Coming Full Circle at the SFWC
By Meredith Jaeger
In the early aughts, I dreamed of becoming a novelist. At my office job, I imagined what my characters might be doing—their lives were far more exciting than mine. For six months, I took classes through The Writing Salon at night, until finally, I had completed the first draft of my novel—a coming-of-age story about recent college graduates. To celebrate this accomplishment, I designed a (terrible) cover in Microsoft Paint, printed all three hundred and fifty pages at Kinkos and had the whole thing spiral bound.
I was going to become a published author.
But that novel, a quirky bildungsroman, received over a hundred rejection letters. Disheartened, I retired it to a folder on my laptop, never to be opened again. Eventually, I summoned the strength to write another, this time about a woman grappling with the idea of turning thirty, who becomes unexpectedly pregnant. I wasn’t taking classes anymore, but I found a community of aspiring authors online, both through blogging and joining Twitter. But making writer friends in real life? That proved to be more challenging.
Enter the 2012 San Francisco Writers Conference. I had never attended a writer’s conference before, and I was hesitant to pay the registration fee. At the time, it felt like a lot of money. But I wouldn’t need to pay for flights or a hotel—I could take the same train to the conference that I took to work. The thought of being in the midst of agents, editors and published authors electrified me. My mom agreed to help cover the cost, and for the first time, I felt like I was investing in my goal of becoming traditionally published.
When President’s Day Weekend arrived, I rode BART to Powell Street Station and then walked twenty minutes uphill to the Mark Hopkins Hotel, hoping not to sweat through my best business casual attire. I felt so nervous—I didn’t know a single soul. When I set foot inside, I collected my conference materials and joined the group of attendees milling about the lobby. Some had flown in from other states and even from other countries to be here. We smiled at each other shyly while looking over our conference schedules.
The weekend went by in a blur. I watched Lisa See give an inspiring speech about her novel, Dreams of Joy. I listened to Jennifer Enderlin, Editor in Chief of St. Martin’s Press, talk about the books she was interested in acquiring. I pitched my new novel at the agent speed date, then clinked champagne glasses at the Gold Dust Lounge with a fellow conference goer to celebrate our success—manuscript requests! Our nerves had subsided, and we were on a high. I met Chuck Sambuchino, editor of Writer’s Digest while getting a cocktail at the Friday night Welcome Gala, and I attended every session I could, notebook in hand, eagerly jotting down information. Most importantly, I made lots of new author friends.
The novel I pitched was ultimately rejected, but the San Francisco Writers Conference changed how I saw myself. Speaking to industry professionals about my work showed me I wasn’t just an aspiring author, I was an author—albeit an unpublished one. I came away from the conference determined to implement everything I had learned. Friends I made at the SFWC became my critique partners. And with their encouragement, I wrote and revised a third novel, a dual-timeline historical set in San Francisco titled, The Dressmaker’s Dowry. It got me signed with my literary agent, Jenny Bent and sold to HarperCollins.
In 2020, I returned to the San Francisco Writers Conference, this time as a speaker, and it was true was a “pinch me” moment. The venue had moved to the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, but I felt a familiar shiver of anticipation when I stepped inside. This time, my name was on the program. The energy in the air was palpable—hundreds of writers, readers, agents, editors and authors—we had all come to speak, to learn, to laugh and to network. Not only did I feel inspired, but also, I had been given a platform to inspire others.
Finally, the days of desperately longing to be published are behind me. And there are so many more avenues to publication than the “traditional” way—paths that can be explored in conference sessions at the 2024 SFWC. There are quite a few self-publishing panels to choose from this year, some moderated by my friend, Amanda Traylor.
Since my debut in 2017, I’ve gone on to publish three more dual-timeline novels. I’ve worked with talented editors at the “Big 5,” become a USA Today bestseller, and I’ve continued to make author friends. Standing on the podium at the 2020 San Francisco Writers Conference, I looked out at the crowd, smiling at the sea of expectant faces. This was a room full of dreamers. Of writers. And maybe, of future bestselling novelists.
Meredith Jaeger is the USA Today bestselling author of The Dressmaker’s Dowry, Boardwalk Summer and The Pilot’s Daughter. Her newest novel, The Incorrigibles, will be published by Dutton on May 21st, 2024. Meredith was born and raised in Berkeley, California, the daughter of a Swiss father and an American mother. She holds a BA in modern literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz and lives outside San Francisco with her husband and their two young children. She can be found at www.meredithjaegerauthor.com.