How to prepare for a writing festival (and get the most out of it) by Lisa Ohlen Harris
I attended my first writing conference in Houston back in 2005. I prepared carefully (though in retrospect, foolishly) by printing out three or four copies of an essay I hoped to publish. I might meet an editor, I thought. That editor might ask me what I write. Surely the editor would want to publish me. And this might happen multiple times.
Long-story-short, I brought every manuscript page back home with me from that conference, too wrinkled for anything but the recycling bin. In fact, I really hadn’t prepared for the conference at all. I had prepared to promote myself. That’s it.
I hadn’t read the speaker bios, and I embarrassed myself badly by coming up to American Book Award winner Thomas Lynch and asking him what he wrote and how long he’d been writing. I bought a book by keynote speaker Kathleen Norris but didn’t ask her to sign it because I felt too shy. I learned later that Ms. Norris asked my friend why I hadn’t said hello when I saw her at her signing table one evening. “Is your friend unhappy with the conference,” she asked.
Oh, me. I should have prepared differently. I should have gotten over myself. I should have been thinking about how I could encourage others, not about what I could get for myself.
So here’s my advice on how to prepare for a writing festival or conference:
- Read the speakers’ bios and highlight those writing in your genre.
- Find your highlighted speakers’ books in your local library or use the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon to flip through and get a feel for the work.
- Slide some of your grocery money into a side pocket to spend at the event (save $1 or $2 a day or more in the month before the conference).
- As you select your workshops, don’t use a Sharpie to mark them—use pencil. And circle at least one option that’s outside your normal interests (you can always sit in the back and slip out early if it’s not a good fit).
- If you’re the sort of person who has anxiety when facing new situations and the conference is local, drop by the venue and scope it out. Knowing the lay of the land in advance will decrease your anxiety as the event date draws near.
What to bring:
- Laptop or iPad or pen and paper
- Money to buy (and have the author sign!) at least one or two books. I typically bring a set amount of “book money” and I freely take chances on books I discover at the event
- Business cards if you have them (but leave your manuscript at home). Use those cards as an easy way to keep in touch with fellow writers you meet at the event.
- An attitude of generosity. Bring a cup of coffee to the speaker of your morning workshop. Buy books and bless the bookstore and authors (and yourself). If you do meet an agent or publisher or author in the hallway, just chat. Don’t pitch your book (that can come later, via email).
And on the day of the event, ask not what the writing community can do for you but what you can do for the writing community! Chat with fellow writers about their work. Offer feedback and encouragement. Find out how what other writers are doing for support and ask how you can help. Jot down names, events, book titles, and ideas. The fruit of any literary event is only partly made up of the stuff listed in the program. Making new literary friends and hearing what’s going on in the community is a huge benefit that will only come your way as you reach out and shake hands and listen. The fledgling writer who sits beside you at the morning keynote may publish before you do and help you make connections to their agent or publishing house years in the future. But don’t think about that now. Think about how you can put someone else at ease.
Do what it took me years to learn how to do, and come to literary gatherings with the goal of giving. Whether you feel like it or not, you’re a member of a literary community. Be generous and do your homework. The blessings will come back to you. You’ll see.
Lisa Ohlen Harris lives in Newberg and is the author of The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law’s Memoir of Caregiving and the Middle East memoir, Through the Veil. She teaches online for Creative Nonfiction Magazine and mentors nonfiction writers through her editing and critique service. www.lisaohlenharris.com