Writers are odd creatures. For many of us, the ideal workday involves being shut away in a room with only a laptop, or pen and paper, rummaging around in our imaginations. Solitude required. Pants optional. So it seems like an undertaking uniquely suited to an extreme introvert.
But there is more to this line of work than creating art in isolation. The fact is, building community is essential to thriving as a writer. Choose not to engage with the greater world, and you distance yourself from opportunities to grow and succeed.
For an extreme introvert, like me, the thought of conferences and conventions might be enough to make us crawl back to bed. And as parts of the world reopen after the pandemic, the return to regular in-person contact is going to be an adjustment for everyone.
So how can even the shyest wallflower make the most out of larger writing events? Here are five practical tips:
1. Leverage Your Business Cards
Thanks to numerous print-on-demand services, customizing professional business cards is relatively easy and inexpensive. To make the most of the limited space on your card, include a QR code, linked to your author platform. Easily generated for free online, a QR code is a scannable, two-dimensional barcode which makes it easy for anyone with a smartphone to go directly to your author platform, without even typing a single thing.
And the business cards you collect from other people? After you wrap a conversation and swap cards with a new contact, use the blank space on the back of his/her card to record notes and important details like:
- The genre and working title of your new friend’s W.I.P.
- When and where you met Emerson Editor who was enthusiastic about your newest short story.
- The shared interest you discussed with BigDeal Agent who introduced herself to you while waiting for coffee.
You will be able to recall new names more efficiently, and you can use your notes to compose personalized follow-up emails after the event.
2. Head in with a Plan
Flying by the seat of my pants gives me heartburn. What if I can’t find parking? What if I can’t connect to Wi-Fi? What if I show up late, and everyone secretly hates me? When I take the time to plan and prepare, I have the clarity and energy to be fully present for an event.
I am not saying that you should over-plan, over-worry, and kill any and all chance of spontaneity, but it is worth your time to conduct some preliminary research:
- Find the program schedule and plan your day(s) in advance.
- Save a map of the venue to your phone, so you can navigate easily between sessions and rooms.
- Download available event apps or join the Discord channel.
- Look at last year’s photos for a sense of the event’s unofficial dress code.
Treat conferences and conventions as part of your job as a writer. Would you head into a board meeting without ever having read the annual report?
3. Set Goals with the Ten Percent Rule
A pivotal part of your pre-event planning should be to identify some starting goals. What are your priorities, based on where you currently are in your writing? How is the event going to serve those priorities?
Then, challenge yourself by adding 10% to each starting goal. For example:
- Register for the pitch slam, and then pull from the directory to compile a short list of agents and editors to research later.
- Attend a panel during each time slot, and then make a point of thanking or introducing yourself to a few of the panelists between sessions.
- Is there an open mic night associated with your writing festival? Attend your workshop classes, go to the open mic, and—better yet—participate by reading what you’ve written that week! (I know: super challenging for an extreme introvert!)
The trick is to find the right balance between maximizing your time and preserving enough energy to interact effectively the next day, which is essential as an extreme introvert. Use the 10% rule to set healthy boundaries and tripwires for yourself. Once you’ve achieved your starting goal plus 10%, I give you permission to flee back to your hotel room, eat popcorn in your PJs, and rest.
4. Find a Buddy
Attending an event as a “first timer” can feel like being the lonely kid in the cafeteria—awkward and intimidating—but is especially so for an extreme introvert. Is someone from your writing group or book club going to the same multi-day convention? Reach out and plan to grab a meal together one evening. Sometimes a little hand-holding can go a long way. Plus, you’ll be less likely to cancel your plans (and regret missing out) if someone else is counting on you to show up.
If you need to make a buddy when you arrive at an event, here are some conversation starters to reword and use as needed:
- “I saw you in the grammar fundamentals panel, and you asked a really good question about the Oxford comma. Can we talk more about that?”
- “Cool t-shirt! I love that band. What did you think about their latest album?”
- “Did you have to travel far to get here? Where do you love to eat or spend time here?” (if they are from the area), or “That’s cool, tell me more about your town/city,” (if they are not from the area).
As for the rest of the conversation, be an active listener and keep in mind that most people appreciate genuine efforts to connect. I have had casual icebreakers like, “I just had to tell you that I love your shoes!” lead to interesting, informative conversations and deeper connections with colleagues I value.
5. Track Your Participation
Whether I am attending a lecture, panel, or writing group meetup, a notebook and pen are my socially acceptable version of a security blanket. You’re a writer! Taking notes comes with the territory.
Use the margins or corners of your notebook pages to set up a tally system. Each time you ask a question or contribute to a discussion, record a hash mark. These tallies are an objective, metric reference that you can use to judge (and adjust, if necessary) whether you are too passive a participant or perhaps tend to dominate conversations.
You can use this tally system to track other activities too:
- How many times have you introduced yourself to someone new?
- How many times have you pitched your manuscript?
- How many times have you shared helpful information with another attendee?
Reflecting on this data can help you grow into a better, more confident participant over time. It might even help you set your next set of goals.
Whether you are an extreme introvert, extrovert, or someone in between, I hope these five steps help you feel more confident and comfortable at your next event. While I could say so much more, I will end here with final reminders to take a breath when you start to feel overwhelmed, be sure to stay hydrated, and enjoy yourself a little.
And if, at your next networking breakout session, you see me tallying up hash marks in my notebook, nervously introducing myself to new people, be sure to say hello. After all, what I really want to know is that you just had to tell me you love my shoes.
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F.E. Choe lives and works in Columbia, South Carolina. The eldest daughter of Korean-Canadian immigrants, she writes fiction that is not your Momma’s Southern Gothic, centered around the lives and experiences of Asian-American characters. When she is not at her desk trying to craft true and beautiful sentences or piecing together her latest short story, you will find her feeding the dog scraps under the table, reading, or training her backyard flock of hens to walk backwards.