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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