Tuesday, January 27, 2015

It's Conference Season! Or: How to Make Friends and Influence Professionals

It's that time of year again, guys! That time of year when we break open the piggy banks, count our pennies quarters, and figure out how many conferences we can squeeze out of our meagre writers' savings earnings!

(Seriously - we all wish we could go to all the conferences. ALA midwinter, SCBWI Winter Conference, the SCBWI Florida regional conference that just happened, but that I still wanted to attend… Right? Wouldn't it be great if we could go to ALL the conferences? But then we wouldn't have time to write anything, so I guess it works out.)

ANYWAY, since we're all planning our conference schedules - and maybe even gearing up for a conference right now? - I thought I'd post some quick "Do"s and "Don't"s for those of you who are getting ready to go to your first big conference, or who have been to a big conference before but just want something to read in the meantime. (I see you procrastinating out there. *wags finger*)

So, here we go: the "Do"s and "Don't"s of Conferencing!

DO: Research the faculty. Seriously, research them. Taking part in the Writers' Critique Roundtable Intensive at SCBWI's Winter Conference in NYC? An editor or agent is going to be sitting at your table and reading your work and listening to you give feedback to other writers. You have no say about whose table will have your name on it. Research the crap out of all of them. Get the whole list of faculty off the website, and go through it. Go to Goodreads and Amazon and check out the books they repped or edited. Figure out what you have in your Drawer of Undiscovered Treasure that might appeal to them, and bring it for your critique session. If you've been writing and polishing for a while, you might have three or four different projects that you could bring. Print 18 copies of each of them, and know which ones you plan to pull out for each faculty member's critique table. If you haven't been writing and polishing for a while, and you have but one shining gem to bring, don't sweat it. If the writing is polished, and you are generous with your feedback, and you listen, you'll get more than your money's worth out of the experience.

(I know the SCBWI website says that each faculty member can speak to all genres, but to that, I respectfully say: horsepuckies. I have been to conferences where a faculty member said something along the lines of, "Well, picture books really aren't my thing and I never read them, so I don't really know what I'm talking about, but..." Also, everyone has preferences, and they are generally pretty open and obvious about what those preferences are, because when it comes to submissions, nobody wants you to waste their time. If you look at someone's bio and all three authors they mention working with are authors of YA or MG Fantasy, that tells you something. Again, if you get placed at a table with an editor who edits Fantasy and you wrote Contemporary or an agent who reps novels and you wrote a picture book, don't sweat it. These guys are still readers. They still know a good book when they hear one, and they know how to identify what is and isn't working for them. But if you have more than one Really Good Thing, bring them all. Maximize your chances.)

DON'T: Tell them how much you researched them. Look, it's fine to say, "I read your blog. It's really helpful!" or "You edited that? I loved it!" But don't go saying, "I researched you online, and in this interview and that interview you said blah blah blah, and then I saw that you live in Anytown, and you work on Busy Street, and I couldn't help noticing…" No. You sound like a stalker. You don't want to give them that feeling.

In a similar vein,

DO: Bring Business Cards and Promotional Postcards! and Hand Them Out! Writing and illustrating are basically sitting-alone-in-your-living-room-typing-for-hours kinds of things. This is the biggest opportunity you will have in the history of ever to meet other humans who do the same thing that you do. Even if you're usually shy, handing out a business card is easy. "You're a writer? Me, too. Here's my card with all the stuff on it that I'm too shy or embarrassed to say out loud."

Publishing is a rough game. When those rejections pile up, when you've hit a wall with the mushy middle of your WiP, when you've started seeing double and speaking in tongues because the sleep deprivation has you going crazy, you will need other writers. Writers are your tribe. Find them and find ways to keep in touch with them. This starts with a business card. If the thought of making up business cards makes you break out in cold sweats, try Moo - their templates are all simple and professional and will all look amazing.

DON'T: Hand them out to the faculty. Unless they ask. Trust me, if they want to get in touch with you, they will ask. But there will be upwards of 1,000 of you and only about 25 or so of them, and can you imagine if every single person tried to give every faculty member a business card? They'd need a separate carry-on just for all that card stock.


DO: Bring something you're working on, and look for opportunities to work on it. My first year at SCBWI NYC, my roommate and I held an impromptu critique session in our room after the roundtable intensive. I've done that kind of thing every time I go to a conference since. Exchange notes; exchange ideas. This is why you're going to a conference, so take advantage of the opportunity.

DON'T: Bring your WiP and try to hand it to a faculty member. Seriously, that is just tacky. That's right up there with calling your relatives to tell them what to give you for Christmas before they've asked. Also, see above in "Business Cards" but replace "carry-on" with "checked bag". Can you imagine having to lug 400 manuscripts home with you? More importantly: let's say the positions were reversed. You just gave a breakout session to 100 people, and then they all rush to the front to give you their printed and bound 300-page documents. Would you even like those people? You'd probably think they were clueless, and that they're so pushy they'll all be hard to work with. Don't be the person that an editor thinks is clueless and pushy and hard to work with.

And speaking of your WiP:

DO: Be prepared to talk about it. Not forever, but have your pitches ready: one sentence, one paragraph, it's X meets Y, etc. People will ask you what you're working on, so pick the one thing that is your Best, Most Shiniest Thing (or just your Most Current Thing) and be prepared to answer their question when they ask.

DON'T: Actively pitch your project to any agents or editors, except at a formal pitch session. Again: tacky. And pushy. Going to conferences is exhausting for everyone, but it's more exhausting when everyone you come across is trying to sell you something. I remember one awards gala I attended: I was chatting with an editor (whom I had just met! See? Editors are nice!) about our childhood aspirations, when someone who was obviously someone she knew came bounding up to her and said, "I have a book idea for you." Her eyes glazed over. Don't be the person who makes their eyes glaze over.


DO: Strike up conversations with everyone, including faculty. Editors and agents are humans, too. They like good conversation as much as the next guy. And you already have one thing in common: a love of books! Comment on how good (or awful) the coffee is, offer or ask for advice on the best breakfast danish to try, and ask them what they're reading these days. And if they ask you what you're working on, now you can tell them. But even if they don't, you have just had a nice conversation with another human being who likes some of the same stuff you like, and they've had a nice conversation with you. Win-win. BUT:

DON'T: Tailgate the faculty. Seriously, don't follow them around. If you happen to be waiting for the same elevator, awesome. Chat about how slow the elevator is! (NOTE: The Hyatt elevators are S-L-O-W.) But don't follow them around like eager little puppy dogs. That's stressful and 360 degrees of uncomfortable. Don't whisper about them with the other people in line for the bathroom as soon as they've gone into their stall: "I think that's SuperAgent So-and-So." They can still hear you, and it's creepy. (Yes, someone actually said that to me once while I was washing my hands in the bathroom at a conference. AWK-WARD.) Don't try to strike up a conversation with them every. Single. Time. You. See. Them. Give them a friendly nod and smile to let them know you remember speaking with them earlier, and go talk to someone else so that another writer can talk to them. Keep the room moving. (Unless they seem to want to engage with you, in which case, don't run away!)

DO: Be generous. With your thoughts, your opinions, your desire to make great books and to help other people do the same. (Also, Be generous with your stuff. Bring a supply of gum, breath mints, whatever is your breath freshening item of choice. And share it. Free coffee all day, a bunch of nervous writers and illustrators who probably haven't had time to eat enough… You'll thank me later, I promise.)

DON'T: Forget to listen. This is probably the best advice in this whole post. (Well, except for the breath mint thing…)

Honestly: listen. Getting to know people means listening to what they have to say. Especially listen to any faculty you happen to meet, because whatever they offer you, they offer in the spirit of making amazing books. You might not really hear them for a few years, but listen and store it away for when you're ready to process it.

So. That's my great advice for 2015's winter conference season. Have I missed anything? What advice do you have to give? Leave your tips in the comments, and have a great conference! ALSO: I will be at the SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC from Feb 6-8. If you're going to be there too, give me a shout about that in the comments, too! Who knows? Maybe we'll end up at the same critique table.

And as always, thanks for stopping by.

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