Playing catch-up is okay when you are five. But if you are a serious writer and spent a lot of money traveling to a conference or attending a workshop, you should be prepared to take advantage of the events and not play catch-up with the speakers.
Most conferences invite experienced writers and editors for the events. These speakers specialise in a particular genre or are experts in a specific area. Their keynote speeches and lectures would focus on pre-arranged topics.
If you go unprepared for these conferences, you will realize that many of the terminologies are new to you and also that the speakers do not have the time to clarify doubts on fundamental topics.
Some of you might think – “Hey, that’s why I go to a conference. I want my fundamental questions answered.” Why waste the money and take the effort to go to a conference when you can find all the fundamental details in most books and websites. From conferences and workshops, you should strive to learn what the books, magazines and websites cannot teach you.
Let’s assume that you have already done the research and decided on the appropriate conference. You have paid the money and also made travel plans.
What’s the next step? You need to prepare.
Read about the speakers.
If they are writers or editors, read at least two of their books. Based on your reading, choose your workshops. You cannot decide which writer will best suit your work unless you read their work. Reading a speaker’s books also gives you the most promising opening lines in informal conversations. Knowing the work of the editor or the writer will be useful when you are preparing questions for the speaker.
Some speakers might not be good orators. But their writing might be exceptionally brilliant. You will not appreciate their workshops if you have not read their books before.
Plan your schedule.
Whether the conference is happening in your city or elsewhere, don’t plan other social activities during the conference days. If you have family and friends (who are not writers) in the city you are visiting, plan activities before or after the conference days, so that you can spend the conference time working on your conference notes, manuscripts and the like.
If you are traveling to another city or country for the conference, keep a day or two for tourism; don’t squeeze it into your conference days. You don’t want to have a hangover or tired feet and doze off during lectures.
Read up the basics.
If you have done your homework and learnt the basics from books and websites, you will be able to ask questions that have emerged in your mind and are not answered by these books. Also you will avoid wasting the time of speakers (not to mention other attendees) and also have more time to ask questions that are better answered by your speaker.
Learn the Business Basics
Find out what query letters are, what are submissions and how do you submit your work to a publisher or a magazine. You can also find out about market guides, industry practices and about the all-prevailing SASE (US), SAE (UK)
Learn the Market
If you want to write mysteries, read as many mystery books you can. Find out which publisher is interested in mystery titles. You can do that by checking the names of publishers in the books you read. Also you can check the market guides to find out who is publishing what.
By doing this, you gain an overview on the publishers and you can ask specific questions about these publishers during your lectures Q&A session or workshops. If you didn’t even know who is publishing the kind of stories you write (or want to write), you cannot get insider info in conferences.
Prepare for Publicity
Also, if you are already published, please carry a copy of all the books you have written and copies of published magazine articles. This will prove very useful when sharing your work with other attendees and speakers.
The difficult part is done. Now let’s look at what you should do during the conference.
a) Arrive early (at least 15-20 minutes). Talk to other participants and speakers who have arrived early. If you are talking to another participant or a speaker, discuss their books, the process of writing and selling it and also about their publishers.
b) While attending lectures and workshops, take notes. Don’t rely on your memory.
c) Distribute your business cards and collect cards from others during breaks and chitchats.
d) Seek out speakers during the break and introduce yourself. Start conversations citing their books. Make general fun conversations too. Let them understand that you are not interested in them just as a speaker but also as a fellow-writer. But don’t hound them while they are at lunch or in the toilet. That’s just not professional.
Finally the frenzy is over. The conference is over or at least the first day is over. Is your work over? Not at all.
a) At the end of every day, type up (if you are carrying your laptop) or write down your notes, your learning and your reflections. Memories fade and learning will be lost. Such notes are useful for future workshops and also for discussing the conference with your writers group or family.
b) After the end of a day’s event, hang around; speak to organizers or other writers. If there is a group dinner or outing arranged, don’t make excuses and watch cable TV in your hotel room. Go out and enjoy being with other writers. How often do you get to spend time with people who understand terms like SASE, rejections, revisions, not suitable for our present needs etc.
c) After the entire event is over, give yourself a day or two of rest. Then start the follow-ups. List the names of editors who were interested in your work. Check out publishing houses that others recommended. Send Thank-You emails to writers and speakers you interacted with.
d) If you have the email addresses of writers and editors, maintain contact. You’ve to balance this with NOT stalking. Keep them updated about your progress, any new articles published, if they expressed interest in your work. Foster the relationship you created in the conference.
Conferences are expensive. Unless each participant prepares ahead it is not easy to get substantial benefits. Make your money work harder at conferences and you will learn more than what they taught.
Here are some conferences you can attend
SCBWI’s annual conferences in New York City and L.A – visit www.scbwi.org
Highlights for Children run retreats and other focussed workshops. Find out more at www.highlightsfoundation.org
Society of Authors in the UK run annual conferences too. And especially the CWIG gathering for children’s writers. Find out more at http://www.societyofauthors.org/
Winchester University runs annual conferences for writers. Find out at http://www.writersconference.co.uk/