My Unofficial Guide to Conferences

I learned many important things at the SCBWI Iowa conference.  My top ten “ah hah” moments will be posted at From the Write Angle tomorrow.  But today, I’d like to share a few whimsical, but no less important tips on physically attending a conference.

  1. Get a Haircut. 
  2. Get Confidence
  3. Get Connected


One week before your conference, visit with your hairdresser.  I know, it sounds froofy and silly, but I assure you it’s not.  Once upon a time, I attended a conference.  My hair was short and sassy and I was a mess.  It was my second writer’s conference and I had yet to learn the second tip I’m going to give you. 

Needless to say, one of the speakers commented on my hair–in the ladies’ room, no less.  Fast forward two years.  I once again attended this same conference.  The same author was there helping out.  As she passed around handouts, she gave me a big grin.  “I remember you.  You have the cutest hair.”  And then we chatted.

 This time around, I was time crunched.  There was no way I could get to the salon with Real Life eating away at my days.  But I panicked.  Not because I’m froofy and silly, but because I’m completely lazy and my hair was getting too long to style in my alloted time.  If I can’t go from jammies to shower to out the door in 20 minutes I get grumpy. 

Fast forward to the conference.  I received several comments on my hair.  Not a back pat, I assure you, but rather an ice breaker. 

The moral: make sure you feel comfortable in your own hair skin.  If you don’t feel okay about how you look, you will be self-conscious.  The same can be said for the clothes you wear.  Take your favorite dressy-casual outfit along instead of pulling out the pants suit you only wear for holidays.  In this way, you will spend your time with other attendees, not silently cursing your hair or tugging at the collar of your newly dusted off jacket. 


Nothing is worse than walking into a room full of strangers who all seem to know each other.  I know, I just did it on Friday.  With over 100 writers and/or illustrators registered for a conference 7 hours away from my home, I knew I was flying solo.  Walking in with my little blue folder was like walking into the lunchroom on my first day in a new school 27 years ago. 

But, I’d learned something between my second conference and my fifth conference.  I’d learned that you have to step outside yourself and into your confidence.  A quick check around the room showed that many tables were filled with groups of people.  I’m not confident enough to bust in on that.  But I have learned to find the semi-quiet table, the one where the attendees look as unfamiliar to each other as I feel to the entire room. 

Low and behold, there was such a table near the door with one elderly lady and a single man.  He had his head turned away from the door engaged in conversation with his companion.  I pulled up a chair and grabbed the next lost soul as she walked in.  She didn’t need to tell me this was her first conference.  I could tell by the way she clutched her folder to her chest and the terror in her eyes as she tried to figure out what to do next.

Turns out the gentleman was my agent and two other gals I invited to sit at our table were my twitter followers.  One of whom was also a client of Agent Awesome.  That night I didn’t have to eat alone, and by the end of the conference, I took home names, photos and memories of new friends. 

This may be hard to do, as many writers are introverted by nature.  However, when you get right down to it, we are all the same.  We are all writers with the same goals.  This creates instant conversation with anyone in the room, elevator, hallway or bar. 


The writing life is all about connections.  It’s about the real-life friends we meet at conferences and the ones we bond with online.  It’s about shaking hands and holding conversations with our potential audiences, potential agents and potential editors.  Everywhere we go and everything we do, we are forming relationships that can impact our careers as writers.

The twitter story above is true.  Our respective homes are about nine hours apart.  We each traveled to another state and yet there we were, sharing the same table at a conference and a relaxing dinner on the first night out.

What if I had been a complete twitter ass over the past year?  What if I had acted immature and whiney online?  What if they had?

I think this experience really hits home the premise that we need to act and manage ourselves professionally at all times.  It doesn’t mean we can’t be quirky or assertive.  Nor does it mean we can’t have opinions or be ourselves.  It simply means that we need to be respectful of whom we might meet along the way. 

It is, indeed, a small world!

What conference tips do you have?  Spill the scary, the funny or the just plain must do’s and don’ts so we may learn together. 


10 responses to “My Unofficial Guide to Conferences

  1. What about those of us who wear our hair long? Get a trim, I suppose!

    Of course, the last conference I attended was an herbal symposium, held outdoors at an herb farm in Eugene, Oregon, in August. Standard attire was hiking boots, tank tops, and hair in two braids. Not quite the same atmosphere. For that conference the advice was “Wear sunscreen, carry a water bottle, don’t lose your lecture notes.” 🙂

    And the best moment was caught on video, when Susun Weed (an herbalist) was being interviewed by someone, and the big friendly farm dog came and put his front paws in Susun’s lap. They just kept rolling with the interview, and Susun Weed said “I was told never to go on camera with dogs or children, because they always steal the show.”

    • Michelle,

      But you answered your own question. It’s not about the hair, but about yourself. You were comfortable in who you were and what you were doing at the time. Now if you had worn your tiara and four inch heels you wouldn’t have been able to connect with anyone.

      Granted you would have been talked about…but probably not to.

      Did I mention I love braids?

  2. As an introvert who’s paying job requires me to work with and lead teams of people, I am often faced with walking into a room full of people I don’t know. I hate it. I love your “hair cut” theme – personally, I have settled into a good hair, great shoes and a fun handbag routine. This allows me to be approachable (as the “boss” that’s important) and often provides a conversation starter. I think the key is to feel pulled together. That feeling then becomes the confidence you need.

    I have a large and complex job where most days things aren’t going as planned or hoped for. It is difficult to lead teams day after day when things aren’t going right. I cannot tell you how often I get a compliment on my shoes, handbag or outfit and I respond, “Thanks, its best thing I have going today!” My teams appreciate my candor and deflection away from their work; it makes me approachable and more importantly keeps their attitude up.

    My work learnings are similar to your conference learnings but frankly I hadn’t considered the cross-over. I avoid conferences and events because I really dislike being an outsider. Thanks for your great post. It helps me to see that I, too, have the tools to be successful (though I will never be an author or any sort!).

    Thanks for your inspired wisdom!

    • Oooh, never thought about the cross-over either. Thanks so much for sharing your tips and experiences. You hit home the need to feel comfortable about yourself and to not only be open to connections, but to create opportunities for them through universal things like great shoes or a great handbag!

      Being introverted is so fun, is it not?


  3. Do you do anything to help the confidence before you get to the conference? Chanting mantras or breathing exercises?

    • I haven’t, but it’s an interesting thought. I personally pray I’m alone on the elevator the first ride down of the first conference day. Then I can take a deep breath and pull myself together. Until that moment, I choose to ignore the impending lunch-room-of-doom I will inevitably walk into!

      Do you chant or breathe or yoga or meditate? I’m sure it would be very helpful. My fear, however, would be that I’d put myself to sleep and miss the conference altogether. And worse than walking into the room for the first time is walking in late!

  4. I went to my first conference last year and I felt like I was back in high school on the first day of school. I was determined not to sit by myself, so I chose a seat and smiled at people when they looked my way. To my surprise, a few decided I looked friendly enough and asked to sit with me. Yay! I even still talk to one of them and we’ve become critique partners. So having confidence and being willing to open yourself up is so important.
    I’m returning to that conference this year, and I have three people I’m meeting up with this time. Of course I still plan to smile and talk to everyone. You can never have enough writer friends.

    • Kelly,

      Yours is the perfect example of leaving yourself open to connections and stepping outside of yourself to create your own destiny.

      I’ve been to conferences where no matter how hard you try to draw someone out, they just forgot to bring their A-game and suck the energy right out of you. I’ve vowed never to be that person.

      So, taking a lesson from you, smile and talk to everyone. Even if it’s not your natural inclination.

      Enjoy your upcoming conference. Maybe you could stop back over and let us know how it went. Also, thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting. I hope to see you around!


  5. Memorize everything. LOL Seriously, I had my pitch nailed so beautifully for Ginger Clark, but it didn’t matter. She had read my entry – judged it in the final portion of the contest and was well aware of my book and my style. I never pitched and all that preparation was worthwhile only in the sense that I could talk fluidly about my book with other attendees. Then Ginger asked me what questions I had and I’m sure I resembled my first cousin, Michael McGuppy Fish. I hadn’t memorized the questions. Hadn’t practiced them. I had them on my iphone and had looked at them five minutes before (less!) but that doesn’t matter when the agent has just told you: “I like this. Send me the first fifty pages. Do you have any questions?” Also, bring CLEAN pen and paper reserved for your pitch! I’d taken copious notes throughout the conference. Did I have any left by the time I talked with Ginger? Nope. Not a sheet. I was dazed and only remember taking note of one suggestion out of many and I’ve been kicking myself ever since because I blew my shot with her. BE PREPARED. It’s the best way to be confident, too.

    • Awesome advice, Victoria.

      I love your real example for us to learn from. It makes your words hit home like a simple rule–be prepared–does not.

      Thanks so much for sharing your story. And don’t worry. I’ve made those chance-blowing mistakes. Mine was with an editor a few years ago. She loved my manuscript beginning and asked what the rest of the story was about. My brain froze. I could barely spit out words–any words–and I’m sure she thought somebody else had penned those beautiful first five pages. I was mortified.

      Yep…be prepared in more ways than one.

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