The Control Freak’s Guide to Conferences

Conferences can give a writer’s spirits a real boost, not least because she’s surrounded for the weekend by other writers instead of being alone at the keyboard. In addition to social time, benefits of conferences include networking, learning, and seeing old friends.

However, conferences also have their random elements–who’s going to be there, which editor or agent appointment you have, if any, and how well the seminars address your particular concerns. We control freaks don’t like randomness. We like plans. So here are some tips to help control freaks and others gain maximum benefit from the conference experience.

Tip #1: Confirm your hotel reservation. There’s nothing worse than arriving, all primed to pitch and smile and network, only to find that you have no room. Print out the confirmation and take it with you. Then you can consider yourself armed against hotel error.

Tip #2: Check the conference schedule. Planning which seminars to attend can cut down on the sense of randomness in a writer’s day. Of course, these plans are subject to the editor/agent appointment slot and may require revamping. Plan for that, decide what your goals are, and you’ll feel in control.

Tip #3: Pack ahead of time. Trust me, arriving with accessories for your brown suit when you’ve actually packed the gray one can be disastrous. No one else will pay nearly as much attention to your clothes as you do, but feeling well dressed boosts one’s confidence. If it helps you, make a list of the clothes and accompanying accessories. I do. Lists symbolize control! They also help you avoid accidentally leaving anything at home or in the hotel.

Tip #4: Pack extras. You don’t really want to meet the editor or agent of your dreams–or anyone else–with salad dressing on your sleeve, do you? Accidents happen. Take an extra jacket and a skirt or a pair of slacks that coordinate with other items in your suitcase so you’re prepared for emergencies. This goes double for little niceties like pantyhose, if you wear them. Finding them in a strange city can be difficult, expensive, or both. Be as prepared as the Boy Scouts, and you’re in control of your appearance.

Tip #5: Plan your pitch. There’s no way to predict who’ll be standing in front of you in the breakfast line or on the treadmill beside you in the gym or sitting on the patio smoking when you go out for a break. Have a 25-word summary description and a GMC sentence each for the hero, the heroine, and maybe the villain. That’ll do for an “elevator” pitch or a group appointment. If you’ve ever been in a group appointment where someone ahead of you rambled, you can appreciate the value of a concise, focused pitch. Also prepare a short (two minutes, at most) turning-point plot summary as well as a slightly more detailed one. Then you’re ready for elevators, groups, or individuals.
Also have a backup pitch in case you get an appointment with someone who doesn’t do what you first wanted to pitch or, worse, already rejected it. Here’s your chance to show how versatile you are. Seize it like a dog with a bone. Unless, of course, that prior rejection makes you think your voice or style is just wrong for this person. In that case, turn in your appointment and see if there’s another free. Which leads us to . . .

Tip #6: Watch for opportunities. You’d be amazed how many people just ditch editor/agent appointments, leaving a hole in the schedule. Coordinators like to fill these holes. Having an industry professional sit twiddling her thumbs doesn’t reflect well on the conference. If you didn’t get the appointment you most wanted, hang out in the waiting area. You never know who’ll have an opening.
Opportunities also arise at receptions. Don’t just stick with the people you know. Meet people–writers, not just agents or editors–whenever you can. Of course you’re not one of those boors who crashes conversations, but if someone’s standing alone, that’s the perfect time to introduce yourself and strike up a conversation. If you don’t have an ice-breaker, there’s always the food or even that old, infallible standby, “What do you write?”
Sometimes luck happens. Don’t be so focused on control that you leave no room for kismet.
One important caveat: When talking to industry professionals, never, ever pitch until they invite you to. Be friendly, make a good impression, and see what happens.

Tip #7: Be gracious. The people at your table or in your appointment group could be friendly, open, and fun. Occasionally, you meet a cliquish group or a difficult person. We can all be thankful these latter incidents are rare. Whatever the surroundings, though, you control the impression you make, and you want it to be a great one. People talk, after all, even cliquish and difficult people. You can always excuse yourself to visit the bar or the buffet (the loo is unarguable), then come back and sit somewhere else. You control your social agenda. Just be tactful while you do it.

Tip #8: Distribute your address sparingly. Talk to people for a while before you hand them a way to get in touch with you. You can have business cards printed with an email address and nothing more, then print your address or phone number on them for people you want to have that information. Most people you meet will be lovely, and many will lose the card before they reach home. Once in a rare while, though, you meet someone you’d rather give only skimpy contact information. Prepare your cards accordingly. You control who can reach you and how.

Tip #9: Thank the conference volunteers. Many of these writers run their legs off and give up the chance to hear workshops they might like so the conference attendees can have a great weekend. Not very many people notice them as they deserve to be noticed. Thank them, and you’ll not only add to your great impression but give credit where vast credit is often not only due but neglected.

Tip #10: Do a sweep of your hotel room and bath. You really don’t want to arrive home and discover that your favorite toiletries didn’t make it back into your bag or that your favorite blouse is still in the hotel closet.

Tip #11: Check your bill against your credit card. Mistakes happen. If you’re hit with one, the sooner your contact the hotel to correct it, the better. Keep your receipts handy until you know you’ve been correctly billed. Errors seem to be more common in shared rooms, so be sure you have a record of who incurred which charges.

Tip #12: Do an after-action analysis. Sit down and evaluate what you hoped to gain from this conference and whether you actually gained it. Don’t forget to include any unexpected benefits. Consider whether there was anything you could have done better or would prefer to have done differently. Then log the information for your next conference.

A good conference experience is an energizing boost. A bad one can cast a pall that interferes with creativity. Using the tips above can help a writer control what kind of conference she has, and after all, control is what it’s all about!