If you're an emerging novelist or screenwriter, it's likely that you've attended or are thinking of attending a writers conference. Where else can you take classes to help you hone your craft, listen to panels of experts giving advice, or meet with an agent, editor or executive to pitch your latest book or script - all in one day or one weekend?
From Boston to Maui, from Miami to Toronto and in nearly every metropolis in-between, there are hundreds of writing conferences going on throughout the year. But if you're a 'newbie' heeding your first 'conference call', the very thought of being one of hundreds of aspiring writers can be pretty intimidating, overwhelming, and oftentimes, confusing. So many emerging writers are at a loss as to what to do and what is expected of them. So -- what can you do to maximize your time and effort at a writers conference? How can you make sure that your monetary investment -- oftentimes several hundred dollars for the conference fee alone, notwithstanding costs for transportation, hotel, and meals -- gives you the best possible value for your investment?
If the conference offers first-come, first-served appointments or one-on-one consultations with speakers and faculty personnel, be sure to send in your registration fee early to avoid disappointment. Since some speakers may be in more demand than others, many registration forms will ask for your selection of three or four faculty members, even though you may only have one appointment.
As soon as you receive the conference brochure, read it carefully and check off the classes/panels/discussions appropriate for your level of experience and your needs. Pay particular attention to events that will sharpen your skills and/or benefit your areas of interest, such as structure, TV/cable movies, dialogue, character development, the children's marketplace, etc. If two classes are scheduled at the same time, consider finding another conference participant attending one of the classes who might be willing to swap notes with you so that you both benefit from both classes.
If you have special needs (handicapped-accessible room, dietary requirements, etc.), be sure and contact the conference organizers to ask if these requests can be handled ahead of time. Be sure to pack notepads, writing instruments, business cards, tape recorder/tapes/batteries (always check in advance with conference personnel or speakers to find out if taping is allowed), and bring along a few copies of your manuscript, treatment or screenplay -- just in case.
Be sure and arrive early so you can check out the areas where the classes or panels will be held. Locate the registration desk, the dining area, and the rest rooms. Upon registering, ask the staff if there are any last-minute changes you should be aware of, such as cancelled workshops, room changes or substitute speakers, and make note of such changes if it affects your schedule.
Before the conference begins, you'll also need to get yourself in the right 'mind set.' It's helpful to establish realistic goals for yourself, keeping in mind that there are no guaranteed formulas for breaking into publishing or entertainment. Becoming an 'overnight success' is indeed a rarity. Understand that what works for one person won't always work for everyone. Be prepared to greet all advice, comments, and information with an open mind and with respect for the agent, editor or executive who is sharing his or her knowledge with the audience.
Make it a point to sit as close to the front of the room as possible. This is helpful if you are taping a session or want to take accurate notes. If, however, you know you may have to leave a session early (for a one-on-one consultation, for instance), select a seat next to the aisle and closer to the exit. Always be sure to wear your name tag/badge. If you are aware of a situation that deserves immediate attention (such as not enough handouts, not enough seats, faulty sound system, etc.), don't hesitate to locate a staff member who will rectify the situation.
DURING A WORKSHOP
Feel free to ask questions, especially during the question-and-answer period at the end of each session. Few speakers mind valid interruptions, so if you do not understand a point, it's perfectly all right to raise your hand and ask for a further explanation or clarification. Ask only one question at a time and allow others to ask their questions. It's a good idea to prepare some specific questions in advance for each session you're attending. If your question isn't answered during the class, you can then take advantage of the Q & A period that follows the presentation. Be sure your question pertains to the subject of the workshop. Questions that are related specifically to your own project are better left for one-on-one consultations.
When a session comes to a close, please refrain from crowding the speaker when he or she is leaving the stage, keeping in mind that the room needs to be readied for the next event. If you were unable to ask a question, wait until the speaker has left the classroom area. Most speakers will be more than happy to answer your query, provided they do not have to rush off to another commitment.
Many conferences also hold networking events that enable speakers to mingle with attendees. These are wonderful opportunities to make contacts and to gather information. If you want to ask a question, keep the question brief and to the point, remembering that others are awaiting their chance to speak with the faculty member. No one appreciates people who ungraciously monopolize a speaker's time.
If you're fortunate enough to obtain a one-on-one appointment, plan your agenda in advance. If you decide to pitch your manuscript or movie project, keep a careful eye on the clock so the speaker will have enough time to respond to your pitch. If you opt not to pitch a story idea or project, prepare three to five questions in advance, keeping in mind that most appointments are usually only 10 to 15 minutes in duration. Because of time restrictions, refrain from asking the speaker to read 'a few scenes' or your screenplay or the 'first chapter' of your manuscript. In many cases, agents, executives, and producers may not be allowed to accept material for legal reasons.
If you're unable to get a one-on-one with a particular speaker, consider asking a conference staff member to put you on a waiting list in case that speaker has a cancellation. Also, if you're unable to keep an appointment for a consultation, let a staff member know in plenty of time so another attendee will have an opportunity to ask questions or pitch their ideas.
Consider which presenters you'd like to meet during these networking events. If you have a romance novel or a romantic-comedy script, you might want to key in on the editor from Harlequin or the producer with a deal at the studio that just distributed the latest romantic blockbuster.
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER
Conference veterans will usually take time to relax. With so much information being given in such a short period of time, it's helpful to schedule an occasional break to combat 'information overload'. Some conference goers will take a short walk or find a quiet area for a cup of coffee to gather their thoughts and evaluate what they've absorbed.
If there isn't one in your information packet, ask a conference staffer for an evaluation form. These forms are the perfect tool for making suggestions, comments or complaints. If you enjoyed the conference, take the time to tell the conference director or staff. If you were disappointed with a workshop or panel, take the time to explain why the session didn't meet your needs or expectations. Also list faculty members and speakers that were outstanding as well as those that you felt were off the mark. These evaluation forms are the most valuable tools that conference organizers have for planning future conferences. Your feedback will ensure that efforts will be made to improve the quality of the workshops, panels, and discussion groups.
It's also helpful to remember to not only network with the speakers, but to also network with your fellow writing colleagues attending the conference. Indeed, one of the unexpected highlights of attending a conference is sharing your experience with others. Meeting other writers may assist you to form writing critique groups, share workshop notes, or pool informational resources. Several conference attendees have even found writing partners and a few have even found future spouses!