Monday, June 22, 2009
RWA conferences are a mixed bag of the fabulous and the awful. Fabulous being that you get a chance to see friends that you only see once a year. For a short time in your life you're not responsible for anyone else's happiness but your own. You get to dress up in pretty clothes (whether you like it or not), you get to sneak out and go shopping with your best friend, you get to have people tell you that they love your books. Even if you're a newbie to the world of publishing there's more than likely going to be someone who's read your book or books and just loved it, and they're happy to tell you so.
But there are downsides to RWA. One is the feeling that you have to be "on" all the time. We spend so much of our lives alone in our offices (or wherever), writing, that suddenly being around a thousand women, no matter how wonderful they are, can be overload. I usually have to go up to my room and have a weep fest by Friday evening. Sometimes it's more often.
The other, major bad thing to RWA is competition. I'd say a good three-quarters of the writers who come to the conference are more into sisterhood and education than scoring points. But there are just some writers who are Tragically Ambitious, who are so focused on their careers that they don't notice who they trample in their desperation to get to the top.
The bad news is, they usually get there (to the top). And even worse for them, no matter how high they climb, it's never high enough. It never fills the empty place inside.
Don't get me wrong -- I want success and fame and buckets of money as much as anyone else. I just don't want to have to go crazy (and it would make me crazy) in order to get it.
The most tangible example of the dark, competitive streak is noticing who gets invited out to eat.
And there's a real pecking order to it. The good thing about conferences is you don't have to cook. The bad is conference food complete with rubber chicken and iceberg salads, or the dreaded Editorial Dining Experience.
Now this isn't dreaded because of the editors, who are on the whole delightful, witty, charming people. It's because you and everybody else knows where you stand in your publishers' estimation by which meal you get.
So to increase everyone's paranoia (or to alleviate my own), here's a breakdown of how the meals work at RWA.
1) The Big Kahuna. A solo dinner with your editor, your publisher, and key marketing accounts such as Borders or Wal-mart.
1a) I suppose it's possible to have a group dinner (you and other writers) with the above PTB, though I haven't heard of it.
2) Solo dinner with your editor. Just you and your editor, off to an expensive dinner somewhere. If a publisher comes along they might regale you with all the wonderful things they're going to do for you. If it's just the editor your more likely going to talk about children or movies.
3) Group dinner with your editor. You'd think a solo lunch would come next, but group dinners have more cachet. Maybe it's because you're dressed up, maybe because dinners are usually horrendously expensive in and near conference hotels. When an editor takes five or six of you out to dinner it signifies you're a major player. (It's also an interesting scramble for who gets to sit beside that editor. And the funny thing is, when an editor eats at one of the conference meals people are often too frightened to sit next to them at the open seating, leaving the poor editor alone and awkward).
4) Solo lunch with your editor. This is often in the hotel, and tons of other writers see you and take note that you are among the blessed.
5) Group lunch with your editor. This is more likely outside the hotel. You tend to gather by the front door, where everyone else who's going out for a meal gathers, and again there's the significance of who rocks and who doesn't.
6) Solo breakfast with your editor. I suppose it's arguable which is more important, a group lunch or a solo breakfast. They're close to even. Usually the editor is worn out, existing on coffee, and you're the third or fourth breakfast appointment of the morning.
7) Group breakfasts. Most editors seem to avoid them -- probably because they're too worn out to deal.
8) Meeting for a drink.
9) Meeting for coffee. Those two are particularly bad if you have to instigate it, but they're better than nothing.
10) Dinners and cocktail parties put on by your publisher for everyone who writes for them. Usually if you're left off the invitation it's simply a clerical error.
So we're getting to the time where editors are setting up their social appointments. And social they are -- not too much work is accomplished at these meals, even the high-powered Numero Unos. Because being presentable, relatively verbal or even just human is a help in a long-distance working relationship.
The thing to remember, if you're caught up in this rat race, is ... don't be. It'll chew you up and spit you out and it's not worth it. The preening because you're one of the chosen doesn't last.
I love my editors almost uniformly (there have been a couple of stinkers over the decades but they were few and far between). And I love everyone I've met in marketing, publicity, and all the administrative aspects of the business.
But ... publishing is the price you pay for being able to write. It's a crazy-making process, horrendously unhealthy, mentally. You pour your heart out into a book and then it's taken away and everything that happens after that is out of your control. It's like having your toddler taken away from you and put into military school. You never know how things are going to turn out, and yet your entire life may depend on it. On the art department making the right choice, on whether the PR department has money enough to send you out on tour, etc.
As for me, I'm making plans with my friends. Some cherished ones are gone this year (Sue Guntrum), but even so it'll be wonderful to see people. And I'm determined not to be one of the Tragically Ambitious. As Ben and Jerry have said, If it's not fun, why do it?
Best remember the wise words of those two philosophers, Bill and Ted.
Be excellent to each other, and party on, dude!