Managing Your Conference Expectations (From the Archives)

As we're writing about conferences this week, I thought I'd pull out a post that first aired in May 2011, about managing your conference expectations.  I hope you enjoy it!
Conferences are exciting and let’s face it, a little nerve-wracking.  For people who spend most of their time alone with a keyboard and imaginary worlds, the prospect of interacting with a lot of strangers in the real world can be daunting.  Throw in the fact that you may also get to meet authors you admire, editors who publish actual books, and agents you’d love to have represent you, and it can all seem overwhelming.  It doesn't have to be.  Here are some tips to keep your conference expectations in check.

1.    1.  Expect to be Bored

Yes, after enduring a sleepless night in a strange hotel room with nerves that rival those you had on the first day of school, you will be tired and yes, occasionally bored.  Not every speaker will address topics that apply to you or your work.  Not every speaker will be as entertaining as Bruce Colville or as funny as Rachel Vale.  It’s okay.  No conference can be everything to everyone the entire time.  Don’t feel bad.  For every session you’re bored with, there are ten other people who are getting just what they came for.  Conserve your energy for the sessions you really need.  Take a breather.  You don’t have to see it all.

2.        2.  Expect to be Inspired

It’s impossible to sit in a room with a lot of people who love and hate writing as much as you do without rediscovering the parts you love and drawing inspiration from those who have found success.  I love hearing about how Author X couldn’t get an agent for ten years before finally finding success, or how Editor Y found a best seller in the slush pile.  I love learning how books went from the author’s head to a manuscript I know and love.  I love getting a writing tip that I can’t wait to try on my own manuscript.   I’ve never been to a conference that didn’t remind me why I devote so much of my personal time to writing.

3.       3.  Expect to be Embarrassed

It won’t happen to everyone, but I figure that as long as I know going in that at some point I’m going to say the wrong thing, or do something stupid, it can take the pressure off when it actually happens.  And, um, yes, this has happened to me.  There was the time I approached an agent at my very first conference and immediately pitched my book.  No “hi, nice to meet you, thanks for the information,” just “I heard you were looking for YA books, and I have a YA book.”  Except I didn’t have an elevator pitch, so I basically rambled and may have accidently compared myself to Sarah Dessen when I meant to say that I am inspired by her.  And I may also have seen myself a few weeks later in said agent’s blog post about how authors should not proclaim themselves as the next Sarah Dessen.  Yeah.  That was me.  But you know what?  This agent was kind enough to ask for pages and we both got over it.  We all make newbie mistakes.  We all make middlebie mistakes.  I bet even the pros say things they regret later.  You know what?  It’s okay.  Be nice.  Apologize if you need to, and move on.  I guarantee that whatever you think you’ve done, they’ve seen worse.

4.      4.  Don’t Expect to be Discovered

You won’t sell your manuscript off a two minute pitch.  You won’t get an agent with your sparkling personality.  Your ten page sample is not going to make everyone in the room stop what they’re doing and demand the rest of the manuscript.  Don’t be discouraged.  Your pitch may be good enough to get a request for some pages, or even the whole manuscript.  Your sparkling personality may lead to a friendship that lasts a lifetime.  Your pages may catch someone’s interest and get them to request more.  But no one is going to read your entire manuscript right then and there.  If you get a request, it will be sent electronically after the conference.  And it’s your entire manuscript, not your pitch or even your first ten pages that must be sparkling.  And you might not get a request.  You might get some valuable feedback on your concept or pages.  You might just find out that your work isn’t a good fit for a particular agent or editor.  That’s okay.  You’ll get there in time.  A conference will help you on your path to publication, but it is never the end of it.

5.       5.  Don’t Expect to Be the Star of the Show

Unless you are giving the presentation or leading the critique session, don’t expect to be the star of the show.  We’ve all been in conference sessions where one attendee dominates the session with questions that have little relevance to the topic, makes comments that are a rehash of what the speaker just said, or personal pitches for their own work.  For the most part, you are there to listen.  Let the speakers talk.  Do ask thoughtful questions that are on topic and are general enough to apply to the room.  Just don’t use the opportunity to ask questions as a platform for your personal agenda or projects.  There’s time after the session for that.  (See No. 3!)

6.       6.  Expect to Make Friends

You will be surrounded by people who share a common interest.  You all love books and writing.   You already have an opener- “What do you write?” Ask people about their work.  Find out how long they’ve been writing and what they’re working on now.  Even the shyest of us can be coaxed to talk about our writing projects.  And the most supportive family and friends won’t understand what you’re going through the way fellow writers will.  We know how hard it is to get that first draft on paper, how much that first request for pages means, how disappointing it is to put a book in the drawer.  Exchange emails and Twitter info. In a profession that’s so solitary, we’re all in this together.  That’s why writing conferences are so cool. 


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