A few days before the San Francisco Writer’s Conference I was riding the high that comes with one bit of good news after another.  Ever the optimist, I was ready to pitch my manuscript When We Come Home, my yoga book Practically Twisted and even the unfinished manuscript for Green Acres.  I had a gazillion copies of every possible combination:  short synopses, long synopses, first pages, first chapters, full proposal and in the case of When We Come Home, even the first fifty pages.

At the last-minute, I even decided to attend a pre-conference workshop: Katherine Sands “Pitchcraft.”  I was going to be as prepared as possible to set the literary world on fire.

Hmmm…or maybe not.

The thing is I hit a few roadblocks on my way to setting the literary world on fire.

But before you start thinking that this is another “doom and gloom” post about how difficult the writing life is here’s a SPOILER ALERT:  This has a happy ending.

The San Francisco Writer’s Conference was my first big conference.  And I made all the typical rookie mistakes.

  • I failed to pace myself.
  • I forgot that seeing a manuscript to publication is a lengthy process.
  • I allowed my inner saboteur to have her way with me.

The Friday conference began on a high note with Kristen Tracy and Regina Brooks’ panel on Young Adult Fiction.  I left the room energized and hopeful.  Another high point that day was the afternoon panel on Literary Fiction moderated by agent April Eberhardt and featuring Herb Gold, Monte Schulz and Michelle Richmond. To be honest, I could have spent the entire afternoon listening to these wonderful author’s insights and April’s non-intrusive moderation.

At the Gala Party that evening a little ‘Dutch courage’ (all right, it was a glass of Merlot) sent me off to speak with an agent I had met during the summer at the Stanford Publishing Conference.  She remembered me, and by the end of the conversation was asking for the first fifty pages of When We Come Home.  Score.  This was going to be easy.

Unfortunately, and inexplicably, the next morning began with nagging self-doubt.  My Little Saboteur had decided to come out and was determined to ruin my day.  Would I let her?

Sadly, yes.

By lunchtime I knew three hundred and fifty conference attendees with brilliant manuscripts and several agents drooling for an opportunity to represent them surrounded me.  What was I doing?  Clearly I was attending the conference under false pretenses.

Even though I was a finalist in the children’s category of the writing contest, my Saboteur had convinced me it was a fluke.  And when someone walked by and congratulated me – they had seen my poem, Black Hills Line, in the 2010 SFWC Anthology – my Saboteur said, “Why sure, I bet everyone who submitted was included.” Sigh.

But let’s not dwell on this.

Let’s remember that by Saturday, because I’d little sleep and less food, I’d already begun to run out of steam. I was vulnerable to psychic attack from within.  What I’d forgotten was that, although they disguised it well, nearly everyone else at the conference was experiencing the same self-doubt as me.

Let’s just cut to the happy ending.

The evening ended with an “Ask a Pro” session.  Editors sat at round tables in the acoustically challenged Peacock Court.  We could ask a question, have it answered, and then move to a new table.  My mind was a blank.  I had no idea what to ask.  Little Saboteur told me to get up and leave, and so I did.  Little Saboteur won. Defeated, it was time to pack my bags for the train ride home.

But then I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard the words,

“You’re not going anywhere.  You turn yourself around, go sit back down and pitch that book just like everyone else.”

Lindy Gligorijevic, a veteran of the San Francisco Writer’s Conference noticed my “deer in the headlights” expression and appointed herself my Guardian Angel. She was a stranger.  How could she know I felt like I was drowning? I did as I was told, sat back down and will be forever grateful.

I asked a question.  And got an answer.  It wasn’t so bad.

I looked for editors associated with publishing houses and when I found an empty chair, sat down.  I listened to people pitching their books and realized we were all the same.  All with the same dream.  All with the same hopes.

At my third table the editor asked me to send her the first chapter.

One flick of the fingers sent that evil Little Saboteur that had been nesting in the back of my mind all day flying.

On Saturday night I left Peacock Court on a high.

And I walked into Sunday rejuvenated.

Of course Sunday was the big day – Speed Dating with Agents Day.  But I’d been coached:

  • Don’t expect to see everyone.
  • Look for the shortest lines.
  • Target the agents who work with your genre.

Somehow I managed to stay calm.  I’d like to think that I channeled some of the spirit and bravery of the 1200 Women Airforce Service Pilots I’d been writing about.  I can’t really explain it.  I just believed with all my heart that Maggie’s story needed to be told and that somehow I would see When We Come Home published.

Fifty minutes felt more like fifty seconds, but when it was over, despite being laughed at by an agent over my definition of ‘historical fiction’, I had four business cards and requests for chapters.

The San Francisco Writer’s Conference is not for the timid – it’s easy to be swallowed up.  And it’s not for the person with an agenda – a flexible game plan is more appropriate.

When I return next year I’ll know the range of emotions I can expect to feel.  I’ll know how to beat the Saboteur at her own game.  I’ll be appropriately prepared and more open to new things. And I’ll remember that we all carry the same hope in our hearts.

And one of my hopes is that, next year, I’ll be someone’s Lindy.

ps…I just have to add one more highlight.   On Saturday, as I slumped my way through self-loathing, Jacquelyn Mitchard delivered a keynote speech that had grown men crying.  It was funny, tragic, inspiring and heartbreaking.  I’ll never forget it.