Writing used to be a solitary profession. How did it become so interminably social? — Meghan Tifft in The Atlantic
Let me share a scenario with you that describes my true feelings about interacting in a world where being social seems to be the requirement for authors. I suspect it will resonate with anyone reading this who is shy or identifies as an introvert.
In 2007, I attended my first RWA (Romance Writer’s of America) National meeting. This meeting had been built up to me as being the place I had to go to make my mark. For those who are not familiar with this conference, it is the place where the Rita is awarded (the romance writer’s Oscar) with much celebration and ceremony, and people dressing up like they are at the Oscars. It is also the one place where famous and successful romance authors will appear together with those who are aspiring or only have a few books out. These authors meet to network, celebrate the genre, and offer workshops and wisdom for those still working their way up the ranks. In other words, it was something I REALLY wanted to attend and felt was important to my own success.
As wonderful and amazing a conference as it is, the environment is made for extroverts, not introverts. In fact, it is an introvert’s worst nightmare made manifest in three to four intense, compacted days. Furthermore, there seemed to be a lot of rules. Here are just a few:
- Dress professionally. At that time it seemed to mean wear clothes you would wear on a job interview for a management position. And somehow also wear comfortable shoes because you will be walking for miles. Personally, I’ve never learned how a dress and my comfy tennis shoes are fashion-forward.
- Always wear a smile, act confident, and look happy to be there. No one likes a shy, retiring person. This is a great rule. The problem is I wasn’t confident. I was terrified to be there, constantly afraid I would say or do the wrong thing. And it’s hard to be someone I’m not.
- Greet people with verve and just the right amount of fawning without being obvious. This applies to happenstance greetings while standing next to another writer, as well as pre-workshop greetings while waiting for the speaker to get started. There were many examples given me about how to approach a famous author, editor, agent in the elevator and make conversation in 30 seconds because it may be the only time I actually see that person. Needless to say, I never tried an elevator conversation. I feared if I opened the door they might actually ask me a question and learn what a stumble-tongue I had.
- Write and rewrite your pitch to editors/agents prior to attending. Then wait patiently for at least an hour for your turn to get five minutes with someone who can make or break your career. Okay, in hindsight this was absolutely ridiculous. There are many people who have great careers that never meet their editor/agent until well after contracting a book. And now, many authors have chosen to be indie and don’t care about editors and agents. But at the time I was a huge believer.
- Always plan to eat with a group of people (preferably not people you already know) in order to be constantly networking. The corollary to this is don’t hang out with your friends. You get to see them all the time and they already know how they think. Use your few days to meet and get to know as many people as possible — preferably successful writers, editors, and agents. So now, in addition to doing the thing that is not at all natural — engage with a stranger — I must also eat in front of them, not spill food on my white blouse (which always happens) while carrying on witty conversation.
- Most important, hang out at the bar in the evening. That is where writers imbibe and share their deepest secrets — the ones that can make you into a star. While there, of course, you need to mingle and network and somehow inconspicuously work your way into groups with the successful writers. Be sure not to fangirl and to act like you know what they are talking about because the minute they spot you are a fake you will be ignored completely. Hmmm…not sure if being ignored is a bad thing or a good thing.
To make matters worse, you are already spending a fortune for the conference fee and the flight to the venue and the hotel room. Most people save on the hotel room by sharing with one to three other people. Another introvert’s nightmare where you have no place to escape with complete quiet.
You may think I’m exaggerating but, for me, at that first convention this was my reality. People were nice. Romance writers are some of the most supportive people I’ve ever met. They founded the organization on the belief that women needed to support each other to get ahead. I don’t share this to dissuade you, but to prepare you.
For an introvert, attending a convention like this appears to be a recipe for disaster. It can be so daunting that many writers just don’t go. For someone who is truly shy and fearful, attending a conference with all these rules and expectations is certainly a great opportunity to enter therapy for months afterward. In fact, I might suggest that therapists needing an extra buck set up shop in a well-advertised suite at the hotel.
Not having a therapist at my elbow, I spent far too much money getting a massage on the second day. Massage therapists provide a nice, meditative place where I could be quiet and have someone work out the stress kinks in my back and shoulders while having no requirement to speak.
I did make it through that first conference and many others. Though I had done a good deal of conference attending and even given presentations in my non-writing career, this was completely different. The rules were different, my objectives were different, and most importantly I felt I had very little control over any outcomes. And, when I finally got home, I realized it did not meet my expectations. My career was not changed. I didn’t get a contract — though everyone asked for a manuscript to review. And not one of my new found “friends” remained in contact.
Not all of it was awful. I did learn things at the workshops. I did leave feeling that my craft and my business planning could be improved. However, I could have accomplished that in the quiet of my own home by reading books about it and not have spent a couple of thousand dollars to feel extremely uncomfortable for four days.
But Not All Is Lost for the Introvert
If this account resonates with you, I hope you keep reading. There is a way to use face-to-face events like conferences, workshops, and opportunities to read an excerpt at a book signing to our advantage by setting appropriate expectations and learning a few techniques for making it less stressful.
For me, my romanticized writer persona was a great fit for my introverted way of living in the world. I am married to an introvert, so we are both very comfortable with not speaking to each other for hours at a time. We are also fine with taking time away from each other to recharge. Many movies and biographies of writers portray them working alone, creating masterpieces, and somehow finding those few people who were close friends and celebrating with them. In fact, it was the celebration of solitude and the work itself that seemed to be the secret to success.
In reality, the introvert is not held up as the epitome of success. In our world of constant connectedness and sharing, it is easy to believe there is something wrong with those of us who prefer this type of solitude. Publishers and marketers tout “platform” and “persona.” There seems to be this requirement to be in constant contact with readers, other authors, and the variety of people that help to make our books publishable.
It is okay not to get energy from constant self-narration in public. I find it exhausting to always be talking and sharing — whether that is in front of people at the podium or online through Facebook and Twitter. It seems that I cannot look at my phone or open my laptop without being inundated with hundreds of requests for me to “connect” or “like” or be a “friend.”
This doesn’t mean I’m uninterested in networking or uninterested in my readers. In fact, I am deeply interested. But I am interested in REAL connection, in real understanding — not in the daily bits of gossip or distraction that seem to permeate the experience.
I became an adult in the 1970’s before personal computers, the Internet, social media or any of this constant connectedness. I could count on one hand (and still do) the number of close friends I had. My biggest mailing list was my Christmas card list of approximately 120 close friends and acquaintances, along with assorted relatives (I come from a very large family). When I began building my email list of readers in 2007 I was proud of the 200 people I had on it.
Now we are solidly in 2019, the expectations of authors seem to be better embraced by extroverts — those who get energy from interacting with people on a regular basis. I would never have conceived of having 12,000 people on an email list, or 15,000 people following me on Twitter. Even the more than 2,000 people on my Facebook Author page boggles my mind. I have techniques for growing all of those, but am I expected to now “engage” with them on a daily basis? Oy! Now that’s a different story.
Five Tricks for Navigating Conferences, Workshops or Networking Events
Start with the least fearful one here and do it several times. You might begin in a smaller group situation before trying it out a conference of thousands of people. Once mastered, move to the next one and the next. DO NOT try to do them all at once in one evening. It will be enough to scare the most stalwart person into becoming a permanent hermit.
Trick 1: When attending a networking event, a party, or a book signing, treat every person as if you are having a one-to-one conversation.
Forget the rest of the people around you. Focus on one person at a time. It will take away the overwhelming feeling of how many others are in line to see you or hanging on your every spoken word. Remember, there are many readers or colleagues who are just as afraid of meeting you and talking to you as you are of them.
Trick 2: Ask questions to get people to talk about themselves.
Most people want to talk about themselves, so give them an opening by asking a question. What kinds of books do you like to read? Who is your favorite author? What book have you read in the last five years that really left an impression with you? Or, if you are talking to other authors formulate questions in advance. What books do you like to read (yes authors are readers too)? Is there a particular author you’ve always wanted to emulate? Who do you consider your mentor? How do you decide what book to do next?
Doing this one thing will make life so much easier. For outgoing people, they will talk on and on and leave the encounter feeling like you are the most interesting person they’ve talked to that day. The shy people you interact with will appreciate that you asked a question and they didn’t have to think about asking you one. I would even go as far as to admit you are an introvert or shy, or to admit this is a scary situation. People naturally want to help, and it makes them feel more comfortable that they don’t have to be perfect either.
Remember: Many readers are shy too. I was surprised to learn that many readers are terrified to approach a “real author” and talk to them. It doesn’t matter whether you are well known or small potatoes. The fact you are an “author” with a published book is enough to cause a real fan girl moment. So, asking them a question makes them feel comfortable AND will then help them to ask you a question, which will make you feel more comfortable.
Trick Three: Roleplay conversations in advance. If you are the kind of person whose tongue becomes paralyzed when you meet someone new, then you need to do lots of practice runs with a friend. Roleplay likely scenarios you will encounter. Make sure who you practice with is someone who cares about you. Give him/her a list of every fear you have, every question you know you will be at a loss for words to answer, and practice, practice, practice.
Because I rely so much on the mind-to-fingers connection in my computer for processing words, it really is NOT unusual for me to be talking to someone — even someone I know well and not be able to remember a characters name in my book, or the setting, or even what the title of the book was (depending on how long ago I wrote it). The reality is sometimes I even forget the names of people I’ve known for a long time when put into a stressful social situation with strangers. This is because I am so present-focused that anything not immediately at hand goes into some mind storage without the key available to unlock the vault.
If we ever meet at a conference, ask me to tell the story of what happened when I first introduced my husband (then fiancée) to my family. Believe me, it was horribly embarrassing! But he married me anyway. And I digress.
Before I attend an event, I sit down with another author friend who has done a lot of these conferences and have her ask me lots of questions about my books. In other words, I practice remembering and responding. It isn’t only one time either. If it is a big event, like a national convention where I’ll be facing thousands of people, I’ll practice this 10–15 times in the week before.
Trick Four: If things go wrong admit it and move forward with a smile. Things WILL go wrong. Prepare for it and practice your reaction. Something unplanned always happens to me. I have two choices when that happens: 1) Go into panic mode and hope no one noticed — which diverts my mind and makes me forget even more; or 2) Admit it to the world and move on. Though admitting it seems counter-intuitive, it actually removes the pressure because I don’t have to try to hide it or “look cool.” And, I get the sympathy attention. J It has the added benefit of giving me a good story to share in the future — a story that proves I am just as human as the next person.
Here is one thing that always goes wrong for me. I am often faced with situations where I’ve been introduced to someone and then a few minutes later, or an hour later, I run into them again and cannot remember their name. This has happened so often that I’ve learned to just be upfront about it. I say something like: “Hi I’m Maggie. I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name even though we’ve been introduced. I wish that everyone had to wear big name tags all the time so I’d never need to be embarrassed.” I’ve never had someone react with anger — even a big name author or editor. In fact, most of the time the person says: “You know that happens to me all the time, and I didn’t remember your name either. Don’t worry about it.”
I could share pages of examples of things that go wrong while at face-to-face events. The point is, we are all human. Unplanned things happen. If we can just admit it and move on, it will make the incident forgettable instead of becoming a cause celebre to be repeated in apocryphal convention tales because of my reaction to it. The best news is that admitting it will make most people relax as they realize they don’t have to be perfect either.
Trick Five: Schedule alone time to recharge. When the face-to-face event has passed (e.g., the book signing, the meet and greet session, or even a particularly charged meeting), I need, and always take, alone time. I walk like a woman who has an important place to be — at a fast pace — to a place where I can be recharge. It may be my hotel room, my car, even the bathroom on a different floor from the convention. I give myself permission to skip the next session if needed, or to arrive late, so I can have some recharge time. These days I actually schedule regular alone breaks instead of trying to go to every workshop or conference event. It is more important for me to recharge and have good energy for the next event than to try to push myself beyond my limits and not be effective.
If you’ve tried one of these or have another that works for you, I’d love to hear about it.