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.