Conferences . . . Why do we go to them? What do we get out of them?
I’m reminded of Louis Gossett, Junior’s line in An Officer and a Gentleman: “Why would a slick little hustler like you sign up for this kind of abuse?” Sometimes as a conference date nears, I wonder the same thing. But some of them can be a lot of fun.
Ironically, as I write this one, I’m attending one of the best—the PSWA (Public Safety Writers’ Association) conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. (I felt obligated to add the state because I once attended a conference in New Mexico and found out there is a city named Las Vegas in the Land of Enchantment too. But I digress.)
As I said, I really love the PSWA conference. It’s a chance to see some old friends and meet with some of the nicest people in the business. One of my fellow Ladykillers, Mysti Berry, is also attending. I’m sure Mysti will enjoy the return to her home town. (She grew up in Las Vegas.) She and I have a panel on writing the short story, which is a subject near and dear to both our hearts. We generally have a great time at the PSWA conference. It’s a bit smaller than some of the huge ones, but it doesn’t lose sight of what a mystery conference is supposed to do.
But what is that exactly?
A conference should be about both fun and possibilities. Possibilities involve meeting new people, networking, and learning new things. I always go to one with an open mind, thinking that if I can learn even one new thing the experience will be worthwhile. A long time ago, when I attended my first Bouchercon, one of the more successful writers I knew who had taken me under his wing, advised me to network. “A lot of stuff happens in the bar and those all-night poker games are great,” he said. Alas, I don’t drink and I haven’t played poker since a group of us pulled an overnight sleepover in my buddy’s tent when I was about twelve years old.
So are conferences still worth it?
Let’s see what else they have to offer.
If you can get on a panel of two you have the opportunity to dazzle the public and you might sell a few books. I can’t tell you how many good authors I discovered after seeing them on a panel. The flip-side is true also. Sometimes I left the panel thinking a particular author was an idiot. So if you do get a panel slot, be at your best, look sharp, and be gracious. Figure out your expectations beforehand and think about what you want to accomplish.
Meeting people is also a possibility, although going up to an editor or agent you hope to impress at the wrong time is not advisable. Sometimes it’s not advisable at the “right time” either. Many conferences have these pitch sessions and the value of these is debatable. The current advice is to have your “elevator pitch” ready. Agents and editors always like to tell horror stories about people following them into washroom and trying to shove a manuscript under their stall. The best advice: opportunities are there to meet and attract the attention of an editor or agent, but don’t be reckless in your pursuit of attention. And to any agents or editors out there, keep in mind that many of the people who approach you are desperate with a capital D. Respect runs a two-way street.
Huge conferences like Bouchercon can be intimidating and overwhelming. It’s best to start with a smaller conference or two to get the feel for them. It’s not a bad idea for your first one to kind of stay in the background and watch what’s going on. Opportunities may arise, so be ready, but avoid looking like a gadfly.
It also helps to plan some other activities along with the conference. The ones I’ve enjoyed the most are those where I’ve taken time away from the festivities and done a little sightseeing and exploring. I remember one writer who was lamenting that she attended a conference in a city she’d never been to and after it was over realized she’d spent the whole time in the conference hotel. So get out and experience life where ever you are. Take some time to enjoy the experience and who knows, maybe a new idea for a story will come to you.