Dip Your Toe in the Water, and–Pow! Tsunami

Ever run outside to play ball when you were a kid, only to have all the balls in the whole game come flying at your head? That’s what it felt like when I went to my first writers’ conference.

Dumb and innocent, I planned to stay in the background and absorb. You know: be cool, scope things out. Invisible as a ninja at midnight.

That didn’t happen. And I’m glad it didn’t.

Scottsdale, Arizona was a short plane hop away from where I lived and the Desert Dreams conference offered a lot. Sharon Sala was the featured speaker and I’d just read a pile of her books. Diana Gabaldon, whose stories I love, was the guest of honor. Agent Donald Maass would be there and so would Paula Eykelhof from Harlequin. It was perfect.

After dropping my bag in my room, I threw on a clean shirt and started walking, following the directions of the desk clerk, who’d waved her hand “back there” when I asked where the conference was. As I wandered around the huge central plaza, a woman asked me to take a photo of herself and another two women. “Sure!” I said, and reached for her camera.

That’s when I first noticed the name tag problem. The names were small. I’m nearsighted, but rarely wear my glasses since they make the floor bend when I walk.

She was agent Mary Sue Seymour.

Okay, I’d do this courtesy, then fade back.

But after I took the picture, one of the women changed off and suddenly I was going to be in a picture. I just checked on line and couldn’t believe it–the photo’s still in the Seymour Agency photo gallery! It’s toward the end, but it’s there. I’m the one in the blue shirt. So much for my ninja ability.

As I was about to wander off again, Mary Sue Seymour asked me to come along with them to a reception. Dumb and innocent (do you see a pattern?), I said, “Sure!” We split up inside and I wandered around the suite, tried an hors d’oeuvre — caviar? very nice–and began to notice that some of the names on the name tags had a familiar shape.

Determined to get at least one good look, I picked the most benevolent-looking person I could find, a white-haired woman seated against the wall. The name came into focus as I bent closer and closer. Sh– Sharon– Sharon Sala. By that time, my nose was practically in her bosom.

Dear lady, she just looked at me sweetly, not yet alarmed. Maybe she should have been!

I backed away and hurried into the next room. A dapper, cosmopolitan-looking man with a New York haircut came in from the terrace, holding a bottle of wine and studying the label with satisfaction. As he came closer and closer, his name tag slowly focused. Don-ald Ma-a-ss. He glanced at me quizzically in passing, probably wondering why this woman with the wild eyes was so red in the face.

By now I was emotionally exhausted enough to realize that someone had been following me around, softly repeating, “Are you in the right place?” in a worried voice. I apologized and left after she explained this was the agents’ and editors’ welcoming reception.

Outside, a large group had congregated in the plaza and a man was at the microphone, talking about the arts. Finally! People were getting food from a buffet, so I did, too. As I filled my mouth, the speaker introduced some people from the audience, who all seemed to be… music teachers.

I sneaked away again, but this time not before I finished eating.

There was a big writers’ conference here. Surely I could find it!

I marched back to the lobby, determined to get a straight answer from that desk clerk. But the lobby must’ve been a quarter-mile away. How big was this hotel? At last I got there, sank into a chair in a corner and pulled out my pad and pen to calm myself and regain my ninja-like invisibility.

In a few minutes, a woman with long brown hair, wearing an exquisite green velvet jacket, strode through the front door and headed straight for me. I may have cringed.

“You look like a writer,” she said. “Can you show me where the main hall is? I’m tonight’s guest speaker.” She held out her hand. “Diana Gabaldon.”

That did it. I’d had enough!

“Wait here a minute,” I told her. I marched to the front desk, got real directions from the clerk and led Diana Gabaldon to the main hall (yet a further quarter-mile away). It was filled with writers, who burst into applause as she went up the aisle to the podium.

The next day, I attended a group appointment with Paula Eykelhof. The other writers didn’t have much to say to her, sitting with hands folded in front of them, willing themselves to be invisible.

Not me! Man, I threw questions into that resounding silence like I was a Hall of Fame pitcher.

The next morning, as I was having breakfast alone, Paula Eykelhof put her tray down on my table and joined me. We talked about whether my kind of stories might be a good match for Harlequin. That breakfast encouraged me to work on subsequent projects with Harlequin in mind.

That was a few years ago and, well, none of my novels are published yet. I know they can be. It takes a while to learn how not to be invisible, but I’m on the road to recovery.

So, you reading this, I know that whatever you want to do is out there waiting for you, too. Dip your toe in the water, and the tsunami will come to you.

By S.J. Driscoll

12 thoughts on “Dip Your Toe in the Water, and–Pow! Tsunami

  1. Amity Grays

    Loved the post. Thanks for sharing your experience. My first conference had some very similar experiences. Duck out of water? Oh yeah.

    1. SJ Driscoll

      Thanks for reading, Amity! The first conference was a shock, wasn’t it? Especially when we want to make a good impression. But one thing’s for sure: that experience killed my delicate sensitivity about doing something wrong at a con. Now I’m like–bring it on! I hope you’re the same. 😀

  2. Karen McFarland

    Wow SJ, what a great post!
    How funny to have wound up amongst all those agents and editors. You really know how to get around. I’m with Pat, I’m following you around at the next conference!

  3. SJ Driscoll

    Thanks for responding! It does feel strange at first to put yourself forward, but I finally figured out that it just puts the burden of being friendly on everyone else.

  4. mgmillerbooks

    You’re right, SJ. Can’t be a wallflower in this business. Have to keep putting yourself out there, give them a face to associate with the work, and it will eventually pay off. Thanks for sharing. I like conference stories. One never knows who they’ll be rubbing elbows with.

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