Sassy & Southern

Do’s and Don’ts for Conference First Timers

Published by Romance Writers Report, July 2010, Vol 30, Num 7

Last summer was my first time attending the RWA National Conference. Actually, it was my first conference period. In fact, I’d only been a member of RWA for a whoppin’ two months. Talk about jumping in with both feet. Heck, talk about jumping in headfirst.

Strutting around with my neon orange FIRST TIMER sticker, a.k.a. CLUELESS, I had no idea what to expect, aside from being ecstatic about my four day break from life as a domestic goddess. Five ladies from my chapter joined me in Washington, D.C., and of course I couldn’t find any of them when I first arrived. My roommate was an unknown face I connected with through a mutual author friend (thank goodness that worked out!). Over the course of the next four days, I picked up on a few tidbits that might help you not feel completely overwhelmed your first time.

Do’s

EXCHANGE BUSINESS CARDS. Cynthia Eden (ETERNAL HUNTER, Kensington Brava) encourages everyone to “Get business cards made. Be sure to write your name with your genre, website (if you have one), and email address. If you’ve got a fun tagline, definitely include that – the tagline will help folks remember you!”

MEET PEOPLE. Realize you’ll be surrounded by a bunch of introverts pretending to be extroverts, so this is not the time to be shy. Bust up in the middle of a group and introduce yourself. Okay, that might be pushing it, but you mustn’t hesitate to ask, “Is this seat taken?” when you head into the banquet room for lunch. Turn those seven strangers at your table into friends. Chat about where they live, what they write, and if they’re published. Sometimes, like me, you get lucky and sit next to an author you’ve recently read. Published authors are founts of information regarding the industry. They’ll also discuss their writing schedule, providing valuable insight on how you too can find time to write. Once again, and this of utmost importance, do not leave the table without exchanging business cards. Consider it a wasted trip if you don’t come home with a pocket full of networking opportunities.

USE PROMO MATERIALS. Even for the unpublished, conferences are a fantastic way to get your name out there. Goody rooms are set up with free give-aways (everything from pens to books). Not only is it a great pick-me-up to munch on a Hershey Kiss off a promo card, but what if you offered chocolate or some other fun item? There’s no need to spend a fortune. Homemade items are fine, though make it memorable and reflective of you. I attach my card to a bag of grits because my tagline is “Sexy, Sassy & Southern.”

DRESS NICELY. Pretty much everyone wears nice casual outfits. I even saw a RITA finalist in jean shorts (I don’t recommend this), but the point is be yourself and be comfortable. Keep in mind however, first impressions are everything. Kimberly Killion (HIGHLAND DRAGON, Kensington Zebra) explains “the conference is one giant job says interview.” The image you portray has a direct reflection on your work, regardless of whether or not you think it should or want it too. For example, Hank Phillippi Ryan dresses to a tee in business suits and heels and because of such, she stands out. I remember her name and what she looks like, so when I see her book in the store I’m more likely to buy it. I’m not saying you should wear a suit. Few do, but it’s Hank’s personality, her image…her brand. Jessica Trapp wears a braid around the crown of her head like her medieval characters. Kimberly Killion sports a beautiful plaid sash because her characters are Scottish. These ladies are marketing themselves along side their characters. Think of yourself as a brand and sell it with personality!

DRESS WARMLY AND COMFORTABLY. Unless hot flashes are currently your friend, bring a jacket because you will freeze your tail off in those workshops. More importantly, wear comfortable shoes. No joke, I wore Fit Flops with my cute little sundress while walking to the pitch room (allow time for the quarter mile walk and time to find it). Then, I changed into heels to meet with editors and agents. Now grant you, that was completely unnecessary because most of them are in flats, but I’m short and a major girly girl so what can say? I like my heels. Again, it goes back to the brand I want to present.

TRAVEL LIGHT. You’ll receive a huge RWA bag, but it gets heavy quickly from all the free books and goody room loot so empty it out daily and only tote around one tube of lipstick, business cards, and laptop for workshop note taking (or my tried and true pen and paper). This bag later comes in handy for the trip home when your suitcase is overflowing with freebies.

ATTEND BOOK SIGNINGS. They’re fun and you get free books! You might miss a workshop and wait in line an hour, but you’ll come home with your very own novel signed by THE Nora Roberts! If the line of a well-known author is long, stay there because they run out of books. Take advantage of meeting new authors because they greatly appreciate it when they look busy and are usually willing to give you helpful advice and a business card. After all, they are starting out and still need to network.

Jillian Burns, Harlequin Blaze author, offered to critique my work within five minutes of learning I had a WIP geared toward Blaze! It’s definitely true that romance writers are extremely supportive of one another.

BUILD SHIPPING COST INTO YOUR BUDGET. I racked up three boxes of Christmas presents (mostly to me) at the signings. You get boxes in the signing rooms, but know right up front that shipping them home doesn’t come cheap. The hotel had a FedEx within, which was a lifesaver. However, check the office hours and make sure you get in line early since a thousand others are shipping.

BE READY TO PITCH AT THE DROP OF A HAT. You never know when you might bump into an editor or agent on the elevator (they’re usually the ones with the name tags flipped over – in which case, don’t bother them.) However, if they strike up a conversation, go for it. It’s a pretty safe bet the ladies’ room is not the time or place either.

CATCH PUBLISHER SPOTLIGHTS. This is where editors provide great industry info. You learn exactly what they hope to acquire, and you can get the inside scoop very quickly.

BRING A CAMERA. Imagine how fabulous your website will look with a photo of you and a New York Times Best Seller or RITA nominee at your side.

HAVE AN ANSWER FOR “SO, HOW ARE YOU ENJOYING YOUR FIRST CONFERENCE?” You’ll get asked this about a hundred times a day. Just a suggestion…you probably don’t want to say you hate it. No really, do not complain in public. If you have blisters on your toes the size of quarters, suck it up. If your favorite author turns out to be a dud in person, this isn’t something you share with a complete stranger or anyone in hearing distance. You never know who’s listening and it only makes you look bad.

HAVE FUN! Enough said.

Don’ts

DON’T STRESS. It’s a lot to take in. Chapter conferences are more laid back because of the small numbers, whereas over a thousand attend Nationals. Either way, relax and pace yourself. Don’t stress over attending workshops. I sent practically two days in the pitch room and missed out on a ton of seminars, but hey – that’s why they sell them on CD. Plus, even if you want to, there’s no way to attend everything on your wish list. Keena Kincaid (TIES THAT BIND, The Wild Rose Press) says, “Even seasoned conference goers can forget to take Nationals in stride. For newbies, the myriad of workshops, speakers, and panel discussions can be overwhelming. Know going in you can’t do it all – so be selective. Take an honest assessment of your work, then put together a plan for addressing the weaknesses by going to the right workshops and discussions. No matter how interesting a career workshop may be, if you need foundational work, go to a character development workshop. Otherwise, you may never have the chance to use what you learn in the career workshop.”

DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK QUESTIONS. People expect it from first timers and are happy to help. For example, I wanted to attend two workshops simultaneously so I asked around to see what others thought. Turned out, one of my new friends was debating the same two so I went to one and she the other. We met up later and shared notes. Also, you can hit one for half then the other. Asking others is the only way to learn what certain editors like, which agent might be a good fit for you, and how the business works. Finally, raise your hand during Q&A periods! Publisher spotlights and all the workshops have them, so take advantage and learn as much as you can about your craft.

DON’T VENT. Amanda Collins, President of the Gulf Coast RWA Chapter, warns “The one BIG thing I think newbies should remember is to be very careful about venting in public areas of the conference hotel. Romance is actually a pretty small world and even though as a newbie you might feel insignificant, at any given moment you could be one degree of separation away from the biggest names in the industry. That frumpy woman standing behind you at Starbucks could very well be the biggest editor at the NY publisher you want to buy your book. The writer standing beside you in line for the Literacy Signing, the one you tell how much you hated BIG NAME AUTHOR’s latest book, might be BIG NAME AUTHOR’s critique partner. The writer you sit next to at the Awards Luncheon, the one you tell about how unprofessional you thought the agent you just pitched to was, just might be that agent’s client. Be polite, be friendly, and above all be professional. It will stand you in good stead later on down the road.”

DON’T LET EXPENSES HOLD YOU BACK. Plan in advance (I know, I didn’t exactly follow my own advice here). RWA provides scholarships and some chapters hold drawings, which pay registration fees. Pack cereal bars in your suitcase so you don’t spend ten bucks every time you want a snack. A roommate is the biggest cost cutter. If everyone you know already has one, check out writer blogs for roomie requests. They pop up several weeks and even months before the conference. Another way to save money in the long run is to kill two birds with one stone. Consider making the trip a family vacation. Come a day early and stay a day late. You’ll still get conference hotel rates, plus you, hubby, and the kiddies can enjoy the sights. You may get left out on some of the fun, but while the family is hiking the pavement in the hot sun, you’ll be salivating with your passion in the AC. Plus, if you stay over, you miss the Fed Ex line, but again – check the office hours beforehand because they change as soon as the convention ends.

DON’T ATTEND RECEPTIONS YOU AREN’T INVITED TOO. I am humiliating myself in the attempt to prevent others from making my mistake. Publishing houses host open houses for all attendees and they also hold receptions for “their” authors. Unfortunately, Harlequin held both at the same time and in my excitement, I failed to double check the locations in the program book. I simply looked at the big Open House sign by the door. I’m sure that lovely Harlequin editor doesn’t remember me from Adam, and in fact was very nice about sending me on my merry way, but next time I know there are two different kinds of open houses.

DON’T BE RUDE TO AGENTS. Even if you’re lucky enough to have one, please don’t say, “I already have an agent” as soon as you are introduced. You may be perfectly happy with your agent, but in this business, he or she may not be representing you two years down the road. Wouldn’t it be bad if that agent you snubbed at the conference now refuses to represent you because you were rude?

DON’T GO OVERBOARD AT READERS FOR LIFE. This is a wonderful autograph party where you purchase books with all the proceeds going to a literacy charity. Now, unless you truly want to make a large, tax deductible contribution, nearly all these books will be FREE later on at book signings. They don’t tell you this beforehand. Many veterans don’t even take a bag to the party so they won’t be tempted, but I recommend doing so because you’ll discover a ton of new authors (and famous ones) and it is for charity.

DON’T BRING MANUSCRIPTS. Editors and agents flew on planes just like you and have no room in their suitcase for 300 pages. If they request it, send it later with a big REQUESTED label!

Finally, should you happen to be running late for the RITA Awards Banquet, it’s not the end of the world. Sitting in the last row made me first in line for the chocolate bar at the after party. There’s a cash bar so put some moolah next to the lipstick in that beaded bag. Yep, you wear cocktail or formal attire on the last night. I promise you’ll feel like a princess.