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Networking for Writers: Conference Etiquette (Part 1)

Writing Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

If you have ever talked to a friend, passing on a job lead, news of a great sale, or praise for a wonderful novel, then you have “networked.” 

In essence, networking is word-of-mouth marketing. At a writing conference, you must learn to market yourself (“network”) in ways that make you memorable – but for all the right reasons. 

So let’s start with the basics.

Writers Must Think Like a Business Professional

You are an entrepreneur. You must treat your conference experience as a business opportunity. You may have many other reasons for attending a conference (example:  to enjoy the companionship of friends), but if you want to make contacts that will help you grow your writing career, you must prioritize: Network first, play later.

Stick to Your Networking Plan

If you don't have a networking plan, chances are you'll wind up in the corner, yakking about traffic with three whiners, who will never advance your writing career.  Do you want to meet published authors who might endorse your book?  Recruit new members to your critique group?  Find a book writing coach?  Schedule autograph parties with new booksellers?  Meet reviewers who might help you promote your book? 

Start looking for these people. 

When I had three published novels to my credit, I attended a national writing conference, determined to meet a particular agent with whom I’d been corresponding. The problem was, I was unable to get an official conference appointment with her, and I didn’t know what she looked like. 

Every time I ran into a published author, I would ask if s/he knew my “target agent.”  I even asked my new “army of contacts” what the agent was wearing, so I could spot her in a crowd. This agent told me later (when I finally ran into her – physically – in a doorway,) that she’d heard through the grapevine that I’d been looking for her.  She invited me for a drink.  At that informal meeting, she agreed to represent my fourth and fifth published books. 

Clearly, networking pays off!  However, networking to meet an industry professional is not the same as “stalking” an industry professional.  To understand the difference, read the section titled, “No Stalking Allowed,” in Part 2 of this Networking for Writers series.

First Impressions Count

If you’ve outgrown your favorite conference suit, buy clothes that fit.  If alcohol gives you diarrhea-of-the-mouth, drink non-alcoholic beverages.  If you are prone to halitosis, carry breath fresheners.  Wear deodorant.  Go extra light on the cologne and scented hairsprays.  Keep in mind that some people are highly allergic to artificial fragrances.  (You wouldn’t want to be remembered as the author whose perfume gave an editor a headache, would you?)

Other important "First Impression" tips:  Smile!  Shake hands!  Clearly speak your name (don't rattle it off as fast as you can.)  Wear your conference badge on the right side of your chest.  That way, when people shake your hand, they'll look straight up your arm to your badge.

Memorize Your Elevator Speech

An elevator speech is a short description of the type of books you write and/or what your story is about.  The term “elevator speech” is derived from the idea that your “speech” should be delivered in the amount of time that it would take to pitch your book to a stranger in an elevator.

Another term for this concept is the "short pitch" (not to be confused with "the log line," which, essentially, compares your book with blockbuster movies / television shows.  For example, my log line for my Historical Romantic Suspense series, Lady Law and the Gunslinger, goes like this:  "Mr. and Mrs. Smith meets Wild Wild West.")

Your first foray into elevator speech-writing should result in one, pithy sentence. (You need a word count?  Fine.  10 words.)  Think of that sentence like a literary hook.  Design it so that it raises a question in your reader’s mind.  Your goal is to make your opening line so interesting, that your listener says, “Tell me more.” 

After you get this all-important permission to speak about your story, you can roll out your 30-second speech.  At this point, if your listener appears to be hanging on your every word, you might roll out the 2-minute version.

However, always be judicious when talking about how you're writing the story plot for your book.  The fact that you've written the Great American Novel may impress co-workers around the water cooler, but when you're surrounded by 100s of writers, your accomplishment won't be the most memorable thing about you.  See the section titled, “Don’t Blather about Your Story Plot,” in Part 2 of this Networking for Writers series.

Networking Remedy for Cold Feet

Too shy to schmooze?  No worries!  Everyone gets nervous about walking up to a stranger – especially a perceived celebrity – for the first time.  

To break the ice with a stranger, you can always start with a compliment (“I love your shoes!”) or something you may know about them, (“I see from your name badge that you’re from Texas.  How long have you lived there?”).  If you’ve been standing in a group, idly “listening” for awhile, you might interject a pertinent question:  (“Hi, I’m Adrienne deWolfe.  I’m so interested in how you successfully jumped genres.  Did you keep the same agent?”)

I promise, talking to strangers gets easier the more you practice. Never be afraid to ask published authors about themselves, how they got started, the best agents, the best marketing ideas, etc. People love  to talk about themselves, and published authors are no exception. 

Listen More Than You Talk

As an entrepreneur, who wants to earn money writing ebooks for a living, keep in mind that you’ll learn way more if you listen, rather than talk. One of my pet conference peeves is the writer who interrupts a conversation about business to whine about some personal matter (a cold hotel room) or to dominate the conversation with topics that would only interest the speaker (ex: how she's writing the plot formula for a Romance.)

Drama Queens and Divas may be memorable – but not for the right reasons. A savvy networker knows when to ask questions, what information to volunteer, how long to speak without alienating listeners, and when to stay silent.

In Part 2 of Networking for Writers, I share more do’s and don’ts to help you advance your career goals while you're attending a writing conference.

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