So I’ve been out of rotation for a few weeks, owing to my presence on the conference circuit. It’s ironic. I go out there and tell people all about the importance of blogging regularly and not missing a day of your social media presence…and while I’m doing that, what I’m not doing is any blogging or social media.
I’m not perfect. Just ask my ex wife.
While I’m busy not following my own advice about conferences, here are pieces of advice I’m (mostly) following. These are the biggest things you should never do at a writing conference, no matter what.
- Forget Your Business Cards. In both directions. Make and bring your business cards (Zazzle.com will give you hundreds for under 20 bucks), and ask for cards from everybody. Also ask everybody you meet for theirs. Scribble a line about how you met, and a cool thing about them. More on why later.
- Be Rude. Even a Little Bit. Seriously. Your job is to meet people and make them want to see you again. Snark isn’t sexy. It’s just rude. Bad manners aren’t rakish and attractive. They’re just rude. Ignoring somebody who “isn’t important enough” is just tomfoolery. Be polite to everybody, as often as you can.
- Skip a Session. You don’t know it all. Every session of classes will have something you can learn from, so go to every class you can. While you’re in there, talk with everybody nearby. Half the reason you shouldn’t skip sessions is who you’ll meet while you’re out and about.
- Forget to Ask Questions. When in conversation with others (at conferences, but really in the rest of your life, too), ask at least one question for every statement you make about yourself. It helps everybody else feel important. You’ll learn things. And when talking to presenters, it’s a welcome change of pace.
- Sleep at Home. Seventy percent of the best stuff at conferences happens after hours. That means at the bar, and in the lounges, and at dinner. If you sleep at home instead of on site, you have to go home early. You miss out on some of the best networking. My two most important contacts in publishing, I made at the bar.
- Get Too Drunk. Yes, you should hoist a few pints with your colleagues. Yes, you should buy a round for the agent you really want to get close to. No, you should not get more than “two-beer drunk” (which takes more or less than two beers depending on how much of a drinker you are). People remember that guy. And not fondly. Some folks remember me being that guy once or twice during a particularly rough year of my life, so I am speaking truth here.
- Follow Agents. We all know you’re there to talk with agents. We all know you’re really excited about speaking with them. But if one’s going to the bathroom, or heading up to her room…leave her alone. The same basic conversation etiquette that applies everywhere else also applies here.
- Skip Reading Bios. Some folks take a shotgun blast approach to approaching agents, editors and presenters. Don’t do that. Take the time to read their bios. First off, it’s polite to know a little about somebody before asking them to spend time talking to you. Second, it helps you identify which people are most interested in what you’re writing. Third, it gives you ideas for opening up conversation. The bios will be among the most useful things you read in the conference brochure.
- Dress For the Weather. This is counterintuitive, but important. Conferences happen indoors. If you wear a sweater on a cold day, or a sun dress on a hot one, you’re going to be uncomfortable inside. Dress like you would for a day in the office, and wear layers if you’re sensitive to cold or heat.
- Forget Your Gum. You’ll be talking with people up close and personal all day, in between bad snacks and hotel meals. Bring some gum or mints and use them liberally. Seriously. I cannot overstate how important this is. Similarly, offering gum to folks while you’re taking some out for yourself is the 21st century version of sharing cigarettes. It makes friends.
- Fail to Follow Up with contacts or ideas you got in the presentations. Sit down in the week after the conference and make a list of all the people you want to contact and all the things you want to try. Then make a schedule for doing all of it. This can take months (or years), but get on top of that fast and start working the plan. Otherwise, why did you go to the conference in the first place?
- Show Up Without Goals. It’s great to show up and see where things take you, and flexibility will definitely help you make the most out of the conference. But do come with three to five concrete goals. These can be “Make real contact with X” or “Understand how to write a good query letter” or anything like that. Whatever will most immediately advance your career as a writer. Review them every morning, and at lunch, each day of the conference.
- Sit in the Back Row. The back row is for the druggies and slackers. It’s not for the cool kids. Sit in the front row so you’ll be more noticeable and engaged. Presenters remember front-row faces. (Don’t mimic me here. I’ve been told by enough presenters that having peers in their class sometimes freaks them out. So I sit closer to the back to avoid that).
- Bring Friends. The point of a conference is to meet new people. Coming without friends forces you to find new friends. It’s that simple. If you do come with buddies, make a deal to only eat one meal together each day. It’s a good way to split that particular difference.
- Get Burned Out. Conferences take a lot of energy and focus. If you don’t believe me, just look at the attendees come Sunday morning. Give yourself permission to grab a nap, take a walk around the building, whatever it takes for you to go back into the fray completely refreshed. Even if that means breaking some of the other rules on this list.
- Expect Spoon Feeding. This isn’t grade school. It’s a conference for adult professionals. I’ve noticed sometimes that some folks show up expecting all they need to know and do to be spelled out in simple sentences with a pencil diagram. Ain’t so. Sorry. You’ll be responsible for your own success (even though lots of friendly people will help you if you remember to ask).
- Ignore Your Peers. You’re there to meet agents and get advice from successful writers, but don’t blow off fellow writers operating at your level. You have information to give them, and get from them — and it’s great to talk shop with people who are feeling exactly your pain.
- Get Star Struck. On the flip side of #17, don’t forget that the conference presenters and organizers are human. Just humans like you. Don’t be afraid to talk with them. They’re on site to talk with people and give back. Help them do that.
Number Nineteen has a very special place in my heart, and in the hearts of every agent, editor and other presenter I’ve ever spoken to. Number nineteen: never, ever, ever be a dickhead when you’re asking questions. When you get called on, ask a brief question that can benefit everybody in the room. This is not the time to show off how much you know, or to get specific, personal advice on your specific, personal project. Plenty of time to do that when you follow up after the conference. Seriously. I hate this behavior, and so does everybody good in the world. Every time you do this, Odin kills a kitten.