Once upon a time Deb Kelly wore pants for a living.

Cover of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
I admit this one is a stretch. But it’s a good book!

I have never been to a writer’s conference as a writer. Not one.

They look amazingly fun. The writers are always laughing at the bar or the coffee shop, and there seems to be a fair bit of hugging and shopping as well.

What I have been to is writing conferences as an editor and agent. And fun is not exactly the word I would use for that experience. Work, that is the word I would use. Publishing professionals are looking for the next big thing at these conferences, or, failing that, we are looking for undiscovered talents, underappreciated up-and-comers, writers on the brink of greatness. And to find them, we are going to have to kiss a few frogs. Maybe more than a few. Remember that scene in Triplets of Belleville? It sometimes feels like that.

Fun certainly does come into it when you are at a conference in a publishing professional capacity, though. It’s the fun of meeting authors for the first time, authors whose book babies you have delivered into the world, authors whose stories have delighted you or made you cry, authors who have sent you really really lovely holiday gifts, like handwoven cashmere blankets, or rugelach. Authors you love, as much as you can love anyone you’ve never met. Authors you admire and have for as long as you can remember.

But then there are another breed of people at these conferences. These are a hungrier breed of people, and I am going to be painfully honest: sometimes these people have a smack of desperation about them. And these are the people that, to a publishing professional, can feel a little scary.

To wit: one time, at a conference that shall remain nameless, I was visiting the ladies room when I heard a tap on the side of my stall. I thought someone needed tp. I said, “do you need some tp?” She said, “Are you Kelly Harms? I’ve written a one-hundred-thousand word romantic suspense that I think would be perfect for your house. Will you read a partial?” I said, “Um.” Then watched in a sort of delighted horror as a bound 3-chapter plus synopsis-sized stack of manuscript paper poked out from under the cubicle wall.

I said, “Can this wait until I wash my hands?”

I think at the time I probably acted a little offended by this affair. I was put off, certainly, by the author’s confession a few minutes later that she had “been watching for my shoes because she knew I had to pee sometime,” but I was piteous too, that she felt getting to me was worth hanging out in a hotel bathroom for God knows how long (it’s not). To that author, I get it now, and I’m sorry if I acted like a grouch that day. Finding your way to publication is hard, and confusing, and there are certainly times where it seems looking for a leg up (sorry) in the bathroom is as good a place as any.

But it’s not.

What I’ve learned since then, now that I am, as I am fond of saying, sitting on the other side of the desk, is that the connections that writer may have been and certainly should have been making at the bar, in the coffee shop, at the workshops and in the halls was far more valuable than anything she could get from me, whether my hands were washed or not. Now I realize that writers conferences have so, so much more to offer than a few marauding and slightly frightened-looking agents and publishers. The real asset of a writers’ conference is exactly the same for me now as it was for me as an agent.

(It’s the writers.)

9 Replies to “Once upon a time Deb Kelly wore pants for a living.”

  1. This is a fantastic perspective on conferences, Kelly. I’d heard horror stories about the “potty patrol” and their clandestine attacks, but never actually met an agent who’d been approached in that particular manner. The very thought scares me.

    I completely agree, though, that it’s the author connections that make conferences so very valuable. Conferences do help with finding an agent, and improving craft, and recharging the writing batteries, but it’s the friends we make there that truly make the difference in the long (and short) run.

    1. Wait, Susan, you’re saying there’s more than one “potty patroler” out there? Oh for heaven’s sake.

      Do you think there’s some way to get all five of us at one conference? How great would that be?

  2. This info is oh-so-important for writers at conferences. Thanks for sharing. And for making me laugh, because this is also a very funny post. You have a way with words, ma’am. Guess it’s a good thing you’re a writer. : )

  3. That conference story is both hilarious and heartbreaking. I, like you, would have assumed the woman was asking if I could spare a square. I’m not sure how I would have reacted. Probably as you did. I mean, what does one say?!?!

  4. Oh my! No matter how desperate I was, I don’t think I’d have approached an agent in the ladies room. I’ve have stood right outside! Great story!!

  5. Oh, Kelly…Wow, that one really takes the TP. But I truly appreciate how you were able to look back and see now that while she pushed it a “wee” bit too far (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself), we can understand that drive to get our work out there–and to seize the moment.

    But as Deb Joanne pointed out to us in one of her awesome posts last year, we must all draw the lines at bathrooms.

  6. “Can this wait until I wash my hands?”

    ROF,L! Okay, I love that. Yes, ambition is fine, but there must be a line drawn somewhere.

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