Top 10 Things to Do at a Writers’ Conference

Within a couple of hours of this post going up, I’ll be driving up to Dallas to attend the DFW Writers’ Conference. Talk about a Deep-Fried Friday for me. I expect this weekend to be better than a plate of beer-battered shrimp!

I attended last year and got my feet nice and wet at that conference. However, being the introvert I am, I approached the event as an information-gatherer and only talked to a few people. When I returned, I sent in my synopsis and chapters to the agent who requested them and received a lovely rejection letter.

But then I started this blog, began reading craft books, and connected with some fabulous writers. So this go-around, I am approaching the conference a little differently. Here are my Top 10 Things to Do at a Writers’ Conference (in no particular order):

1. Turn cyberfriends into real-life friends. You know that person you’ve traded tweets and blog comments and even emails with — dishing about the writer’s life and life in general? You might actually get to meet them! Thus far, you’ve imagined your friend as the 1×2-inch profile photo on their Twitter account. But your friend is not Flat Stanley: She is three-dimensional with a real-live voice! I for one am eager to finally meet in person great writer friends like Jenny Hansen, Tiffany A. White, Roni Loren, and many, many more.

2. Hang out with agents. Note that I didn’t say, “Convince an agent to rep my book.” Since my rookie experience, I have discovered that agents are real people. Of course I knew that before, but I care less this year whether they want my book. I simply want to get to know them. They are an interesting bunch of people who get to read for living, have their fingers on the pulse of book sales, and come to conferences to hang out with us writers. Why not make a few friends of agents? If we get along great and they like my book idea, oh yeah, I’ll send them a manuscript, pronto. But if they don’t, we can still have a drink and chat.

3. Hand out business cards. You’ve got 250 cards in that box, and there are only so many restaurants with that fish bowl where you leave your business card and they draw for a free lunch. You have to hand them out somewhere! What better place than a writers’ conference, where people might look at your card later and connect with you?

4. Be an author groupie. Last year, Sandra Brown was the keynote speaker at the DFW Writers’ Conference. This year, it’s James Rollins. Um, hello! These authors have a string of bestsellers and a truckload of wisdom about writing. Instead of spending their Saturday working on their next brilliant novel, bestselling authors often come to conferences to tell us what they’ve learned, sign books, pose for pictures, and converse with us future bestsellers. While we must remember not to stalk them, it’s okay to be a groupie of a great author. Squeee a bit when you see them, get your book autographed, and have your friend snap a picture of you leaning in close like you and James are best friends.

5. Trade pitches. Of course, you may be pitching your book to agents, and that’s wonderful. However, this is also an opportunity to bounce story ideas off people who love to hear them — other writers. Ask “What’s your book about?” and then listen. You’ll hear some amazing tales and get excited about what’s being written out there. You can also gauge interest in your own novel or in the way you’re pitching it based on others’ reactions, which can help you hone your story or presentation of it.

6. Get book recommendations. What to know what to read next? Ask writers what they loved. Peruse the book tables. Check out the titles from the authors who teach a class. After last year’s conference, I concluded that the much-touted Save the Cat by Blake Snyder had to be on my reading list, began reading Rosemary Clement-Moore’s Maggie Quinn, Girl vs. Evil series, and downloaded Kristen Lamb’s We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media.

7. Show off your fashion sense. One of the most-often asked questions of conference planners is “What do I wear?” The answer is essentially “Whatever you want.” From my limited experience, it seems that writers run the gamut regarding personal presentation. You’ll find the business man in a suit; the pierced, tattooed biker girl with blue hair; and everything in between. Whatever brand is you, comb your closet and put together something that shows off your fashion sense. Then again, you might simply grab whatever’s comfortable and go with that.

8. Shop the tables. There will likely be product booths at the conference. See what goodies you can find. It might be a book, a t-shirt, a writing resource, or a trinket, but you might discover a treasure. Last year, I entered a contest to get a slogan put on a t-shirt. I was one of three winners, and my t-shirt idea was sold at the Penguin Promo table. That was kind of cool.

9. Make new friends. I started to write “make new connections,” but if you approach the conference as an opportunity to make friends, you will have more fun and be more fun. Of course, your friends are connections, so if you focus on engaging with people personally, they are likely to want to help you professionally. That said, even if they never recommend you to their publisher or agent, this is a chance to make friends. Much of our writing lives are spent alone with our notebooks or laptops, and conference time is an opportunity to hob-nob with people who “get” us.

10. Fill in your knowledge gaps. Wherever you are in your writing career, there is more to know. Last year, I focused on querying and synopsis writing, since I knew how to write and just wanted some help landing my book deal. (Stop giggling.) This year, I have a broader focus because I know where my knowledge gaps truly are and plan to fill them by taking workshops that address those areas. You are at this conference to learn something! Go forth and learn it.

So are you planning to attend any writing conferences this year? What are your reasons for going? What goals do you have in mind as you attend?

And will you be at DFW Con? Be sure to look for me there! I look exactly like my 1×2-inch profile photo. 😉

38 thoughts on “Top 10 Things to Do at a Writers’ Conference

  1. Great advice. This will be my first conference, so loved your tips!!

  2. I’m going to Lori Foster & Duffy Brown’s Readers & Authors Get Together in Cincinnati next month. It’s super casual and relaxed, and always super fun! So that’s my #1 goal – have fun. I also want to meet people, connect with other authors (about 2/3 of the attendees), and hopefully sell a few books. As I was preparing to indie-publish by the time I went to RWA National last year, the first two were my goals for that, too – and it was the most fun I’ve ever had at a writers’ con.

    1. Thanks, Jennette. Have fun at your upcoming get-together. Sounds great! As August mentioned below, it’s always good to know your goals before you go.

  3. I enjoyed reading this list. I am jealous that you get to meet all our imaginary friends. Hopefully things will work out where I can attend next year.

    Hey, have you ever read Bob Mayer’s book about attending conferences? I’ve thought about buying it and wondered if you got the ideas for this list there. If you have no idea what on earth I’m talking about, here’s the link:

    1. I’ve seen that book and considered it, but I haven’t read it. I culled my ideas from here and there, including my own brain (which isn’t always a reliable source for good ideas but…). I don’t know if Mayer’s list would match any of mine — although I doubt he has fashion sense on his list. Thanks, Catie!

  4. Those are great tips, Julie! I’ve been to 4 conferences so far, and the connections I’ve made turned into friendships. I even managed to have lunch with agents and not mention my work once, which actually made for a much more relaxed conversation 🙂
    Also, all the authors I’ve met were friendly, warm, and helpful.

  5. I’ll be at DFWCon! Please, someone find me and say hello. I turn into a wallflower at conferences and I’m trying my best NOT to do that. I might even put a WANA sticker on my name tag just so you can point at me and say “YOU! Say hello!” lol.

  6. I like the distinction you make in #2! I’ve learned so much more at conferences by sitting quietly (or asking the occasional question) and listening to agents talk about the book business than I would have if I’d been thinking about my pitch the whole time!

    1. Just come on up and introduce yourself. I don’t bite, and I totally get the introversion thing so I promise not to turn around and introduce you to 100 people at once. See you soon, Michele!

  7. Aw… I wish I could meet up with you at DFW Con, but I’m not attending this year. I did go last year and had a BLAST. Conferences rock. 🙂 I’d add, “Know why you’re going.” The first conference I attended, my plan was to network, scope out the writer world. The next, I had my sights on meeting/landing an agent. Knowing our goals in advance can help ensure that we make the best efforts—attend appropriate events, etc. Great post!

  8. I love this post! All great advice and I read a similar post by Clay Morgan a year ago after he returned from the DFW Con, which was so invaluable to me headed off to my first ever conference. I feel a little at ease more this year, but still anxious because like you said, a lot of our favorite bloggers will be there. I’m excited to meet you Julie! I promise I don’t snore! Wait till you see our schwanky digs!

    1. Thanks, Jess! Love that we are getting to room together (another great benefit of attending a writers’ conference). I’ll have to look up the post from Clay as I don’t recall it. And yes, our digs are so schwanky. Love ’em!

  9. I loved the t-shirt. Sometimes that’s exactly how I feel! Groveling would definitely do the trick. haha Great tips. I have no conferences planned as of now. I’d love to go to SCBWI in August but darn that thing called money. Ugh! Have fun!

  10. Julie, meeting and spending time with you was one of the highlights of the weekend for me. But you’re wrong about the photo. You’re much prettier in person.

  11. Thank you for this. I took the plunge and will be attending the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference. I have never done anything like this. Your list helps, especially the part about what to wear!

  12. Brilliant tips, Julie. Thank you very much. I’ll feature this post tomorrow in my writing posts mashup 🙂

    1. Wow, thanks, Reetta! I spent some of my weekend with a fabulous British woman so the word “brilliant” sounded a cockney in my head as I read it. Have a great week!

  13. Julie, I’ve read this after the conference. What a wonderful weekend and you are an amazing gal. Totally enjoyed our time together and so looking forward to next year!

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