Monday, May 30, 2016

Writer's Conference Basics, Part III - Staff & Volunteers

If you didn't see the previous posts in this series, you can find them at the following links:

Part I, Conference Basics
Part II, Attendees

Conferences need a lot of help to be pulled off successfully. There are two general ways you can be part of this: Staff and Onsite Volunteers. Typically, both are volunteers, but staff tends to have work in advance of conference, including planning and/or setup, and onsite volunteers tend to be attendees who have offered to lend a hand at the actual conference, but do not take part in the planning and setup (other than possibly onsite setup.) Staff also generally have job titles and roles they must fulfill. These roles run the gamut from coordinating the ballroom decorations to directing the conference.

Benefits of volunteering/being staff: So why would you want to help? What's in it for you?

One major plus to volunteering is being part of the community. Particularly if you are staff, you'll find that you spend a lot of time together during the planning stages. You get to know each other, and a tight knit bond can be created. I've been staff at PPWC for several years now, and some of my closest friends are people I met through my work there. My critique groups are made up of people I've met through PPWC, as well. Even if you just volunteer onsite, you'll meet people you might not have otherwise met.

Another benefit is getting to see behind the scenes. It takes a big chunk of the nerves out of the process of going to a conference. You get to know the people who run things, to become more comfortable with them. You learn a lot about how conferences are put on. I know that, for me, it helped me a ton going forward, and took a lot of the mystery out of everything, giving me a much better understanding of conference and what I might get out of it.

You know how I mentioned above that you meet a lot of people? Well, some of those people might end up being agents, editors, and bigwig authors. As a staff member, I've had the opportunity to sit down and talk in a friendly one-on-one manner with all of the above. I've sat in the green room and chatted with people who fell into these categories. As a non-conference volunteer, I've exchanged emails with all kinds of writers, editors, and agents. It has made it so I'm no longer nervous talking to them. I don't go gaga anymore. Not that I've ever been one to fangirl openly, but in my head, well, that might have been a different story.

Finally, there's the possibility of a comp/discount for the conference. I mention this one last intentionally. If you're volunteering only in the hopes of getting a discount, chances are they'll realize that. The people who continue to be asked to help are those that bust their butts working. If someone comes along and does a half-assed job, we notice, and we don't invite them back. We certainly don't offer them higher jobs or jobs with bigger comps. Plus, if you're doing it just for the comp, you're going to be sorely disappointed when you miss out on things because you're working. There may be perks that aren't money-related, too, such as preference for appointments, being the first in a door, mixers for staff and faculty, etc.

Drawbacks: The time investment might be a lot. You might miss workshops. You might take on a job that requires an unpleasant task (though this would usually be a higher up position). You may find you don't like the job you volunteered for.

My advice is to volunteer if you want to be a part of things, not for any perks it might offer. The perks are a happy extra, and are by no means guaranteed. But if it's a conference or organization you care about, why not give some time?

How to volunteer: Most cons will have some sort of volunteer tab/link or a way to volunteer on the registration form. Some will have advance information meetings you can attend to find out about job openings. You might also look up staff on their website to see if a volunteer coordinator or similar position is mentioned. If so, you can shoot them an email. Otherwise, you can contact the director or another higher up position and ask if there are any volunteer positions open.

This is specific to Pikes Peak Writers, but a good way to get picked up for a volunteer conference job is to be a presence at the non-conference events and to volunteer at them. Non-conference, in our case, is small, so there aren't a ton of volunteer positions, but a lot of us got our start by just offering to do simple stuff like clean up after an event, stack chairs, hold the clipboard and have people sign in on it, give out door prize tickets, etc. Look for openings and offer to help. You can do this at the conference, too, but most of the volunteer positions there are filled in advance, so it would be a case of an immediate need of help.

Either way, making yourself known, being friendly and helpful, these are ways to get asked to volunteer. But do look for other means if you aren't able to do that.

Questions to ask first: If you're considering volunteering your time, there are questions you should ask first in order to not bury yourself in a miserable position or one that takes more time than you can afford to give.

What is my time investment? You'll want to know how much time you'll have to give, both in advance and at the actual event. Find out if there are particular times/hours you'll be needed. Will you be needed at meetings. If so, when will those be? Will these hours be daytime, night time, weekends, or a combination of all these? If you have time limitations, you'll want to make sure they work with your volunteer job. You'll also want to know how flexible things will be for you, in terms of when you can complete your work. I get a ton of advance work done in the middle of the night, but I couldn't do that if it involved phone calls, for instance.

How much of the conference will I miss? This goes hand in hand with the time investment, but is specific to whether you'll be required during workshops. Some jobs may require you miss one or two workshops. Others may require more. While still others will be between workshops, so you won't miss anything at all.

Will there be costs associated, and will I be reimbursed? Ask in advance if there will be situations that will cost you money. If you take on a signs job, will you have to pay to have signs printed? If so, will you be reimbursed? When and how? How fast will you be reimbursed? Is there a process to get reimbursed?

What is my job? Ask in advance what the job is. What is the description? Ask for some specifics. What duties will you be required to perform? Will you need to interact with people? Will driving be involved? Is there a write-up of the job you can be sent in advance? You can ask for a time line of your work to see what your time as a volunteer will look like. Find out what expectations they have of you.

Who do I report to? It's good to know if you'll have a direct supervisor, and who that might be. Will they guide you, or is this something you'll have to step up and take care of on your own? How often do you need to report in, and in what ways? It's also a good idea to know who's above your supervisor, so you know where to go if there's an issue.

This is just a sampling of things you should ask. Be sure to consider other information you might need, and to ask questions accordingly. Don't be afraid to approach someone who used to do the job you're being asked to do. Ask them questions, too. Find out why they quit, and if they have any advice. Ask them if the time investment and job description are accurate. They might not have been the ones to write it up.

Final thoughts: If you volunteer in any capacity, whether as a staff member or as an onsite volunteer, don't come to it with the mentality that you're going to leech something out of it without doing the work. Approach with an open mind, ideas of your own, and as a self starter. All volunteer events, like Pikes Peak Writers Conference, run only as well as the volunteers running it. Be prepared for hard, but rewarding, work. Be prepared to work as a team, sometimes with people you don't necessarily get along with. This is true for any job, really.

What attendees want staff to know: Please bear in mind that, while this conference might be a place of comfort to you, to me it's quite possibly overwhelming. It's new. I might not know anyone at all, whereas you probably now have a group of friends that you've been working with leading up to the event, meaning you have a safety net I lack.

If I ask questions you think are silly, remember that you have inside information I don't have. Just because you know how all of this works, does not mean I do. And therefore it's not a stupid question.

Please be patient with me. Guide me. Reach out to me if you see I'm struggling. If I have a puzzled look on my face, ask if you can help. Chat with me. Introduce me to someone else who's new.

Anything you can do that won't make me feel like I'm drowning will be much appreciated, and I'll remember you forever for the help you gave me. I'll remember you greeted me with a smile, that you asked if I needed help, and that you answered my questions and made it seem like you were happy to do so. The opposite is true, as well. I will never forget you if you're rude to me or make me feel foolish for asking a question or being confused.

What faculty wants staff to know: Your conference is new to me, even if I've been to others, so please guide me to where I need to go. Let me know where I'm supposed to check in. If there's a green room, or a place faculty can rest, please tell me about that. Make sure I have a schedule, and that I know how your schedule works. Let me know how specific types of workshops work. If there is something particular to your event, tell me about it so I'm not caught unawares. And please give me as much information in advance as possible, including my schedule, book/consignment information, expectations, etc.

If I'm cornered or have someone in the audience who's a problem, please step in. The speakers aren't supposed to have to be the bad guys.

Now for some links. Bear in mind that I'm not endorsing these, merely passing along information I've come across. Always do your own due diligence before submitting.

Accepting Submissions:

The Literary Hatchet is seeking dark fiction, poetry, and prose. They also take artwork, photography, and more. 1000-6000 words. Pays $1-$10, depending upon submission type. Current deadline July 1.

Thema's next submission theme is Second Thoughts. Short stories, poetry, art, and photography. Pays $10-$25, depending upon submission type. Deadline for this theme is July 1.

Manawaker Studio is seeking retellings of legends, myths, and fairy tales in science fiction and punk settings for Starward Tales. Short stories, poetry, and art. Pays $2-$30, depending upon submission type. Deadline July 1.

Sanguine Press is seeking science fiction, fantasy, and horror with the theme I Regret Nothing for their anthology Transitions & Awakenings. They pay on varying scales for length. Up to 10,000 words. Deadline June 30.

Flash Fiction Online is always open to stories between 500 and 1000 words. Pays $60 per story.

The Gettysburg Review seeks poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, and visual art. Pays $2 per line for poetry and $20 per printed page for prose.

Of Interest:

IndieListers allows people to post the marketing methods they've used, and their success (or lack of it). Credit goes out to Marla Newbrough Bell, from whom I got this link.

Do you have anything you'd want volunteers/staff to know? Have you been staff and have other pointers? Is there a question you always ask that I missed? Have you considered volunteering, but have held back? Is there anything you'd like to know that might help you volunteer?

May you find your Muse.

*Meeting, by OCAL,
*Clock, by OCAL,
*Volunteer Form, by clipartfan,
*Blackheadhead, by OCAL,
*Plastic Chain, by OCAL,


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Shannon - great post and I can definitely see the advantages of volunteering and being part of that community - even starting out - you've started ... and people will get to know you.

Thanks for the great ideas and post - cheers Hilary

Susan Kane said...

In volunteering, a person gains a face, with a name and a voice, and an impression of personality.

mshatch said...

I've never been to a writer's conference but it is definitely something I want to do. Good to know that volunteering is another way to be a part of one. I'm thinking about Pikes Peak for next year (I remember you said Donald Maass was going to be there...)

Unknown said...

I'm glad you posted this. I've been thinking of volunteering at a either a writer's conference or a con. I think I might now.

A Beer for the Shower said...

Yep, that's how we met everyone we know at the PPWC, basically by volunteering at conferences whenever we could. It was a lot of fun, and we both enjoy helping. I can't just stand back and do nothing and be a lazy spectator (even if that's exactly what I paid for the right to be). I'm weird like that.

Stephen Tremp said...

I volunteer for miscellaneous events throughout life. it's good to volunteer, you meet interesting people and see things behind the scenes that you would not as an attendee.

Shannon Lawrence said...

It's definitely a helpful way to get to know people and get them to know you.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Yes! You're not just one among the crowd anymore.

Shannon Lawrence said...

He is, and I would love to meet you if you're able to come out!

Shannon Lawrence said...

I hope you do! Let me know how it goes.

Shannon Lawrence said...

If it's weird, I'm weird, too. Well, I guess it's a given I am, but so what? At least we volunteer, right?

Shannon Lawrence said...

True! I've volunteered for non-writer stuff in the past, too. I'm thinking I need to branch out and volunteer elsewhere, but maybe not as intensively as I do for PPW.