What Worked for Me: A Round-up of Recommendations for Getting the Most Out of a Writers’ Conference

If I didn’t go now, I’d have to wait until 2021.

It was this—the inherent uncertainty of any long gap of time—that convinced me to go to the recent writers’ conference of the Historical Novel Society’s North American chapter, held June 20-23 in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

Writers’ conferences are expensive, even more so with the exchange from Canadian dollars for those held in the United States.  Still, as a writer of historical fiction, I felt it was important for me to go.

HistFic is so often the forgotten genre—the genre that really isn’t, that doesn’t even get its own section in brick and mortar book stores.

To have an event focused solely on writing the past seemed like too great an opportunity to miss, especially when it only occurs biannually.  So I boarded my 6:20am flight (having risen at an ungodly 3:00am to make my way to the airport on time) and flew on south of the border.

I’d never been to a writers’ conference before, so I had no idea what to expect.  Being a big advocate of goal-setting, though, I did know what I wanted to get out of the experience.

The internet is full of articles about how to navigate a writers’ conference.  I read a few of these beforehand, and now will add one more to their number.

But a to-do list is only so effective on its own.  To put all the advice in its proper context I’ll thus also share my why-do list—my three goals for the conference—alongside the practical advice I used to achieve them.  Some of this advice I read in preparation for the conference and some I devised on my own.

Goal #1: Learn the current state of the historical fiction genre

ADVICE THAT WORKED:

  • Go through the list of conference offerings before the conference

Conferences offer many workshops over a number of days, and it can be overwhelming to decide which ones to attend once already on site.  Thankfully, conference offerings are posted online prior to registration, which is usually several months in advance.

  • Determine your must-do conference activities before the conference

For the HNS conference, I saved the online list of workshops in a word processing document, which I read often to consider (and reconsider) the workshops most relevant to me.

From there, I highlighted those which I absolutely had to attend, and around which I would plan everything else I did for the entire weekend—these included an agents and editors panel on the state of historical fiction and a roundtable discussion on making historical fiction relevant to a Millennial audience.

I ended up missing the Millennial roundtable, but was able to salvage the situation, as discussed below.  I also uploaded this list to my phone to have it handy at all times.

Goal #2: Get to know my historical fiction writing peers

ADVICE THAT WORKED:

  • Worry less about notetaking and more about connecting

With the amount of free or low-cost writing advice available today, including how-to books, blogs, podcasts, social media posts, and mentorship contests, there is little point in making writing craft the main focus of your costly writing conference admission.

The real value of conferences comes from their countless opportunities to make face-to-face contact and network with writing peers and industry professionals.

  • Rescue a wallflower

Introducing yourself to new people can be challenging.  One of the oldest and perhaps boldest methods, short of marching straight up to someone and thrusting out your hand, is to sidle up to a chatting group as if you were part of them all along, and then interject a relevant comment when the appropriate moment arises.

If that seems too intimidating, sidling up to someone who is standing alone is also a good tactic.  That person might be just as keen to meet other people, but feel equally anxious about making the first move.

I chatted up a solo person at HNS and wound up making a very positive connection, one that might lead to future writing opportunities for me.

  • If you’re shy, go with a friend…

I didn’t actually do this, but I can’t deny the value of this advice.  Attending a conference with a friend can offer a sense of security that you’ll always have someone to sit with and talk to when you need it.  This in turn can give you confidence to step out of your comfort zone and go meet other people.

Going with a friend can also help you access more of the conference content if you attend different workshops and take notes for each other.

  • …or go alone

If you’re really shy, going alone to a conference might be just what you need to force yourself to socialize with other people.

Our day-to-day behaviour is often dictated by how we’re used to acting in the presence of people who know us.

When we’re known for being “the shy one” or “the wild one” within our family or peer groups, we often automatically live up to these expectations regardless of whether they are true—or still true.

I went to HNS alone, and although I later met some people I’d previously interacted with on Twitter, no one knew me from Adam when I first walked in the door.

This spared me from any pre-existing notions of who I was, freeing me to become whomever I wanted to be for the occasion (namely open, extroverted, and a self-assured emerging writer).

  • Overcome FOMO with friendship

While connecting with others is the biggest asset of a writing conference, the content is usually beneficial as well, often with multiple interesting workshops occurring within the same time slot.

It is here that attending with a friend can prove valuable, but so too can this be a means for making new friends—both as a conversation starter (“Did anyone attend the workshop on X?”) and a motivation for future interaction (“I’m going to the workshop on Y.  Let’s meet up later to share notes and discuss.”)

(Plus, if you’re ever struggling to think of something to say to the people you meet, you can always start by asking their opinion on the conference content.)

  • Get help meeting people through social media

Conferences will usually have a Twitter hashtag that attendees use to discuss and document their experiences.  Interacting with these posts is another way to meet people, a warm introduction that can make a subsequent face-to-face encounter less stressful.

Social media is also useful for locating specific conference attendees.  After missing the roundtable on engaging Millennial audiences, I tweeted the facilitators asking if we could meet up and discuss the highlights, which we did.

Goal #3: Document the conference for those not in attendance

ADVICE THAT WORKED:

  • Live-tweet and/or summarize conference goings-on

  • Use the conference hashtag

  • Post informative or exciting photos

Not everyone has the money, time, or inclination to attend a writers’ conference, but many may choose to follow along at home.  I wanted to tweet my doings at HNS, and thus employed a number of Twitter best practices including accompanying my tweets with a photo and using the conference hashtag (#HNS2019).

I initially planned to live-tweet the workshops I attended.  Four tweets in during the very first session, however, I found it too great a chore and instead opted for a single strong, summarizing tweet for each subsequent workshop.

The Most Important Advice

Overall, I feel my time at the HNS conference was very positive, the reason being because I knew what I wanted to get out of it before I arrived.

Because of this, my biggest piece of advice for attending a writers’ conference, be it your first or your fortieth, is to understand your motives for going, and then set concrete goals to help you achieve any and all benefits the conference has to offer.

~

(Image source – J.G. Noelle)

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