This coming weekend is one of my favorites of the year: the weekend of the Muse and the Marketplace writing conference in Boston. Among the best in the country in caliber and professionalism, it attracts writers, editors, agents, PR specialists and many others connected to the craft and business of writing. (#Muse2013 for those of you active in social media.) After six years of attending this conference religiously–holding the weekend sacred and putting aside all other responsibilities of parenthood, teaching and freelancing–I have a few tips for anyone attending this, or any other, writing conference.
Wear something interesting. The dress code is casual but professional. No jeans, cut-offs, etc. But within that, be creative! You want to stand out, be noticed in a positive way. Everyone will be meeting hundreds of people. Don’t you want to be easily remembered? Keep your clothing appropriate, of course, but don’t be afraid to accessorize, or wear something that helps spark conversation. Even better if it relates to the type of writing you do. My historical novel is set in India, and I own some salwar kameez, the loose pants and tunic outfits that many women in India wear. Aside from the fact that they are remarkably comfortable, these colorful outfits invariably stand out from the sea of slacks and jackets, and often attract comments, which then naturally segue into a conversation about my writing.
Dress in layers. Writing conferences, like many types of conferences, often take place in large hotels. There are invariably fluctuations in the HVAC system that are beyond the control of conference organizers. One year, there was an Arctic gale blowing through some of the session rooms. Another year, some floors of the hotel were sweltering and oppressive. Dress in layers that can be removed or added as necessary.
Bring plenty of business cards. Like 30 or so for each day of the conference. These can be your “regular” business card that relates to your other, non-writerly (gasp!) life, if you have one, or cards made specifically for your writer avatar. (I use Zazzle.com for the latter.) Either way, have plenty on hand, and make sure that the information is up to date, and contains the URL of your web site or blog if you have one. Then, don’t be shy about handing out your card, although always do so in a respectful and understated manner.
Keep a pen on hand. Even if you are planning to take notes on a laptop or other electronic device, keep a pen handy, if only to jot down, on the back of each business card you receive, a few key words about the person whose card it is. After 2-3 days of conference-going, you will be glad for the reminder of who was who.
Follow up with the people you meet. Wait a day or two for people to travel back home and unwind from the conference, and then drop them a note to tell them how you enjoyed meeting them. Include some kind of reminder of who you are–a reference to your conversation, or something that will jog their memory.
Engage with fellow writers, not just editors and agents. Even if you are on a quest to snag an agent or land a book deal, do not neglect the vast and supportive and resource-full community of writers around you. Other writers are your allies, your support network, your source of encouragement, your creative sounding boards. I met every member of my writing group through Grub Street, and have made many additional friendships through the Muse.
When engaging with editors or agents, be mindful of their schedules. At these conferences, agents and editors have responsibilities beyond simply being at the conference. They may be leading sessions, or participating in manuscript consultations, and their free-to-mill-about time might not always coincide with that of writers. If you spot your dream agent at the bathroom sink two minutes before the start of a session, that is not the time to launch into your pitch, even if you’ve honed it down to a dazzling 30 seconds. Smile, perhaps make some remark that is appropriate or might make the agent laugh, and wait for another chance, when he or she will then notice and remember you for being someone likeable.
Do plenty of research in advance. Look up the bios and web sites of presenters and others before the conference (and bear in mind that this takes a good bit of time). I use an old-fashioned method of index cards, jotting down some key facts about the people I would like to speak with if I get a chance, and keeping the cards on me at the conference.
Begin conversations with topics other than your book. If you are in the lunch line behind an editor you’d like to connect with, begin a conversation about something from that person’s bio, or something relating to the conference, or even relating to the food. If you are engaging and pleasant, conversation will naturally lead to your writing. And if it doesn’t, you can then actively steer it that way, in an artful manner, of course.
If you have a web site or blog, make sure it is updated. People you meet with invariably look you up online. Everyone can be forgiven, of course, for having a somewhat outdated site, but it definitely makes you look more interesting and on top of things if your last post is not three months old.
Sit toward the front. I have never understood why people will shell out hundreds of dollars to attend writing conferences and get the chance to learn from and speak with accomplished authors, editors and agents, and then sit in the way back of the room. Go ahead and sit up front. I tend to favor the second row. The first can be a bit awkward, and there is nothing in front of you to hide your feet if you need to slip off your uncomfortable shoe for a minute (although–why are you wearing uncomfortable shoes?) or hide your phone if you need to check it to make sure there is not word from your sitter about a crisis at home. But in the second row, you are close enough to be seen by the speaker and make eye contact, and you can be among the first to go up to him or her to speak in person.
Reach out to people who look lost or shy. Attending a conference with 700 other people can be overwhelming, especially for some writers who are used to their solitary pursuit and may be singularly introverted. You can make a big difference in someone’s experience, and create a lasting impression, just by inviting him or her to join your lunch table, or simply smiling and being approachable. And you may end up making a connection that is meaningful for you as well.
Practice your elevator pitch. It is essential that you be able to summarize your writing, especially book-length writing, in a succinct and engaging 2-3 sentences. You will be asked many, many times a variation on “So, tell me about your writing” and you need to be ready with a 30 second reply. Memorize it, and then practice how to say it without it sounding memorized. Perhaps have a couple of different versions, so you have multiple ideas in your mind, and you will be less likely to freeze if you forget a specific word. I worked on a book for ten years and still worry that I’ll sound like a bumbling idiot and won’t be able to tell an editor what it is about.
Did I miss anything crucial? Please chime in!