One of the common ways I’d receive punishment as a kid—my fidgeting and curiosity landed me in lots of trouble—was liver for supper and a long lecture. Funny how I volunteered for a similar whipping as an adult and didn’t even realize it until years later.
With every conference comes a dinner of some sort, fitting as lyrics in a song. You’ve been learning and pitching hard. Time to feast. You deserve it. Typically, several meals come with the registration fee and you’re there with like-minded people. Why not usher in the night with a hearty banquet and gaiety?
Before I poke fun, keep in mind that I’m very rambunctious and was cursed with the appetite of a growing boy.
So, you join nice people at the round table with varying degrees of alcohol in their blood streams, all the way from not- a- drop to maybe-you-should-go-take-a-nap, and proceed to literally rub elbows because you have no choice being corralled so close together. Seated next to someone cute, this isn’t so bad. I always felt sorry for who had to reside next to me.
After I’d always mistakenly drink my neighbor’s water, I usually started the conversation. I like being in the white-hot spotlight.
Then the bread arrives. Unfortunately there’s no room for it so you proceed to butter a slice on your lap. This is fun while you try to carry on sophisticated conversation. “Wasn’t that an amazing workshop on characterization? I was positively…oh shoot, I just dropped margarine in my shoe.”
A standard perk with the conference dinner is an agent or editor chaperone. The idea is that maybe you can slip a pitch in for your novel while you pal around with him or her over vittles. Again, with my teenage metabolism, eating is a physical thing and I usually wind up with some scraps in my hair, so this isn’t my best arena for schmoozing. The saving grace is: the wait staff isn’t going to bring you enough food anyway, so you might as well pick at your plate and concentrate on impressing the publishing contact.
When the salad makes its grand entrance, I always tense up. Leaves and croutons don’t play well with eating utensils. When you try to wrangle a good bite of the garden on your fork, inevitably the lettuce will make a fool of you. “Ha ha. You thought I was going in your mouth, but I like clinging to your chin better! Allow me to smear some dressing all the way down to your neck.” Thus, everyone is painfully conscientious of botanical strays and this puts a damper on your obsessively practiced elevator pitch.
Once, I was seated across from a very respectable editor. We’ll call her Beatrice. The discussion turned to authors and Alan Dean Foster’s name came up. Now, Foster is one of my key influences. If I met him, I’d be so star struck, drooling would ensue and for days thereafter I’d mumble gibberish. To Beatrice, I said, “I just love his work.”
She actually asked me if I knew him. As if I were some hot-shot author who got to be in the company of said genius, she posed that question. Maybe I should have said, “Oh yeah, me and Al go way back. In fact he was glancing at my manuscript the other day and told me I should run it by you, but I think he’s just flattering me. Quite the charmer that ol’ Alan Dean!" But of course, I simply retreated back to my modestly. “Gosh, I just read his stuff, ma’am. It’s really… good.”
Incidentally, the next day, I pitched to Beatrice who stopped me in the middle of my vignette to inform me that she wasn’t interested. Whereas I respected her candor and understood the nature of the business, it was nonetheless a tail-between-the-legs moment for me. To this day, I can’t help but wonder if the lettuce stuck to my forehead at dinner prompted her rejection.
Back to the meal. The waiter delivers small slices of chicken, steak, or vegetable entrees to the table. He knows what you ordered because a tiny card which claims your serving sits in front of you (and eats up all the precious real estate). It’s to your advantage that consuming just the three mouthfuls that comprise your meal passes a mere blink of time. This way, you can get back to romancing the agent or editor. You are, after all, here on business. No time for nutrition.
It’s time to hush once a speaker takes the stage. I’m grown up enough now that I can put a clamp on my cutting up, but my raging hunger will not be quieted. During pauses in the speech, my gut roars, summoning looks of disbelief. On the table next to mine, a barely touched bread basket cruelly wastes away. I consider asking the patrons, “Are you going to eat the rest of that?”
If your attention span is anything like mine, the ceremonies lose you in about five minutes. The keynote speaker graciously breathes into the microphone and everyone in the room prefers that they were up there instead—not that they don’t wish the successful author all the luck in the world. In most cases, there’s a reason why writers stick to the page. They’re not good at entertaining. But I can hear my mother berating me into sitting up straight, folding my hands across my lap, and being a good boy. I usually like the novelist who is speaking, however my low blood sugar is making me loopy and my thoughts drift like those little smudges that get in your eye.
Two hours later, jarred out of my daydreaming, ready for a cheeseburger, I get to the part of the conference I enjoy the most…parties.
I stopped attending banquets about four to five years ago. Instead, usually accompanied by a couple of writer pals, strung out like myself from the hectic day, I’d spend that two hours haunting the real hotel restaurant, indulging in a thick steak, and enjoying some let-your-hair-down repartee. It’s soothing to the soul. To those who actually enjoy the banquets, more power to you. If you find that you’re on edge going into the big hall, though, remember there are plenty of opportunities to mingle—most are better than the dinner—and your sanity takes priority.