Writers’ Conferences: Five Things They Never Tell you

Last February when I was gearing up for the four writers’ conferences I’d planned to attend this year (it’s usually two), I happened upon Hank Phillippi Ryan’s recent column on the Career Authors’ website (“Should You Go to Book Conventions?” Feb 20, 2019). It’s well worth reading, especially if you’re new to the writing life.

Someone told Hank once “that writers’ conventions are where they take 2,000 people who would rather be by themselves and make them talk to each other.” It’s true. Mostly. Writers in general tend to be introverts. Spending hours alone with a computer sounds like fun to us. Introverts aren’t necessarily timid or insecure, but we expend energy when we’re with others, especially in crowds, and recoup it when we’re alone.

And then there’s the expense. Attending conferences isn’t cheap, especially if you add airfare to the cost of registration and hotel accommodations. That means you should do your homework to make sure you’re getting the most out of your time and money. All that aside, I think writers’ conventions are a godsend for authors. That’s where we network with other writers, hone our craft, receive encouragement and constructive criticism, pitch our manuscripts to agents and editors, meet and make fans, sign and sell books, and learn about the writing life.

In general, there are two kinds of crime-writing conferences—those geared toward authors, with the goal of learning and polishing craft (Sleuthfest, Writer’s Digest, Crime Bake, Killer Nashville); and those focused mainly on fans (Bouchercon, Thrillerfest, Malice Domestic, Left Coast Crime). Some are huge and fast-paced. Others, especially regional conferences, are smaller and fairly intimate.

There’s lots of information out there to help you make your plans (Hank’s article is full of practical advice). But here are five things the experts never tell you—five things I learned by experience.

1. Most published authors will talk to you.

Even the famous ones tend to be introverts, so gather up your courage and say hello. Tell them how much you enjoyed their latest offering. After all, writers love nothing better than chatting about their books. Do tell them what you’re working on as well. You’ll probably find they’re interested. Do not, however, interrupt them in the middle of a conversation or corner them in the bathroom. I spent my first conference, Malice Domestic, sitting alone, starry-eyed but reluctant to take the first step. My loss, because the crime-writing community is warm and welcoming. It really is.

2. You probably won’t get any writing done.

            I’ve schlepped my computer to many conventions, only to plug it in, access the hotel wifi, and then forget about it until the final day. There are exceptions, of course, but unless you’re under a strict deadline and probably shouldn’t be attending a conference in the first place, you will probably be much too tired to get any serious writing done. You need your sleep. Last week at Crime Bake, I had all I could do to keep up with emails, Facebook, and Twitter—all of which could be done on my cell phone. Unless you’re a superhero, leave your computer at home and focus on what you can learn. Listen. Take notes. Think. Have conversations.

3. Pay attention to nametags.

I rarely forget a face, but putting the right name to that face has never been my strength.  At a recent convention, a fellow writer and Facebook friend said hello and congratulated me on my latest book. I called her by the wrong name—and then compounded my error by asking her about her short stories (she doesn’t write them). Only then did I glance at her nametag and realize my mistake. Embarrassed, I blustered on, leaving her with the not-completely-bizarre impression that I’m in the early stages of dementia. Nametags are one of the best things about writing conferences. Use them!

4. Getting on a panel isn’t impossible—or automatic.

            Participating in a panel discussion is a great way to get your name and your book out there. Conference organizers are always on the look-out for new writers with interesting stories to tell, but they can’t know you’re available unless you make it known. There’s usually a box to tick on the registration form, telling them you’re a published author—and often an opportunity to volunteer for a panel. It took me a year to gather up courage to volunteer. I wasn’t sure I had anything to say. Then I started looking through the panels at past conventions and found topics that applied to me. You don’t have to be a comedian or a story-teller. Just be yourself. Your story is worth hearing.     

5. Never sign a book without asking, “Should I sign it to you?”

            I still shudder at this one. At Bouchercon in Dallas, my first book signing took place right after my panel discussion on amateur sleuths. While I didn’t attract a long line of fans like Deborah Crombie (the Guest of Honor), I did sign books—more than I was expecting. I was having fun, chatting with people who’d bought my book and coming up with personal greetings. Then it happened. The next man in line had my book in hand, already flipped to the title page. I asked him where he was from and he told me. I noticed his name on his nametag and was just writing To when he said, “Just your name.” The whole thing happened simultaneously. “You weren’t listening,” he said testily. “I’m a book collector. Anything more than your name decreases the value.” I had been listening, but it wasn’t worth it to argue the point, so I offered to take that book myself and sign another for him. “Never mind,” he growled. “Just sign it.” So I did. Believe me, that’s a mistake I’ll never make again.

How about you? Which conventions have you attended? What was your most important takeaway?

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