And if you're going for the very first time, you might be wondering what to expect.
Never fear. I have been to one whole conference and am here to help you.
Yes. One whole conference. My wisdom is astounding. Nevertheless, these are the things I learned while preparing for and attending my first-ever writing conference. You can benefit from my experiences. Somebody might as well...
First, I learned writers have a different dress code than most people. When I first asked what I should wear, people unanimously responded "Business Casual." I worked in banking for eight years, and I learned that "business casual" meant you didn't need to wear a button-up and a jacket. One or the other was fine: either a jacket over a cami, or a button-up with no jacket. And your shoes could be open-toe. That's how I defined business casual.
When writers say "business casual" though, they mean jeans, little-nicer-than-a-tee-shirt shirts, maybe a cardigan. A cotton dress, maybe? Someone responded by saying she was going to bring her "dressy clogs" and I don't know what that means, but by golly it's a lot better than what I had been planning to wear on my feet.
So when you're packing for a conference, make sure you'll be comfortable, respectable, and look like you want to be taken seriously. Well-fitted jeans, a nice (not dressy) top, slacks, polo shirts. That kind of stuff.
Second, I learned you walk a lot at conferences. You stand in lines and you walk to and from classes and you peruse the bookstore and you wait for people and oh my gosh are your feet going to be sore. I opted for my cowgirl boots, and it was the best decision I ever made. Not as casual as my cross-trainers, but just as comfy. Converse sneakers are popular, as are the aforementioned dressy clogs (I learned what they are through my powers of observation).
Bottom line on shoes: Be comfortable while still maintaining an air of professionalism, while knowing that "professionals" in this field sit at home in yoga pants for most of their career. I have strong opinions about this, but I don't want to be torn apart in comments, so I will leave it at that.
Third, I learned I had no idea what my book was about. People will ask you what you're writing. If you take more than eleven seconds to answer that question or use the phrase "and then there's this...", they will stop listening to you. Create a pithy logline (even if it's a gross oversimplification) to use in quick conversations with people in the halls or while classes are gathering. Examples:
It's a dark adaptation of Mean Girls meets Groundhog Day.
It's a time travel story of a modern black woman who keeps being yanked back to the ante bellum South.
It's about a wizard boarding school in modern-day England.
Once you have your cute logline, come up with a quick, thirty-second description for the people who genuinely look interested. Include your genre, category, and a comp title or two, or what sets it apart from "all the other books just like it". And don't kid yourself, at least one person will suggest that there are a thousand books just like yours, no matter how creative your idea is.
After you've given your quick spiels, ask the other person about their book. I promise you, at least once, you'll think "Holy crap, that's the best book idea ever, why didn't I think of that???" and you'll be genuinely happy for the person you're talking to when that happens.
Fourth, I learned people at conferences really, genuinely want to help you. It's weird. But we all seem to really want to help our competition. Experienced writers will sit and brainstorm with you, people who are on the path to publication will share ideas and hacks and point you in the direction of the best instructors. The classes are full - FULL - of so much information your head will want to burst from all the awesome. Agents and editors will sit on panels, answering questions and giving a peek into their process, and they are doing it just because they want to see you succeed.
And that's what makes this community of writers so freaking awesome.