Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Writers’ Conferences

Writers and Conferences

I wrote this post *just* before COVID-19 blasted the four corners of the earth, and all conferencing went virtual. I put the post on the back burner, thinking I may or may not post it shortly/later/never.
I decided that, although it chimes positively anachronistic at the moment, it's also positive to think of in-person conferences as something we'll get to experience again. Some of the points I made could apply to virtual conferences, which are ongoing.

My personal experience of conferences for writers is limited. I’ve attended two, and presented in one. I’m no maven. If you want the most comprehensive guide to such, check this link from the best go-to guide, posted shortly before the SCBWI Winter conference in New York City. This yearly event is mammothian (just made up this word 😉) but there are many much smaller and more manageable gatherings for the uninitiated.  Jane Friedman tells all in the most helpful way, as always.

But my post is about a personal experience at the first regional conference I attended. Take it as a cautionary tale, or just a funny story if you find the image of someone slipping on a banana peel hilarious.

I was not a complete newbie, and I already knew that conferences are not the place to shove one’s manuscript into the hand of a pleasantly conversing agent or editor. Outside of pitching sessions specifically designated for it, it is bad form to push one’s work when not asked.

Even if I hadn’t known this, (from talking with very experienced writers) common sense would have prevented me from doing something as unthinkable as sliding a manuscript under a bathroom stall where a professional is relieving herself. I heard of such horrors and couldn’t believe a civilized person would do something like that, but it seems every conference brings back some stories that amount to this sort of conduct.

I’m also a shy person who does her best to compensate by being friendly. I smile a lot in a room full of strangers when our eyes meet. Maybe too much, but it’s a coping mechanism that occasionally manages to help not only me, but also the person I smiled at.

So on that lovely fall day, right after the registrants completed a check-in, a bunch of us strangers stood outside the main conference room awkwardly smiling. That was when I spotted a heavy-set young woman who looked incredibly unhappy, coming out of the rest room. I hadn’t seen a single person in that hallway that looked as miserable. She looked like she was about to cry and then pass out.

My empathetic (and also shy) nature immediately felt like asking her if she was okay. Instead, when we made eye contact, I smiled and said, “Hi!”
My over-friendly tone was genuine; here was another soul feeling much more awkward than I. Poor thing.

If looks could kill, the look I got back from her would have.

Boy-oh-boy, I thought. This one is one to stay away from.

Only moments later, at the Welcome address, I saw my would-be-killer on the stage. She was the keynote speaker and the big-five editor many came to hear.

I did an internal silent face-palm. So this is who that was, I thought. How was I supposed to know? I never googled the speakers so I would recognize them on sight.
That very moment I realized she thought I was one of those pesky folks who ambush an editor as she comes out of the bathroom. As in, my next move right after the “hi” was to shove something into her hand.

So to Jane Friedman’s excellent post I would add— don’t do as I did then. When we get to gather again, remember that such coziness was never welcomed even in halcyon days, pre-pandemic.

In addition to researching the speakers, make sure to google the speakers with images so you recognize them ahead of time, and if you see any of them coming out of the bathroom, look away. 😔

©Joann Mannix 2012


Vijaya said...

Aw, Mirka, thanks for sharing your story of the withering look from keynote speaker. I'm missing seeing my writer friends. Thankfully, a couple have come over to share stories on my back porch, so it's been a blessing.

Evelyn said...

Umm...maybe it's because I grew up in the South where people say "Hi" to each other, including to strangers, but I don't personally see that what you did was out of line at all. If the editor resented your friendliness, then I think she's the one who was out of line and if that was her general approach to interacting with authors at a conference then I would hesitate to invite her to speak (assuming I was planning a conference). Of course, I totally agree with you about not pushing mss onto agents and editors at a conference. But that is not what you were doing.

Janie Junebug said...

I don't think you did anything wrong by saying hi. You said she didn't look well. Maybe that's why she didn't appreciate a friendly greeting.


Mirka Breen said...

Thanks for the support, Ev & Janie. I *know* I didn't do anything wrong. But I'm quite sure the editor was in a defensive mode, as she had just stepped out of the lavatory and was standing right at its door. No doubt she has had plenty of intrusions of the unsavory kind in past conferences. She was one of the big one at a big-five.

She also had a twitter feed that I later looked up, and in it she mentioned she was at the conference and swamped by pesteres.{My invented word} Other editors chimed in and said they know too well how she feels :0

If I were a close friend of hers, I would have told her to avoid writers conferences as she clearly didn't enjoy them.

Jenni said...

Funny tale. I'm always too shy to go up to those people, even in the hall, so the whole "don't send them a ms under the stall" always seems strange. Who would do that?

I've had mixed experiences at conferences. They've been the most fun when I've had a writer friend with me. But I've gotten some pretty rude brush offs from agents/editors just for asking questions.

But I still hope to go again when they are available. We have a wonderful SCBWI community here in Oregon, and I do miss it.

Barbara Etlin said...

MIrka, you're a nice, empathetic person. While it may be good advice to try to find images of the conference speakers ahead of time, often there aren't any. I still think you did the right thing, being friendly to a stranger in apparent distress.