Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Twelve Actions to Take When You Return From a Writer's Conference

So you've just returned from The California Crime Writer's Conference, which was a smashing success, but how much of a success was the confab for you? Despite the fun we writers have at these get-togethers, published or not, we don't go to these meetings for our heath. Now is the time to sit down at your desk and capture the value of the investment you made in time and money and, I might add, time away from your manuscript, to attend this important gathering. Here are a dozen DO's for making sure you get everything you can out of the conference experience --

1. Run Your Pre-Conference Checklist. Of course you had a pre-conference checklist, didn't you? If you did not, you have learned your first lesson for your next conference. Your checklist should be based on a strategy built on your needs at your stage of the publishing process. I have a finished manuscript I have edited a half dozen times, a synopsis and a pithy query letter and am well into the outreach process, so I researched the agents who were attending the conference and developed a list of actions for the ones who match my project. I was following up with some people and making new contacts with others. When I reviewed my list after returning home, I saw I had accomplished all my agent-related tasks. I also had objectives about the sessions I wanted to attend and mentors with whom I wanted to catch up. I had to sacrifice one session, to interact with an agent I wanted to meet, but I thought this was a good trade-off. I caught up with an important mentor, Jerrilyn Farmer, updated her on my progress, and got some more good advice (no surprise there!). I also got her to autograph her new book with the divine Joan Rivers, Murder at the Academy Awards (Pocket Books).

2. Make a Detailed Task List and Start Executing. Before I left Pasadena, I started a list of follow-up actions and I finished the list at home the morning after the conference. There were agents who had requested partials, agents with partials who requested additional information, leads about other agents that came from authors at the conference, and a long list of web sites and blogs to check out, mentioned by various speakers and panelists. I will have completed my follow-ups within five days of the conference's close.

3. Evaluate Your Interpersonal Interactions. While your memory of the conference is fresh, think back over your interactions with the organizers, speakers, and attendees. What worked and what didn't? Were you comfortable introducing yourself to strangers? How did you start the conversations? Writers love words, but that doesn't mean they are good at small talk. If your recollection of some of those conversations is painful, because the exchange was awkward, you might want to hone your interpersonal skills. How to Talk to Anyone by Leil Lowndes (McGraw Hill) is a wonderful, easy-to-read book that can help you buff your cocktail party banter.

4. Determine Which Activities Were Most Productive. The agent cocktail party and agent-focused panels were the most productive sessions for me, because that it where my publication journey is focused now. If you are at an earlier stage in the process, these sessions would not be as wise a use of your time as, for example, a session on the rewrite. There were people in the agent sessions who were writing the first few chapters of their novels. Of course, writers must learn all they can about the agenting process, but there is a proper time for everything.

5. Decide Which Activities Were Least Productive. The organizers of the CCWC conference did a stellar job of creating meaningful programs, but not everything, albeit juicy with content, will suit your own agenda equally well. For example, I loved the luncheon talks, but when there is a speaker, table conversation must cease, and opportunities for dialogue are lost. Long speeches also eat up the time for audience/speaker interaction and trap listeners who are uncomfortable exiting when somebody is talking.

6. Evaluate the Competitive Intelligence. Although intimate conferences are not large enough to represent the book market, even in one genre, they can afford opportunities to assess trends and spot emerging opportunities. Moreover, you might get an up-close-and-personal look at a competitor who is marketing directly in your space. Let's say you are working on an embroidery cozy and the author of a quilting series is a panelist at the meeting. How well attended is her presentation? What questions were asked? Why do people like her protagonist? How long was her line in the book signing room? If she is popular, how is your work similar to hers and how can you differentiate your project in a bold, fresh way?

7. Evaluate New Marketing Ideas. Always gather up whatever is being handed out. Look for new ideas for marketing books. Agatha winner Hank Phillippi Ryan marketed Prime Time with a clever little lip balm. Since the protagonist in my mystery series is a bit of a klutz and a destroyer of silk blouses, I thought I might try to do the same thing with a diminutive vial of spot remover.

8. Write Down Cool New Writing Tips. One thing's for sure when you spend two days in the company of over 150 writers: you're going to hear new ideas about writing. Suggestions for breaking those pesky blocks. New tools, from software to research sources. Take the time to look back over your notes and pluck a few gems out of the scrawl. It's all about moving your writing to the next level. One of my favorites from this conference came from Carolyn Howard Johnson, the Frugal Editor. Carolyn suggested repackaging, repurposing and reusing material in different venues and different timeframes. If you have spent a lot of time researching and writing a piece, you should get as much mileage as you can out of your effort!

9. Write Down New Story Ideas. When people talk about their experiences, their stories often ignite memories of your own past experiences that could prove useful in a storyline. Or when they talk about the plot of their new mystery, the poolside scene makes you remember you were tossed in a half-filled pool at a wild party and you hit your head hard enough to need stitches. You could have drowned, but you didn't. But in the new plot forming in your head the bikinied gal drowns, unleashing a legal nightmare for the pool's owner and destroying the alibi of the hunky former lifeguard who snuck away from the party to commit MURDER. Make sure you write down all the ideas you had for new books, short stories and essays.

10. Document What You Spent. Even though you may not have published yet, you are a professional writer and you must treat what you are doing as a business. Pull all those receipts from the bottom of your purse, smooth them out and total up what you spent. Not everything will be a legitimate business expense, but it is important to get control of your conference behavior. I try to set a limit to how many books I buy when attending these conferences. I usually go over my limit, but because I set a limit, I don't go over by much. I also try to control my calorie intake and I bring my exercise togs along. When your book is published and you go on those book tours, you don't want to sacrifice you figure on the altar of your success, so develop those good behaviors early!

11. Compare Conferences. Take some time to assess the conference you have just attended to others. How did CCWC stack up in terms of value? Did the content warrant the expenditure It is important to learn which programs deliver the biggest return in terms of your particular objectives. In 2010, you'll have a prioritized list of meetings. Stick to your writing career priorities and don't be swayed by an alluring venue. I am sure that for the vast majority of attendees, CCWC was a very good deal!

12. Give Yourself a Grade. Okay, now we've reached the real bottom line. How did you perform throughout this conference opportunity? Did you arrive at the conference focused like a heat-seeking missile? Did you stick to your plan? Are you making good use of the ideas and contacts you brought away from the meeting? Remember, the biggest factor in capturing value from your investment in a writer's conference is YOU!

Kudos to Sisters in Crime LA and the So Cal Chapter of Mystery Writers of America for a great program, great eats and greater fellowship. Way to go!

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