Tuesday, August 2, 2016

How to Succeed at a Writers Conference

This month I’m attending the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) Conference. This will be my fifth time in six years—my ninth (or tenth?) conference overall—and I’m always excited. I’ll connect with writer friends I may have never met in person, meet writers I admire (if I get up the nerve to actually speak to them!), sit at the feet of my mentors, and soak up amazing writing lessons and advice.
But all the awesomeness comes with exhaustion, pressure, and stress. Pitching to editors (or agents), constantly being in social situations (and feeling like the friendless one at the cool kids party), and having to find a place to sit at every. Single. Meal.
Okay, maybe that last one doesn’t stress out anyone but me. I think camp when I was eleven scarred me for life. I dreaded every meal during that week out of fear that I’d accidentally put my elbows on the table and be sentenced to walking around the dining hall holding hands with a BOY! Terrifying. In my nightmares, I can still hear the little song that accompanied the punishment.
But I digress.
Writers conferences are great opportunities for learning and networking and connecting with people who get you and your imaginary friends. But they can also be overwhelming, even for seasoned, repeat-attenders. Here are my top three tips for successful survival:
  1. Pick your top 2 or 3 workshops or sessions, and give yourself permission to skip any others. The conferences I’ve attended record the sessions, so if I want to “attend” a session that conflicts with another or that session doesn’t hit my top two or three and I really need some downtime because my brain is too overloaded to absorb anything else, I can buy the sessions and listen at my leisure. Because at some point, you will probably feel done in. Which leads me to . . .
  2. Don’t feel guilty because you need an afternoon napping in your room or an escape to a cafe alone to read or reflect. I spent most of the last writers conference in my cabin working on edits. I attended my top workshops and the keynote speaker sessions, but mostly, I took advantage of being on a vacation from real life and in a place where someone else cooked my meals. That was the best use of my time at the conference, and my extensive rewrites were completed and turned in on time. At other conferences I’ve ended up sleeping an afternoon away because of a combination of jet lag, overstimulation, and too much people time. The first few conferences, I felt guilty for skipping class until I realized that guilt left me even more exhausted! Now I get more out of conferences because I plan for downtime.
  3. Remember everyone you meet is just a person. Like you. And probably just as nervous and awkward about meeting strangers. That goes for the famous writers and teachers and for the editors and agents. They’re people, eating the same meals as you, staying in the same hotel as you, subjected to the same exhausting schedule. Don’t be afraid to gush admiration at a fellow author. Don’t be scared to say hi to an editor or agent. Don’t throw up before a pitching appointment. Just don’t do any of those things in the bathroom! Unless you can’t avoid that last one, then please, do that in the bathroom. But seriously, who doesn’t want to hear how awesome their books are? And the editors and agents don’t bite. Take a deep breath, put on a smile, and relax. I know, easier said than done. Just remember, everyone is as freaked out as you! And since they’re all busy freaking out, they won’t even notice that you are too.
At a writers conference, the schedule and the interaction wear me out, but by choosing two or three can’t miss sessions, giving myself permission—and not feeling guilty about!—skipping other events, and remembering to relax have helped me have a more enjoyable experience.

What are your favorite writers conference? Any tips you’ve found for getting more out of a conference?

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