Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Conference rules

Two years ago I attended my first Thrillerfest as a debut author. International Thriller Writers celebrates new authors as if they have just discovered a cure for cancer. So although I felt a little intimidated by all the honchos at the conference, I was in a haze of delight.

                                          Bay Area Thriller Author Alan Jacobsen and me 

Last year that changed. I thought the big time authors held themselves aloof from the peons and were inaccessible, and there was a certain cliquishness to the conference. It was clear who was in the inner circle. The rest of us were wannabes—even those of us who have well-established crime fiction books.
One of the problems is that at other conferences the big name authors are sprinkled through the panels, so that they hobnob with everyone. For some reason at this conference the big names tend to be packed into panels together, which gives them an air of invincibility and leaves panels held in parallel to theirs sadly lacking in audience. And it makes the name authors seem unapproachable.

It looked like this year was going to be the same. Even though I am self-confident and feel like I can talk to just about anybody, I felt intimidated and unable to approach authors I admired. And then I remembered the first rule of conferences: wade in and talk to everyone. Find people to converse with that you have something in common with. Are you both writing about small towns? Is the author writing something you are intrigued by and know nothing about? Are you curious about their background? Find something to talk about. Introduce yourself to people, even if it’s just to say hey, I enjoy your books.

The second rule: Don’t wait to be invited to a meal—invite someone you want to get to know better. For some reason, I always assume everyone already has plans. I was happily surprised to find that people were thrilled to be asked. Suddenly the conference became intimate and more interesting. Here’s the strange part: when I was talking to people I found common ground with, suddenly I became more interesting. Writers I had felt intimidated by stopped to chat. A few even shared some of their current challenges.

The last rule was for me alone. Last year, I drank too much. I took the “see you in the bar,” too literally and ended up feeling fuzzed headed and grumpy a couple of days. This year, I decided that water was my friend. Sure, I had a glass of wine or a drink, but that was it. And I discovered that the next day I remembered what was said the previous evening. It also meant I slept better and I felt more energetic and upbeat. And one unintended consequence is I came away with a heavier wallet—those NY drinks can be expensive.

This is a cautionary tale for everyone attending conferences of any kind. Did you notice the questions I gave as examples? They were all “you-oriented,” not “me-oriented.” You’re going to have more fun if you see it as a voyage of discovery.


Anonymous said...

Great ideas! You offer a lot of encouragement. Back when our local city offered a National Writers Workshop, I too took some chances in meeting people. I got wonderful information from people I met in the lunch lines or people sitting in nearby rows prior to the start of sessions. I found myself standing near the big guest writer during another session, and we had a lovely chat while waiting for the start. You are so right about your "rules." Thanks for writing them up as a lesson.
Llyn K.

Grace Topping said...

Excellent points, Terry. Thank you for being so honest. Conferences can be overwhelming for even confident people, so imagine how it must make less secure or reserved people feel. Fortunately, at my first conference I had someone take me under her wing, so that by my next conference, I felt much more comfortable. Now I make it a habit of approaching someone who looks a little lost. If every confident attendee did that to at least one timid attendee, it would make the conference a huge success for everyone. Now if I could just get my manuscript published so that I could attend as a newly published writer, that would make for a wonderful conference!

Msmstry said...

Great ideas, Terry! I've always made it a point to sit with people I didn't know already--in panels, banquets, and anywhere else at conferences (and book signings). Now, after nearly 20 years of mystery events all over the nation, I'm able to introduce folks to others. The mystery community is totally welcoming! I love it!

JudyinBoston said...

I'm heading off to Bouchercon and will definitely heed your advice. These conferences are hard on introverts.

Triss said...

Hi, Terry: Thank you for sharing your spot-on thoughts. A group of us in NY who occasionally get together were just having an e-mail exchange (I mean really just - over the past few days) on this very subject. I have shared what you wrote. Best, Triss

PS sort of on topic: going to NOLA?

Terry said...

Thanks for all your comments. Triss, I will be in New Orleans, and looking forward to it.