Do I HAVE to Go to Every Session?: A Conference-Goer’s Guide to Strategic Workshop Attendance

Welcome to Part Two of our six-part series on writer’s conferences. Today, we’re talking about the business end of conferences: namely, workshops.writersconferences1

I went to my very first writer’s conference about three years ago. It was a smaller, regional conference, and it was not genre-specific. And I made a serious rookie mistake: I went to every workshop session. Every. Single. One.

I don’t know if it was my good-girl, too-school-for-cool mentality, or just how eager I was to learn, or my sense that I was paying for this, goddammit all, I had better get every penny’s worth. But I really felt like I had to go to everything.

Heads up, rookie conference attenders: You don’t. You don’t have to go to every session. You don’t have to go to every meal. Honestly, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, though even I will admit that hiding in your room for four days probably isn’t a good strategy, either.

Workshops are a great opportunity to learn some new things about the business or the craft of writing. Some involve a lecture-style presentation, while others will be more interactive. Some will be led by authors you’ve been reading and idolizing for years, and you’ll be hanging on their every word just to get a glimpse into their thought processes. Others will be taught by people you’ve never heard of but who have incredibly valuable insights to share about the aspects of our profession they excel in. No lie: others will basically suck, and you’ll be glad you picked up that giant bucket of coffee on your way into the room.

But no matter what, you’ll learn something from any workshop you go to, even if it’s just that you knew more about the subject than you thought you did, or that something you’ve been doing informally in your own practice has a name—that other people are doing it, too, and in a systematic way that can help you refine how you approach it. Just looking at an element of craft from a slightly different perspective has led me to more than one breakthrough on a story idea, and I’ve spent two thirds of a workshop scribbling in a notebook to get down all my awesome new ideas.

Whether you’re a veteran conference-goer or a newbie, here are a few quick tips for strategic workshop attendance.

    • Decide ahead of time what you’re most looking to learn while you’re at the conference. Most conferences – and RWA 2013 is no exception – organize their workshops into “Tracks” that allow you to focus on one aspect of writing, be it promotion, craft, or even just stalking your favorite authors so you can hang on their every word. You’re not limited to whichever track you’re most interested in, but it’s a good place to start in terms of figuring out which sessions you want to go to.
    • Plan ahead. There’s already a list of workshops, organized by time and track, available on RWA’s website. Yes, there will also be a schedule available at the conference, but scoping out what there is to do and see ahead of time will help you stay more focused while you’re there.
    • Know yourself:
      • Are you someone who can sit still and listen to people talk for hours on end? If so, go ahead and load up on as many sessions as you can stand.
      • Or are you fidgety? Do you lose your ability to process after about an hour? Does sitting in an overly air conditioned room for hours oneand make you want to crawl out of your skin? Do you need a nap around one o’clock in the afternoon? Do you expect to be hungover most mornings and wearing your sunglasses to any sessions you manage to drag yourself to? If so, plan a looser schedule. Be nice to yourself, and you’ll get more out of the workshops you do choose to attend. Don’t be afraid to take a break when you need to.
    • Have other goals besides workshop attendance. Plan to spend some time milling around—or, as we like to call it, networking. If you’re pitching to an agent or an editor, you already know the dates and times of those appointments. Leave yourself time to mentally prepare for your pitch, and time to decompress after. Trust me—if you’re any kind of a nervous personality, you are not going to want to sit still and listen to other people for an hour after getting through that pitch session.
    • Tag team it. If you’re attending the conference with a group of friends, consider attacking and conquering. While it’s nice to be able to go to sessions together, splitting up and attending different sessions, then meeting up afterward to compare notes can be a powerful way to get as much out of the conference as possible.
    • Be flexible. You never know when brain overload is going to strike or when some awesome writer you met in the morning session will invite you to go grab coffee with her and her writer buddies. I’d advise having one or two sessions per day that you know you definitely want to try to make it to, and then be willing to go with the flow as your interests and plans change throughout the course of the event.

No matter how many workshops you decide to go to, you’re bound to pick up some new tips and tricks, or at least some new twists on your own ideas about how to approach your craft and your career. So grab your notebooks and your conference schedules, and have a great time!

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