Before I wrote young adult novels, I was a screenwriter trying to break into one of the toughest industries out there, Hollywood. Since I live in Oklahoma and not Los Angeles, this was a huge challenge. One thing that helped me bridge that gap was attending the Austin Screenwriting Conference which is held during the annual Austin Film Festival. This is one of the few venues where actual Hollywood agents/producers/writers/directors/actors show up and give screenwriters precious information about the entertainment industry. I learned so much about my craft and made a lot of connections and friends the numerous times I went to Austin.
I recognized early in my writing career how important establishing these connections were. Not only in Hollywood, but in publishing as well as I continued to go to local writing conferences in my area. One of which is the Oklahoma SCBWI Spring Conference which begins Friday April 6th and continues on Saturday April 7th.
Many other blogs on this tour will give you plenty of great reasons why it’s beneficial and important for writers to attend these conferences. But what I would like to do today is give you some successful strategies that I’ve learned to help anyone navigate a writing conference.
Successful Strategy #1 – Be Relaxed
Why is this the first one? Because it’s one of the most important. You are at this conference to make new friends, to learn new things, and to re-invigorate your commitment to writing. Do not treat this conference as a pressure-cooker situation where you must shake the hands of every single person in the room and sell your book idea while trying not to sweat, fart, or cough up hairballs.
Nope. The best thing to do is to listen, take everything in with a deep breath, and relax. Remember this: If you look friendly and relaxed, people will want to talk to you. If you appear stressed out and desperate, people will avoid talking to you because those writers came here to do what?
Successful Strategy #2 – Treat Everyone With Respect
We all start from the bottom. That unrepresented writer you met at last year’s conference could become the next J.K. Rowling. That next junior agent you meet could be promoted to a full agent next month. That editor you met could open their own publishing imprint and now need new books.
Wouldn’t it be cool if you already had a good relationship with these people? They might even help you because you were nice to them before it was cool to be nice to them.
But they won’t help you now because you blew off that “nobody” writer last year when she wanted to ask you something. And when that junior agent asked about your manuscript? You blew her off too because she wasn’t a “real” agent. And you thought you were being clever when you slipped that editor a manuscript in the ladies room. But the editor thought that was inconsiderate and at worse, kinda weird.
Treat everyone you meet with respect. It reflects good on you and shows others that you have a professional attitude when it comes to your work.
On a related note, if you approach a conference speaker, be patient and wait for a good time to introduce yourself. Perhaps you can ask them to elaborate more on a portion of their presentation that you found interesting or if they wrote or represented a book that you particularly loved, tell them about it. Once you are done talking, let another writer have a chance. Better yet, introduce the speaker to another writer who writes the same kind of books the speaker likes reading or writing. Maybe that “nobody” writer who has this great Middle Grade Fantasy idea no one saw coming.
Successful Strategy #3 – Stay Away from Your Hotel Room
The most important thing you do at a writer’s conference is network. I repeat. You’re here to network. Don’t just write down notes from the workshops and then go upstairs to hide in your room. I did this at my very first screenwriting conference in Austin and made zero contacts. The next year I forced myself to sit at the conference hotel bar and drink sodas. Pretty soon I was talking to people I had friended on social media who recognized me. Soon those people introduced me to their friends. From there, things became much easier.
Please don’t freak out about this networking thing. You’re a writer. I get that. I’m only saying it’s not THAT bad. Wanna know an easy way to do it? Take a variation of my example and go hang out in the lobby of the conference hotel. Try to find a place to sit where you’re out in the open and bring a book to read. Chances are others will see you there with your conference badge and might invite you to go out to eat for dinner or lunch. Or they might ask you about the book you’re reading. You might see someone you know and you can ask them about the conference or if they have dinner plans. See how this works?
One of the best places to relax and mingle is in the evening at the conference hotel bar. Many times you can find the conference speakers there having a drink and just shooting the bull with people just like you! This is a golden opportunity to get to know lots of your fellow writers and conference speakers.
Now don’t get cute and try pitching your book now. Always wait until someone asks you. And then just give them an elevator pitch. Basically a couple of sentences that gives the other person a feeling about what your book is about, but not enough to give them the whole picture. You want it to be short because you want them to ask you more questions about it!
If you’re not a drinker, just order a soft drink. Nobody cares. Most of the people will be happy that you’re hanging out with them. If you love to drink, know your limits. Loosening it up with one or two drinks is perfectly fine after a long conference day. However, please don’t get drunk and argue over the use of first and third tense in young adult literature. I know you think you make sense. But trust me, you don’t.
Successful Strategy #4 – Follow Up With A Thank You
It there was a particular speaker or another writer whom you had a good discussion with or someone who helped you during the conference. Write down their name somewhere and when the conference is over with (say a week after) follow-up with that person. Find an official email or social media account and remind them who you are, where you met them, and most important, thank them for any information or help they gave you during the conference. This small act goes a long way in cementing that new contact.
Successful Strategy #5 – Always Give. Do Not Take
Last but not least, help your new contacts during the conference and beyond. Does your new contact have a new book out? Tweet it. Post it on your social media. If it’s a book you enjoyed reading, consider leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Does that new writer you met need a critique of the first ten pages of the manuscript? Offer to do that for them. They will either offer to reciprocate or in the future will help you out with something else. If you give things without being asked, most people will want to reciprocate. This is how contacts can grow into friends and allies.
(You should be patient with this. It might take more gives before you can make a big ask. Especially from someone in a higher position.)
What if I keep giving and they don’t reciprocate? Some people are takers. They just are. If you do a few nice things and receive silence back. Move on. Don’t complain. Don’t call them out like they “owe you.” You can make the choice to either associate yourself with positive people who embrace this concept of networking or the negative ones who only use others to get where they want to be.
Always remember that you’re in this for the long game. You’re building a house. Not an IKEA end table.
If you want to put these ideas into practice, come join me at this year’s Oklahoma SCBWI Spring Writer’s Conference in Oklahoma City which begins Friday April 6th and continues on Saturday April 7th. See you there!