Surviving My First Writers’ Conference: Three Lessons


Traffic was heavy and by the time I arrived at the hotel there were no available spots in the designated parking area, so I headed to the garage across the street. A sign warned that if I was not an employee of the adjacent office building, my vehicle would be towed. The conference was about to start, so I took my chances and squeezed into a space near a vestibule containing an elevator and stairwell.

The elevator didn’t move, so I walked up the half flight of stairs that led to a large courtyard, but it wasn’t clear what building was at the other end—hotel or office space. As I turned back to hoof it up the garage ramp, I spotted a small group of people in the courtyard carrying luggage. One was wearing a silly hat; another donned worn-out cowboy boots. Writers. I scurried out the vestibule’s glass doors and followed them until we reached a check-in area for conference attendees. I got in line. The wrong line. Once that was sorted out, I received my nametag and free tote. I hung my coat on a freestanding rack then wandered aimlessly in search of my first workshop. Luckily, another attendee was on her way to the same class and showed me the way.

My second class ran long. By the time I found the dinner buffet, I was the last of the stragglers. There wasn’t an empty spot anywhere in the ballroom. New kid on the block, first day of school, no seat left in the cafeteria. I pulled a chair from a stack along the wall, forced a spot for myself between two women seated at the table closest to the food, and proceeded to shovel Caesar salad down my throat as the women introduced themselves and inquired about my work-in-progress. First lesson learned: I may have felt like a fish out of water, but this wasn’t high school. These peers were welcoming and helpful.

The evening seminar took off on a tangent, and not planning to attend the afterparty, I snuck out thirty minutes early. (This event was being held near my home in the Boston area, so I skipped lodging fees in favor of commuting.) I found my coat, but had otherwise lost my bearings. A staff member directed me toward the pathway to the garage. The halls were quiet. Everyone was still in one seminar or another. Relieved, I confidently strode through the glass doors. I had survived the first day of my first writers’ conference.

It was cold. And dark. There were no lights on the pathway, and no other people. I picked up my pace. A foot or so from the doors to the vestibule, the edge of my minivan’s bumper was already visible. Grateful it hadn’t been towed, I pulled at the door handle on the right. It didn’t budge. I tried the left-side handle. Nope. The vestibule doors were locked. I hurried back across the cobblestone path and yanked on the hotel doors, but they wouldn’t open either. Shadows moved through a conference room one level above. Unable to reach the window, I gently knocked on the glass of the hotel doors. No one came. I knocked harder. Nothing.

Several minutes later, a maintenance worker appeared inside. I pounded with both fists. He briefly looked in my direction then continued down the hallway. “Nooo!” My knuckles began to crack and bleed. Okay, there’s going to be a real crime at this crime-writer’s conference, because I’m going to die of hypothermia out here before anyone finds me.

A manager emerged from an area off the hallway. As I attacked the door ferociously, he squinted in my direction, but then turned away, so I threw my entire body into the glass. Finally, he cautiously approached. I smiled and waved with one hand while attempting to smooth out my disheveled hair and crumpled coat with the other. He deemed me safe enough and pushed one of the doors open. “Can I help you?”

“I thought I could get back to the garage this way.”

“No. These doors are locked after six. You have to go out the front.”

A small crowd of people were now gathered in the hallway gawking at me. Where the hell were you fifteen minutes ago? I hung my head and did a walk of shame down the corridor, past the mini Starbucks, past the hotel bar, and into the lobby. I almost tripped trying to push the revolving door to the outside. These were automatic, like at the airport. They moved by themselves.

* * *

“How’d it go?” My husband inquired as I walked through the door.

“Don’t ask.”

I sifted through the conference materials I’d collected. To my surprise, inside the bag I received upon check-in was a booklet with my schedule, a map to classes and events, parking instructions, etc. Second lesson learned: Look in the damn tote bag!

* * *

By the final day, I moved around the hotel expertly, participated in seminars, even sparked up a few enlightening conversations with some well-known writers. Third lesson learned: Regardless of experience or education, there are no guarantees in this business. Turns out we’re all vulnerable to agent/editor transitions, market trends, poor timing, and making fools of ourselves at these networking events. Doesn’t matter if you’ve had a dozen bestsellers or haven’t been published yet, we’re all in this together.