Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Losing Your Virginity

Conference virginity that is. All of us were first-time attendees of RWA’s national conference at one point. My first time was in Dallas in 2004. I’d only been a member of my local chapter for about two months and didn’t really know any of the members well. I did, however, have bunches of online friendships I’d made through my book reviewing.

So I booked my flight to Dallas, arranged to room with an online friend who had an opening in her room, read everything I could about the conference and away I went. In addition to the workshops, I volunteered to help the Silhouette Desire authors at the Literacy Signing.

Looking back, it was a great experience, and it’s one I’ve repeated every year since. But there are some things I wish I’d known to help make that first conference go just a little smoother.

So I reached out to some of my writer friends and asked them for pieces of advice they’d offer to newbies. As usual, they were more than generous with their time and advice.

Sheri Whitefeather (who also writes as Cherie Feather) and Eve Silver (who also writes as Eve Kenin) both suggested volunteering. Eve says it “gives you the opportunity to meet and connect with other volunteers, and it also segues into conversation with those attending the event you are volunteering for.”

Linda Winstead Jones and Linda Howard both advised to wear comfortable shoes. You'll walk miles at conference. "And take a jacket!” Linda Howard added. A friend who lives in that area told that SF temperatures are very erratic.

Nalini Singh suggested, “Make a schedule! It’ll help you from being overwhelmed and make sure you get the most of your conference experience.” Mine is in the form of a Word table with the days across the top and time slots down the left side. It's an easy way to know where I need to be and when.

However, while you’re making that schedule, keep in mind this bit of advice from Leslie Kelly. “I would suggest NOT trying to choose a workshop for every single slot of every day of the conference. Be judicious, pick the ones you really want to go to and give yourself a break if there’s a block of time with nothing that really interests you.”

Kristi Gold suggests you get to the popular workshops early so you can get a seat. She said she’s been shut out of workshops before because she arrived late and the room was packed. She also said to “make a point to visit the publisher spotlights for the house you're targeting. Usually individual editors list their personal preferences."

"If you're planning to meet up with people, especially people you haven't met in person before," says Abby Gaines, "call the hotel reception and ask them for a 'landmark' in the lobby where you can tell people to meet you. It's much clearer to say, 'Meet you next to the statue of Paul Revere' than to say 'Meet you in the lobby.'"

Tanya Michaels says, “Close your eyes and think of England!” Hey that works for me. She also suggests snagging a bit of downtime to rest. Many of the workshops are taped and you can buy the CD’s to listen to later. The definition of downtime varies from person to person, so it may range from having drinks at the bar to taking a nap with a cool cloth across your forehead.

Tanya also said if you have an editor appointment to “jot down ahead of time the names of a few of your favorite authors at that house.” This way if you freeze up from nerves like she did, you can refer to your notes. “Thankfully,” Tanya said, “she bought my book anyway!”

One of my favorite bits of advice came from Debra Dixon. “Repeat after me: ‘Hi, this is my first conference. Is it yours?’ Too often people sit like stones staring at their plates or lap instead of turning to the person next to them and saying a simple hello. Making connections is one of the most important benefits of attending a conference. You never know where a simple hello will lead unless you actually say hello! Be bold. The bold shall inherit the contacts.”

In that same vein, Roxanne St. Claire said, "You can have a conversation with anyone, anywhere, any time at conference. All you need is one question: "What do you write?" Every single person there will have an answer, and it will spark dialogue. Even if that answer is, 'I don't. I'm an agent.' Hey, that's not bad, is it?"

Jennifer LaBrecque reminds you, though, to "be careful what you say anywhere other than the privacy of your hotel room. You never know who you're standing next to or whose friend you're standing next to." She also cautions this is not the place to drink too much. "Loose lips sink ships," one of my old bosses used to say.

Many writers are introverts who spend the majority of their time holed up with a computer and the voices in their heads. Talking to other people is outside their comfort zone. But with the two questions above, you can break the ice and maybe even make someone's day and make a new friend -- or two or three or a dozen.

At my first conference, I went to lunch the first day and apparently looked like a little lost lamb. A friendly woman came up to me and asked if I'd like to sit at her table. We chatted during lunch and she made me feel like the most special person in the world. Her name is Susan Crosby and she has written for Desire, Next and now Special Edition. Our conference lunch has become an annual event (we just firmed up our plans for this year yesterday) I look forward to. If she hadn't made that move, we'd never have met and eating lunch alone might have set a bad conference tone for me. So look for little lost lambs and invite them to join you.

Roxanne also suggested taking along at least one outfit you feel absolutely great wearing and saving it for the most stressful day (an editor/agent appointment or the workshop you're giving). Just be sure to try on all your clothes and shoes before you leave home to make sure they fit and don't have any loose buttons or ripped hems.

Another of Roxanne's ideas (she was simply a font of advice -- this is her ninth national conference in a row) was to go with a goal in mind -- something tangible and measurable like "I'm going to learn somehting about five different publishers I didn't know when I left." The Playfriends will remember the goal I gave each of them last year. I heard moans and grumbling, but by golly, each of them made their goal and I was proud as punch of them. Angel is our shyest and she was grinning from ear to ear when she showed me her results.

Along with all the great advice above (and thank you so much to all the authors who shared their conference wisdom), I’d like to suggest the following:

Be sure to pack a bottle of your favorite over-the-counter pain reliever. Carry it with you at all times. Even if you never need it, you can offer some to another conference attendee and make a friend for life.

Drink plenty of water. Hotel air conditioning can dehydrate you quickly, and that can lead to the mother of all headaches. Most hotels offer glasses of water in each meeting room. Or do as I do and buy a bottle of water in the airport once you’ve passed through security and then just refill it throughout the week.

Remember your camera so you can have memories of your conference once you get back home. The photo of you with your all-time favorite romance writer will be priceless to you.

Also remember the charger for your camera as well as for your cellphone.

You’ll get lots of free books and goodies at the conference and may make purchases at the Midnight Madness Bazaar, the book fair and local souvenir shops. Getting these back home can be a challenge, especially with the new luggage fees. Go to the Federal Express website and set up a FedEx account. It’s free. And it will allow you to ship stuff back home from the business center of the hotel at a pretty reasonable cost. I shipped back several hundred dollars worth of books plus goodies last year for around $35.

Or you can take the advice of Barbara Vey from Publisher's Weekly. She says to tell folks to "pack their suitcases and then take out 5 things, because you never need all that you take and you need room in your suitcase for all the books and goodies you get. Also, make sure you have extra batteries for your camera because there are lots of opportunities for pictures."

Before the days of baggage charges, I would pack a duffel bag flat in the bottom of my suitcase, fill it with books and goodies as I collected them and send it back as my second piece of luggage. If you're on an airline that still allows a second piece free (Southwest does) you may want to take that option.

I hope this helps the newbies who will be attending their first RWA conference in San Francisco in just – YIKES! – two weeks. And feel free to add your own advice in the comments section.


Barbara Vey said...

This was a great blog. I've been to conferences before, but there are always new and better ways to do things. I've got to work on that schedule...

Jen said...

Great advice all around, PM!!

Roxanne St. Claire said...

Wow, excellent advice, Marilyn! Even this conference non-virgin (nay, dare I say...slut?) got a few new pointers from that. Love Jennifer's advice about loose lips. More career damage occurs in the bar where wine-induced insults are flung than in the editor/agent appointments where clumsy pitches fall flat.

Also, don't plan anything major for the week you return. As much as your brain is aching to get back to the WIP and incorporate all the fabulous new craft tips you learned, your body will need rest. Build in a few days to recuperate.

Finally, here's an open invitation - if you see me, please say hello. I promise to be friendly (I'll probably ask you what you write!). One thing I know for sure and certain: the best life-long and long-distance friendships are formed at Nationals.

Have fun and see you there!

Jude said...

This has to be one of the catchier titles for a blog post on National. Great stuff in the article too.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

Great post, PM! Love it. Last year was my first, and I was lucky enough to have conference sluts (as Rocki said) helping me -- all the Playfriends and Kathy! :)

I would add, for the first timers, to be sure and get the bright orange First Timer ribbon that RWA gives out at registration. People will help you; strangers will speak to you. I met several people that way, some I didn't recognize but later went, "OMG, that was Big Time Writer (or agent or editor)!"

It's a great time, but yes, be sure to schedule some down time and don't plan anything for the week after you get back. You'll be surprised how much time you need to recover from all the action/lack of sleep/etc.

I'd add that if you're unpublished, be sure to have some kind of answer to Rocki's question about "What do you write?" You'll get asked, so have an answer. Doesn't have to be a beautiful 3 sentence pitch, but just be prepared for the question. :)

PM's Mother said...

I don't want you to feel like an unloved child, so here's your blog from me. I do not have anything to say about your blog except GREAT! It covers almost everything. When somesone asks you "what do you write?" you can tell them, "Great blogs for the Writing Playground." Have fun in San Fransisco!

Sherry W. said...

I really really wanted SF to be my first conference but it looks like I will have to wait one more year. But with all this valuable info, I'll be ready!

Have fun and take lots of pictures for us to see!

Maven Linda said...

An addition to my advice to take a jacket: If you're sight-seeing, take a HOODED jacket. You never know; if the fog rolls in and you're caught out in it, your hair will get wet.

SF generally has a very mild climate. Pray there isn't a heat wave, which does occasionally happen. At least the hotels are air-conditioned, so we don't have to worry about that, but the poor people who live there don't have A/C because it just isn't cost effective.

Another thing you might want to consider is taking disposable cameras instead of your digitals. No one ever steals a disposable, and they take great pictures. You're limited in how many pictures you can take, but you can also buy them in the hotel. If you aren't going to be taking scads of pictures, and don't need a 2G card to hold all of them, a disposable is a great way to go.

Angel said...

I never thought of myself as a conference slut... :)

I have sincerely hoped after Reno, that I wouldn't have to miss another national conference, but it just isn't affordable for me to go every year. So I've already started saving for Washington. For those of you who are like me, Go ahead and start saving now!!!! It will make registering, etc, much easier next year. I've even gone so far as to open a Conference savings account with my bank, so the money I put away doesn't get mixed up with family savings.

If you are going, I second the advice about not scheduling every time slot. I keep a schedule, because I'm uptight that way, but after making this mistake at my first conference and hitting a wall way earlier than I wanted to, I suggest leaving at least 3 hours of workshops free. Trust me, you'll be glad you did.

If you do hit a wall (either figuratively or literally), you'll know it. Your brain will stop processing any information and will begin flashing a neon sign that says, SLEEP. Now, you might think sleep is a waste of time, but you'd be amazed what a 30 minute power nap, or just closing your eyes will do. If you are like me, it will keep you from sounding stupid because your brain can't catch up with your mouth....


MaryF said...

I am taking notes PM, because I'll eventually get to one. I am like Angel, I have to save for next year..speaking of I better start.

I love SF. I lived there for about 6 months many years ago. I can hardly wait ot hear the stories.

Sherry W. said...

Thanks Angel, for the handy info about saving up for next year. I haven't thought about opening a Conference account! I'm going to the bank today.

Just curious, how many conferences do you have to attend to move up to slut status??

Playground Monitor said...

Just curious, how many conferences do you have to attend to move up to slut status??

At least four since that's how many I've already attended and Lynn referred to me as a conferenct slut. :-o

Smarty Pants said...

Four? Okay, that means I'm not a slut until after I get back from SFO. Right now I'm just a little loose. :)

I'm trying to think of some advice for first timers that hasn't already been said. Get some business cards if you haven't already and tuck them inside your badge pocket for easy access. That way when you start talking to someone, you can exchange them. I struggle for conversation topics as well, so if your card is interesting, it also gives something to talk about.

Also, this sounds silly, but if you have downtime, spend it in the bar. (Don't get sloshed, per Rocki, but hang out there.) The hotel bar is always crowded with people to talk to. Often times, editors and agents also hang out there and have quick drinks with their authors if they don't have time for a longer meeting. You never know who you'll bump into.

Problem Child said...

Like any other kind of slut, I think it's a frame of mind--you want it, you need it, you think about it all the time, you do what it takes to get it, you look forward to it, and you love every minute of it.

Anonymous said...

My advise, small that it is, take a pony tail holder or barrett to pull your hair back. When I work events here at the school, I always have one on me so that if I get busy, I'm not sweating like crazy and I will still look professional!!!

Chelle said...

Lose your virginity. Snicker.

Great advice for those of you rich enough to travel. I'd love to be able to take a big vacation like that. Oh well, maybe oneday.

Smarty Pants said...

You won't find a "rich" person in the lot of us, I assure you. We just know we want to go and spend all year saving for it. If you want it bad enough, you do what you have to do to make it happen. If that means you go every other year, or only when its on the east coast and closer to you, so be it.