Maybe you’re like me, someone with a mile-wide idea shelf but a short, stubby one for people. Perhaps you like your fellow humans generally, but your introvert soul prefers small-group interactions to huge crowds and forced small talk. Or maybe, like me, you grew up in a place where networking was either mentioned with disdain or not at all.
A writing conference may be your first professional networking opportunity. During my first few conferences, my angst could’ve lit entire cities. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. Sensing my discomfort, a gracious mentor debunked the mysteries of networking for me. Studying her at future conferences revealed several tricks I could use to schmooze like a pro, or at least operate like a less awkward version of myself. This gift is one I’ll spend the rest of my life repaying and one I’d like to share with you.
Whether this is your first or fortieth conference, it’s always better with friends. Invite a fellow writer to join you. If that’s not possible, put out an all-call on your social media networks to see who’s attending your #conference. Make plans to meet IRL (in real life) so you can either get to know each other or catch up.
But if you reach your destination flying solo and sans plans, there are still things you can do. Introduce yourself to your equally introverted and angst-ridden seatmates at the beginning of each session. If someone seems to be on the same conference track (as in you both continue to attend the same sessions), abandon your Twitter feed and strike up a conversation. Ask their opinion on the topic, where they’re from, or what they love. Steer clear of the seemingly obvious go-getter question: what’s your favorite book? That’s like asking a parent to name their favorite child. You’re likely to hear crickets as your fellow writer anxiously formulates a thoughtful, stranger-worthy response. Instead, ask what they’re reading now. See if the person has lunch plans. If they do, ask to tag along. Remember, conferences are for schmoozing and everyone likes to have a full lunch table.
Shop the Book Fair
Once you’ve buddied up, tackle the conference book fair. But before you enter, let me give you some advice. The primary mission for these journals is to spread the word about their publication and increase readership. A secondary mission is to connect or reconnect with author’s they’d like to publish. What’s not mission critical? Hearing cold pitches from unknown authors.
Upon arrival, select the tables you’d like to visit. If you’ve published in a magazine or journal that’s tabling, thank them for publishing your work. Say something nice about their organization (easy to do with some light research) and ask what they’re most excited about publishing next.
When visiting prospective places to submit, buy a copy of their latest publication. You can use this to decide whether your work and this outlet are a good match. Again, say something nice and if possible, talk about a favorite piece. If you want to get fancy, ask about the journal’s aesthetic, mission, or what the editors like best about working there. In other words, strike up an authentic conversation with the person in front of you. But do not pitch unless you’re asked to do so. Even then, your best bet is to secure an email address (if they offer) and send your pitch post-conference through the proper channels.
Remember, these editors are probably surviving on coffee and frequent visits to their happy places as they work to overcome their own people-related hang-ups. In this environment, your pitch is likely to be forgotten, but an authentic conversation with a fellow human is more memorable. It’s also something you can mention in your cover letter.
Do the Eating, Meeting, and Greeting
If you’re already overloaded, it can be tempting to skip social events. Before you do, remember these are your best opportunities to connect with fellow writers. At conference-sponsored meals and meet and greets, give yourself a threefold mission: meet other writers at your level, have authentic conversations with more experienced writers, and practice speaking with influencers without getting creepy or fangirling over them like I have. If you like something a presenter said, say so. If you’ve read their work, talk about what you liked and ask how they came up with their idea. If those questions make you sweat, ask what they love to do in addition to writing. Never bum-rush featured speakers just to say you’ve spoken with so and so, and never pitch to an agent eating lunch.
In fact, if you’re really interested in speaking with an agent, do some research before making contact. Agents are frequently overworked and underappreciated. If an organic meeting opportunity arises, compliment their presentation or talk about how much you love one of their client’s books. If you’ve read one of their articles, share what you learned. If they ask about your work, deliver your one-sentence elevator pitch. Don’t have one? Wow them by saying you have a work in progress but want it to take a back seat to the conversation you’re currently having—one that focuses on why you’ve been impressed with their work or perhaps a shared interest. If pitching is your main goal, sign up for conference pitch sessions so agents can give you and your work their undivided attention.
Allow for Happenstance
A fabulous writer friend of mine once told me about the importance of stopping by the conference bar at the end of the day. “You never know what might happen,” she said. In her case, she struck up a conversation that included a well-known author. At 2:00 AM, one of the writers in this conversation invited the stragglers back to his hotel room to show them something special. Feeling like this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and not as sketchy as it sounds given that she was with a group, she obliged. As the party continued their writing-related conversation, the writer passed around the whale blubber he’d brought with him. Yes, whale blubber. The thought of chewing on a hunk of whale fat makes me shudder, yet ever since she told me that story, I’ve yearned for my own conference-related whale blubber experience.
Now, before every event, I ask the universe to send me one. Finding my whale blubber generally requires me to stay open and check in with my gut regarding which opportunities to pursue. Sometimes it means breaking away from my carefully created conference schedule to try something new. As someone who’s not a night owl, my whale blubber experiences rarely happen at 2:00 AM, but I’m usually rewarded for my flexibility with some happy, unexpected moment.
Joyful happenstance allows you to be completely present and frees you from the neurotic thoughts that lead to awkward interactions. Happy and carefree, you can use my top three schmoozing tips. Be a good human. Respect the size of your people shelf and challenge it to hold a little more. When possible, seek out your personal whale blubber experience. Your writing life will be better off for having done so.
Lisa Cooper Ellison is an editor, speaker, and coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art and currently teaches courses in memoir, creative nonfiction, and mindful writing practices. Winner of the 2022 HippoCamp edition of the Lancaster Story Slam, Lisa’s essays and stories have been published in HuffPost, Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, and the Keepthings, among others. Visit her website for a free copy of Write More, Fret Less: Five Brain Hacks that Will Supercharge Your Productivity, Creativity, and Confidence.