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August 15, 2018

8 tips for suviving (and rocking) your next writing conference

Creative Rebel, Writing Runes

Steff green koru awards

I just got back from the Romance Writers of New Zealand annual conference, and as usual, it was brilliant. Bella Andre spoke about her incredible journey from being dropped by her Big 5 publisher to becoming one of the most successful indie authors ever. Historical author Grace Burrows spoke with humility and humour about resilience and survival as a writer. We had an amazing workshop about forensics for writers from an ex-Federal agent, and we ate lemon and banana, walnut, and poopy seed muffins.

poopy seed muffins

Photo by Vivienne Matthews

This conference is a highlight of my calendar every year. While CDH and my family and friends are incredibly supportive of my career, there is something special about sharing the trenches with other writers. No one else understands the voices in my head like other people who hear their own voices. No one else gets the weird love/hate relationship with Amazon or knows what you mean when you ask “wide or KU?” It’s special.

Steff green koru awards

With my lovely friend Emma at the RWNZ Conference awards dinner. My book Hollow won second in the best short romance category for the 2018 Koru Award. Photo by Emma Cameron.

The first time I went to a writers’ conference was an RWNZ way back in (I think) 2010. I wanted to pitch my fantasy novel to one of the agents attending, and I thought that even though I wasn’t a romance writer I’d find something of value in the keynotes and workshops. What I came away with was this tremendous respect for a genre I’d previously derided, and the writers, editors, agents, and publishers (majority women) who lift up and support each other.

It’s an honour to be hanging out ten years later with 22 books under my belt as a workshop presenter. I found it interesting to meet other non-romance writers who’d come along because they’d heard this was the best conference for craft and business of writing. They wandered the halls looking a bit shellshocked by the wealth of information thrust upon us by generous speakers.

koru awards dinner rwnz2018

Our table at the awards dinner. Sitting with the amazing Nalini Singh (OMG I’ve been reading her Psy-Changeling series for years. She’s such an inspiration). Photo by Emma Cameron. 

So yes, you should go to a writers conference! You’ll come away with an injection of inspiration, tools and resources, and some brand new writer friends. Here are my tips for rocking your next writing conference. I hope you find them useful.

1. Go with a goal

I’m an introvert who gets really nervous when faced with walking into a room full of people who all seem to know each other. But my brain also responds really well to action-focused plans and I kind of enjoy challenging myself. That’s why I approach any events I’m nervous about with a goal in mind – it turns the event into a game. This is especially good for cocktail parties and conference mixers. Set yourself a goal of starting 3 conversations, and see what happens.

(Here’s a hint: the question, “so what do you write?” is a pretty sure-bet.)

Having a goal also helps you to plan the workshops you want to attend. If your goal is to improve your writing then you’ll end up in different workshops than if your goal is to improve your marketing or learn more about the book business. You’ll also make different choices depending on if you want to self publish or are looking for a trad-pub deal.

Because I’ve got quite a few books out now, my goal for this conference was to a) collect 3 tips to improve my business and b) gather interesting stories from the trenches. I focused more on listening to other attendees as they spoke about their careers and struggles and triumphs. I’ve come away with a deep appreciation for the career I have and a renewed sense that there really are no rules and many different paths to success.

2. Meet-up with others beforehand

If this is your first ever conference, you might get that intimidation factor x10. You could post on the conference’s Facebook event or a writers’ forum asking to meet up with other local first-timers for a coffee. That way, you’ll know some familiar faces once you show up at the conference.

Last year, the conference was out of town for me and the hotel was a bit expensive for the two nights I needed to stay. I put up a message on Facebook asking if anyone would be interested in sharing an AirBNB house for around ⅓ the price. We ended up with a group of 7 of us (many first timers) and we all got to know each other, so this year we hung out again, and it was brilliant.

3. Look for ways to save money

This is not a writing tip but just a general life tip. A 2-3 day conference with accommodation and food and extra events can end up running well over $2000. That’s a lot of money, especially if you’re not a best-selling author (yet). There’s not much you can do about the fees, but there are other ways you can save a few sheckels.

My tips are:

    • Make sure you’re on advance mailing lists and keep an eye on Facebook so you don’t miss earlybird pricing. GET EARLYBIRD PRICING.
    • Look for cheaper accomodation nearby. I often stay with friends for a night in the city to cut down on the number of nights I need to stay in a hotel. AirBNB flats are often cheaper than hotel rooms with more amenities. This year I stayed in the hotel for one night (what a treat!) and slept on a friend’s couch for the other.
    • Consider if you really need to go for the whole programme. RWNZ runs over three days with a full-day craft workshop from one keynote speaker on the Friday. This workshop accounts for around half the fee. I never go on the Friday, because the keynote speaker often summarises a lot of the learnings from the full day during their weekend address, and honestly two days wipes me out so much I can’t even imagine three.
    • Pack some simple breakfast food you can eat in your room. I like to pack things like apples and museli bars so I don’t have to buy hotel breakfasts.
    • Don’t buy lots of alcohol. This is a good idea in general, as you don’t want to be the one getting slobberly drunk in the hotel bar.
    • Check if there are scholarships, volunteer slots, or other discounts available.
    • Save your receipts. Remember, writing conferences are tax deductable!

 

 

Also, if you know you go to a conference every year, put aside a little money each month in a separate account. That way you won’t be surprised without funds when the new programme is announced.

4. Ask lots of questions! But make them good questions.

I usually detest Q&A at writers’ conferences and festivals because questions tend to fall into one of three categories: “My question is just an excuse to talk about my book”, “My question is just an excuse to demonstrate how much I know about the keynote speaker.” or “My question is just an excuse to try and lock the speaker into a pseudo-intellectual debate.”

This weekend impressed me with the intelligent and useful questions other attendees asked. I only heard a couple of very book-specific questions. Please, don’t be afraid of asking questions and remember that even if you think your question is silly, there are probably fifty other people in the room too afraid to ask the same question.

Please, ask questions, just run your question over in your head first to make sure it doesn’t fall into one of the categories above.

5. Dress smart

So many writers stress about what to wear to writing conferences – I see this question on forums all the time. I think it’s part of our introverted nature. We’re worried about impressing people. We want to fit in.

My rules for conference attire are:

  • Be comfortable. Writers conferences have long days packed with sitting, running between sessions, standing around talking to people, and waiting for a spot in the lunch buffet. Wear supportive shoes and clothes that make you feel great.
  • Be professional. Remember that you’re meeting with colleagues in your industry. You don’t have to dress like you’re going to a job interview, but neither should you look like you just rolled out of bed. Avoid t-shirts with offensive slogans unless that’s your brand.
  • Bring layers. I found hotel air conditioning rather tempermental, so I have lots of layers in case I’m too hot or too cold.
  • Stay on-brand. My brand as an author is an extension of my personality, so I like to reinforce that by wearing clothes that demonstrate I’m a little bit weird and a little bit fun.

6. Block out some alone time.

If you’re an extrovert you’ll probably find conferences super fun all the time. But many writers are introverted and struggle to maintain energy levels after being surrounded by people for so many hours. If this is you, I recommend scheduling out a block mid-way through the conference where you can get 10-30 minutes completely to yourself.

For me, this is usually the block on Saturday between when workshops finish and the awards dinner begins. Others miss an afternoon workshop slot or take off during lunch to kip in their room.

Conferences are a non-stop rush of noise and learning and laughs and excitement and OMG SO MANY PEOPLE. You start to feel like a bit of a zombie. Even just ten minutes alone can be all you need to recharge for another round.

7. The best way to promote yourself is to be kind

All the fancy swag in the world won’t make a difference to your career if people remember you as the pushy, crazy, or annoying author who wouldn’t shut up about yourself. It can be hard to turn off your desire to promote your book when you’re surrounded by so many people who could help your career, but the best way to get their attention isn’t to shout, “look at me!” It’s to ask, “how can I help you?”

Listen more than you talk. Help new authors find their feet. Volunteer to help in any way you can. Give out useful information that could help others. If you see someone looking lost and lonely, invite them in to your circle. Do your absolute best to remember people’s names and faces. Give people the benefit of the doubt if they rush off or arrive late or duck back to their room when you want to speak to them – they might be dealing with something personal that’s taking a toll.

If you sit next to an agent, editor, or superstar author, instead of harassing them about your book, ask them about their day, their family, their work. People love to talk about themselves and I guarantee you’ll end up in a conversation that might eventually involve you talking about your books.

I always go in to a conference thinking that no one is there because they want to read my books – but they do want to learn, and I’m happy to talk about things I’ve learned in my career so far. You never know who might in future hear about a really cool project and think, “I know who’d be perfect for that – a nice and helpful and slightly weird paranormal writer I met at RWNZ18.”

8. Make a game plan when you get home.

The writers conference doesn’t end when you arrive home. You’ve still got work to do to make the most of the experience. Create a game plan as soon as you can (I do mine as a running list at the top of my conference notes file during the weekend) to outline the tasks you want to do in the following days and weeks.

Your game plan should include:

  • Going through your notes and pulling out a list of actionable points to implement.
  • Actually implementing those action points (a hundred million billion times harder than the previous bullet).
  • Friending people on social media and messaging new friends, organisers, or your favourite panelists to say thanks for the awesome event.
  • Follow up with the agents and editors you pitched with any requested material. I spoke to an editor last year who said most people who she requests material from at conferences DON’T send it. Crazy! You’ve made the connection and you’re already in with a good shot so just DO THE THING. Agents and editors do expect you to read through your project one last time, but the sooner you send the info, the better.
  • Compare your goals with what you actually achieved, and adjust plans for the next year/conference.
  • Write up a blog post and stick some pics on your social medias sites so people know writers have fun, too.
  • Note learnings you might want to keep in mind for next conference – eg. do/don’t attend certain pre-and-post conference events.
  • Buy the books from the speakers you loved and start reading them. For me this is one of the biggest ways I learn from speakers – when I can see how they apply their learnings in their books.

As I said, this year I was honoured to present a workshop on creating reader-centric mailing lists for writers. I regularly give workshops on various aspects of writing craft, marketing, and rocking your brand for writers and other creatives. My next event is a panel on writing sex and romance at the National Writers Forum (put on by the New Zealand Authors Association) on Sat 22 September.


I’m also available to speak and run workshops at conferences and festivals anywhere in New Zealand (or in the world). If you’re interested – contact me!


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