Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Beginner's Guide to Your First Writer's Conference

In light of the recent issue with a certain reporter and the delicate spirits of newbie writers everywhere, I am offering a bit of advice for first-time conference goers in the KidLit world based on my own experiences of the last 8 years. It is true that writers coming into the world of children's books from other areas of writing may be surprised at the level of civility here. And those who have never experienced the wonderful world of a SCBWI conference often do not know what to expect from their first writers' conference. Sometimes their excitement over the possibilities gets the better of their otherwise inquiring minds, so I thought I would take a minute to offer some guidelines about expectations and etiquette.

First things First: What is the purpose of a writer's conference?

If you answer that question with something like, "the key to fame and fortune and a published book," then you are wrong...and you are right. No, a conference is not designed to give you instant gratification in the publishing department. Sorry to burst a bubble, but it is exceptionally rare that a new writer gets a book contract from her first conference. But feel free to keep that particular fantasy in the daydream file.

Yes, a conference is all about honing your craft and teaching you how to submit your work so that you can make that dream come true. If you read the brochure, you will see a list of workshops (note the word "work" in there) and speeches aimed at giving you insights into the publishing world as well as tips on how to craft that amazing book, seasoned with a little inspiration as well. So come prepared to learn a lot.

Next: How do you prepare for the conference?

Perhaps I should divide this section into the Do's and Don'ts of preparation. Let's start with the...

  • Don't gather a pile of manuscripts and synopses together and bind them neatly in envelopes to hand out to every editor at the conference—unless you are working on your biceps, because you'll be lugging those little bundles around all day.
  • Never plan to approach an editor with said bundle of writing at the conference. Each publishing house has its own guidelines and you will get that information in your folder.
  • Don't expect a lot of one-on-one time with an editor unless you have paid for a manuscript critique or portfolio review.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions, and even prepare some in advance.
  • Don't think that everyone else there is better than you or that they will have some secret you don't have. They have all come there to learn and be inspired.
Okay, how about the...

  • Do pay for a manuscript critique if you can afford it. This is the one time you will get some quality face-to-face time with an editor or agent, but more importantly, it will bring truly professional feedback on your manuscript.
  • Do a little research about submissions and such at SCBWI's website or other writers' sites.
  • Do take a little time to jot down questions before the conference. When you are there, things often seem to come so fast and it can be hard to formulate your questions or feel confident in asking them unless you have prepared them ahead of time.
  • Do read the brochure carefully for things like dress code at the venue and workshop descriptions. Most conferences are casual dress, but occasionally a venue has a "no jeans" policy. And make sure you understand the schedule.
  • Do prepare business cards to share with other attendees (not the faculty).
  • Set your expectations to what you will learn at the conference, what you need to know about submissions, trends, matters of craft, etc., and you won't be disappointed.
  • Do plan to meet some awesome people!

What to bring:
  • A notebook and pen to take notes on all the fabulous things you will learn.
  • An open and inquisitive mind and a positive attitude.
  • Business cards (as stated above)
  • Courage...and a little faith in yourself.
What to do when you are at the Conference:
  • Don't take the critique comments personally—they are constructive criticism. Use them to hone your manuscript. You may not agree with all of them, and that is fine. But accept them graciously, discuss them, but don't argue them.
  • Talk to the people at your table and share your questions and experiences. Don't be shy.
  • Ask questions during panel sessions, critiques, and workshops. The only stupid question is an un-asked question.
  • Don't be afraid to admit you are a newbie. Everybody has to start somewhere.
  • You may talk to the faculty when the opportunity arises, but don't "accost them at the salad bar with your packet of goodies." Talk to them as people. Yes, believe it or not, editors are actual flesh-and-blood people who like to chat. Ask them about their latest project or what they think about the most recent scandal in publishing. Tell them you like their shoes (if you do, that is!). This is actually where you begin to understand why they like what they like...getting to know their personality a bit.
  • Look at the books for sale. You'll get to know a little more about what the editors work on.
  • Consider the attendees as colleagues. That is one amazing thing about Children's writers...they are nurturing and supportive. Sure it's a competitive market, but this is not the dog-eat-dog atmosphere that other areas of publishing might be. Embrace the generosity of these people.
What to do after the conference:

Let it all soak in. Process the critique information and then take time to respond to it with a fresh revision before you try to submit it to any of the editors you met (or heard).

Review your notes. Perhaps even blog about them to set them in your mind as well as share some great info with other newbies out there.

I hope you will feel inspired, but sometimes the whole experience can be a little overwhelming. Cut yourself a break. Remember, you went there to learn something and meet some amazing people. Keep it all in perspective.

Remember that writing is a process. So is publishing. And so is learning about all of it.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Misguided Zealot Lost in the Wonderland of Children's Book Publishing

This morning I found steam wafting up from more than my cup of hot tea. It was pouring from my ears as I hopped online to catch up on tweets and blogs before I started my day. Yes, there it was. This ridiculous article from so-called writer Julia Duin on the Washington Times website, misrepresenting SCBWI and slamming a couple of conferences she attended, apparently in the hopes of instant literary stardom. To this, I will respond with an open letter to this poor misguided zealot:

Dear Ms. Duin,

I found your article in the Washington Times online this morning rather amusing, though more to the point, excessively irritating. I have attended many SCBWI events and have gained so much from them, that I now volunteer and put a lot of work into organizing an event. You begin by attributing some dubious claims to the organizers of some Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conferences.
These conferences lure you with the hope that you can be the next J.K. Rowling. The reality is far nastier, despite the names of various agents, publishers, magazine editors and art directors that grace the society's brochures.

You imply that these conferences proffer false hopes and make empty promises, as if they were scurrilous vanity publishers or unethical agents who prey on unsuspecting writers willing to fork over their dollars for even the smallest possibility of getting their book published. Believe me, there are plenty of people out there willing to con writers, good and bad, out of their money and it's not the SCBWI. I suggest you check out
Predators & Editors and Writer Beware Blogs! to make sure you won't become a victim.

However, I take exception your characterization of the SCBWI as some shady organization that "lures" innocent writers into what can only be swift and sure defeat. Obviously you misunderstand the purpose of a writers' conference and you arrived with unrealistic objectives of your own making. Moreover, you must have a highly inflated notion of the "reality" of children's book publishing if you thought all you had to do was show up at a conference and accost an editor with your packet of proposals and manuscripts. If you haven't figured it out, children's book publishing is one of the toughest, most competitive fields out there.

Like many professional organizations, the SCBWI offers guidance, creates a sense of community among its members, promotes dialogue on important issues in the field, and offers opportunities for professional development. When it comes to conferences, they are first and foremost about honing your craft and being aware of the market and your target audience, and learning how to submit your work. Volunteers dedicate untold hours to putting these event together. They don't get paid. I looked at the brochures for the conferences you mentioned, and they do exactly that. They claim nothing more. If you see a brochure for a conference that promises to get you published, run the other way.

Of course as aspiring authors we love to fantasize about being "discovered" at a conference, like some would-be starlet sipping her malted at Currie's Ice Cream Parlor in Hollywood. Let me know how many authors started that way. All the authors I know made it by working on their craft and learning from workshops at conferences, making the contacts that allowed them to get their work past the initial slush pile. They paid their dues. Even J.K. Rowling was not an overnight success.

Your flashing your credentials of 5 published books does nothing for me but prove you have a false sense of entitlement—a problem many of our teenagers have these days. The Christian market is very specific and has its own set of standards. Likewise, the children's market has its own rules of etiquette and quality assurance. I suggest you explore this in more detail by visiting SCBWI's website and reading their list of Top 10 FAQ, and visit some of the amazing blogs and discussion boards online. While you are at it, pick up a copy of the latest CHILDRENS WRITERS AND ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET and read the articles as well as the publisher listings (which includes Christian publishers). And why not add Harold Underdown's COMPLETE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO PUBLISHING CHILDREN'S BOOKS as well? I won't even get into your broad generalizations of the current kidlit market, but if you really want to limit your experience to Christian publications, check out the Christian Writer's Guild.

But please, don't malign an organization that works hard to educate and support writers of children's books because you made unreasonable and uneducated assumptions. Sweeping generalizations and ignorance will get your name out there, but not in a productive or morally sound way.

~ A humble, soon-to-be-published writer who has paid her dues.