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Not in the Bathroom

Make the most of writers' conferences by knowing when to talk to editors and agents—and when not to.

By Jen Weiss - September 24, 2003

You're at a writers conference. You traveled hundreds of miles because you knew a certain editor whom you've admired for years will be there—and you want to be discovered. And now, after three days of shmoozing and nudging and trying to get close to her, fate has taken a hand; you have a chance to say hello. You're in the bathroom. On the toilet. And she's in the next stall.

Do you ask for more toilet paper? Do you crack a joke? Do you slip your manuscript under the door?

Writers' conferences are among the best opportunities to meet with fellow authors, to work on your writing, to link up with agents, and to meet editors. Several writing societies sponsor conferences all over the world, and they invite editors and agents to speak. Registration fees are often kept low for writers who have not yet made it big, though conferences have been known to attract even the most established, prolific, published authors. They'll come for the opportunity to hear lectures and to be in the company of other writers. And, sometimes, to link up with new agents and/or editors.

Agents and editors, meanwhile, have their own reasons for attending writers conferences. They want to discover new talent. They want writers to know what they're looking for. They want to share with aspiring writers what happens inside the publishing house. They want to escape the hustle and bustle of corporate life and, for a weekend, be submerged in creativity. They want to meet you. But, truth is, they probably don't want to meet you in the bathroom.

Because while you're stuck in your stall, wondering how to proceed, the editor is silently blessing whomever invented stall walls. She needed some time to breathe—to take a few minutes to herself. She feels like she's been talking for hours to authors, agents, other editors, and, for a few free minutes, her kids back home who miss her. Finally, she's alone. No manuscripts. No jokes. No chit-chat. Just peace.

Until you decide to boldly slip your manuscript under that stall wall. Heck, you figure, opportunities like this are once in a lifetime. Right?

Wrong. There'll be others. And your chances of getting the editor's business card—or, more to the point, respect—most likely just went right down the toilet.

But even if the bathroom is not the best place to network with editors at writers conferences, networking is what you came for—and it's what editors and agents came for, too. So when, and how, do you form the relationships that might take you from unpublished aspiring author to the published, critically acclaimed, bestselling author you're meant to be?

Everyone who attends writers conferences shares an interest in strong writing and strong creative relationships. Yet despite this common interest, writers conferences can feel a little like school dances: There's love in the air, all right—love of writing, that is—but writers and editors can often spend time sitting on opposite sides of the room, tapping toes, wanting to dance, but afraid of rejection and embarrassment.

But, ultimately, editors and agents really do want to meet you, Mr. Talented Creative. They might be tired out after talking all day long, or they might be feeling overwhelmed by meeting so many new people. But they still have time for you—especially if you're The One. And more often than not, it'll be up to you, the writer, to make the first move.

But how? And when?

* * *

As an associate editor at a major publisher that's always on the lookout for new talent, I've been invited to conferences near and far. My experience have been, for the most part, great, but several colleagues of mine have had—well, let's say they were less-than-great experiences. (You thought the bathroom anecdote was invented?)

What have these editors said is the key for writers looking to get attention? Be respectful. Of course editors and agents are at these conferences to meet you first and foremost, but here are a few things to remember:

1. Think of breaks as breaks. When editors and agents aren't giving talks, critiquing writing in breakout sessions, or mingling with the crowd—when they're on breaks—they're regrouping. They're calling their families back home. They're going to the bathroom. They're gobbling down snacks. Just like you. They're taking time-outs so they can get back into the ring and see what you've got. They don't want to burn out. Best to give them a few minutes—they'll be back!

2. Avoid the bathroom pitch. When most people go to the bathroom, they're not going to form new business relationships—they're going to take care of, ahem, personal business. Ninety-nine percent of the time at these conferences, editors and agents go to the bathroom to relieve themselves, and to enjoy—albeit briefly— being surrounded by walls. But, again, unless they get sucked in by a toilet with some super-human strength flush, they'll be back.

3. Respect the closed hotel-room door. If you're staying in the same hotel where the conference is being held and happen to be next-door neighbors with one of the faculty, it might be tempting to hop on over before dinner and say hello. Sometimes this is perfectly fine—when invited. More often, though, if the hotel-room door is closed, it means the editor or agent is taking some time for herself. Maybe she's talking to her family. Or maybe taking a shower. Whatever the case, she'll be at dinner soon. Use the time to freshen up so you'll be primed for some scintillating dinner conversation!

Now, editors and agents come to conferences wanting and knowing their responsibility to be there for the writers for the duration of the conference. It's a pleasure, really—there's always the possibility of discovering the next Hemingway! But even Hemingway should save his introduction for a better time than when he and his favorite editor are on neighboring toilets.

Because there are plenty of great opportunities at conferences to mingle and introduce yourself. You've left your manuscript in your hotel room, you've put on your winning smile, and you're ready to tell your favorite editor or agent a bit about yourself, to tease him so that he wants to know more about you and your writing. Any time during the day when the editor or agent is in full view and obviously meeting with aspiring writers like yourself is a good time to approach them, but I've engaged in really rewarding conversations with writers at some specific venues:

1. Meals. Join an editor or agent's table. Talk about the cold cuts. Talk about your writing. The nice thing about a table is that it invites a more intimate conversation with a smaller, more manageable group. Take advantage of it—the editors and agents will. I've sometimes seated myself with a few writers I've met earlier in the day, writers I'd like to get to know better, and I've started to form some great relationships this way.

2. Breakout sessions. Many writers conferences invite attendees to join one or more "breakout sessions," intensive workshops designed to allow writers to work on their own writing with their peers and an editor, agent, or published author. They're also great opportunities to link up with editors and agents.

3. Post-conference parties. Get into that hotel room where the faculty and a few writers are yukking it up with beer and party snacks. This is a great time to network. Everyone's in good spirits, and the pressure's off—or at least it'll feel that way after a glass of wine. Granted, this may not be the best time to discuss your writing, but it's an excellent time to make new friends—which is a good first step to forming a strong relationship with an editor or agent. When they see you the next day at breakfast, you'll laugh about the wine spill the night before—and more likely than not, you'll start talking about why you're at the conference and your writing.

* * *

So there you are in the bathroom, with the editor you want to meet in the next stall. What should you do? You're excited, giddy; it's your chance. But then you remember—would you want to be approached in the bathroom? And didn't the editor look a little frazzled before entering the stall? You decide to give it a few minutes, let her have a moment.

You exit your stall at the same time as she. You wash your hands in tandem. You go for the same towel. It's fate! You smile, laugh, and walk out the door together. A few steps away from the bathroom, you say "Excuse me, but I wonder if I could talk to you for a minute?"

"Sure—let's talk now, though, before going back into the group."

Bingo!

Jen Weiss is a freelance writer and children's-book editor in New York.



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