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GIRL TALK with Jamie Sobrato
Conference Don'ts - August 2005

Jamie Sobrato   Cindy Procter-King  
Jamie Cindy

Jamie: So, a month has passed since the RWA National conference (for those of you not up on the romance industry, that's our big yearly writing conference), and we've survived that bleak recovery period. We've faced a butt-load of housework and laundry, retired all those cool conference clothes to the back of the closet, and perhaps slacked off a bit on personal hygiene as we caught up on those ever-present writing deadlines.

Cindy: Oh, boy, do I ever hear you. Every year pre-conference, I hear about how attending National enthuses and excites a writer for the coming weeks and months of writing and submitting. But as much as I enjoy conference—and I do!—whenever I get home, I'm always hit by a wall of What Needs to Be Done. And a wall of How Dismal Are My Chances. And a wall of You Wimp, Cindy, Get Over Yourself and Just Do It! A kind of all-encompassing post-conference funk, if you will. Conference highs, like meeting agents currently considering your submissions, are fantastically elating. But conference lows, like running into an editor you think has your work only to discover she's already rejected it, are very sobering.

Jamie: So true, and as we look back at our conference highs and lows, there is that inevitable point when we must evaluate the things we would have done differently. Our conference "Don't" list, if you will. Any events mentioned will withhold names of guilty parties for the sake of identity protection, and, let's face it, the stupider incidents absolutely, positively did not happen to us. No way, no how.

Cindy: Completely. Totally making this up. The pictures of propriety, we are.

Jamie: But regardless of the guilty parties, we must all learn from little lessons like, if you board an elevator, and it's after midnight and you've had perhaps a few too many sour apple martinis, and there's another person on the elevator already, you should not, under any circumstances, start re-enacting your J. Lo-inspired dance floor routine to the beat of no music at all, because that other person on the elevator could very well be an editor or agent that you might someday want to/have to work with.

Not that anything like that has happened to me, mind you.

Cindy: Wonderful example, Jamie. And I can testify to the fact that you are far too composed and gracious to ever channel J. Lo in an elevator (any detractors, I don't want to hear it—she's composed and gracious, darn you!). Yes, um, imbibing beyond one's capacity for reasonable conversation and behavior is definitely a Conference Don't. And, if there's a digital camera involved, delete those piccies before they wind up in the wrong hands! If it's someone else's digital camera that's involved, heaven help you. Although I hear bribes of Godiva chocolate are a handy deterrent to the piccies making themselves known.

Jamie: Oh dear, you've just reminded me…there is one rather incriminating photo of, um…someone I know…and a chocolate RITA statue, that must be tracked down and destroyed. I believe a suggestive sort of chocolate-licking may have been caught on film. You see, people, these are the kinds of things you should not be doing at a professional writers' conference. What if an editor or an agent saw you licking a chocolate RITA statue in a suggestive manner? How professional would that look?

Cindy: It depends on the profession... <evil grin> (for the record, I gobbled—as in, consumed so quickly there was no chance a camera was involved—my chocolate RITA during the Awards, so Jamie definitely isn't talking about me). Back to my point, there's nothing wrong with getting together with old or new friends (even chocolate RITAs) and having a rarin' good time at conference. Just know (or learn from your mistakes...after you've made them) when and where to draw the line.

And, speaking of old friends, if you haven't seen someone in eons and she runs up and hugs you at a conference party, but she doesn't happen to be wearing a name tag, coming back with, "Who are you?" is probably just this side of tacky. If you find yourself the victim of such...gauche conduct, I suggest much kowtowing and prostrating oneself and genuflecting as if in the presence of the Queen. If you are forgiven, emblazon said old friend's new hairstyle in your brain forever. And be prepared that she might cut it again before the next time you see her.

Jamie: Wiser words have never been spoken. And, getting back to the topic of bumping into editors or agents (preferably not while attempting to perform indecent acts with a chocolate figurine), there is a Right Way and a Wrong Way to start up a conversation with such industry professionals. It is widely regarded as an extremely bad idea to launch into a full-throttle five-minute pitch as soon an editor or agent tells you her name.

Cindy: Agreed. Of course, I'm too chickencrap to launch into a pitch immediately upon meeting an editor or agent. But even if I weren't chickencrap, in my opinion Uninvited Pitching is almost an invasion of the editor's/agent's privacy, personal space, what-have-you. Yes, they're at conference to connect with writers and clients, but awaiting the promised-land question, "So, what do you write?" is probably the best approach. It's not like the editors and agents will remember every Uninvited Pitching, anyway. But they very well might remember a writer polite enough to allow them to indicate when and if they're prepared to hear a pitch.

Jamie: Same is true of the opposite tack—which I'll admit, at my first conference, I was guilty of—huddling in the corner of every elevator and public place, attempting not to make eye contact with anyone. I lived in fear of bumping into an editor, worried as I was that I'd start hyperventilating, and an ambulance would be called in, and I would forever be known in the industry pro's mind as "that weird chick who drooled on my shoe." I wish I could have given my old newbie self a good shake and said, "Hey, they're just other humans! Make eye contact! Talk! Be open and friendly!"

Cindy: They're humans? Really? Okay, okay, I confess that after much investigation into the matter I can indeed confirm that editors and agents are humans. So there's no reason not to say hi...even in a line-up for the bathroom. You can find out very interesting tidbits from an editor in a line-up for the bathroom! But, please, I beg you, don't under any circumstances, shove your manuscript, your synopsis, your name tag or your business card under the stall door.

In fact, I've been wondering about this whole business card thing. Am, at this precise moment, theorizing a Myth of Business Cards. Every year before conference, RWA listservs are a-buzz with posts to the effect that the business card is one of our most effective conference tools. But are they? Think about it. What do you do with most of the business cards you accumulate at a conference? Maybe I'm in the minority, but unless it's a card of an editor or agent, I tend to recycle them rather quickly. And, as I discovered in my editor and agent, so do the editors and agents! (unless, well, it couldn't have been just me, could it?)

Jamie: Hey, actually, I think business cards are great…for keeping up with new friends and acquaintances. I use them to remember people's names (and once I have the info filed on my computer, I usually toss the cards). They're great to have on hand, but you're right, editors and agents surely get deluged by them, so it's probably sensible not to offer one to them unless asked. In fact, that's just about the only time I ever offer my card: when someone asks me for it.

Cindy: Good plan. I mean, we really shouldn't pass out business cards—or book-publicizing postcards or website-announcing pens or other promotional nig-nogs—willy-nilly to anyone and everyone we meet at conference...unless it's a street corner huckster conference. There's a time and a place for self-promo—it's called The Goody Room. Or the Literacy Autographing. Or, if fate shines upon you, your publisher has provided hardcover copies of your latest New York Times bestseller on every seat at a conference luncheon featuring youYouYOU as the speaker. Hawk all you want in those cases!

Jamie: What happened to you when you offered your card at the editor and agent appointments?

Cindy: The agent declined to accept my business card (even though it featured a clever, one-line blippy for my book emblazoned on the back! :::sob::: ), admitting she'd just recycle it when she returned to her office. Too many business cards, only so much Rolodex, doncha know? So, in my next appointment, I asked the editor, "Do you accept business cards, or are you likely to recycle them later?" Her graciously delivered response: "If it makes you feel better, yes, I take them. But I do recycle them." (Note: okay, so they ain' t likely to shred Nora Roberts' business cards, but the majority of us aren't Nora Roberts...or Susan Elizabeth Phillips...or Jennifer Crusie...or even that Bob Mayer guy).

I'm afraid the Myth of Business Cards was conjured up to give our nervous selves something to do pre-conference!

Jamie: I think probably once upon a time, it was good advice. But then everyone in RWA heard it, and suddenly editors were faced with needing a second suitcase to carry home all the cards they'd been given at conference.

Cindy: And conference-attendees with tons of free books crammed into their luggage were forced to smuggle home all those business cards in their bras!

Jamie: Is that why you looked so lumpy on your way to the airport? I was wondering…

Cindy: Jamie, shame on you. No, that was my casino winnings. Or maybe it was the 18,000 calories I packed on enjoying the conference desserts...and that chocolate RITA. Or maybe it was the fact that I filched half your fashionista wardrobe while you were at the Harlequin party, and you're so behind in your conference laundry that you haven't discovered the missing items yet <evil grin evolves into maniacal cackle>.

Jamie: Well, anyway, getting back to the subject, which is, um, Conference Don'ts, right? I forget. Speaking of appearances, please don't take other writers' advice to dress casually or comfortably as an invitation to shlump around a professional writers' conference looking like you would on your way to Walmart at 11 p.m. on a Sunday. I mean, if you're unsure what to wear, think business casual, not t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers casual. If you bump into your dream editor in an elevator, you don't want her first impression of you to be that you look like you might have lost your luggage.

Cindy: Even if you have lost your luggage. It's not that difficult to cram one decent "business casual" outfit into one's carry-on (such exquisite grammar, I amaze myself!). Believe me, I speak from experience, having lost my luggage en route to my very first ever RWA National conference. The heels and skirt and simple sweater top squished between my makeup case and 23 million business cards saved me!

Jamie: And if you're on a tight budget, a few simple pairs of black (or other neutral color) pants and shoes along with an assortment of business-appropriate tops and blazers will serve you well.

Or you can be like me and pack ten pairs of high heels and enough clothes for a 21-day cruise. But then your roommate <ahem> might hate you for hogging all the closet space.

Cindy: Or your roommate might be so brain-dead from her air travel that she doesn't notice the lack of space. However, with each conference I attend, the more I gravitate to the "more is best" philosophy of packing. I love to have several clothing choices at conference. If I'm ever up for a Golden Heart or RITA, I'd probably pack two or three outfits. How am I to know until the evening is upon me which outfit would best suit the occasion?

Jamie: If you’re lucky enough to be up for a writing award—

Cindy: (I like how she didn't say "talented enough," knowing, as she does, my aggravating inability to final in the Golden Heart).

Jamie: —and you actually win, whatever you do, don't talk for too long. Do prepare a little speech even if you don't think you have a snowball's chance of winning, and do make sure it's under a minute long. Everyone in the audience will be happy for you, but their happiness will wane considerably the longer you talk.

Cindy: And then God help those chocolate RITAs. And the overworked bartender at the Awards Reception following. And everyone in the elevator afterward subjected to your J-Lo impression—or did that happen at a conference party. Jamie, do you remember?

Jamie: No comment. But speaking of conference parties, I had an interesting experience this year at one, during which someone managed to introduce me to her friend and insult me—all in the same sentence. I will not go into further details here to avoid embarrassing the person who did the insulting, but… This strikes me as a major DON'T. Even though I do have a sense of humor, this person didn't even know me. For all she knew, I could have been the kind of girl who'd go all Jerry Springer on a person for the kind of comment she made. So to make this anecdote actually apply to the general writing public, whatever you do, try to not say insulting things or even questionable things to people at conferences. You never know how that person might be in a position to help you (or not) later in your career. And ultimately, it goes back to the issue of drinking. If you can't hold your liquor—if it's likely to make you say or do stupid things—it's best not to partake at all.

Cindy: That's a very good point. Even if you do say something questionable in a moment of good humor (either under or not under the influence of alcohol)...well, it's probably best only to joke this way with someone you know very well. Think of what you wouldn't want said to your face about your sub-genre, or the publishing house you write for, or your latest book, or the unpublished chapter you submitted to a high-profile contest...and then speak accordingly. If in doubt, channel J-Lo. Someone will hustle you into an elevator and get you up to your room pronto. And no one, I assure you, will ever out your J-Lo aspirations on a public website.

©2005 Cindy Procter-King & Jamie Sobrato



Jamie writes steamy romances for Harlequin Blaze, loves to waste time on the internet, and kind of wishes she had her nose pierced...or not. Her favorite guilty pleasure is watching bad Sex and the City reruns (though she’ll never admit it—oops, she just did), and she's been known to frequently laugh until she cries. You can visit her website at

Cindy writes romantic comedy for anyone willing to read it, loves to waste time updating websites, and desperately wishes Jamie would pierce her nose so she could tug her around by it. Cindy's favorite guilty pleasure involves back massagers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and bathtubs (no, she won't get more specific).

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