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Schmoozing in San Francisco

Published In RWR Magazine, June 2008

"San Francisco itself is art, above all literary art. Every block is a short story, every hill a novel. Every home a poem, every dweller within immortal. That is the whole truth. "

~William Saroyan, author

“Chicago is the great American city, New York is one of the capitals of the world, and Los Angels is a constellation of plastic: San Francisco is a lady ...”

~Norman Mailer, author

No other city encompasses the idea of Bridging the World as this year’s host to Romance Writers of America’s National Conference: San Francisco. Where you can walk up Colombus Avenue for just a few short miles and hit China Town, Little Italy and Market Square. Where the accents and languages on the Fisherman’s Wharf span the globe. Maybe there will be a German family sitting next to you as you visit the Hard Rock Café near Pier 39; maybe that couple next to you on the boat out to Alcatraz is from Russia. Even the wait staff catering to you at restaurants can come from all over the world, speaking in the languages of the cuisine they are serving you: Italian, Chinese, Greek and more.

The city is full of sights and sounds and smells that take you away from your everyday world and make you realize you are somewhere very special. The smell of fortune cookies baking off Grant Avenue. The sounds of the seagulls and sea lions on Pier 39. The man at the door of the Mona Lisa Italian Restaurant as you walk by, asking in his thick accent, if you would like to come in and eat.

The energy of the town is subdued, relaxed – while at the same time, revitalizing. It makes your imagination fly.

It’s the perfect place for writers to meet. It’s the perfect place to schmooz. Because that is what we writers do when we are at conferences. We writers are colorful people; we’re grown ups with imaginary friends and we need to be around like-minded people. We need to get out there to meet new people, see new faces. We need to walk up to someone we just met and say hello, whether it’s in an elevator or at a luncheon table or anywhere in between.

Remember the days on the playground when we had to reach up high to get to the top rung of the monkey bars? Remember that little kid reaching with you, the one you had never seen before? “Would you be my friend?” we would ask, and they would smile and climb with us, reaching for the highest heights along side us.

Robert Fulghum summed it up pretty well in his book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”

We’re taller now than we were on that playground, with more goals, but the sentiment is the same. And we, as writers, need to stick together when we are out in the real world. As we look forward to where our career will go next week, we need to look back at the stage we just passed and lend a helping hand to those coming behind us.

Say’s Suzanne Brockmann: “We’re all writers at an RWA conference – and we're all here to network. Take advantage of elevator rides and pre-workshop downtime to read name tags – and pay attention to all the ribbons, particularly those for First Sale, Golden Heart and Rita finalist. Saying congratulations is a great way to break the ice and introduce yourself. And introduce yourself, too, if you find that you’re standing beside your favorite author! It’s always nice to hear that a fellow writer enjoys your books!”

And since the business of writing novels is a solitary profession, it is good for writers, whether new or established, to meet together, to share war stories or maybe just to have a good time.

Whatever you do, don’t stay quiet. Learn from the people who have come before you. Brockmann, a die hard Star Trek fan who started out writing fan fiction for the original series long before fan fiction was in vogue, says this: “I once rode in an elevator with DeForest Kelley, who played Dr. McCoy ... and I didn’t say a word. I’m still kicking myself for that missed opportunity, all these years later ...”

Schmoozing isn’t only about selling books. It’s also a great way to make contacts for the article you have been thinking of writing for your chapter newsletter or maybe even for a magazine. Author quotes, editors’ opinions, agents’ notes, these are all great ways to add pizzazz to the piece you are working on.

An interview is much like a pitch. Both require you to prepare and to think. Both can make you so nervous you don’t think you will be able to talk.

The thing to remember when doing either is that the person across from you is just a person. They are not scary. They are there because they said yes: yes to hearing your pitch, yes to letting you interview them ... they are there because they want to be there and you can take a deep breath and relax. No one bites at National.

Getting an appointment time to pitch at National can be difficult. Getting a pitch at a smaller conference is easier. Giving a pitch might be a simple matter of running into a editor somewhere at the conference site and asking if they have a minute either now, or maybe sometime later in their day. If they do, they will say yes. If they don’t, they will say no. With either answer, be professional. Smile. Don’t slide your manuscript under the bathroom door, as in the infamous story that has been circulating for years.

A good article to reference when planning your pitch is Ten Minutes To Glory: Your Editor/Agent Pitch by Laurie Schnebly Campbell. It can be found on her website:

Says Laurie: "When you're nervous, it helps to remember that this pitch can’t win you a contract – all it can win you is a look ... Go in there with the idea that both of you are professionals with a common goal – getting a great-selling product to the market – and immediately you'll have something in common."

Interviews are more difficult as they are less spur of the moment and need to be set up in advance. But how do you nail that interview? How do you get these people to give you the thirty minutes or the hour you need to get your questions answered?

You ask.

It’s that simple. You send an e-mail or you make a phone call, and you ask this person if they would be willing to meet with you while they are in San Francisco. Explain the article you are working on, tell them what you need from them.

There are two cardinal rules to conducting interviews: be prepared, be professional. Research your subject before you sit down with them or e-mail them the list of questions. Chances are your subject has been interviewed before, and you do not want to ask the same questions. Read prior pieces, read their web page, print out whatever you can find. If you used the library, photocopy articles and text. If the person you are meeting with is giving a workshop at the conference, attend it, take notes and modify your questions accordingly. If you’re interviewing an author, read a few of their books to get a feel for their voice. If nothing else, you do not want to have to admit to an author you’re sitting across from that you have never read one of their stories. They are giving you their time. You should be willing to give them some of yours. You don’t have to do days or even weeks of preparation, but a few hours could make the difference in how you appear to your subject.

Says Michael Schumacher, author of Conducting Interviews: “Sound research and preparation assure you of the chance to carry on an intelligent, informed conversation with the interviewee ... Good research is a compliment to the person your interviewing, it tells him or her that you cared enough about the interview to look into the important details of the person’s life, work or interests.”

When it comes time to sit down with that famous person in San Francisco, be cool. They granted you this interview and they want to be there. Keep that in mind when you get nervous, because, no matter what, you will get nervous. It’s the nature of the beast. However, if you prepared ahead of time, if you wrote out your questions, if you are wearing that one professional outfit that makes you feel like a million bucks – and it doesn’t have to be a suit – then you are ready. If you know you are ready, it will show as you shake hands and smile and offer to pay for the coffee. And always offer to pay for the coffee. Or the drink. Or the breakfast.

One of the most commonly asked questions about attending National is: What should I wear?

RWA states on their web page: “The first thing to think about is being comfortable. Days at conference can be long and intense. Comfortable shoes are a must; the hotel is big and the function space is spread out over a rather large area ... During conference hours, the common phrase for attire is "business casual." Nice slacks or skirts, sweaters or blouses, something a little dressier like a suit for an editor/agent appointment.” Layering is especially important in a city like San Francisco where the weather can be chilly even in the summer. At any stage of your career, newbie to published, you want to give the impression of professionalism. Three-piece lawyer suits are not required, but shorts or t-shirts should be avoided during the bulk of the conference, though they are okay for your off-hours and sight seeing.

Why do we go to conferences? Are they worth the time and money? Besides the fact you might be able to secure an agent or editor appointment, conferences afford us chance to be with like-minded people we otherwise might not be able to meet. It is a place where RWA promises on their web page, “... four days of education, networking, career enchantment, and fun.”

The conference kicks off on Wednesday, July 30th with the Annual “Readers For Life” Literacy Autographing. There will be 450 romance-fiction authors signing romance books donated by publishers. All proceeds of the sales go to literary charities.

From 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. on this same night there will be a First Timer’s Orientation.

Workshops start Thursday at 2:00 and run through Saturday; Midnight Madness Bazaar is Thursday, 8:00 to midnight; and the Rita/Golden Hearts Award Ceremony is Saturday night. Intermixed with all of the above are various luncheons, retreats, meetings and chapter awards ceremonies. Featured speakers are Victoria Alexander, Connie Brockway and Suzanne Brockmann.

Held at San Francisco Marriott on Fourth Street in downtown San Francisco, there is plenty of shopping within walking distance. The Metreon shopping center (with a movie theater)is just one block away for those looking to indulge. There is a Bristo Farms Market just as far for anyone wanting to pick up forgotten items or a bunch of fresh fruit. Yerba Buena Gardens and several museums are only one or two blocks from the hotel. There is a Starbucks in the lobby, making caffeine easy to obtain.

Be warned, though, the weather might be cool in San Francisco and though you may have heard the famous Mark Twain quote: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." – he never actually said it – even if it can be true. Says “San Francisco summers have scant in common with summers elsewhere. Marked by billowing white fog, the majestic product of sea spray wind and the Central Valley Heat, San Francisco summers are characteristically overcast and cool while the marine layer usually burns off by noon.” Temperatures can range from 54 to 66 in July and 55 to 67 in August.

And what to do in your free time in the city? It depends on how much free time do you have. Because even if you took the whole week, you could just scratch the surface of want is out there.

There are the traditional sights everyone wants to see: Pier 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island. You can book an hour-long boat ride that will take you around the island and under the Golden Gate Bridge. These are easy to find: just walk up the Fisherman’s Wharf and someone at the dock will be offering. Rates are fairly cheap.

You can ride a cable car or climb Lombard Street, the crookedest street in America. The view from the top has to be experienced and not explained. You can rent bikes at Blazing Saddles Bike Shop to take you over The Golden Gate Bridge.

If you are into classic rock-n-roll you can visit the Haight/Ashbury section of town to see the houses where Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead lived – before the names Janis Joplin and Grateful Dead were on the radio every day. Also in Haight/Ashbury, you can visit Bound Together Books, “a not-for-profit, volunteer run store otherwise known as an ‘Anarchist Collective.’” Titles here include the works by Che Guevarra, Henry David Thoreau and Noam Chomsky.”

For the literary minded visitors, there is the San Francisco Literary Tour. Their ad states: This two hour walking tour takes place in North Beach and Chinatown. Visiting the old haunts including stops at the former Montgomery Street residence of Allen Ginsberg, the site of San Francisco's first literary journal, where Mark Twain and Bret Harte cut their teeth, the San Francisco bohemian cafe where John Steinbeck, Truman Capote and William Saroyan hung their hats, the bar where Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, and Neil Cassady would often end up stinko, and the bookstore that not only changed the course of book publishing in this country but helped uphold the 1st Amendment. Price for the tour, which runs every Saturday at noon from City Lights Bookstore, is $25.00 per person. For more information or reservations contact: or call 415/441-0140.

Two good books to help you plan your adventure: Eyewitness Travel Guide: San Francisco and Frommer’s San Francisco Day by Day. The latter even comes with a map. Both books can show you several hundred places not listed here that might be something you want to see.

Web Sites to help:
• What to Do:
• Where to Eat:
• Where to Shop: (a good article on the literary aspect of SF)

San Francisco is famous for its food. The city is rumored to have more restaurants per square mile than any other city in the world. Some restaurants that come highly recommended:
The Steps of Rome Caffe on Columbus Avenue for the best Italian food in the world and the most fun service you will ever see.
The House of Nanking in Chinatown. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but Chinese food does not get any better.
The Stinking Rose – world famous for its garlic everything.
• For breakfast, Pat’s Cafe is at 2330 Taylor Street. Try their Eggs Benedict. Trust me.
Ghirardelli Square for ice cream – it’s rumored to have been Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s favorite ice cream place while they were still Tom and Nicole.

All these things sound like a lot of fun. But sometimes when a writer is attending a conference, it could be their first time. They might not know anyone to see the sites with. A great way to break the ice with people is to get involved in the actual conference: volunteer. Positions are available at the Literary Signing, the bookstore always needs people to help with stocking the shelves and the Goody Room can always use a hand. The RWA website – – lists more volunteering opportunities.

So if you are in San Francisco this summer, or maybe at a smaller chapter conference later in the year, say hi to that author standing next to you in the elevator. Tell them you liked their book. If it’s an editor you recognize, just be friendly and ask if they have seen any interesting sights in the city. Be honest, be professional and keep a smile on your face.

Don’t assume just because this person is a famous author or a professional agent or editor that they have plans. They may be new to the city, too. Ask if they would like to grab a cup of coffee. Once again, they can say yes or they can say no. It never hurts to ask.

Schmoozing doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, it can be just the opposite. All the writers you will meet, they have either been where you are now or are heading in the direction you are going. Look up to them or give them a helping hand. If nothing else, then maybe you will be one of the happy memories they take away with them and then they will tell the people back home that they got to schmooz with you!!




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