Sunday, July 18, 2010

Conference Prep for Introverts

For those of you who haven’t guessed by now, I’m a confessed introvert, which means that crowds of people (especially strangers and unusual situations) drain the energy from me quicker than anything. Until the past 5 years, I would have described myself as a painfully shy person who had a great deal of difficulty talking to strangers and had uncomfortable physical reactions to speaking in front of others (shaking, flushing, nausea and nerves). RWA was the first organization I joined by myself, because I’m a twin, I often had my sister or husband with me in any new situation. Since I joined RWA solo, I had to put myself out there without the safety net of a “buddy”. :)

But I learned that practice makes putting myself out there a little bit easier. My local chapter has been a wonderful arena to gain experience as a speaker, in meeting new people and expanding my group of friends and acquaintances. There’s only one thing remaining that scares the bejeezus out of this introvert: National Conference! Two thousand editors, agents, authors, and RWA staff in one hotel with workshops, publishing house spotlights, pitch appointments, and—most stressful of all—social events like lunches and parties. It is one of the biggest learning and entertaining experiences a romance author can have. But the anticipation of all those opportunities to speak, be seen, have conversations, ask questions, meet people, and-did I mention-speak? The nervous anticipation can start getting to you before you even make it to Nationals.

I’m happy to say that, like my involvement in my local chapter of RWA, attending Nationals for several years has given me a chance to work out some of the nerves. I’ve learned a few tricks to help this introvert stay more calm and not so drained. I hope they can help you too!

Be Prepared!

This has been the biggest sanity saver for me. Before my first National Conference, my local chapter was generous with the information of what to expect and I took their advice to heart. Before I stepped out my door, I had thought through answers to some key questions that you hear all the time at Nationals. They show up during a lot of conversations and now I can answer them without having to obsess (before or after).

The questions that I’ve concocted short and sweet answers to are:

• What do you write? “Currently I’m working on a spicy romantic suspense with southern gothic influences. I’ve also written category length romance and short stories.”
• How did you start writing? “I’ve always made up stories in my head, but after my daughter was born a friend encouraged me to put them on paper. Once I started my first book, I was totally hooked!”
• Are you published? “I’ve published a bunch of short stories and articles, but I’m still working toward my goal of publishing a book.”
• Who are your favorite authors? Here I try to narrow it down to authors who have something in common with what I write, to give the listener an idea about my tastes. For instance, if you write paranormal vampires (and read them), you might mention Sherrilyn Kenyon (Dark Hunters) or Kerrelyn Sparks (humorous). If you write erotic, you might mention Beth Kery (light on the suspense angles) or Lora Leigh (heavier romantic suspense). Get the drift? Choose your favorite authors that reflect your writing interests, if possible.
• Have you seen (fill in the blank with local attraction)? Hopefully you can remember your traveling itinerary without preparing ahead of time, but keep this answer short. Mention your favorite thing so far, or if you are sightseeing after conference, the thing you are most looking forward to. Then let the other person interject their own thoughts on the subject.

***Because these are common questions at conference, you don’t have to wait to be asked them. Use them yourself to start up conversations when you find yourself meeting new people!

Schedule Rest and Time Alone!

Definition of an introvert: when being with other people drains you of energy, instead of energizing you. This means that spending all day mingling with others, talking after workshops, making small talk over lunch, or being brilliant in the elevator will make you very tired, very quickly. For me, the fatigue is more mental than physical, but it still forces me to collapse for several days after I get home. But I’ve come to recognize the fog that can suddenly make it hard to think and the overwhelming urge to just be alone, even if it is simply to lock myself in the bathroom for 5 minutes.

Some introverts can last longer than others. For instance, you may be able to interact with people all day, but need definite down time scheduled for each night. Others might need some alone time around mid-afternoon siesta, then be able to tackle the rest of the day. Whatever it is you need, acknowledge and plan for it! My plan usually includes taking my time in the shower each morning, even if it means getting up 5 minutes early. In a room with 4 people (even if they are my best friends), there is no solitude, except in the shower. ;) So I indulge a few extra minutes in the morning to start my day off with a good mental attitude. Also, I’ll occasionally come back to the room some time after lunch. Usually anyone in the room at that time is asleep anyway, so I can simply lay on the top of the covers with my eyes closed for 10 minutes for a touch of rejuvenation.

Other strategies might include planning a dinner that you can take back to your room one night for some peace away from the crowds, going out for a little solitary sight-seeing or browsing the bookstore by yourself. If you do little things like this for yourself throughout the day, your psyche won’t feel like it has to crash and burn by Saturday night. We want to see you all dressed up and happy at the Awards Ceremony, not stressed and frowning!

As for sleep, well, you can be guaranteed not to get the amount you usually do at home. Even if we make it to bed at a decent hour, my roommates and I often discuss the day’s events for a while before drifting off. At home, I’m an 8 hour a night girl. At conference… let’s just say I sleep a lot when I get home! That being said, it is a good thing to know your limits. If you absolutely cannot function without at least 5 hours (usually the minimum I need to be coherent), then getting only 3 the night before your editor’s appointment is a sincerely bad move. So be aware of your limits and work within them.

Remember: Editors are People Too!

A worrisome thought that gets planted into an introvert’s head can be: “What if I do something stupid in front of (insert here: editor, agent, publisher, best selling author, etc.)?” One of the big warnings that floats around the blogosphere and RWA chapters is to remember that people are watching and listening. And yes, there are plenty of publishing professionals at these events that I wouldn’t want to insult in some way with my behavior. Unfortunately, that puts a great deal of pressure on an introvert to be “on” all the time, draining their energy that much faster.

Here are a few things to help ease your stress in this instance: 1. Remember, these warnings are there to prevent UNPROFESSIONAL behavior, like complaining about an editor in the bathroom where anyone can here. There’s a big difference between that and tripping over your feet in the lobby of the hotel (been there, done that). The latter doesn’t mean someone will bar you from publishing for life. A simple use of common courtesy is all that is expected.

2. Remember, editors (and agents, publishers, etc.) are people too. They don’t need you to be cold and stiff with them. They simply want you to talk to them as if they were people (not your only hope of ever getting a book contract—there’s nothing like desperation to run off an editor!). Speak to them as you would any other acquaintance you meet. Often, publishing professionals won’t wear their nametags if they aren’t at an actual event, so saying hi or asking the stranger sitting next to you in the bar about their favorite area attractions is always a polite move. Ask them if they are there for the RWA conference and if so, what they write. If they don’t write, they’ll say so. Let them volunteer the information they want and don’t push to “pitch” unless they specifically say, “Tell me about your book.”

When the Nerves Start to Flutter…

But sometimes, despite everything you’ve tried, the nerves will strike out of nowhere! This always happens to me before my editor and agent appointments. Just thinking about those 10 minutes makes my stomach contract and flutter like butterflies have taken up residence. What’s an introvert to do then?

Well, the first thing I do is breathe. And I don’t mean this flippantly. Have you ever noticed that it is hard for your stomach to tighten if you are taking a truly deep breath? It may take several, but breathing is my first line of defense in these situations (and has the added benefit of helping you think more clearly).

Speaking of thoughts, that’s the next line of fire. If you are having specific worries, address each one. “What if I say something stupid? Well, if I stumble over my pitch, I can just stop, take a breath, give a little smile, and say something like, ‘Sorry, I’m a little nervous’.” “What if she hates it? Well, the worst she can do is say no, and then I’ve learned she isn’t the editor/agent for me.” See what I’m doing here. Don’t let your worries and fears spin out of control. Combat them with the truth of the matter. Then calm yourself down with a simple “This will be over in 10 minutes. I can survive anything for that long, right? :)”

So there you have it. These strategies have made National Conference (or any big event with lots of strangers) much more manageable despite my introvert personality, although I do spend some time after events wondering, “How I could possibly have said that!?!?” But I get over it and try to move on quickly… oh, another strategy slipping in there!

So tell us, what are your strategies for big crowds and situations where you might be uncomfortable? If you are lucky enough to be an extrovert, we’d love any advice you could offer too!


**For more professionally based information, check out the Clinic on the Playground and Counselor Shelley's advice for Introverts.


Cheryl said...

If anyone hasn't guessed it by now, I am definitely an extrovert. My son grumbles that I rarely meet a stranger. But, years in politics has taught me one thing: everybody loves to talk about themselves. My biggest advice is not to bore people to death with your own stories. If you meet an editor (and Angel is right- they are people too) make sure to center the conversation around them - their likes and dislikes, families, hobbies, mainly their interests. They probably never get the chance to talk about themselves because writers are probably inundating them with pitches and the writers's lives. Just be courteous and listen - you learn a lot from others that way. Plus, they will remember you later if you mention something they told you about themselves (i.e. How's your dog, Sammy?); it makes them feel good that someone listened! And you get Brownie Points!

Smarty Pants said...

Angel must be a more extreme introvert than I am. I don't mind being around *my* people for long periods of time. I just don't like being around a bunch of others I don't know. Its exhausting. I'm horrible at small talk. I make bad first impressions. I'd just rather not deal with all that, to be honest.

What gets me most about it, though, is the sleep deprivation. I don't want to miss anything, but my brain just shuts down after a while. I simply can't run on a couple hours of sleep. Aside from being uncoordinated, I lose some of my carefully crafted filter and will say something inappropriate. That's why I'm big on naps. Yes, I'm the one asleep in our room when I should be at a workshop. I can't help it. If I'm going to be up until 12 or 2 that morning, I have to nap.

Now I'm tired just thinking about conference.

Instigator said...

Yeah, I'm tired just thinking about next week. I always enjoy conference but I come home from it so tired (and I'm an extrovert who should GAIN energy from the situation) that my brain usually shuts down for several days afterward. I definitely end up spending time in the room which is a good thing. The first few years I didn't do this and paid the price for my mistake. You just can't do it all at conference...a tough lesson to learn.


Playground Monitor said...

Contrary to what the other Playfriends might tell you, I am an introvert. On the "Official Scale of Introvertism and Extrovertism" I fall somewhere between Angel/SP and Instigator/PC. Maybe you could call me the fulcrum in the teeter totter.

I've learned to be a little more extroverted. Perhaps age has something to do with it -- I'm less afraid to put myself out there a bit. I've also learned a lot of the tips Angel offered about having canned replies to questions or using those to start a conversation. And I've also just learned to take a deep breath and walk up to someone and introduce myself.

I too come home from the conference exhausted and wanting to just hide under the covers for a few days.


I'm shy too. I'm not going to Nationals this year. Last year I had my buddy with me, which helped.

Problem Child said...

Sleep? People sleep at conference? Who are these people and when do they manage to fit sleep into their schedule??

Sherry Werth said...

I'm mostly an introvert but since joining RWA and HOD I have gained a few extrovert tendencies. :)
I know my first conference is going to be overwhelming but with the guidelines and info all of you have shared maybe I won't sound like a blundering fool! :-D
I'm working on my schedule this week and downtime will be included. I'm a water person so I'm hoping some of that downtime will be chilling by one of those gorgeous pools or beaches I saw on the website.

Angel said...

SP, I even get tired if I spend too much time with my family. :)


Angel said...

Good thing you mentioned that, Kelly! One of the things I forgot to add: People will often tell you to branch out and sit with strangers at the lunches and dinners, so you can meet new people. The problem with this is, others at the table often know each other and you end up being the odd man out. I suggest that you eat with 1 buddy. Sit together at a table with other people you don't know. This will allow you to meet others, yet still feel safe and more outgoing because you have one of your peeps with you. :)


Liza said...

I'm very shy when I first meet people for the first time. I'm pretty good once I've talked for a while, but am more of an introvert for sure. My sorority rush really helped me be able to talk to people easier, so I guess I'll fall back on that experience for next week. All of my friends are shocked that I'm going to a conference with 2,000 people I've never met(will actually meet my roommate for the first time when we get to the hotel). Still, I'm more excited than scared right now...of course, I know that will change back and forth over the next week.

Kathy said...

These are good tips, Angel. ;)

Late evenings are always a good time for me to unwind. I will go to classes all day long. While I'm in class, I get to chill and listen and learn. This, too, can be a great time for an introvert to rejuvenate. I'm like a sponge when I go to conference, wanting to absorb as much as I can. Then, when I get back to my room, I will either glance over the next day's schedule or reread my notes from the day, to include practicing my pitch.

Everyone has their own routine. It's really great that the playfriends outreach to first timers so they won't feel so overwhelmed when they get there. It's also good to refresh strategies year to year. ;D

Maven Linda said...

Introvert here, so much so that I need time away from even my family. I spend a lot of time alone in my office. Even though I'm relaxed with my people, have a lot of fun, to unwind at the end of the day I need some down time with a book. I'm not shy, but in a crowd I'm shedding energy, not gathering it.

Here's a good sign you're an introvert: when you look forward to going into a public restroom because no one will be in the stall with you, YOU'RE AN INTROVERT.

As much as I look forward to the conference, I'm brain dead when it's over. The Big Conference Dead Spot (BCDS) right in the middle of my forehead gradually gets smaller every day as I recover. If I were shy on top of being an introvert, I'd probably be a vegetable for a couple of weeks afterward.

Angel said...

Thanks, Kathy! That's one reason why I enjoy putting these posts together--it reminds ME of what I need to do to survive conference each year. :)

Maven Linda, I am indeed an introvert by that definition. I have had moments when I slipped into the ladies room, and felt the weight of being "on" melt from my body. :) I warned my sister, who is attending for the first time this year, to take a few extra days off work when she gets home. You can't just jump right back into your routine (although I will have to jump right into school shopping). :(