Ah, conference season! You walk in, pitch memorized, nametagged, and first five pages in hand, ready to...
...berate Very Famous Editor during a morning one-on-one for not recognizing your manifest talent?
...interrupt lunch conversation between your roommate and Very Famous Agent about their mutual adoration of labradoodles to "unobtrusively" slip in a plug for your novel?
...sidle up to Very Famous Author at an evening social event and let her know she needs to read your manuscript because she'll love it and will want to help you get an agent (her agent, not Very Famous Agent, who is a jerk for having ignored you) and could she maybe take it back to her room (since you happen to have all 600 pages on you) and start it tonight?
You're thinking, I'd never do that. Who would DO that? No one does that! But, here's the thing: people do. Nice-in-real-life people, even. Nice-in-real-life-but-feeling-desperate-because-they've-paid-for-a-conference-and-worked-so-long-and-hard-on-their-manuscripts-and-now-something-has-to-happen people.
Um, people? (Not you, but the aforementioned-multi-hyphenated people.) A conference isn't a reality TV show. Simon isn't judging you. No one's going to vote you off the island. And there's more than one winner.
Attending The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, in particular, garnered me invaluable feedback on my writing from participants and staff alike, a network of other writers, and even a recommendation from an author to his agent-who eventually became my agent. But all this happened over time--I attended for the first of four times in 2000, my agent agreed to represent me in 2006, and my first novel was just published this spring (with some the jacket "blurbs" coming from SVCW staff authors I'd met over those years). Conferences, I learned over all that time, are more about process than product. And so, to that end, here are three "P-words" to remember if you find yourself morphing into the kind of desperado who tries to hand a Very Important Anybody a manuscript during a bathroom break. In the bathroom.
Patience. If your manuscript isn't ready, it isn't ready. Take feedback and criticism and resolve to improve. Even if you do have a great finished product, you can't force things to "happen" at a conference. You'll be more relaxed (and more fun to be around for everyone, including the Very Important Someones) if you go in hoping to make contacts instead of expecting a contract. This is not an American Idol audition, your one shot at getting "discovered." (And you don't have to do/say/wear anything outrageous to "get noticed.")
Politeness. Very Important People are people. Treat their feelings and needs as important and respect their desire not to be pitched 24/7. Remember, too, that agents, editors and authors are trying to give you advice to improve your craft, not cut you down. You don't earn votes from the audience for "standing up for yourself" when Simon says you sound off-key or picked the wrong song. What you earn is a reputation for being difficult. Be equally polite to the other attendees. Don't brag or hog time or attention. You are not Head of Household, Leader of the Tribe, or this week's Top Model.
Perseverance. If something doesn't go as you hoped--you write YA urban fantasy and get assigned to an agent whose specialty is war memoirs, or an editor lets you know that the novel you thought was finished is many drafts away from being "done"--make the best of it and resolve to forge onward. There is more than one show. And there are infinite episodes-most of which take place without an audience, just you and your computer screen staring back at each other while you do the real work.
[P.S. Do you have a funny conference faux pas (your own or one anonymously observed) to share? Love to read about it in the comments trail! Because my mouth often operates before my brain can catch up, I've been guilty of a number of them--including telling a VERY FAMOUS AUTHOR I greatly admired that her little dog looked like a bat. "Look at those bat ears!" I exclaimed. I swear I meant it as a compliment. VFA was, er, unimpressed. In fact, she looked frightened.]
(This post was adapted from an article that originally ran in the California Writers Club's Bulletin. If you live in California, you might check out one CWC's many branches or attend one of its conferences, where you should not follow any Very Important Anyones into the restrooms.)