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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Networking at Conference -- Really, it's not scary!

By Trish Milburn

For some people, the idea of networking at the RWA National Conference sends icy shards of fear through their heart. Honestly, there's no need for that. Networking is just a fancy word for talking to other people who like books and romance as much as you do. Here are some quick ways to flex your networking muscles at the conference.

1. Editor and Agent Appointments -- If you take a stroll through the waiting area for these appointments, you'd think you were in an anteroom for the gallows. Now I say this having had to take my share of Pepto Bismol before said interviews, but they really aren't bad experiences. To me, the anticipation beforehand is much worse. Once you're in front of the agent or editor, the time flies and most of the time it's a pleasant experience. And when else are you going to get one-on-one time with an industry professional without interruption (at least until your allotted time is up). Oh, and if it isn't a one-on-one but rather a group appointment, do not hog the time. If a group appointment is 25 minutes and there are five people, do the math. Each person gets four to five minutes, depending on if the editor or agent takes up some of the time by speaking at the beginning.

2. Workshops -- During workshops, you can meet and chat with the other attendees. You never know when you might meet a kindred spirit, a future critique partner, someone who might be in a position to help along your career down the road. Also, if the speakers are editors and agents, take notes and ask intelligent questions, ones that haven't been asked a gajillion times in workshops since the beginning of time. You also might have the opportunity to go up after the workshop and ask a question that helps them put a face with a name when your submission comes across their desk. This is an especially good way to meet them if you weren't able to get an appointment with them for a pitch.

3. Luncheons -- I know it's more comfortable to sit with people you know at the luncheons, and I'll admit to doing it myself, especially since I don't get to see many of my writing friends more than once a year. Still, if the opportunity presents itself, you might consider sitting at a table with strangers or with an industry professional. A word of caution -- now is not the time to try to pitch to him or her. They want to enjoy their lunch and downtime as much as you do. But you never know when he or she might ask you about your writing. And even if the topic doesn't come up, if you're a pleasant table companion, people tend to remember that.

4. The Bar -- No, you don't have to drink to enjoy the networking hotbed that is the hotel bar. I don't drink, but at every conference I spend many late nights in the bar talking to other writers and, occasionally, an editor or agent. Another word of caution -- since editors and agents are likely about, do not allow yourself to get stinking drunk and make a fool of yourself. Sadly, I've seen it happen.

5. Business Cards -- While they are not a necessity, it's nice to have a basic, professional business card on hand to exchange. This will mainly be done with other writers or perhaps members of the media if you're published, but again, you never know where it might lead. And with places like VistaPrint, where you can get nice business cards for only the price of shipping, it could be a wise investment.

6. Attitude -- Perhaps your biggest networking asset is your attitude. Don't be a diva. Don't be nasty or talk trash about fellow writers, publishing houses, editors, agents, anyone! Think about it. If you were an editor who overheard two writers talking, and one was professional and courteous while the other badmouthed someone in every aspect of the industry, who do you think she'd prefer to work with in the future?

7. Volunteer -- If you moderate a workshop or work the editor/agent appointment desk, this is another way to come into contact with industry professionals and published authors who could offer you good career advice at some point. If you didn't volunteer this year, keep it in mind for when the call goes out next year.

Remember, networking is just one aspect of the conference experience. If you're new to networking, try one of the above and make plans to add another at the next conference you attend. And have fun! Conference shouldn't be solid work. You're allowed to have a good time too.

See you in San Francisco!

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At 12:13 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

This is an excellent outline, Trish, and it focuses on the real values of the conference.

I think part of the problem people face is losing track of their main objectives. There's an over-focus on the appointments, as if their entire career is based on them, and it's then hard to put effort into the things that can actually be more beneficial to their careers.

We put a lot of money into going to conference, and it shows in how shaky we get when attending these important events. But really, every one of them has one major purpose: networking. And networking means one thing: sharing. That, fortunately, is one thing most women do well if they just remember that focus.

I think-- think is the operative word here-- that women tend to rate other women by their ability to interact with others. Do they work well with others? Do they like and help others? The person in a group who appears to be more aloof or uncommunicative, or only concerned with herself is generally not well rated by other women. It's a natural thing, I think, because women have always throughout history banded together for mutual support. It was necessary for survival in the past. Today it's necessary for our preservation as human beings and also for the farer reaches of our souls, things like our personal dreams and goals.

So if your focus starts to get wobbly from panic or confusion or just plain fear, remind yourself of one thing: we're a band of women with a common goal, and we support each other. That woman sitting next to you who looks as stiff as if strapped to a board is as petrified as you are. Reach out to her. If you're shaking because you're about to do something you fear, like walking up on a stage, reach out your shaking hand. Someone near will grab it and hold it for you. Guaranteed.

The more you share with others, the more successful your own networking will be. Because that's what networking really is. Sharing.


At 2:37 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

thanks for the tips and reminders, Trish. I am going to enjoy every minute of conference! See you there!

At 5:04 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Good point about networking being sharing, Delle. I don't think it should ever be a one-way street.

Looking forward to seeing you too, Theresa. Feels like it's been forever.

At 5:24 PM, Blogger Tawny said...

What a great list, Trish. Networking sounds so HUGE, but really, its just visiting. Of course, for a hotel full of introverts, even visiting can be huge LOL. I can understand how it's hard to "just be yourself" when yourself is generally in jammies in front of a computer screen - but romance writers are simply the nicest bunch of people in the world, and they all "get" the jammie thing. So that in itself should make things just a little easier, right?

At 5:36 PM, Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Trish, what a fantastic list! I was an absolute basket case my first conference back in 2001 and that was the itty bitty Oz conference (well, in comparison to the US conference, it's itty bitty. I nearly died my first US conference - thousands of people in one spot? AAAARRRGGGH!). But just remember everyone there has something in common - you all love romance. You write it, you read it. Ask the person next to you in a line or in a workshop what they write. Ask them who their favorite writers are. Believe me, everybody loves to talk about their favorite writers. I sure do! I've met some of my very best friends at romance writers conferences!

At 5:49 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Great advice, Trish!
I think the going up and introducing yourself to editors and agents after workshops is a good idea. Remember not to take up too much time, though.

When I was a GH finalist in 2001, I went to workshops where editors and agents were who I was hoping would be interested in my ms. I'd go up to the editor afterward, saying "Hi, I'm a GH finalist. Would you be interested in seeing my manuscript?" They almost always said yes.

If an editor or agent HAS the ms, especially by request, I'd go up to them and say, "You have my ms, Unmasked. I just wanted to introduce myself to you."

That's it! Brief. Friendly. Asking nothing of them.

At 5:50 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

More...Don't get drunk, don't bad mouth ANYBODY, don't complain. That's such good advice, Trish. You never know who is listening. So resolve to be positive. It usually isn't hard.

At 6:23 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Tawny, maybe I'll float the idea that at next year's National we all wear our jammies all week. :)

Anna, you're totally right. Some of my very best friends are other writers because they "get" me.

Good points, Diane. Keep it brief and don't make them feel uncomfortable. They're probably tired and feel like people are stalking them, but if you're to the point and professional, they'll remember you in a positive light.

At 7:36 PM, Blogger jo robertson said...

Wow, Trish, great article!

This is valuable information and a great reminder to those of us who don't put ourselves out there as much as we should. National conference is an opportunity we really need to take advantage of.

I tend to get immersed in the workshops (which I love) and forget about just being friendly to the people around me. Romance writers in general make it so easy. There's hardly a friendlier, more outgoing group of people around.

Sometimes we forget that networking is just being your charming self and being interested in other people.

Thanks for the article. I definitely needed this reminder.

At 7:43 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Jo. I think there can be a nice mixture of workshops to networking, and from year to year a person's needs might vary. The past few years, I've barely had time to make it to more than a couple of workshops. But I'm really looking forward to the published-author ones this year since it's the first time I can go. That's what I need now as I dip my toe in that world.

At 7:52 PM, Blogger Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Hi Trish! Great list. I have to say I love networking, then again, I'm an extrovert. :> Diane's point's well taken too, about not burning any bridges or badmouthing. I can't tell you how much I've overheard that in some ways I wish I hadn't! And that from some people who should know better! Ha! Go to the room to share secrets, please. Grins.

I've met so many fun people at conference, and as Tawny said, some of them in a workshop or standing in line. I met one of my now-best friends in line at the welcome reception in Denver. Another great friend on the shuttle bus in to conference in Dallas. I've met a ton of editors that way too. Alllll goood. :>

Can't WAIT to see everyone!!

At 8:01 PM, Blogger Christine Wells said...

Trish, what a great run-down. I've been to many Australian conferences but this is my first time at National, so I'm taking your advice to heart. I hear it's just so huge it can be intimidating to a first timer. I'd be nervous except that the Banditas have got my back.

Want to wish everyone good luck with their pitches! Knock 'em dead!

At 8:05 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Jeanne, you're an extrovert. I never would have guessed. :) I hadn't thought of the shuttle bus as a meeting place, but I guess that and the airport would be.

Christine, I can't wait to meet you in person! It doesn't seem possible that we haven't.

At 8:13 PM, Blogger Christine Wells said...

Trish, I know, isn't it strange? I think it's going to be a mind-blowing experience to see you all in the flesh. Getting all tingly and excited just thinking about it.

At 9:48 PM, Blogger Beth said...

Great tips, Trish! I used to be totally intimidated by even the idea of networking but the more conferences I go to, the more relaxed I've become *g* I'm really looking forward to this year's conference and networking my little heart out :-)

At 12:29 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

Wonderful tips on networking! I agree that volunteering is a great way to get to know other writers. And, let me add, that sometimes people don't show up for editor/agent appointments. When that happens, and you're working the desk, you sometimes get asked if you want to take the appointment--not a bad perk.

At 8:28 AM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Great advice Trish and great tips from all of the conference vets! This will be my very first conference so I am a bit nervous but also thrilled and excited to be going. The fabulous ladies of the scholarship board are the reason I was even able to swing this trip so I really want to make the most of the opportunity they have given me.


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