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Top Five Mistakes Writers Make at Conferences

Photo by Stig Nygaard

So, I've mentioned before that I'm a conference whore. I think part of it is that I've always loved learning. I have nerd DNA that can't be escaped. But the other part is that I have so much fun being around other writers. It's like finding your home planet after feeling like you were the only weird one all these years. So for the past two years, I've attended about three conferences each year. And over those two years, I've started to notice some patterns and mistakes that some writers make--especially when they are conference virgins.


So I thought I'd put together a list of the pitfalls to avoid...


Five Mistakes Writers Make at Conferences

1. Attending only "industry/career" workshops vs. craft workshops.


This is probably the number one mistake I've seen newbie conference-goers make (because I, of course, have never made this mistake. *cough*) We go to a conference and there are all these agents and editors that we stalk follow on the internet. And OMG, they are going to be on a panel and tell us all the things they want to see in a query and all the super secret insider stuff to get published. Must. Go. Right?

Well, yes, these are often helpful. And believe me, those workshops run out of seats immediately.  Meanwhile, there's an awesome NYT author in Room B giving a course on deepening characterization or something and it's half-empty.

Hear this: If you aren't actively honing your craft, the "how to query", "what are the current trends", "are you still accepting vampire novels" panels are only going to get you so far. The writing needs to come first. So balance your schedule. Pick a few industry type classes, but make sure at least half of the rest of the workshops you attend can make you a better writer. This should be your goal. Look around in those classes, who's sitting in them? Published authors.

2. Focusing too much on the big pitch session with the agent or editor.

Getting a chance to pitch is often the initial draw for a person to attend a conference. Screw the slushpile, you get to sit and babble like a drunken monkey in front of a real live agent/editor! I have never done this, as I've accepted I'm better on paper than in person.

But here's the thing--yes, pitching can be a great opportunity, but really, it's only glorified querying. Most agents will ask for a partial (unless the genre is totally off or something) so you may get a chance to get more pages in front of them. BUT it's still about the writing. SO, don't waste your whole conference stressing and focusing on the pitch and go to your workshops in a haze. You're there to learn and network first. Pitching second.

*This also goes for agent-stalking in the elevators and bars. Don't spend all your time trying to corner your favorite agent to elevator pitch them and become BFFs. I'm sure by the end of the conference agents and editors feel like gazelle in the middle of a lion pride. Their eyes are shifting left and right looking for the next writer to pounce. Don't be one of those lions.

3. Getting caught up in the "FREE STUFF!"

This is more an issue at the national conferences. For instance, at RWA Nationals, each publisher does a book signing where you literally go pick up books for free. Now, offering writers free books is like putting out a donut buffet after you've been on a juice diet. We're drawn to it, our eyes glazed over, mumbling "boooooks, booooookkksss."

I am all about the signings. But you don't want to ONLY do that. You have to skip workshops to go to those signings. Balance it out. Make sure you're not missing something really amazing in the process. Believe me, you'll end up with a lot of books no matter what.

4. Keeping to yourself or only socializing with your little group of friends.

The vast majority of writers are introverts. And when we go to a conference (especially our first conference) we have the urge to keep our heads down and stay focused on the task at hand. This can be even more the case when you're pre-published and still wrestling with your own feelings about calling yourself a writer out loud. But a big part of the benefit of a conference is the networking aspect. People are SUPER friendly. And you're all writers, so you automatically have something in common. For you shy people (like me), force yourself to turn to the person next to you in a workshop or at lunch and ask "So what do you write?" You'll be amazed how easy the conversation is and how you can meet some really great new friends.

5. Not going to conferences at all.

This is the biggest mistake of all. Yes, sometimes it's a location or finance issue. That's understandable. But if you have the means to get to a conference--there are fabulous local ones all over the place--then go! Online conferences are great, but there's something about being present in a room with others who are doing the same as you. It's awesome. I've learned so much at conferences, have met great people, and I never fail to leave them feeling re-energized about my writing. So put yourself out there.

Alright, for those of you who have been to a conference, have you made any of these mistakes? What other tips would you give conference-goers? And if you haven't been to a conference, how come?