Still hanging in there? Still breathing at least once an hour?
As a veteran of many, many writers’ conferences all over the country, I can tell you from experience that they can be very, very tiring. Especially if it’s your first conference. Just sitting under fluorescent lights in an air-conditioned room for that many hours would tend to leech the life force out of you all by itself, but here, you will be surrounded by a whole lot of very stressed people while you are trying to learn as much as you possibly can.
As you may have noticed, most of my advice on how to cope with all of this ambient stress gracefully is pretty much what your mother probably said to you when you went to your first party: be polite; be nice to yourself and others; watch your caffeine and alcohol intake, and make sure to drink enough water throughout the day. Eat occasionally.
And you’re not wearing THAT, are you?
Oops, slipped too far into Mom mode. Actually, on the only occasion when my mother actually made that comment upon something I was wearing, she had made the frock in question; she hastened to alter it. For my senior prom: a backless little number in midnight-blue Chinese silk that she liked to call my “Carole Lombard dress,” for an occasion where practically every other girl was going to be wearing something demure and flouncy by Laura Ashley; not what anyone expected the valedictorian to wear. Even with the alterations, most of the male teachers followed me around all night long.
Oh, what a great dress that was. Oh, how inappropriate it would have been for a writers’ conference — or really, for any occasion that did not involve going out for a big night on the town in 1939. But then, so would those prissy Laura Ashley frocks.
Which brings me back to my point (thank goodness).
I wrote on what you should and shouldn’t wear to a conference at some length in my post of July 7, but if you find yourself in perplexity when you are standing in front of your closet, remember this solid rule that will help you wherever you go within the publishing industry: unless you will be attending a black-tie affair, you are almost always safe with what would be appropriate to wear to your first big public reading of your work.
And don’t those of you who have been hanging around the industry for a while wish someone had shared THAT little tidbit with you sooner?
To repeat a bit more motherly advice: do remember to eat something within an hour or two of your pitch meeting. I know that you may feel too nervous to eat. but believe me, if you were going to pick an hour of your life for feeling light-headed, this is not a wise choice. If you are giving a hallway pitch, or standing waiting to go into a meeting, make sure not to lock your knees, so you do not faint. (I’ve seen it happen, believe it or not.)
And practice, practice, practice before you go into your meetings; this is the single best thing you can do in advance to preserve yourself from being overwhelmed. As I pointed out yesterday, you will also be surrounded by hundreds of other writers. Introduce yourself, and practice pitching to them.
Better still, find people who share your interests and get to know them. Share a cookie; talk about your work with someone who will understand. Because, really, is your life, is any writer’s life, already filled with too many people who get what we do? You will be an infinitely happier camper in the long run if you have friends who can understand your successes and sympathize with your setbacks as only another writer can.
I know this from experience, naturally. The first thing I said to many of my dearest friends in the world was, “So, what do you write?”
To which the savvy conference-goer replies — chant it with me now, everyone — the magic first hundred words.
In fact, the first people I told about my recent book deal — after my s.o. and my mother, of course — were people I had met in precisely this manner. Why call them first? Because ordinary people, the kind who don’t spend all of their spare time creating new realities out of whole cloth, honestly, truly, sincerely, often have difficulty understanding the pressures and timelines that rule writers’ lives.
Case in point: the FIRST words by mother-in-law uttered after hearing that my book had sold: “What do you mean, it’s not coming out until the autumn of 2009? Why the delay?”
This kind of response is, unfortunately, common. I don’t think any writer ever gets used to seeing her non-writer friends’ faces fall upon being told that the book won’t be coming out for a year, at least, after the sale that’s just happened, or that signing with an agent does not automatically equal a publication contract, or that not every book is headed for the bestseller list.
Thought I got off track from the question of how to keep from getting stressed out, didn’t you? Actually, I didn’t: finding buddies to go through the conference process with you can help you feel grounded throughout.
Not only are these new buddies great potential first readers for your manuscripts, future writing group members, and people to invite to book readings, they’re also folks to pass notes to during talks. (Minor disobedience, I find, is a terrific way to blow off steam.) You can hear about the high points of classes you don’t attend from them afterward.
And who wouldn’t rather walk into a room with 300 strangers and one keynote speaker with a new-found chum than alone?
Making friends within the hectic conference environment will help you retain a sense of being a valuable, interesting individual far better than keeping to yourself, and the long-term benefits are endless. To paraphrase Goethe, it is not the formal structures that make the world feel warm and friendly; friends make the earth feel like an inhabited garden.
So please, for your own sake: make some friends at the conference, so you will have someone to pick up the phone and call when the agent of your dreams falls in love with your first chapter and asks to see the entire book! And get to enjoy the vicarious thrill when your writing friends leap their hurdles, too.
This can be a very lonely business; I can tell you from experience, nothing brightens your day like opening your e-mail when you’re really discouraged to find a message from a friend who’s just sold a book or landed an agent.
Well, okay, I’ll admit it: getting a call from your agent telling you that YOU’ve just sold a book is rather more of a day-brightener. As is the call saying, “I love your work, and I want to represent you.” But the other is still awfully darned good.
One more little thing that will help keep you from stressing out too much: while it’s always nice if you can be so comfortable with your pitch that you can give it from memory, it’s probably fair to assume that you’re going to be a LITTLE bit nervous during your meetings.
So do yourself a favor — write it all down; give yourself permission to read it when the time comes, if you feel that will help you. Really, it’s considered perfectly acceptable, and it will keep you from forgetting key points.
I would advise writing on the top of the paper, in great big letters: BREATHE!
Do remember to pat yourself on the back occasionally, too, for being brave enough to put yourself on the line for your work. As with querying and submitting, it requires genuine guts to submit your ideas to the pros; I don’t think writers get enough credit for that.
In that spirit, I’m going to confess: I have one other conference-going ritual, something I do just before I walk into any convention center, anywhere, anytime, either to teach or to pitch. It’s not as nice or as public-spirited as the other techniques I have described, but I find it is terrific for the mental health. I go away by myself somewhere and play at top volume Joe Jackson’s song Hit Single and Jill Sobule’s (I Don’t Want to Get) Bitter.
The former, a charming story about dumbing down a song so it will hit big on the pop charts, includes the PERFECT lyric to hum walking into a pitch meeting:
And when I think of all the years of finding out
What I already knew
Now I spread myself around
And you can have 3 minutes, too…
If that doesn’t summarize the difference between pitching your work verbally and being judged on the quality of the writing itself, I should like to know what does. (Sorry, Joe: I would have preferred to link above to your site, but your site mysteriously doesn’t include lyrics.)
The latter, a song about complaining, concludes with a pretty good mantra for any conference-goer:
So I’ll smile with the rest, wishing everyone the best
And know the one who made it made it because she was actually pretty good.
‘Cause I don’t want to get bitter
I don’t want to turn cruel
I hum that one a LOT during conferences, I’ll admit. Helpful, I find, when a bestselling author whose agent is her college roommate’s cousin tells a roomful of people who have been querying for the past five years that good writing always finds a home. Perhaps, but certainly not easily.
What you’re trying to do certainly is not easy, or fun, but you can do it. You’re your book’s best advocate.
And remember, all you’re trying to do is to get these nice people to take a look at your writing. No more, no less. It’s a perfectly reasonable request, and you’re going to be terrific at making it, because you’ve been sensible and brave enough to face your fears and prepare like a professional.
That’s been a good month’s effort, my friends. Keep up the good work