Friday, July 20, 2012

Kate's top ten writing conference survival tips

As I may have mentioned, I've recently returned from the RNA's annual conference. Next week, I believe it's the RWA's turn. Although I'm not attending RWA this year, I've been four times before, and seven times to the RNA. So, here are my top tips on conference survival...

1. Shoes.

Romantic novelists are obsessed with shoes. There, I've said it. I even put it as number one. All right, so some of it is my fault, for turning up to my first RNA do in purple satin diamante heels (pause for sigh of nostalgia) and a sort of escalation whereby I wore sillier creations every time I met my writer friends. At most events, the first thing people say to me is, "Show me your shoes!" I mean, it really is. Not even "Hello," or "You look hungover." The RNA blog has a whole post on conference shoes.

However. There is a lot of walking and standing to do at these things. The RNA conferences are much smaller, but the RWA events are freaking massive and you can walk for miles in those hotel conference centres. I'm not exaggerating. In Washington DC the hotel was so huge it would take me twenty minutes to get from my room to some of the workshops. That's a mile (and I'm actually a pretty fast walker).

My RNA conference gala dinner shoes. I loves them, my precious...

So. Take some pretty shoes. But don't feel you have to wear them all the time. My advice? Put a pair of flats in your bag and use them for most of your walking around. You know, like in Working Girl (only maybe a bit prettier). In this, ballerina shoes are your friend. I have some devilishly pretty ones and they've saved my feet more times than I can count. Also, don't underestimate those gel inserts for the ball of your foot, and take plenty of sticking plasters, especially if you're out walking in the heat (more on that later).

But please don't just wear sensible shoes. It makes me sad when I see people wearing shoes that are just sensible, and not any sort of fun. Not even coloured, or with any decoration. It makes your feet sad, too. That's why they hurt, you know.

2. Clothes

Wear them. Haha. No, okay, let's be serious. I'm not going to tell you what to wear, give you a packing list that contains things I don't even own (capris and a cute shirt--give me a break). The first conferences I went to, I was 23 and terrified of not being taken seriously. I dressed up way more than was necessary. I had a natty little pink tweed suit, it was adorable, I felt like Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds (and about as natural). I didn't feel like myself. After that, I started wearing clothes that felt more, well, like me. Okay, I admit I spend quite a large portion of my day in pyjamas, and after that it's some variation on jeans and a t-shirt. I'd go a little fancier than that for a public appearance.

Because don't forget: this IS a public appearance. Wherever you are on the scale of first-unpublished-draft to multi-published author, you're going to these events because this is something you're taking seriously as a career. You're meeting other authors, publishing professionals such as editors, agents, booksellers and librarians, and quite probably a fair few members of the public. And think carefully about those members of the public. When they see you cross the lobby of the Marriott, proudly wearing your RWA namebadge, do you want them to think, "Hey that woman looks like a slob. I never thought much of romance writers in the first place," or "Hey that woman looks stylish and professional. Maybe romance writers aren't as stupid as I'd thought." Up to you.

3. Hair and make-up

See above re: clothes. It's really the same principle as above. Respect the people you're meeting and don't turn up looking like you've just fallen out of bed. Or like you're going out clubbing.

Oh, and go easy on the perfume. Two thousand women in one room all wearing clashing scents is enough to bring on a real attack of the vapours. But don't, I beg you, go easy on the deodorant.

4. Climate

This is a funny one, because these conferences are usually held in summer, and as anyone on this side of the Pond knows, we haven't had one here in Blighty. I travelled to Penrith this year in my old brown boots, with a rainproof cape in my suitcase pocket. And an umbrella. And a winter jumper. I used them all.

However, RWA conferences tend to be held in much warmer climates. The first one I went to was in Reno, in July. They might as well have held it on the sun. This year it's in Anaheim, not known for its drizzle. So if you're attending, and you intend to poke your head out of doors, wear clothes that'll keep you cool, and remember the sunscreen.
Thank God I remembered the sunscreen in DC...

And remember that these huge hotels are airconditioned to within an inch of their lives. I mean you could freeze water in some of these venues. So maybe a jacket or cardigan, or your faithful winter jumper, might be a good idea.

5. Stationery

Take a notepad. A big one. And several pens. You will take LOTS of notes.

Did I mention pens? When you meet your absolute favourite author and pluck up the courage to ask her to autograph your absolute favourite book, don't expect her to have a pen. She might not have read my advice.

Business cards. You should have some. They don't have to be fancy, you can get perfectly decent ones from Vistaprint for not very much at all, but they should have your name, pen name if you have one, and maybe some kind of note about what sort of books you write. "Jane Bloggs, author of historical romance" is just fine. Your email must go on there, and blog or website address if you have one. If you tweet, consider adding that. Phone number is up to you. I hate talking on the phone so rarely give out my number, but that's just me. Remember if you're going transatlantic to put the international dialling code on there too (if you have a British phone number, it's +44, and you drop the first zero, ie: instead of 01234 567890 it's +44 1234 567890).

6. Goody bags

A two-parter, this one. If you're promoting your books you might want to put something in the goody bag/room (at the RNA the bags are pre-stuffed, at the RWA you get a pre-stuffed bag when you check in, plus there's a whole room full of goodies). I've got several bags of stuff I've brought back from conference and never looked at again. Paper goods tend to get left behind--by which I mean postcards, bookmarks, etc. People want something they can use, so pens are ever-popular, but it can get expensive.

Try to be imaginative with what you donate to the goody bags. The best things are more expensive, of course, and if you can get your publisher to sort them out then you're laughing. I've done pens, chocolates, and teabags. There are always some left over, but you know what, I use pens, eat chocolate, and drink tea, so it's not a total loss. And remember, this stuff is tax-deductible.

The other thing is that you're also going to be receiving one of these bags. Remember that when you're packing your suitcase. I'd advise taking a bigger case than you need on the outbound journey. You can of course ship things home if it all gets too much, but man that's expensive, especially if you've ended up with loads of free books. And you will end up with loads of free books. I had 40 from my first RWA conference. Yes, 40.
I take my own which I keep my flats, because HAVE YOU SEEN MY SHOES?

The good part (apart from the free books) is that these bags are usually pretty substantial, and since you'll end up carrying a lot around--notepad, pens, business cards, flat shoes, conference notes which, boy howdy, were a foolscap booklet an inch thick last time I looked--you'll have a decent shoulderbag in which to do it.

7. Food and drink

RNA conferences are fully catered, but you still need to let them know in advance if you have a special diet, which means everything from vegetarian to 'I only eat peas'. RWA conferences, on the other hand, only cater a couple of meals, usually a keynote luncheon and an awards luncheon, and maybe a dessert reception for the Ritas. Serving two thousand people is a slow business, and you'll have to tell the staff about seven times before they stop putting a plate of chicken down in your vegetarian place setting. Quite often, I am sorry to tell you, instead of chicken and vegetables, you'll get vegetables and vegetables. There is often one 'special diet' meal for everyone from vegetarian to 'I only eat peas'. So try and get a good breakfast, or do what I do and take cereal bars to munch on.

Gala dinner, RNA conference Greenwich 2010
The rest of your meals will probably come from hotel restaurants, which are usually pretty comprehensive, and open all day. Or depending on the location, there are probably shops and delis you can get supplies from (such as milk for your tea: see below).

You might get a refrigerator in your room for milk & soft drinks, or for vodka if you prefer. I'd advise a little bottle you can keep in your bag, to refill with water. You'll be talking a lot, and getting really thirsty.

If you're British and you're going to America and you want to drink tea, take your own. And a kettle. American hotel rooms have coffee makers, which are lousy for tea.

At RNA conferences, we're legendary for our wine consumption. The bar often runs out, and we have kitchen parties, like students. So take some wine with you, and anything else you fancy like chocolate or crisps, because there probably won't be a shop on site.

At RWA conferences, everyone drinks Coke or iced tea. Maybe a margarita in the evening. Us British winos are a minority. Just sayin'.

8. Pitching books

I'll put this right out there: desperation stinks. I've heard of editors being pitched books while they're trying to go to the toilet. It's not the time, people. If you find yourself in close proximity to an editor you want to impress, engage her in conversation some other way (I was once told the best opening line is: "Can I buy you a drink?"). Get her to remember you in a good way, not as "that crazy bitch who shoved her manuscript under the toilet cubicle", so that when you send her your query letter, you can say, "You may remember meeting me at the RWA conference in Anaheim." She might not remember you, but then again she might, and you want that memory to be along the lines of "Yes, she seemed friendly and professional, I'd like to work with her."

Don't shove your book at editors and agents. Don't take copies of your manuscript to conference. Don't launch into a prepared pitch, unless you are, of course, at an appointment to do just that. If you are, find a short 'elevator pitch' way to describe your book, and be prepared to just chat about it. Trust me, if you sell the book, you'll describe it to so many people, over and over, you'll be doing it in your sleep.

9. Workshops and sessions

There's a whole breadth of information on offer at these conferences, and it can get a little overwhelming. My first RWA conference, I was at workshops from 8am to 8pm some days. I was exhausted. Pick and choose, and if there's nothing you fancy or you're just too tired, go back to your room for some downtime. If you're as introverted as most authors, you'll probably need it after all that socialising.

Also, it's a bit late for this year, but if you're prone to jetlag (if you've never flown transatlantic before, why risk it?) try to arrive a day early, if you can afford it. If you find you're fresh as a daisy, you've always got extra time for sightseeing.

10. Have fun

That's the most important thing. Yes, this is a business, and yes, it's your career. Don't lose sight of that. But remember there are about a billion other careers which are easier and more secure than writing for a living. If you're not having fun, why are you doing it?


  1. Nice stuff. I really get pleased to come across such a great stuff. Thank you for sharing. Stuffed cookies

  2. I was so pleased to see this post! Thank you for the tips, Kate. Specially the ones that are helpful for someone going from the UK to the US.

    I'm sorry you won't be at this RWA!


  3. Great post! See you at RWA - look for me in Aloha shirts. Maybe I'll bring the Hawaiian State Flag that includes the Union Jack!

  4. Anonymous10:45 am

    Great advice, Kate. Sorry I missed the RNA conference this year - I did wonder about your shoes! Alison K

  5. Can I just add (sorry, late to the party, got drunk, then got lost..) take wet-wipes. Put said wet-wipes in the fridge (if your room has one). This tip saved many a soul at RNA Conference in Greenwich, when it was so hot that several convention-goers melted, and the Gala Dinner will forever be known as The Gusset-Fanner. Chilled wet-wipes, applied to the face after a busy and hot day...bliss. You can, of course, apply them to anywhere else that suits, but I'm not allowed to talk about things like that...

  6. I'm jealous already, Immi, I love RWA conferences! Hope you're enjoying your first one. I might go to the next, but I really want to go to 2014 in San Antonio...

  7. Kim, have fun at RWA, sadly I won't be going this year, but maybe next time!

  8. Alison! I wondered where you were! You must come next year. That's an order.

  9. I am not giving you any more dodgy conversational openings, Jane, not after that speech at the conference... but yes, cold wetwipes sound fabulous. I might put some in the fridge at home today, it's blazing hot!