My #1 Way to Make the Most Out of Conference

This September will be my third time attending the Colorado Gold, and my sixth conference overall. In those last five conferences, I’ve made friends with other writers, found critique partners and beta readers, gotten requests from agents, met famous people (squee!), and learned a lot about writing craft. I’ve also gained confidence; over the course of several conferences, I’ve gone from hardly being able to make eye contact to striking up a conversation in the lunch line.

What’s my secret for maximizing the conference experience? What’s my #1 piece of advice?

Be brave.

I go into every conference knowing that I’ll get out of it what I put in. I challenge myself to do something that scares me, whether it’s reading my work aloud, approaching an agent at the bar or just saying hi to the attendee in the seat next to me. Because I’ve realized, after many conference experiences, that I can’t afford to leave any opportunity on the table just because I’m nervous.

Before my first-ever conference, I agonized over whether to sign up for an agent critique roundtable. My inner pessimist whispered, What if everyone hates my work? What if I can’t handle the criticism? My writing couldn’t possibly be as good as these other people’s; I’m not ready to do a critique session.

But somehow, I tuned that voice out long enough to press the “register” button anyway. And guess what? The critique session was wonderful. I enjoyed every minute. I got some great feedback, and I met another middle-grade writer whom I’ve been close friends with ever since.

At my most recent conference, they offered a first-page agent critique for free with your registration. Cool! Then I read the fine print: I’d be in a room with an agent and a dozen other writers, and I’d have to stand up in front of everyone and read my first page aloud. My inner pessimist recoiled. I’ve never read anything for an audience before. What if I have a panic attack? What if I faint? What if I throw up in the agent’s lap?!

I only signed up at the urging of my writing mentor, who said it was a great opportunity to get my work in front of an agent. Yeah right, muttered my inner pessimist, like anyone would be interested in my book based on one lousy page. And when my 8:00 a.m. session rolled around, I almost didn’t go. I remember walking down the hall toward the room and pausing, swaying on my feet, listening to that nagging inner pessimist. I don’t need this stress. I should go to another session, a lecture, where I can just sit and listen—where I don’t have to be brave.

Then my close writing friend (the one I met at that critique roundtable) caught me in the hallway. Turns out she was signed up for the same first-page critique session. I sucked it up and walked into the room with her, and guess what? It was a great experience. I got helpful feedback and some practice reading my work aloud, which wasn’t nearly as painful as I’d expected. And the agent liked my first page so much, she sought me out later to request the manuscript.

At the Colorado Gold last year, I participated in the Friday night book signing with the other Found anthology contributors. It was my first book signing, and it wasn’t quite as glamorous as I’d expected—probably because I had zero clues what I was doing. I found myself at a loss for what to write with my signature, I addressed it to the wrong name at least once, and I had major impostor syndrome. Why am I here? niggled my inner pessimist. What am I doing in a room full of other authors—real authors—when all I have to my name is a couple of short stories? Their signatures are so squiggly—mine isn’t nearly squiggly enough!

I walked away from that signing feeling like a klutzy, insecure fish out of water. But I’m still glad I did it. I made friends with the other contributors, I learned a lot about how book signings work, and I got my first-time jitters out of my system—so my next book signing will be easier.

My point is: Hiding from our fears doesn’t do us any good. We have to face them, and we have to give ourselves permission to fail the first time (or two, or ten), knowing that it will help us in the long run. So if you’re going to Colorado Gold next month, be brave. Challenge yourself, try something new, set lofty goals. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

Rachel Craft

Rachel Craft writes speculative fiction for all ages, mostly under her pen name Rachel Delaney. Her short stories have appeared in Cricket magazine and the RMFW anthology Found, and she’s working on a middle grade novel. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she works as an engineer and leads a local critique group. You can find her on Twitter @RDCwrites.

13 thoughts on “My #1 Way to Make the Most Out of Conference

  1. This mirrors my experience completely! If anyone is shy, come stand next to me and I promise to talk to you.

  2. This is so right on topic. This will be my 5th, I think, and I still have to force myself to talk to people in line or at my table or next to me in a workshop, but I can (usually) do it. I did my first reading last year, and signed up again this year. I’ve gotten so much out of the roundtables, including great feedback and encouragement, and found I can handle the not-so-comfortable feedback as well. I’ve gotten some requests for partials and fulls, and made some friends that I couldn’t do without. Anyone who thought of going and waited too long – GET ON THE WAITING LIST – you might still have a chance, and if not, put it on your calendar to register early next year. Don’t let that inner pessimist get the best of you! Great post!

  3. Thank you for the advice. I love to hide in the corner and hope no one looks my way. Given your advice, maybe I’ll still hide in the corner but I’ll refrain from throwing a camouflage tarp over me.

    • That’s the right attitude! You don’t have to do it all at once–just one small step at a time can go a long way. And you’re a workshop monitor this year, right? That’s a great way to start coming out of your shell!

  4. Such a powerful blog, Rachel! The RMFW conference is my magic elixir. I’ll never forget my first conference. I researched a half dozen other writing groups and chose RMFW. I went to conference without have ever met anyone from RMFW, and I brought my first ten pages to read to nine RMFW members (aka strangers). I was drunk with excitement as other writers encouraged me, said hi in passing, and exchanged exciting news about their agent/editor appointments. As Susan Spann so aptly expressed it, I had found my tribe! I especially loved this part, Rachel: “I go into every conference knowing that I’ll get out of it what I put in. I challenge myself to do something that scares me…” Fabulous! So true!

    • I feel the same way, Janet! I’m still shy, but I’m so much more comfortable now that I’ve found my tribe (and I get that same “drunk with excitement” feeling at every conference). Looking forward to seeing you there!

  5. Very timely. I’m headed to the conference for the first time. And I’m scared!! Mostly of sitting by myself st lunch or dinner.

    • Don’t be scared, Tina! You’re going to have so much fun! And remember, all the new attendees feel the exact same way, and all the veteran attendees would love for you to approach them and say hi. You can always break the ice with “What do you write?” Or look at their conference ribbons and say “I notice you’re a new attendee too!” or “You’re a volunteer? What role do you have?”

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