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Ah, the thrill of walking into a room of strangers! Who doesn’t love looking for a place to sit and finding something to occupy yourself with before the action begins? Who doesn’t love negotiating the lunch line, eyeing all of the already-full tables of chatting writers, and trying to figure out who to approach to ask if the seat next to him or her is open?
Uh, the answer to all of the above would be me.
I would not be described by those who know me well as easily intimidated or particularly shy. But that’s because I have faked my way through and around and over my instincts to avoid people at all costs. Instead, I’ve learned to smile and shake hands and speak with confidence. Still – while I don’t get anxious to the point of paralysis at the idea of mingling with strangers, I do get that uncomfortable flutter in my stomach at the thought of negotiating all of the logistics of events like conferences and open workshops.
That feeling brings me back to my school days. It’s a fear of being excluded, left out, unwanted. It’s a fear of being the last kid picked for a team. Of everyone laughing at a joke you’re not in on. It’s a fear of being the last one in the lunchroom, holding a tray of food and finding every seat is taken.
When I start to feel this way, I remind myself that at some point in school I probably was excluded, left out, and unwanted. I’m sure I was. But I got past it. I’m not twelve. Or even sixteen. I’m … much older. Plus, writing conferences are not like school. Not at all. Sure there are usually desks, and yes there is typically one person doing most of the talking. But trust me – they are different. For one thing, we’re all adults. For another, we’re writers. Writers are a friendly if eclectic and often quirky crowd. And many writers are very introverted. All of this spells good news for the shy peeps among us since there is almost certain to be another Nervous Nellie looking for a place to sit and someone to chat with before the show begins. Look for the person hunched over a smartphone. Chance are she is simply killing time, trying to look busy so she doesn’t look alone.
Of course, none of this meandering narrative provides you with direct help. That’s what the rest of this post is for.
Here are my top five tips (or logistics tricks, if you will) for navigating the less “writerly” part of writing conferences
1. Where do I sit during lectures/workshops?
The answer is – toward the front. And also on the end of an aisle or as close to one as you can get. Here’s why. You want to be able to hear (not all writers have great speaking voices … or microphones). You want to be able to see (most presenters hold up books, papers, examples, write on the board, or use the smartboard/overhead). You want the presenter to notice you when you raise your hand with a comment or question (if for no other reason than if you don’t, someone else will). And most importantly, you want to be able to get the heck out of Dodge (the presenter might be so awful you have to leave, you might need to use the facility, and after the session you want to be able to dart over to the lecturer with fabulous questions and insights).
2. Where to sit during lunch?
The answer is – sit with people.
Okay, that’s an oversimplification. If you didn’t bring friends or acquaintances with you, I have found that one of two options works phenomenally. One, make a point to start a conversation with one or more folks in the session before lunch. If you find this person (or people) interesting, you have a lunch buddy. Two, sit anywhere. I’ve sat by myself a few times (when I was lucky to get to the lunch line in the first wave) and inevitably I was joined by other writers looking for company (or, more likely, a seat). I’ve held my breath and walked over to almost-full tables and been welcomed like a long-lost friend. Remember the first post in the series – networking is key. Make these lunch hours work for you!
3. Speaking of food… Should I bring my own? Risk eating what is provided? Or head out to a restaurant?
The answer is – it depends.
I’ve done all three. I’m a fan of keeping things simple. And the easiest thing is to eat the food provided. It’s usually included or offered at a reasonable price. That being said, I have food allergies, I have Celiac, and I’m a vegan. You can imagine that standard conference food isn’t usually going to work for me. If you have any food “issues,” I strongly recommend contacting the organizers to make sure the meal you’re paying for will actually be something you can eat. Don’t email. Don’t rely on the box you checked when you registered. Call the organizers. Once I was handed a gluten-free tuna fish sandwich when I marked vegan and allergic to fish. It was gluten-free, but I couldn’t eat it. Lesson learned.
I have brought my own meal on occasion. It was fine, but tedious to carry about or retrieve from the (distant) car. And I went out to lunch exactly one time. I joined a group of women who invited me along. It was a nice experience, but far more costly than eating at the conference. Still, I made connections and had a good time. Of course, not all conferences provide food and in that case the decision is easier.
4. I have choices for different sessions. How do I know which ones to take?
The answer is – narrow down your options, then do some homework.
First, I am a strong believer in signing up for at least one session that will get you writing. There are often workshop-type sessions (easily identified by the words “bring a pencil!” or “we’ll then put xyz to use!” and so on). Even if this session is offered in a genre that you typically avoid I say, take it anyway. In fact, the less familiar you are with the genre the better. You only grow when you stretch yourself. The active sessions are good for something else, too. They break up the day. It can be difficult to sit and only listen for six or more hours. These workshops will engage a different part of the brain and provide a boost to get you through the rest of the day.
Second, it is easy to cross off the things that don’t apply or appeal to you – or that do. If you write in a specific genre, look for genre-specific sessions. I attended a conference that offered sessions on writing thrillers, writing romance, fantasy world building… If those apply to you, grab them with both hands because they will probably fill up fast. Likewise, if you only write nonfiction, a fantasy world building workshop won’t be for you.But invariably, there’s a slot of time in which none of the sessions are appealing – or worse, all are appealing or “must-have” sessions. That’s when it is homework time.
Third, do your homework. Research the presenters before the conference. Look at their publications. Read their bios. Sometimes a session title sounds tedious, but after reading the bio of the presenter you find that the woman leading it is in two rock bands, writes for a television series you love, and does stand-up comedy on the side. You can bank on that session being lively and fun! Or you find out that the session title that sounded amazing is being led by a writer you didn’t know you detested because he writes under a pen name. You don’t want to spend the entire session muttering under your breath and stabbing your notebook out of frustration. Taking a little time to learn about who is going to be holding your attention (or losing it) for an hour or more can be invaluable in choosing how to spend your time.
And finally, know you will probably regret at least one session. You’ll walk out of a session that left you feeling “blah” only to hear laughter and applause coming from the room of the session you almost decided to attend. At lunch, your table mates will gush about how much they enjoyed and are taking away from a session you thought sounded about as appealing as stabbing yourself in the eye. It happens. My advice is to challenge yourself and make a list of at least three things you know now that you didn’t know before the session. For example, I attended one session that was a total letdown. I was angry and frustrated because I felt like I had wasted precious time and money. But I stuck to the challenge and made my list. One of the things on my list was, “I now know that there are forty-six ceiling tiles in room 103.” Sounds pointless. But I filed that away, and actually used that experience when writing a scene in which the character is bored out of her mind during a class. Not ideal, but I no longer see the session as a total waste because the experience was fresh in my mind so my scene was vivid and detailed.
5. When should I arrive? The website says check-in starts at 8am, but the conference doesn’t begin until 9:30am?
The answer – as early as possible.
I know, I know. The awkwardness of standing around with nothing to do! The horror of waiting! Or for some of us, the horror of getting up early and anywhere on time! I get it. But here’s why I answer this way… Unless you live across the street, you want to give yourself time to find the place, get parking, sign in, grab a cup of joe (or tea or juice), snag a muffin or doughnut before they’re gone (or if you’re me, a banana), find out where the restrooms are, have time to ask any last minute questions, and study the map of the place to figure out where on earth you’re going. You don’t want to be a sweaty mess that runs in late, hands shaking from the stress of finding the venue and parking, miss the coffee and goodies, and start the day feeling behind. I’ve been that person. It’s not fun. Tell yourself the start time is the earliest time listed for arrival, and unless there is a record-breaking traffic jam or you drive for fifty miles in the wrong direction on the highway, you won’t be late. And you’ll have a little extra time to meet people, familiarize yourself with the schedule, and relax before the day begins.
There’s another benefit to arriving early. Most conferences begin with a keynote speaker. If you arrive on the earlier side of the morning, you can actually find a seat that meets the criteria I listed above. You’ll be able to hear. You’ll be able to see (I showed up slightly later – not late, but not early – to a conference this fall and had a great view of a pole for the keynote address). You’ll be able to sneak out to use the restroom – or at least get there first at the break (this is no joke for the ladies room – I’ve seen lines wrapped around the building). And you won’t be the person coming in late to hundreds of eyes that will inevitably turn and stare at you as you try to find a place to sit (or more likely, stand). So set your alarm and be early – not just on time.
I hope some of this is helpful as you step through the doors of your next conference!
If you’ve been to a writing conference – or anything like a writing conference that presented similar tricky logistics – please share your tips and tricks! What has worked (or not worked) for you?