A week ago I attended my first writer's conference, held by SCBWI-Iowa. I had many expectations prior to attending and some nervousness as well. My advice for newbies to get the most from your first conference:
1. Think through what you want to get from the conference ahead of time. Meeting other authors? Getting a critique partner? Rubbing elbows with editors and agents? Learning more about writing craft? Deciding beforehand what your priorities are can help make the experience more satisfying.
2. Get familiar with the schedule and speakers prior to the conference. Knowing the schedule means you can focus on the sessions that have the most relevant information for you, and look for opportunities to network. Even though the conference I attended was small, I missed out on an opportunity to introduce myself to an agent because I didn't realize her talk was last on the schedule. Had I realized that before her session, I would have looked for a chance to say hello sooner.
3. Be friendly and willing to introduce yourself. Like many (most?) writers, I am an introvert and find it difficult to initiate conversations. A smile and greeting along with a question about what the other person is working on is a pretty simple way for anyone to enjoy small talk between sessions, and might lead to finding a real live critique partner or writer friend.
4. Participate in extra sessions if possible. At my conference for an extra fee, attendees could get an editor or agent to critique their first 10 pages. Though you may not get the glowing feedback you hope for, you can get some ideas about what in a professional's opinion works or doesn't work in your story (and they may love it!). This is also a way to rise above the slushpile as editors and agents will look more carefully at work submitted post-conference by attendees.
5. Do peer critiquing if offered. In addition to the editor/agent sessions, I had the opportunity to participate in a peer review session and received comments and notes on my first 10 pages of another work from three other writers-invaluable feedback for planning revisions to my WIP. If you hit it off with your group, you can continue to critique each others' work beyond the conference.
6. Enjoy the chance to learn something new. The sessions on writing MG/YA were helpful, but I was fascinated by the sessions I attended on writing and illustrating picture books. Even though I have no plans to venture into that market, I gained a lot of insight and respect for process of publishing for younger readers. Ironically, the best contact I had with one of the speakers was my conversation with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's art director, Christine Kettner, when I thanked her for a great session after her first talk.
7. Attend the social events! The most fun session I attended was an optional trivia night event planned for evening entertainment. I got to know some wonderfully funny ladies in my SCBWI group and laughed more than I have in a long time.
If anyone has more tips for those considering going to a writer's conference, please feel free to share in the comments.