Hi there, Operation Awesome! I'm coming to you today fresh from my tax return gift to myself: the 2014 New England gathering of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, from May 2nd to 4th in Springfield, Massachusetts - and my very first conference ever. Not only did I have a total blast, but I learned a lot about what to expect from conferences, and getting the most out of the experience. Are you planning to go to a conference in the future? Here are my tips:
Decide what your goal in attending the conference is. One of the reasons I decided to make NESCBWI my first conference was the focus on workshops, which I don't get to experience in my every day life and work. With my WIP getting ready to go and lots of future projects on queue, it was important for me to bring fresh perspectives to my work. Before you go to a conference, take a look at the lineup and make sure it gets you really excited. Are you looking to pitch, receive critiques, network yourself within an inch of your life? Make sure the conference will allow you those opportunities!
Be an extrovert for the weekend. If you're naturally extroverted: congratulations, this is totally your time to shine. If you are a fellow introvert, you may feel your social skills flagging by, say, Saturday night. Resist the urge to hide in your hotel room all night. Not to say you can't slip away for a while if you have to (guilty) but you never know who you're going to end up talking to if you go to the continental breakfast, or stick around for that second drink. Go forth and make connections! It's okay if you feel a little awkward sometimes. Chances are, everyone else is in the same boat.
And on that note...
Bring business cards, if you can. You probably got that memo. I think everyone got that memo except me. You can always write down your e-mail/Twitter/etc for anyone, but I was getting a bit envious of people who could just toss over a card and be done with it!
(And while you're thinking about preparedness, bring a spare change of clothes, too. Because you never know if you're going to roll in on Friday night, pop up to your hotel room to get ready for cocktail hour, and promptly acquire a huge oil-based stain on the front of your shirt. It's always good to cut down on the emergency trips to CVS for seltzer and OxyClean.)
Don't be scared of agents and editors! I think it's really valuable for writers to spend some time chatting with people on the other side of the fence. Not only do you learn so much more about the business that way, but you'll hear a different perspective that you might have missed otherwise. Ask about their current projects, or about what they're reading lately, or if bumblebees are really the new vampires. If they ask you about your project, by all means, have that elevator pitch at the ready. But if they don't, just roll with it. You're establishing yourself as a professional, courteous person, and that's the kind of writer people want to work with.
And above all, keep an open mind. Wherever you are in the process, you can always learn something new. So be prepared to meet awesome people, try out fun things with your work, and have a great time!!