Dog Eared, Part II, Chapter 13

Exercise Rule #23

I’m psyched. I’m jacked. I’m ready for the SCBWI Wild Wild West Conference and I’m ready for the independent publishing panel (I’m just not ready to go to the evening masquerade party dressed as a cowboy). I have a ton of notes, a stack of books, and a gazillion handouts. I just haven’t decided to tent-camp or not.

I arrive at the hotel convention center early. The parking lot is packed. I mean packed. I find a spot in an adjacent lot a block or two away from the hotel. It’s a hike, but as I walk to the hotel I remember reading an article several years ago about how to exercise naturally. Tip #23: Park as far away from your destination as possible; the walk will do you good. So I’m walking, I’m not too happy, but I’m walking, and I do feel a little better by the time I get to the front door of the hotel.

The thing is I don’t have to be here today as the panel discussion is tomorrow morning, but I’ve decided to attend Saturday to see how many people have signed up for the conference, and maybe to sit in on a session or two. I notice three things upon entering the hotel lobby. First of all, there are stacks of vintage luggage everywhere, in the windows, by the front door, in the lobby, by the reservation counter. Either they had a run on vintage luggage somewhere nearby or the hotel’s interior decorator has a penchant for vintage. In any case, I’m tempted to snatch one and take it home. My wife loves old, I mean vintage luggage (we keep all of our winter clothes in them during the summer months). As much as I’m tempted to lift a piece of luggage, I don’t and continue through the hotel lobby.

The second thing I notice is a lot of women. They’re walking in the hallways, gathered around the registration table, sitting in small clusters in the lobby waiting area, and lined up waiting to get their morning coffee. I guess it makes sense, after all this is a conference on writing books for children. Who better to write those books than women: mothers, wives, teachers, and caretakers, it’s that maternal instinct. I’m sure men write children’s books, too, and looking around I see a handful of them. But they don’t seem as relaxed as the women milling around. Perhaps the younger ones do, the primary school teachers and stay-at-home dads. But the older ones, the retirees and grandfathers, they look more than uncomfortable; they look downright distressed.

And that leads me to the third observation: the conference coordinators—women, of course—have turned the first two men’s restrooms I come across into temporary women’s restrooms. It’s totally understandable. And, besides, if you think the line of women waiting to get coffee is long, wait till they all need to use the restroom at the same time. Since I need to use a men’s restroom after two cups of coffee and an hour’s drive to the suburbs, I press on, finding a men’s room at the end of a long, dark corridor.

Now, I’m ready to engage. I’m ready to sit in on a session. I scour the schedule for an appropriate session. I see a lot of SCBWI-sponsored sessions, most of them presented by a PAL author (a.k.a. “Published and Listed” authors). I settle on a session that explores the use of rhyme and rhythm in creative nonfiction for young readers. A very dynamic woman from the SCBWI’s Wisconsin chapter—an SCBWI PAL member, I’m sure—guides us through some of her books. Her books are delightful and her use of language engaging. She reminds me of some of the authors who inspired me when I began to write: Mem Fox, Margaret Mahy, Nancy Willard, Reeve Lindbergh, and, one of my earliest influences, M. B. Goffstein. The session presenter is superb and I leave more than satisfied; I leave inspired.

The next session I attend is less than satisfying. I chose it more by the process of elimination than anything else. It’s about how to repair your online reputation, which I thought was a catchy title for how to use digital media to advance your career. Unfortunately, it’s a WYSIWYG, a rather dull look at what to do if someone doesn’t like you and posts bad things about you all over the Internet. Now, I’m thinking audience: a lot of young and unpublished authors. Why on earth would they want to know how to repair their online reputation when, more than likely, they don’t have one to start with? But it all comes together toward the end of the session when the presenter says that he is on the program because a friend of his wife is one of the conference organizers. In and of itself, the statement is not too off-putting. But when he says that his degree in marketing more than compensates for his lack of experience with authors and that he’d be happy—for a fee, of course—to help us market our next book, I stand up and leave (and I don’t think the marketing-guru-turned-children’s-book-enthusiast even noticed).

By noon I’ve had it, so I make the long trek back to my car (reminding myself with every step that the exercise is good for me). I drive home, debrief the day’s outing with my wife over dinner, and go to bed (glad that I decided not to tent-camp). The next day I’m up at dawn. I wouldn’t have to get up so early except for the fact that my session was rescheduled to accommodate another presenter’s travel plans. So I’m up with the birds and off to the suburbs at first light. It’s a beautiful drive, a beautiful morning, and I even get a parking spot close to the front door of the hotel (so much for Natural Exercise Rule #23). I arrive a good 40 minutes or so before the panel discussion is slated to begin, so I head to the Starbucks in the hotel lobby, but even at this early hour the coffee line snakes out the door, so I sit down at a nearby table and review my notes. Finally, I trudge down the hall to find the room where my session will be held.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who arrive ahead of time and those who don’t. I’m definitely in the first camp. I like to get to the airport two hours before my plane leaves. My wife likes to stroll up to the gate just as the plane is about to take off. I’m ready for company an hour before they arrive. My wife is still getting dressed when the doorbell rings. So, naturally, I get to the session room ahead of most people. There’s only one person there, leafing through the conference program. Soon afterwards the session moderator arrives, along with several other attendees. I walk around, talking with people, asking them why they’ve decided to attend this session. Not only does the idle chatter relax me, but also I learn a little bit about who’s in the room. With a couple of minutes to go, the other two panel members arrive. The moderator introduces us, and off we go.

There are two other types of people in the world: those who think with clarity and those who don’t. I’m definitely in the latter group. Things happen, but only later do I realize what happened. I’m the kind of guy who thinks of things to say hours after I should have said them. So, when the other two panel members start putting their books and promotional materials out, I should have taken their cue and put mine out. But I don’t. I put everything under my seat. I mean, who knows when I might need them, when I might want to hold a book up and say this and that about it. So, under the seat it all goes, and for me that usually means “out of sight, out of mind.” And that’s exactly what happens: I forget to hold up any of my books or accompanying materials.

There are two other types of people in the world: those who talk and those who don’t. I fall into both groups. In most social settings, I’m usually a very social, even gregarious person; I have no problem taking center stage. I’m a natural storyteller; and jokes: they regularly roll off the tongue. My wife says I should have been a late-night TV host or the ringmaster of a traveling circus. Then there are times when I clam up and can’t utter a single word. That’s usually when I’m in the company of strangers and someone else has already taken center stage.

That’s precisely what happens during the panel presentation. It’s a free-for-all (the moderator obviously hasn’t read Robert’s Rules of Order or any other manual for panel moderation). For most of the 45-minute session the two other panel members engage in a verbal tennis match about their self-publishing experience that leaves me mute at the end of the table, mute, that is, until the conversation turns to how you distribute your self-published book. When the person next to me—a former local TV personality—replies, “I can’t tell you. It’s a secret,” I explode: “What do you mean you can’t tell us? Isn’t that why we’re here, to share our experiences, to help others understand the self-publishing world (namely, the audience members who’ve paid good money to be here)?”

Either I blanked out or the session ended abruptly, I don’t remember which. I just remember leaving the session fuming. It would have been a good time to observe Natural Exercise Rule #23. The long walk to my car would have done me good and the ride home would have been a lot calmer.

Postscript. I knew it would arrive—my SCBWI membership renewal reminder. It’s been in my email inbox for several weeks. I just can’t seem to open it. Two years ago I faced the same thing when I was mad about the SCBWI’s PAL policy. But after I won the Spark Award, I bit the bullet and paid my dues. But this year, I don’t know. I just don’t know. I’m going to have to think about it some more before I pull the trigger.

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