13 Do’s and Don’ts for Writers’ Conferences

Welcome to Scarlet Thread Sunday, when I throw out a thread of something I’ve learned in the labyrinth of life.

I recently attended my third DFW Writer’s Conference. If you ever get a chance to go, I recommend it. Great information, great people. I’ve reflected on my many wonderful (and a few otherwise) experiences and want to offer some do’s and don’ts for writers’ conferences.

To conference planners

Do offer a variety of writing craft, traditional publishing, and indie publishing classes. Conferences attract writers all along the writing journey. Some are multi-published authors, others are working through their first manuscript, and everything in between. Offer a wide array of craft and business information to address the diversity of attendees.

Do host panels. Some favorites at my three DFW Cons have been the panels of experts on everything from social media to publishing options to forensics. The much-touted Gong Show is a regular feature: A panel of agents critiques anonymous first pages and/or query letters, and their feedback is invaluable in helping writers recognize a good story or pitch. Panels can provide wisdom from several sources, and how often can you get that many experts in a room to answer writers’ questions?

Kristen Lamb (one of my favorite panel experts) & Me
Kristen Lamb (one of my favorite panel people) & Me

Don’t ignore the self-pubbers. At my first conference only three years ago, agents were saying that self-publishing your own books was a kiss of death. My, how things have changed! Still, however, conferences can focus so heavily on the traditional route to publication that self-pubbers don’t feel welcome. The writer community should be about producing good books, and there is more than one way to skin that cat.

Do give conference goers a map and clear signs. I get lost easily. I am not alone.

Don’t invite pompous authors to give speeches about how much money they make. Look, author: Unless you’re willing to throw out currency during your presentation, this subject is best discussed with your agent, publisher, accountant, and loved ones. Maybe your mama is proud of your ridiculously large book advances, but conference attendees want to hear about your writing, not your bank account.

Do provide good snacks and beverages. Having a morning or afternoon pick-me-up can help attention levels. Starches and sugars should be balanced with fresh fruit. I was a bit disappointed that DFWCon did not provide free soda this year, but caffeine is my own addiction and the conference shouldn’t be expected to enable me. Water, coffee, and orange juice were fine.

To conference attendees

Do start conversations with other writers. Many writers are introverts and would rather have a root canal than introduce themselves to a stranger. But your fellow conference goers are not really strangers…because they get you. They too are excited about fictional worlds and make-believe characters and pretty words and plot twists and cover art and so forth. You’ll meet wonderful people by simply asking someone nearby, “What do you write?” Moreover, I’ve learned as much from talking to other writers as I have in classes.

Don’t monopolize class time with a specific question that only applies to you. Here’s the scenario: During Q&A, someone describes their particular plot or writing journey and asks for individualized advice. Now if your situation is a sampling of a larger issue that affects writers, fine. But if you’re looking for one-on-one coaching, wait until class has ended and approach the presenter. Most presenters are willing to spend a few minutes with you.

Do practice your pitch. Even if you’re not formally pitching to an agent or editor, you should be able to state your hook in a sentence or two or three. You may get asked by a fellow writer or agent what you’re working on, and being able to succinctly relate your story is good practice for querying or the book blurb.

Don’t fart loudly during a conference class. Actually, I felt sympathy for the person in one of my classes who did that. Maybe it was the Tex-Mex food we’d had for lunch.

Do bring a camera, even if it’s on your cell phone. You won’t want to miss shots like this.

Jess Witkins & Jenny Hansen in "Handerpants"
Jess Witkins & Jenny Hansen in “Handerpants”

Don’t sweat meeting book agents or famous authors. I’ve found them to be very approachable. As long as you’re authentic and courteous, you’re fine. No stalking, of course. (For heaven’s sake, please don’t follow them into the bathroom!) But agents and authors come to conferences to share information and hang out with writers. You’re a writer, so hang out.

Do print business cards. You can get them cheap at VistaPrint. No, you probably won’t go through all 250 cards that came with your order, but I’ve traded business cards with other authors and it’s helpful to refer to them later. Two things I include on my business card–recommended by agents when I researched–are a face photo, so that people can match your name with your face, and book titles/summaries, in case you want potential agents or readers to be hooked by what you write.

My Business Card
Front & Back of My Business Card

That’s it! As for how DFWCon went for me, I learned quite a bit, have three agents I need to query, and enjoyed meeting up with friends for the weekend whom I chat with online throughout the year.

ROW80 Update

Reading

Writing/Editing

  • Finish writing GOOD & GUILTY, YA mystery. 
  • Complete first round of edits of GOOD & GUILTY. Based on advice from a DFWCon class, I’m letting G&G sit for a bit. Instead, I edited 7 scenes from my middle-grade novel, THE YEAR OF FIRSTS.
  • Write one short story.
  • Edit two short stories–one needs a final polish, the other a full edit.

Additional Goals

  • Prepare for and attend DFW Conference in May.
  • Prepare for and attend Immersion Master Class with Margie Lawson in June. Details are coming soon.

What are your do’s and don’ts for conferences? And how was your week?

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36 thoughts on “13 Do’s and Don’ts for Writers’ Conferences

  1. All good points. I think we’ll live with the attitude that traditional publishers “rule the world” for a bit longer at conferences. They donate books, make authors available and bully agents. Think it’s a fact of life…for now. So it’s a great time to learn more about the craft, put it into practice … And Succeed!

    1. DFW Con actually does a good job overall of recognizing various paths to publication. There is a little more emphasis on getting an agent, but for instance, this year’s Gong Show host is a successful, completely self-published author. Still, I think the set-up for writers’ conferences remains geared for traditional publication, with the assumption by many that you’ll pitch to an agent, sign a publisher contract, and then hit the bookshelves. And that’s not reality for a lot of authors nowadays.

      All that said, I am personally aiming for traditional publication. Still, there are some amazing self-pubbers and indie publishers out there. I don’t care how the book is put together, if the book I’m reading is awesome. Thanks so much, Susan!

  2. Got lost? How did you get lost. We had a facility map in the back of the program and there were large signs by the registration desk AND the map was displayed on the monitors. What did we miss?

    1. Sodas were not provided this year because the prior year people would take a bottle, take a few sips, put it down, and leave it. In all it costs $3K just on sodas. We did allow the sodas for purchase, but there wasn’t many takers. As for the author talking about bank accounts — yeah not easy knowing if an author is pompous BEFORE inviting them. Let us know and we won’t invite them again. And we try hard NOT to ignore self-pubbed authors. This year we had several selling their books AND we had about 4 classes just on how to self publish. And I did work hard on trying to offer a variety of classes for people in every level their writing career. Next year we will add skill levels to the class descriptions for a better indication.

      Here is a DO for the list. DO – send feedback to the organizers. Conferences can only get better with constructive feedback — positive and negative. And most conference organizers are ALWAYS looking for people to help out. Just let them know.

      1. I SHOULD BE VERY CLEAR HERE THAT DFW CON IS AWESOME! In fact, several of my Do’s come from seeing what fabulous stuff DFW Con does. For instance, you do a wonderful job of offering a variety of classes and honoring various paths to publication. And y’all did provide maps and signs, but they’ve improved since the first year I attended. So thanks for that! And the sodas…yeah, not at $3 a bottle, but that’s why I stocked my hotel room with caffeine. 🙂 Thanks for a marvelous conference, Kirk!!!

        1. Thanks Julie, your post was fab. I apologize if I misunderstood a few points. Glad to hear the signage was better this year. I know that $3 a bottle is steep, but so was $3K. Heck, coffee is $25 a gallon. And I am serious about the feedback. We need it. Feel free to email me anytime – and that goes for everyone.

      2. One more thing, Kirk: I don’t blame DFW Con for the pompous author; not at all. In fact, my mini-rant there was mostly directed at the author himself. But perhaps his comments, which were inappropriate in my opinion, will discourage others from asking him to keynote. Maybe some people are just better off staying in their villa and writing. Thanks so much for taking my comments to heart! I definitely recommend DFW Con to other writers I interact with.

  3. Great tips. I’d love to be able to go to a conference some day! And the farting thing… I’m sorry, I would have lost my mind and had to leave. I’m so mature!

  4. “Don’t fart loudly during a conference class.” had me in stitches. *Blush. Yes, I’m that shallow! I’ve never been to a conference. I live in Dubai and well, I never hear mention of them. I know, no one I communicate with online come out here for them, anyway. Plus, you’re right; I’d rather have a root-canal then socialise with strangers. Maybe when we move back to UK I’ll reconsider 🙂 Great tips though, and a yummy insight into what goes on there.

    Shah X

    shahwharton.com

  5. Love the business cards, both sides. Start conversations, that’s a good one to remember. I’d have to say that like a mantra before hand, lol. Thanks again for all your help this week, Julie. Hope you have a great week filled with edits. 🙂

  6. Waving “Hi!”

    DFWCon was awesome. My favorite part was meeting writers (like you!) live (thank goodness) and in person. I took business cards with me, but only gave one away. Duh! *thunks head on desk*

    Great tips about the cards. I planned to get new ones b/c mine look so fancy, shmancy, formal, and that is so not who I am.

    I have a don’t tip to add to your list. Don’t feel you have to pick up one or two or twenty-seven cheese and fruit Danish each time you pass them in the hallway. Same applies to the afternoon cookies. Yes. I have good reason for mentioning this. No. I do not intend to explain it. No. I was not the person who had the unfortunate gaseous expulsion during one of the session.

    1. I don’t think I got your card! Now I feel cheated…like what did I come to DFW Con for anyway if I left without GLORIA RICHARD’s card?!! LOL.

      P.S. There was fruit in the pastries? I just recall cinnamon, sugar, and ICING. 🙂

      1. Someone may have snatched all of the combo cheese and fruit jelly pastries. You were fortunate to get a pastry with ICING. Someone was tempted to lick the topping from those. Dang schedule had people moving through those corridors all the time.

        *Looking around for someone named Someone*

        Oh! Kirk? More chocolate and chocolate chip cookies next year, please. I had to walk all the way from one corridor to another to snatch one, or two, or twenty-seven chocolate enhanced sugar-shocks. And, yes I gained MUCH more than fluffy, happy fat cells around the middle from the conference.

  7. Yeah, I wasn’t crazy about the $3 sodas, but I understand not wanting to spend $3k for people to tale a few sips. I think next year I will just buy some Diet Coke at QT and keep it my hotel fridge, and I can take a bottle with me to the conference. Not a major issue.

    Great post, Julie.

  8. And I thought I was the only disoriented one! It was DFWCon #3 for me, too, but I sorta just stumbled into the first Saturday presentation during the last few minutes.

  9. Love the conference overview and even more so the fact that I got to room with you! Miss you!

    How are the edits going? Do you need handerpants to help you focus? 😉

  10. Here’s another Conference Do for the organizers…

    DO have comment cards available for the attendees to complete on the spot.

    I’ve attended DFWcon for three years in a row now… in 2011 and 2012, comment cards were handed out at the beginning of each lecture/workshop for those in attendance to rate the speakers. Not so in 2013. Also, at the end of the entire conference in 2011 and 2012, comment cards were handed out to each of the attendees for an overall ranking of the conference. Not so in 2013. Yes, printing costs do increase with each passing year, just like everything else in this world, and someone would have to take the time to read the comment cards… but why not ask for attendee feedback on the spot? I was disappointed there weren’t any comment cards. Most of everything was great, but there were a few classes I would have given a lower score… and I, too, wasn’t a big fan of the staggered schedule.

    Oh, and I know exactly which Key Note you are speaking about. His constant references to his bank account, even if he was being facetious (and I don’t think he was), was not appreciated. Honestly, I like the one Key Note set up. Sandra Brown was great in 2011. Listening to her tell us how she got started was inspirational. Same for James Rollins in 2012. I wasn’t thrilled about any of the Key Notes this year. But to be honest, I missed the one Saturday night.

    And regarding the class descriptions on the schedules…

    DON’T try to be cute when naming your class. Keep to the basics. When I first looked at the schedule, I was not pleased with the classes… I think I found three that I absolutely, positively wanted to attend… and that did not justify the cash spent on the conference. So, I arrived on Saturday and just decided to wing it (based on the more informative class descriptions). All in all, I was THRILLED with the lectures/workshops I attended. All except one that mainly seemed to be a love fest between the two speakers (writer and agent) instead of helpful (it was supposed to be about revisions and I think I wrote down one solid piece of advice).

    DFWcon was definitely worth the money. Once I got there. Just sayin’.

    Sorry to hijack your comments!

    1. Hijack away, Tiffany! I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right: There were always class evaluation cards before.

      And I actually considered saying something like, “Do name your classes what they are.” But your don’t is better! I went to a class called “Done to Death,” and you would have almost no idea what that was unless you read the description. It was good, but not what I expected or well-named. I don’t know who names classes, though. Is it the presenter or the conference?

      Thanks for adding your two cents (or two dollars, whatever). Definitely worth it! 🙂

  11. I love what you said about no pompous speeches about money–unless you’re throwing it to the audience. LOL. 🙂 Looks like DFW was a great experience! Also, love your cards with your book blurbs!

    1. It was weird, Coleen. He honestly kept talking about his advances and how he needed more money to renovate a villa. I’m sure the conference planners didn’t know that going in, but I actually hope that particular speaker gets fewer offers because he wasted our time. And it’s a shame because he probably had some real wisdom he could have given us!

      Thanks for the compliment on my cards. DFWCon was a great experience. 🙂

  12. Your comments made me laugh, especially about those sugar-high snacks that lead to comatose audiences! I definitely agree. And at a PNWA conference, one poor agent (only one?) WAS followed into the bathroom (not me!). Thank you for pointing out the diversity of the attendees. We’re all there for that connection, that feedback, that inspiration. Very helpful comments. And you’re making great progress on ROW80. Good idea to list the books you’re reading and line out those tasks that are DONE, DONE, DONE!

    1. Thanks so much, Beth! I can’t imagine being followed into the bathroom. I feel for those agents. It must take real self-control not to smack those few writers who ignore basic courtesy. Glad you’ve been to a conference yourself! Hope your PNWA was a good experience for you.

    1. Thanks, Alberta! There are online conferences now, including the WANA folks. That’s always an option. I’ll likely avail myself of that opportunity in the future.

  13. Great advice Julie. I’m such an introvert at these things. I”ll be attending the LIRW annual Editor and Agent Luncheon and I’m going to force myself to talk to others. Wish me luck. 🙂

    1. Take deep breaths, Donna, and then go out there. You could even look for the other wallflower who might sigh with relief when you ask, “What do you write?” 🙂 And how cool to have an Editor & Agent Luncheon! Enjoy.

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