversation and timing light-and-polite, being overaggressive is an instant put-off.

While at a panel, sit in front if you can. Try not to ask a million questions, a couple will do. Even if you don’t ask anything, sitting closer to the front will make you a recognizable face. A smile and eye contact also go a long way. If you’re so inclined, take notes. Someone might drop a name, or do’s and don’t’s you’ll want to remember. (Like the infamous Sandra Kasturi line from the What Editors Want panel: “Don’t be a douche.”)

Take a long walk through the dealer’s room. The dealer’s room is where you buy stuff. Depending on the con, the "stuff" changes quite a bit. Swords and jewelry, corsets and Lego kits, it’s always interesting to see what’s there. But focus on the books. There might be bookstores, publishers, or authors, so ask questions! Ask who they are, they may or may not be an editor, the publishers, or a friend manning the table. Does a publisher take unagented work? How many books do they put out in a year? What type of writing are they looking for? Pick up biz cards and bookmarks on the table. Ask if you can give them your card, they’ll usually say yes. I used to feel incredible pressure to buy things while visiting a table. You do not have to buy something from every table in order to make a good impression. You’ll be broke in an hour, and of course people want you to purchase their merchandise, but they also understand that you’re trying to do business, too. They will remember you by your card, not your sale. (But by all means if you find items you like, buy buy buy!)

Carry cash. Whether you are in the dealer’s room, grabbing a quick coffee or a hot dog, or catching someone in a hallway to buy their book, you’re going to need paper in your pocket. If you are there with an experienced writer and riding their coat-tails, offer to buy them a beer or a coffee. (It’s not necessary to buy a four-course dinner.) For example, years later a writer/editor remembered when I bought him a three dollar soup when I was already making the walk up the street for my own. We all try to pay it forward. This could be your new family.

The Consuite is a hotel suite reserved for all attendees, and you can find various types of snacks or meals, beverages, and company. Some are more elaborate than others, but either way it's a nice place to be able to SIT and RELAX before rushing off to the next event. You will find people either very tired or jovial and friendly, the latter obviously more open to answering questions and chatting. Big fans of the con will even be able to tell you about past years, and about the most popular events of the weekend. (See room parties tip below.) Hanging out in the Consuite might even make for some interesting people-watching, especially if they're in costume.

If you ARE promoting your work…

I’ll be honest, when you have something to promote, you feel like you have more of a right to be there, some solid footing. Your name tag will look different and people will recognize that. You’ve done the work, you’ve published short stories or a novel and you should be proud.

You have a LOT of work to do. If you are doing a reading, print off some posters with your reading time/details, your picture and your book cover, and hang them ALL OVER the hotel. Most importantly, hang them in the elevators (and bathrooms?) where people stand and stare. Have bookmarks or postcards made with your name and cover of the book to hand out at your reading, and to leave around everywhere as well.

At your reading, make sure you put up your name tent (a folded, light-cardboard name tag usually in your registration package) so everyone can stare at it as they listen. Do you have extra signage that you can hang or stand up beside you or on the table? And yes, I know you're nervous. We all are. But don't read like you're nervous, do it right or don't do it at all. Loud and proud. A quiet, monotone reader will literally put the audience to sleep. Even if you have one audience member, give them a great reading, and who knows, you might attract people walking by when hear interesting things happening. Do your best to stay within your scheduled time, and leave about ten minutes at the end in case anyone has questions. Remind them of all the places where they can buy your work, and give out freebies like bookmarks.

If you are on a panel, have something to say. Often you'll find that the other panelists will want to discuss the topics over email before the conference, but not always. Jot down some points ahead of time, but be ready to follow the flow of the conversation. Personally I would not offer to be a moderator at my first con. A “mod” has the added responsibility of making sure everyone gets a chance to speak, to tone down any overbearing panelists, and get quieter people to contribute. If your day job is teaching related, this might come naturally for you. Again, speak loud enough to be heard, and listen to the audience questions carefully. There is usually time at the end for Q&A, and remember to shake hands with your fellow panelists before you move on to the next event.

Writer's conferences set up a large signing room for authors to sit and welcome people who want to get books signed. If you are a new author, there is a good chance you'll be bloody lonely. But wait! There are good reasons to stay. First, people in line for popular authors are staring at you and copies of your book while they wait. They might pick up your card and bookmark. Smile and chat with them because you never know, many readers are looking for someone new to read. This happened to me at my last signing, a reader bought all three of my books because he DIDN'T recognize me. Another good reason to stay is because you can meet so many authors, and some editors are at signings with anthologies they've released. If you are sitting beside them, exchange business cards and chat. If not, wait for a lull at their table and go and visit them, joke about your lonely post and keep it light and polite. If there is no lull, make a point of meeting up with them another time.

Everyone likes a party. If you are having a Book Launch Party, see if your publisher will help you with costs and setup. You will need to make posters (perhaps combined with your reading time) and hang them everywhere as mentioned previously. Decorate your party room door to grab the attention of passers-by, and have signs around the room that celebrate you and your work. You will need beer, wine, hard stuff and mix. Have non-alcoholic beverages available. You will need snacks, finger foods, pizza or other self-contained eatables as well. If you are playing music, try to find a volume balance so that everyone can still talk to each other and network. Some people run contests or give away promo items, others do a second reading, most give a small speech at the very least to thank everyone for coming, and to remember to buy the book. You might want to have copies of that around, too...but, not as coasters.

If you are not having a book launch party, make sure you go to the Green Room. Most cons have a hotel suite for participants only, and there is usually free food and beverages throughout the weekend. It's a great place to go between events because you know you will see people who are guests/authors/editors/publishers. Don't be afraid to talk about your work, or even new projects you're working on. Nobody is going to steal your ideas, and you might even find someone who's interested in hearing more about you. One of the most common questions asked is, "So, where are you from?" Answers vary from names of magazines or publishing houses, to which State or City they live in, or a project they're working on. Some people find this question necessary and/or safe, others are tired of answering it and get annoyed - you can't please everyone. No matter how you begin your chit-chat, have those biz cards ready. Later on at night, there is a good chance alcoholic drinks will be free, and attendees will be done with their panels and readings and gather there en masse, or at other room parties...

"Room parties" are common. Some are themed, some are publisher-run, some are seemingly random room parties - look for signs throughout the day and try to find out where most people are going. It's all about networking and making connections. Be ready for a jam-packed, sweaty, loud experience. After the midnight hour, how late you stay up, how much you have to drink, and how you conduct yourself is up to you. Try not to be a douche.

The morning after is unpleasant for everyone who stays up late. Find coffee, water, and eat something. Get as much out of each day as you can. Travel safely when it's time to go home.

Sleep on Monday at work.

But that leads to part three, what to do AFTER a con... yes! There are tips for when you get home!

Once again I'd like to invite anyone out there who would like to add or comment on these tips, or tell us about your own experiences!


  1. Love these posts, Marcy! Keep em coming! When I get to a point where I can do a con, I hope I can put these tips into practice! Maybe you can post some links to small, local, inexpensive, beginner-friendly type cons coming up if you know of any? Thanks for keeping us newbies in mind!

    1. CCMonroe: If you get a chance, Part One has a short list as supplied by Suzanne Church, and a couple of tips about how to find a con that's right for you. Unfortunately, I can't do that homework for you. :)

  2. Tons of great content here, Marcy.

    I also suggest that convention attendees bring along quick snacks like water bottles, fruit, and granola bars. I've often been so booked with panels that I don't have time to grab a lunch.

    1. Suzanne: Thanks! And a great additional tip which didn't come to my mind since I'm guilty of going without, rather than planning snacks-on-the-go.