AWP 2016 is just around the corner (it’s hard to believe that it’s already next week!), and the Lantern Review team is hard at work preparing to dive into the fray. We’ve written in the past about how important it is for writers of color to optimize community-building opportunities at AWP and conferences like it. That’s easy enough to do if you’re somewhat established and have contacts within an existing network. But for emerging writers, networking at big conferences can sometimes feel anonymous and bewildering. During my first writing conference, I had no idea how to begin connecting with people. What was the appropriate way to strike up a conversation with a poet after a reading? Was I supposed to bring copies of my CV to the bookfair with me? I ended up figuring out most of these things by trial and error. (For the record, there’s no need for CVs at the bookfair!)
Since then, I (and we, as a team here at Lantern Review) have been to many more conferences. We’ve been the editors standing behind the bookfair table talking to first-year MFA students. We’ve been the panelists nodding at shy attendees who’ve worked up the courage to ask us questions. And over the years, we’ve learned that with a little bit of strategic preparation, it’s possible for an emerging writer without many contacts to make a great impression and establish lasting connections at an event of even AWP’s scale.
Here are three simple things that we think every writer should do before a conference in order to lay the groundwork for effective networking:
1. Establish an internet presence.
You’ll meet a lot of people at any conference, but in order to facilitate follow-up, you’ll need to provide your new contacts with a place to land if they look you up online. Of course, not everyone is into social media (and we like what Molly Gaudry has to say about not trying to fake your enthusiasm for it). But even if you can’t tell a hashtag from a Twitter handle, we highly recommend that you create some way for people to search for and find you on the internet after the conference has ended. At the most basic level, we suggest using a free service to set up a simple website or blog for yourself. We know lots of writers who have made great use of sites like Wix and Tumblr, but our personal favorite is WordPress.com, which offers a wide selection of free design templates; employs an easy-to-use interface that doesn’t require coding knowledge; and comes with a powerful website stats plugin that lets you see who is visiting your site and how they’re finding it. However you choose to do it, the following two tips are key: keep the focus of an author website on yourself rather than on a specific book or project of yours (this will give the site greater longevity), and make sure that the full name under which you publish your creative work is in your URL, profile, and/or username (otherwise, readers and editors may have difficulty finding you).
If you already have your own website and/or active social media accounts, the few days before a conference are a good time to make sure that everything there is in order: make sure your most recent publications are listed on your portfolio page; update your author bio and photograph; check that your list of upcoming events is current. After a conference, when you’re no longer interacting with other writers face to face, your web presence is everything, so doing the necessary maintenance work on the front end will enable you to put your best foot forward when you step onto the convention floor.
2. Invest in memorable business cards.
Business cards may be annoying to keep track of, but they serve an important purpose, in that they provide something tangible by which new contacts can remember you. That’s why we think it’s smart for every writer to invest in a set before heading out the door for a conference. Your cards don’t have to be fancy, letterpressed masterpieces. Printing them at home or at a local copy shop or even getting creative with rubber stamps and recycled cereal boxes (if you are into DIY) are all perfectly valid options. There are also a lot of great digital short-run printers online that will turn around a batch for you in a matter of days. Our current favorite is Moo.com, which has excellent print quality and allows you to use up to fifty different designs on your card backs per print run via their “Printfinity” feature. (It’s a bit late to order Moo cards for this year’s AWP, but here is a referral link that will allow you to save 10 percent on a future order.)
That said, there are two things that any good business card should do: it must contain your name and contact information in clearly legible type, and it should have enough personality that the recipient will be able to recall who you are by looking at it. Try personalizing your cards by putting your author photo on the back with your contact information or adorning the front with your book cover. Or make the cards themselves into a mini portfolio for your work, emblazoning the backs with excerpts from your writing. Here at LR, we like to think of our business cards as more than just a utilitarian way to convey contact information. To us, each card is an opportunity to capture someone’s imagination: we want it to be a small, tactile gem that our contacts will want to hang onto—a memorable artifact that demonstrates, in a space just over two inches by three inches, who we are and what we do. (Bonus tip for when you arrive at the conference: keep a few of your new business cards tucked into the sleeve housing your name badge—it makes for easier access.)
3. Join the conversation early.
Perhaps the smartest way to prepare for a conference is to start following the things that are being said about it online before you even set foot in the convention center. Many conferences have a Twitter account, or at least a hashtag, that you can use to keep up with recent news, ask questions, or share information with other attendees (AWP 2016’s official hashtag is #AWP16). In addition, many literary organizations will often share their top picks for interesting panels, workshops, and readings at events like AWP up to a couple of weeks ahead of time. Closely following your favorite journals and small presses in the lead-up to a conference can be a great way to get recommendations tailored specifically to your interests, which in turn allows you to be more strategic about how you spend your time once there. (LR will, of course, be posting its own guide to AWP for APIA poets on the blog early next week, so stay tuned!)
Lastly, tuning into the buzz on social media is also an excellent way to learn about some of the major issues that may be informing the dialogue at a particular conference. This year, for example, we anticipate that many of the discussions at AWP will point to concerns about lack of racial diversity in publishing and in graduate writing programs, as well as to the appropriation of bodies of color in literary texts and spaces following last year’s series of shameful incidents involving white writers like Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, and Michael Derrick Hudson. (If you haven’t yet heard about what happened, I highly encourage you to read this piece by Timothy Yu, which does an effective job of summarizing the situation, or this one by Ken Chen for a longer analysis.) Getting involved in the conversation ahead of time will enable you to be a more informed participant and will better prepare you to get more out of the conference once you arrive.
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What are your tips for preparing for a writing conference, especially for emerging poets who might be attending one for the first time? Tell us your best advice in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook; we’ll be sure to reshare our favorites from among your nuggets of wisdom.
For those of you who are going to AWP next week, please keep an eye out for our guide to APIA lit at the conference, which we’ll post on Monday. In the meantime, happy preparations to all—we hope to see you in LA!
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