Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Networking at Conferences

The first time I saw author James Scott Bell, I vaguely recognized him. When finally it dawned on me who he was, I thought, He's so much taller than I imagined! Then I had opportunity to speak to him. I explained that I'd been in contact with him to use a couple of exerpts from one of his books, that I taught from his Writer's Digest great, Plot & Structure, and that I'd conversed with him on Twitter--because, after all, surely he'd remember me from Twitter, right? I told him that he looked so much taller than his picture. His response? "Let's hope so. Everyone should look taller than their Twitter pictures."

Oy vey.

Ending our meeting with a foot dangling from between my teeth pales to the fact that I met one of the superstars of suspense writing. As a matter of fact, I met quite a few superstars that weekend—chewing on my toes only that once. Meeting these people is one of the benefits of belonging to a major organization for writers.

We authors are a peculiar bunch. We live in our heads and listen to our characters talk with one another. We agonize over settings and phrases and wordcount. We view the world and wonder how we can fit it all into our books. Nonwriters don't understand us. They don't know that staring out the window is working, as is talking to ourselves, scrambling for pen and paper at three a.m., acting out scenes—and playing all involved parts.

The only place we're likely to be understood is a writers' conference. At a major conference, as long as the characters in our heads don't talk to the characters in someone else's head, we're safe; we're among friends, we're with people who get it and know the struggles we face.

In the world of writing, nothing compares to a conference for networking. Agents, editors, publicists, marketing experts hobnob with authors of all levels, beginners to mega-pubbed experts. Jim wasn't the only star twinkling in Indiana the weekend of the conference I attended. Almost every major name of my industry was there, offering words of wisdom, encouragement, a few laughs.

Making a good impression at these meetings is vital. Meet the big players on the field, be charming and attentive, collect their business cards, and keep in touch. Whether you're ready for their services at the moment or not, you've added a contact to your network. Treat the unknown as well as you do the well-known: you never know whether they can give you a hand up or if they'll be one of your biggest fans.

Does this sound mercenary? To an extent, maybe it is. People network for the sole purpose of having contacts who can help them along. Having this ulterior motive is salved if you take the extra step of actually appreciating the people you've added to your ladder, and if you're willing to help them along as well.

I met an author who was published by a small house, but her book was receiving serious endorsements. She was seeking an experienced agent who could put her with a larger publisher. This woman took the time to share with me some of her effective marketing tips, which will be vital when my book comes out next month. Right now, I have nothing more to offer her than a bit of free advertisement—which I'll gladly do. But along with this exchange of back-scratching, I gained a friend.

Cyberspace is wonderful, it can take you places where you'd otherwise have no access. But nothing beats the face-to-face meetings, meals shared, connections made which come only from belonging to major writers organizations and attending their conferences.

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  1. I look forward to going to my first conference. It's sort of a catch 22. I can barely afford to go now, but if I was published I (most likely) would be able to go. And I (most likely) won't get published until I go to a conference. Such is life.

  2. Linda, Yes we do live in our heads and listen to our characters and see the the world through a most peculiar lens. Cyberspace has been quite a stepping stone for me and for so many others as well. Your post really hit home.
    Thanks, Keith

  3. "But along with this exchange of back-scratching, I gained a friend."

    THAT is so true is the world of writing. It can sometimes seem like there is a lot of simple "back-scratching" going on, but when you start networking you end up making real friendships.

    I went to my first conference looking for connections with agents and editors--I didn't make any, but I left with two new friendships, which are still strong today. Those two friends started a critique group in my area that has become a life-line for me as well. And I've joined networking sites that have gained me valuable critique partners, who became close friends almost immediately.

  4. vvdenman--you'll do better when you get published if you *do* go now. I had to save every month to come up with enough to go, but I'm so glad I did!

    Keith--cyberspace is a stepping stone for a lot of us, and I'm still not comfortable in it. Glad you liked the post.

    Kat--absolutely! The friends we can make at these conferences are to be cherished. And it's hard *not* to make friends in a group of folks who are as passionate as we are about our craft!

  5. I love writers conferences! For those who may be looking for an affordable, shorter conference that still packs a powerful list of speakers, editors and agents into a couple days, check out: I've been to this conference twice now and it never disappoints!

  6. I'm sure I'd have ended up with *both* my feet hanging from my mouth!

  7. I started writing (and submitting) back in the 80s. It was very lonely. I knew no other writer except a correspondence instructor who lived in Kansas--who I was able to visit on a trip to Colorado. What a JOY and opportunity to get to learn from others--and get to know them as friends--in cyberspace. I have no doubt that when we meet, it will be like we just had coffee FTF the day before!

  8. Lynnette--I know some of the folks who go to your conference, I think. I'm jealous. I'd love to go.

    Katie--I doubt that.

    Sandy--Amen, sister! You're one of my favorite cyberpals, and I can't wait to meet you in person!