Musical chairs and multiple choice

imageThis August I attended two great conferences for writers: Willamette Writers (Portland, OR) and Killer Nashville (Franklin, TN). Each conference had several tracks and dozens of sessions to choose from over three days. Sometimes a session turned out to be not as relevant as I’d hoped, and I had to find another one.

Here are my tips and tricks for doing it right.

  • Have a second choice for each time slot, in case the first one isn’t working.
  • Give the speaker a fair chance. This could mean sticking it out for 15 minutes, or seeing how they cover the first topic. Some speakers are nervous and take a few minutes to warm up. Be alert to phrases like “last minute” and “flying by the seat of my pants” and even “I’m not sure what this session is supposed to be about.” (!)
  • When in doubt about a session, sit on the end of the row, or sit in the back row, near the escape hatch. This can be distracting as others come in and out, but it makes it easier to swap.
  • Close and open the door quietly. Take the extra seconds to not let the latch slam or click loudly.
  • Pull or push your chair backwards to create an escape hatch from a row of chairs that are all occupied. You don’t have to leave the row sideways.
  • It’s OK to climb on or step over chairs or sit on the floor or hang out in the back of the room.
  • Take a chance on things you might not have chosen in the first place. Serendipity!

At the Willamette Writers conference, the expectation was already that people would be jumping in and out of sessions as their pitch times with agents came and went. People assumed I was leaving for a pitch instead of for another session.

I got a lot more out of the conferences this way. In one session, the panel was poorly moderated, and the questions seemed designed to steer the panelists off-topic. My second choice, an examination of serial killer pathology, was much more interesting!

A discussion of fiction markets deteriorated rapidly after an obnoxious agent went on at length about her nephew’s reading preferences and sweater choices in New York City weather. I bailed in favor of a deep dive into the criminal mindset — much more intriguing.

A session on writing personal essays began with a quiet writing exercise that seemed designed to suck all the energy out of the room right when participants needed it most — at 3:00 pm. I opted out in favor of a discussion of how opposing forces play out in stories, with examples from one of my favorite movies, Thelma and Louise.

Some presenters are better sports than others about people leaving their sessions or joining late. A big smile is the best response. My time at a conference is valuable, and I’m allowed to get the most value out of it.