You’re Oh So Shy, But You Can Learn How to Schmooze at Writing Conferences
People peg me as outgoing, but the truth is, like many journalists and writers, I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert. I admit to a little stage fright before I give a talk or before I even take a seat in a large workshop at a writer’s conference.
But no matter how shy any of us are, we can learn to embrace the jitters and make them work for us. I sat in a GrubStreet workshop about four years ago and was surprised to hear how many participants were wavering about whether to even attend the Muse & the Marketplace, GrubStreet’s annual conference. They were letting their stage fright overwhelm them. They hated stepping into a room with 50 to 100 strangers or more.
So what’s a naturally timid writer to do? Try these 10 approaches for before, during, and after the conference. Rather than look at huge conferences as the ticket to a huge book deal, view them as a way to start building a literary network.
- Find a conference buddy. Ask a writer friend if you can car pool or take the T together to the conference and agree to attend at least one workshop together.
- Prepare. Comb through the agenda and circle agents, authors, or editors you hope to meet. Look them up and see if they’re on Twitter. Follow them. Comment on something they’ve posted. Read books they’ve written, edited, or represented. You’re already schmoozing, and you don’t even know it.
- Get involved more with GrubStreet as the conference nears. Take a workshop close to the time the Muse begins, go to a GrubStreet event or better yet, volunteer before or during the conference. Help stuff those envelopes, and you’ll at least know some of the players, whether it’s instructors, students, or GrubStreet staff. Seeing a familiar face can help assuage nerves.
- Practice your elevator pitch for this question: “What are you writing about?” Write it out first and practice until you can describe your writing project in just a few sentences.
- Take notes during workshops, and jot down a question you may want to ask. If you’re too shy to ask it in front of the bigger workshop group, no worries. Hang around afterward to ask the presenter the question. If the line’s too long, look for another opportunity to talk to the presenter during the conference.
- Carve time to just mingle. This may mean skipping a session, but often, the best schmoozing happens in the hallways, in the easy chairs, or in the book sales area.
- Set reasonable goals for the conference, including how many people you want to meet. Don’t just sit down with people you know. Sit next to a stranger. See everyone as a possible connection. The unpublished writer you meet today may be the bestselling author you hear about in 2016.
- Leave your manuscript at home. Now is not the time to ask someone you just met if they’ll read your book and give you feedback.
- Relax and allow conversations to just happen. The agent you meet in the hall may not ask what you’re working on. Agents and editors get bombarded with pitches at conferences. They’re human, too. Sometimes, they just want to talk about whatever interests them.
- After you get home from the conference, make a list of whom you met and what you remember about them. If someone did suggest you stay in touch, drop them an email and let them know you enjoyed meeting them and liked what they had to say. Find a way to keep your new connection going even if you’re not quite ready to send a manuscript.
Since first hearing of fellow writers’ fears of conferences in 2011, I’ve annually taught a class called Muse and the Marketplace 101 at GrubStreet. I’ve written a few articles about conference preparation, too, and almost every time I’ve recounted the same advice from an author friend of mine. It’s a sentiment worth repeating:
Jessica Keener, author of the novel Night Swim, urges writers to think of the conference “as one step in a series of endless steps in your journey as a writer.” Listen to your gut, she says. If you’re too timid to ask a question, don’t. Be the listener.
In other words, be yourself. See you at the Muse.
**Editor's Note: There is still time to register for the Muse conference, but don't wait--sessions are filling up quickly! For the latest update on all things Muse, follow #Muse15. Linda's class takes place on Friday, April 24th, 10:30 AM. Sign up here!**
Linda K. Wertheimer, a former Boston Globe education editor, is the author of the narrative nonfiction book, Faith Ed, Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance. Her book, a look at public schools' efforts to teach about the world's religions, grew out of a proposal she wrote in a Grub Street class and was named one of the top two religion books of the year by the Religion News Association in 2016. She worked full-time as a newspaper reporter for nearly 25 years before pursuing her dream to write books. She has published op-eds, personal essays, and long-form nonfiction for many publications, including The New York Times, USA Today, TIME, and The Washington Post. Other awards include a 2014 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Finalist award ; second place in the national Education Writers Association contest; third in Moment magazine’s memoir contest; and an honorable mention in Tiferet journal’s nonfiction writing contest. She is a mentor-editor with The Op-Ed Project. She has been a prose writer-in-residence in at the Chautauqua Writers' Center and will be a featured interfaith lecturer at Chautauqua in 2020. For more about Linda and her work, visit lindakwertheimer.com. Follow her on Twitter @lindakwert.See other articles by Linda Wertheimer