With conference season just around the corner, it’s time to prepare for all of the exciting networking and development opportunities ahead. The AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Conference is in Washington, D.C. this year, which means that many local writers and students in the DMV will have the opportunity to attend the biggest literary conference in the world for the first time. What’s the best way to use the conference to expand your network? How do you avoid imposter syndrome as a first timer? Michelle Webber, Communications Director at Stillhouse Press and resident conference guru, has some helpful hints about how to grow your network and get the most out of the experience.
Know Before You Go: Do Your Research
Spend some time investigating what writers and organizations will be there. This may sound simple and intuitive, but it can be more work than you think! One scan of the list of 2017 exhibitors will show you just how overwhelming your “to do” list could be, but don’t freak out! Print out the list, grab a highlighter, and start annotating. Once you’ve done that, prioritize based on your individual needs. If you’re an author looking to make a personal connection with the editors of a literary magazine that you love, flag them. If you’re an undergraduate looking into MFA programs, make sure they are high on your list. This cheat sheet will help you craft a schedule that will take you everywhere you want to be.
Plan a Loose Schedule That Includes Breaks
Do the same thing you did with the exhibitor list with the conference schedule. Pick out the events that sound interesting, then the ones that you cannot miss. Prepared to be disappointed: the two panels you want to see most will almost certainly be at the same time. You’ll have to make a choice, but that’s okay: the conference is long and there’s always something just around the corner. Scheduling breaks (even if it’s just thirty minutes for coffee) is absolutely essential. If you’re a first-timer, you will be tempted to fill every single time slot in your day. DON’T DO IT! It’s really easy to burn out, and if you over-schedule yourself, you’ll miss out on one of the most important parts of conferences: being there! It’s also a good time to make some notes for yourself and reflect on what you’ve seen.
Don’t be afraid of looking rude if you scribble notes in the middle of a presentation or panel. Write down quotes from authors you love, pieces of advice that you find particularly helpful, any books that you want to add to your “to read” list. After each day of the conference, go back to your hotel and do a little journaling. Write down your impressions from the day; make lists of the people you met and how they fit into your network. You’ll collect a lot of free swag and pieces of paper—write on these too! Write deadlines on bookmarks, notes about the conversation you had on the back of business cards, throw away any fliers or inserts that you don’t need. Culling one day at a time is much easier than trying to remember the details of a conversation you had three days ago.
Don’t Be Shy — Say Hi!
Introduce yourself to one person at every panel you attend. You may be surprised at how few degrees of separation there are between writers, especially at a big conference like AWP. If you’re a member of a lit organization, invite them to swing by your table or come to your offsite event. Every face-to-face conversation is an opportunity to grow your network!
The same goes for presenters. Attend a panel that was helpful? Watch a keynote that really unlocked something for you? See a reading of an emerging writer you really admire? Stay behind afterwards and interact with them. Introduce yourself, ask questions, tell them what you enjoyed about their lecture. This may be difficult for the bigger events, but many presenters expect and even enjoy interacting with audience members after their events. The same goes for the bookfair!
Authors, Agents, and Publishers are People, Too!
Last year, without meaning to and without even knowing who he was until he said it, I met Chuck Palahniuk’s agent at the LitReactor booth. I also had drinks with the Poet Laureate of New York at my hotel bar. These experiences taught me a valuable lesson: the best way to make meaningful connections is putting your respective literary positions behind and focus on the person standing in front of you. At AWP, you’re all on even footing. You’re writers attending an event to listen to and meet other writers. When you meet your literary hero at an after party or shake hands with the editor of your favorite literary magazine, remember that they’re people just like you. Conversations lead to connections; fangirling leads to restraining orders.
BONUS ADVICE: Don’t forget to keep in mind the context in which you’re meeting these people. If you’re at a panel and the agent mentions she’s taking pitches, go ahead and do it. But don’t be that guy who shoves his manuscript under the stall door or gets too drunk and pukes on Sherman Alexie’s shoes (true story from a friend of a friend—seriously, don’t do it).
After you’ve done all the networking legwork at the conference, meeting people, shaking hands, and exchanging cards, it’s absolutely essential to follow-up when the event is over. Believe it or not, most people who say, “I’ll shoot you an email,” never do. Pursue the leads you worked so hard to attain. If you said you’d send that editor a query letter, do it! If you talked to another literary organization about throwing a joint event, get in touch! Making a connection without follow through isn’t really making a connection. Once you’ve made contact, you have to maintain it. If you don’t have anything immediate that you need to address with someone, but your work may bring you to their doorstep later, send them a “nice to meet you, hope we get to work together” note. If you got an emerging author’s contact information, send them an email saying how much you loved their reading. We all like a little affirmation that we made a difference. Going the extra mile is what will take these casual interactions from isolated incidents to nodes on your personal and professional network.
We want to know: what’s your best piece of conference advice? Leave a comment or ask a question on our blog through February 8 and you will be automatically entered to win a signed copy of Christina Olson’s "Terminal Human Velocity."
Michelle Webber has worked as a reader, an Editorial Assistant, and Social Media Editor for Stillhouse Press and currently serves as the Director of Marketing and Communications. She is currently working on a collection of linked short stories and will graduate with a BFA in Fiction from George Mason University in May.