I love writers' conferences. So much to learn, so much positive energy, so many good books to discover. But the best thing about writer's conferences? Hands down, it's the collection of writers (and readers, and editors, and agents, and…).
Before the conference Do your prep work. Effective networking at conferences begins weeks (or months) before the conference. See if there is a list of attendees (authors, editors, agents, fans) posted on the conference website. Go through this list and take note of those people you'd like to meet (make a list if you have to). For those you absolutely, positively must meet, consider emailing them ahead of time to arrange a place to rendezvous. But remember: Nobody likes a stalker!
Get business cards made, if you don't already have some. There are plenty of inexpensive on-line printers that will do a fine job (I've used VistaPrint). Having all your contact info in one convenient "giveaway" beats writing your name, website, blog address, and email address on the hand of the uber-agent you’ve just met. Paraphrasing my grandmother, "Professional is as professional does."
Stay in the conference hotel. If you can swing it, stay where all the action will take place. Besides being convenient, you're bound to make friends waiting for the elevator or in the stairwell during the inevitable 3 a.m. fire alarm evacuation.
At the conference Stick your hand out - often. If you see someone standing alone during a break or at a cocktail hour, introduce yourself. Arrive early to the panels and find an empty seat next to someone. Hang out in the hospitality lounge. Strike up a conversation with anybody who seems interesting. Everyone there is like you--looking to make contacts.
Make it easy to be "met." Always wear a nametag and display it in a place that's easy to see. The nametag is the first place my eyes go when I'm meeting someone new--or when I'm searching out people on my "have-to-meet" list. If you write your name on the tag yourself, make sure it's large and legible.
Don't hide in your hotel room. You might be an introvert (many writers are), but one of the big reasons you're at the conference is to meet people. So get out and meet them!
Hit the bar. The hotel bar is the place to mingle. Even if you don't drink, think of the bar as the conference meeting place (albeit with plenty of booze). This is where you can meet the authors you've read for all those years and hear tons of great stories. [Hint: keep your wits about you, or your drunken escapades might become the punchlines to their stories the following year.] More business gets done in the bar than anywhere else.
After the conference Follow-up. Remember all the business cards you passed out? Well, hopefully you collected plenty, too. Follow up with the people you met. Drop them an email saying how nice it was chatting (lie if you need to--you can handle a little fiction, right?). Give them book recommendations, or ideas about getting published, or tips on other great conferences to attend. Stay in touch!
Writers make up a great community. Become part of it!