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Deborah Raney’s Advice for Getting Over Conference Nerves

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

As the conference approaches, even those of us who are old hands at this conferencing thing feel a little flutter of nerves. Will we remember the names of people we’ve met in the past? What if we say or do something stupid in front of someone whose opinion is important to us? Or worse, someone who holds our career in their hands?! If we’re volunteering or teaching a workshop, we worry that our performance won’t be well-accepted; or that because of us, someone will feel the conference wasn’t worth the considerable expense they sacrificed to attend. What if no one sits with us at dinner? What if the wardrobe we bring is all wrong? What if we get stuck with the roommate from you-know-where? What if we can’t think of an intelligent thing to say? What if we get there and realize we don’t know half as much as we thought we knew about this writing thing?

Believe me, I’ve felt all these anxieties and more. But over the years, I’ve learned a few things that have helped me to feel more confident about the whole experience of a writer’s conference. I’ll share my list, and I hope you’ll add to it (via the comments) with things you’ve learned.

1. Go as well-prepared as possible. If I’ve done my homework and taken the time to learn all I can about ACFW and the faculty who will be at the conference; if I’ve read the conference blogs and participated in the forums about the conference; if I’ve rewritten and self-edited and rewritten my manuscript again, then I know I’ve done everything in my power to get the most out of the conference experience, and I can put some of those worries aside.

2. Go with realistic expectations. Most conferees will not sell a manuscript the first time they go to a conference. If you go feeling that you simply MUST sell something, or your money and time were wasted, then you can’t help but be a nervous wreck. If instead, you view the conference as a “next step” in the process to becoming a competent writer, you will free your thoughts and emotions to simply soak in the wealth of information you’ll encounter at the conference. If this is your first conference and you are especially nervous about talking to editors and agent, I suggest you don’t even make any appointments this year. Simply go to soak up information in the workshops and continuing sessions. As the week goes on, perhaps you can gather the courage to sit at the table of an editor, agent or author whose brain you’d like to pick. Start small, and save the tough stuff for next year when you’ve had 12 months to apply everything you learned, and when you can come back knowing what to expect from a conference.

3. Wear something that makes you feel attractive and confident, yet comfortable. That might sound like petty advice, but it’s a fact that if we’re comfortable with the way we look and feel, we’ll be less anxious and more self-confident. I always advise attendees to dress up just a little, especially if you have an appointment with an editor or agent. Err on the side of being overdressed rather than underdressed and you’ll usually be just right. That said, there is NO need to go out and buy a new wardrobe for the conference. If you feel you don’t have anything appropriate, borrow something from your sister or a friend. Or check out the local Goodwill or Salvation Army. Mixing and matching is another good option. You could probably wear the same outfit throughout the entire conference and if you jazz it up with different jewelry, scarves, jackets, etc. each day, no one will be the wiser. Wear something you can put on and forget.

4. Finally and most importantly, get your mind off yourself and into a servant mode. The truth is, most of the people you are nervous about approaching or interacting with are so nervous themselves, that they don’t have time to worry about how you look, if what you said was stupid, or whether you measure up. So use that knowledge and decide before you go that your main mission at the conference will be helping OTHERS to feel comfortable and encouraged. If you do that, I guarantee you will be well-liked, highly thought of, and will ultimately come away from the conference having felt it was an extremely worthwhile venture.

What are some tangible ways you can serve others at the conference?

  • If you see someone standing alone and looking lost, confused or nervous (or crying!) approach them and introduce yourself. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help. You may have to admit that you’re a newbie yourself, but between the two of you, you can no doubt figure out what you need to know.
  • Don’t spend too much time talking about yourself. Yes, people want to get to know you, but most people respond to someone who not only shares their own stories, but is interested in what others have to say, too. Ask leading questions and be sure to listen to the answers. At a writers conference, “So, what genre do you write?” or “What are you working on now?” are always valid questions. Or ask people where they are from. Chances are you’ll discover you have something in common.
  • Make the most of opportunities to help in tangible ways. At a conference, there is ALWAYS an elevator door to hold, a box of books to carry, directions to a meeting room to be given, a cell phone to loan, a cup of coffee to be ordered, a friend to be introduced.
  • The minute you start concentrating your efforts on helping others feel welcome and at ease, is the minute your own nerves will start to untangle. I promise, if you look for ways to serve, the Lord will provide! But you’ll never recognize the needs if your eyes are too focused on how you feel, how you look, how frightened you are.

Start now bathing the conference in prayer. If you go expecting God to work in and through and for you, you can be sure that’s just what will happen. Maybe not in exactly the way you expect, but certainly in ways you’ll look back on and thank him for down the road.

Can’t wait to see you there!

DEBORAH RANEY is at work on her eighteenth novel. Her books have won the RITA Award, the HOLT Medallion, National Readers’ Choice Award and Silver Angel from Excellence in Media. Deborah’s first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title. Her newest books are the Clayburn Novels from Howard Books/Simon & Schuster, including Remember to Forget, a 2008 Christy Award finalist. Deb serves on the advisory board of American Christian Fiction Writers. She and her husband, Ken Raney, have four children and enjoy small-town life in Kansas. Visit Deb on the Web at

  1. Tuesday, August 19, 2008 10:37 am

    Super advice, Deb. Now the only thing I need to know is how to find the time to do all of the reading and writing and re-writing! LOL Looking forward to seeing you, too.


  2. Tuesday, August 19, 2008 1:31 pm

    Great advice! I’ll expound on the expectations one: Expect God to do GREAT things, just don’t limit him to what those great things are:-) I think in all things we do (this is my first conference too so I can’t speak a lot on it yet), we should be expecting God to do awesome and wonderful things. Whether you meet that awesome crit partner you are in need of, you make key connections that will help you later when you are ready to pitch/publish, you get that wonderful ‘send it to me’ response, or if you just meet God in a powerful way, there are no limits to what God can do.


  3. Tuesday, August 19, 2008 10:01 pm

    I’m so looking forward to this year’s conference, I’ve not thought too much about being nervous, but as the counter tics down, the nerves make themselves known. I need to remember to pray, pray, pray that my own agenda will take a backseat to what God want’s to do with me.


  4. Tuesday, August 19, 2008 10:55 pm

    I’m storing all this up in my brain for someday when I go to my first conference! To be perfectly honest, I get nervous just thinking about going! 😉 I’m praying that the Lord will give me the opportunity to go next year, maybe…to get to meet everyone, if nothing else! 😉


  5. Wednesday, August 20, 2008 8:07 am

    I can’t go to ACFW but did just attend my first writer’s conference earlier this month. It exceeded all of my expectations. I can’t express how wonderful a community it was, how encouraging everyone was, and how exhilarating I found it to be able to talk about writing among those who didn’t look at me as though I’m insane. Seriously. 😉

    I prayed about the conference, and together with the prayers of fellow Christians, I don’t think there was a way to avoid the touch of God. As others have said, going with an open mind, with no expectation with what that form that touch might take, helped. I found the courage to write that which I thought I could never write, and it’s going to be a good thing, if only for me and no one else. That alone is worth the cost of admission for me.

    Thank you Deb, and thank you Kaye, for these great thoughts!


  6. Thursday, August 21, 2008 10:27 am

    Thanks for this:

    “Most conferees will not sell a manuscript the first time they go to a conference. ”

    Because I want my first conference to be a fun learning experience and not feel a failure if it doesn’t lead to a contract.

    I appreciate all the good advice.


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