note from Toni McGee Causey – please give a hearty Murderai welcome to guest blogger Allison Brennan today — Allison’s a NYT and USA Today bestselling author and phenomenal friend to Murderati.
by Guest Blogger Allison Brennan
Conference season is winding down for 2008. There’s a few left, like Bouchercon this fall, but for the most part all the biggies are done. It’s a time to reflect on what we’ve learned, what we loved, what didn’t work for us, and remember that in the end, conferences are primarily for networking, learning about craft and business (even us published authors still have a lot to learn), meeting with agents and editors, and even a bit of promotion. It doesn’t hurt to have new bookmarks printed or a few books to give away!
I wanted to take this time to reflect on a larger problem that was only highlighted at the RWA conference, but really is not just a conference issue. It’s a blog issue, a local meeting issue, an industry issue. In fact, it extends to all facets of life–family, friends, work, church, school. That is, giving people the benefit of the doubt.
In this era where celebrities are caught with their pants down, without make-up, looking too fat or too skinny or seen whispering intimately with another woman’s husband, we often make snap judgments about their lifestyle or what is going on. The cliché a picture says a thousand words” is true–but in the era of photoshop or carefully framed shots, we might not be seeing the whole picture and thus basing our judgment on misinformation.
This reality of the modern information era was really highlighted during my years working in the State Legislature. The obvious example–reporters misquoting someone–happens more than I had ever thought. I could sit in an interview and know exactly what was said, and dropping a couple words can make the subject either seem more brilliant than he really is, or a total idiot. In committee hearings, I could listen to hours of testimony and be moved beyond words, but when you read about it in the paper, you get the one idiot who said something stupid and that’s the “quote” and result of the hearing.
In the writing world, there are authors who never participate in conferences. Perhaps they’ve never been, or used to go but don’t find them valuable, or are so introverted they don’t want to be around 2,500 other writers. In RWA, we have career professionals outside of writing–lawyers, doctors, teachers, scientists, cops–the list goes on and on. We have career authors, new authors, midlist authors, unpublished authors. We have people at every level of their writing career. There are agents, editors, publicists, bloggers, reporters, family, the list goes on. There are women with young kids, grown kids, no kids. Grandmothers and daughters. Black, white, Asian, and every other race. Christian, Jewish and Atheists. Married, divorced, single. Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Americans, British, Australians, Canadians, and more. We are diverse in ways few organizations are. We’re united by one thing: writing romance.
But because we are so diverse, and we don’t know each other well–outside of a few close friends or an annual sitdown at the conference bar–we can build up an image and then that image is distorted, we balk.
A favorite author who you picked up at the airport at your last RWA meeting only three months ago doesn’t remember your name; worse, ignores you completely when she sees you.
A friend doesn’t wave back when you see them across the lobby.
Your chapter member–who you see every month–doesn’t remember you’re in the same local chapter.
Your agent ignores you and goes off with who you believe is her favorite client.
Your editor takes you to lunch, but Jane Smith to dinner. Worse, your editor doesn’t remember you by sight.
Our reaction is to be sad, angry, flustered, slighted. We were wronged, but maybe we can’t articulate why we feel wronged. Or we articulate it, giving voice to our frustration, seeking justification that we were slighted in some manner. Often, the slight gets spun out of control as the rumor mill starts churn.
The rumor weed–for those who’ve watched Veggie Tales can attest!–can grow under the poisoned water of perceived slights, wrongs, or repeated rumors. It grows and can tear apart a person, a group, an organization.
But what really is happening is that we aren’t giving someone the benefit of the doubt.
Yes, an author you picked up from JFK and drove two hours to your chapter conference should absolutely remember your name.
But what if she had just gotten off the phone with her daughter who had a miscarriage the night before?
Yes, a writing buddy should acknowledge your greeting–it’s only polite.
But what if she had just discovered her suitcase–with not only her Rita dress but her laptop with the book due Monday–had been lost by the airlines?
Your editor should know you by sight–she has your author photo, doesn’t she?
But what if she didn’t recognize you with the new blonde ‘do and glasses? Or you’ve never met her, but you’ve talked on the phone for three years and she knows you are Jane Smith . . . but maybe she left her glasses in the hotel room and your badge is blurry?
Every day, people have small and large problems that they have to deal with and sometimes, being “on” constantly at a conference is hard, especially when the problems seem overwhelming. What if your husband dropped your daughter off at one place, and there’s a small family emergency and you try to reach your daughter, but she’s not there, she’s not answering her cell phone, and none of her friends know where she is? Would you be making small talk with a friend?
At this last conference, I know people who had to deal with some pretty tough stuff while trying to fulfilling their obligations at the conference.
. . . A bestselling author whose mother had a heart attack the night before, but she wasn’t told until she arrived at the conference.
. . . An editor whose long-time, elderly cat went missing.
. . . An author who learned via email that a close friend had cancer.
. . . A writer who was woken up late nearly every night of the conference by her husband because his sleep was interrupted taking care of their child and he wanted her help.
These aren’t things that someone is going to just offer up. We’re mostly women so we tend to want to know everything and we want to help fix it. It’s hardwired into us, we think that talking about the problems and commiserating is a solution. And I believe it is–just not with everyone in the world.
People get jet-lagged and aren’t at their best and brightest. People can be preoccupied, with good news or bad news or maybe even no news. People are nervous meeting their agent or editor for the first time. When I first went to the Reno conference, six months before my first book came out, with my JD Robb book in hand, waiting in line . . . I put the book in front of Nora to sign and inserted my foot in my mouth. Something about her inspiring me to keep my ass in the chair. Oh, yes, I said the “A” word. I’d wanted to say something more about her setting a good example, yada yada, but instead I blurted out the first thing I thought of. (Fortunately, I figured, Nora Roberts meets so many people at every conference she couldn’t possibly have remembered my name even if she did read it on my badge.)
This goes beyond personal connections and into email, but this post is already getting too long! I respond to all my email, usually within a week, but sometimes I get backlogged. Or, when I was moving, I was without Internet access for a couple days, moving, and on deadline . . . and was hugely backlogged. Sometimes cyberspace can eat a message and the intended recipient didn’t receive it. No one should assume that just because someone didn’t respond in a day, week, or month that they even received the message. And sarcasm? Sarcasm often falls flat in written form, especially in email. But I could do a whole blog about misunderstanding the intent of information emails.
I’m not saying anything new or noteworthy. But a few mutterings I heard at conference about this author or that editor or such-and-such a writer upset me. How do we know that the person we’re criticizing didn’t just have bad news? How do we know the person actually saw us? Or maybe she was late to her editor meeting–and she’d never met her editor before?
Things happen, and we’re not always at 100% all the time. We all know this, but sometimes we think that at conference everyone should be completely with it whenever they are out of their hotel room.
This is why I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I rarely know the whole story. Maybe the author really is a complete bitch, but most of the time, I really do believe something is going on and my perception of what is or isn’t happening is skewed.
I’m sure there are plenty of stories out there where you made an assumption that was wrong, or where someone assumed the worst about you based on part of the picture. Maybe if you all share your stories, everyone, including me, will take perceived slights in stride next time around.
Tempting Evil, is out right now and her next, Playing Dead:
will be out September 30th. Check out her website for her own great blog and additional details.