What Really Happens at A Writers’ Conference?

If there’s any advice I might offer aspiring authors, it’s to focus on the work — and not too much on your feelings.  Sound impossible?  Yup, it did to me too, especially when my heart broke a little at the beginning of this year’s SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Annual Conference in New York City.  Things definitely got better…but here’s a recap of what a writing conference can do for us, and how important it is to keep going, even when it gets so hard that you want to give up.

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How I Felt Inside While Editors Read My First 500 Words

My head told me to keep my expectations low, but I just couldn’t do it.

I brought my complete manuscript to the conference this year.  On Friday, the day before the actual conference began,  I attended the SCBWI Pre-Conference Writers’ Intensive, in which two “rounds” of meetings were conducted, pairing writers up with an agent or editor to read and critique the first 500 words of their work.

I attended the Writers’ Intensive portion of the conference last year with a much less polished and much less “finished” manuscript, and yet even back then, I’d hoped an industry professional could see exactly what I see, could feel exactly what I feel, after reading those first 500 words.  I left last year’s conference knowing I had a lot of revising to do, and I spent a year doing it. This time, my hopes were even higher than last year.  At last year’s conference, a woman sitting next to me was asked for her manuscript:  an editor took it on the spot!  I wanted to be that woman; I wanted my manuscript to find a home.  The same editor asked me if my manuscript was finished. D’oh! It wasn’t completely finished, but I had it all in my head! If it had been finished, I just know she would have taken it and presented it to her team and handed me a book contract, right? Well, with that kind of attitude, I went into this year’s conference with all the confidence in the world. I wanted the professionals to feel the love for my characters as I do, and to ask me for my full manuscript so they’d come to know, like I do, how worthwhile this story will be for young readers everywhere.

I. I. I. Wrong attitude.  Bad attitude.

No one asked for my manuscript this year.  I had two copies in my bag, and that is where they stayed. I was crushed.

Oh baby…that’s not even the worst part.

One of the editors commented that I should really start my novel in the kitchen, where my main character learns some important news.  Problem is, that’s where the novel began last year; the editor’s comments then were that I ought to start the book with ACTION!  So, for this year’s conference, the book starts on the boat.  I began to feel a little bit of motion sickness myself with all the differing opinions.

I’m such a pleaser, and I’ve never worked so hard on a project as I have on this.  After the afternoon editors left the ballroom, I fought back tears.  The room was filled with hundreds of other writers who’d gone through their own critiques.  I was too embarrassed to look around to check if anyone else was crying.  Just the act of suppressing tears made it that much harder to keep them hidden.  Suddenly, my face was completely soaked with tears, but I couldn’t get up to leave, because then I’d have to walk through an entire room of people staring at the loser (me) who’d actually thought she’d get a book contract at a Writer’s Conference.

As if!

Lin Oliver, the SCBWI President, spoke to us at the beginning of the day about not taking things personally.  About listening to criticism, taking it in and working with it.  She reminded us of a line from the movie A League of Their Own:  “There’s no crying in baseball.”

Well, this isn’t baseball.  This is three years of critique groups, revisions, time away from my kids and my husband and my friends.

My. My. My.  Wrong attitude.  Bad attitude.  Especially bad (and wrong and misguided) was my belief that I could hit a home run at the Writers’ Intensive.  It’s nearly unheard of.

So, there I sat, blotchy-faced and sweating, ducking my head into my conference agenda and praying for the tears to stop (and for another tissue as I sniveled all over my first 500 words…though at this point, who cares?).  A woman across the table noticed my distress and whispered, “How long have you been working on yours?” She’d also been given some not-so encouraging feedback about her submission from the 20-something editor at our table, though she wasn’t devastated like me.

I said, “I think I’ve been working on it for 3 or 4 years now.”

“If it makes you feel any better,” she said, “this is my 10th year.”

Now, if that isn’t perspective, I don’t know what is.  She wasn’t crying.  She wasn’t giving up.  She had just as much passion for her story as I do.

Another woman, this time to my right, also noticed my tears.  She said, “Hand me your submission,” then proceeded to make detailed comments all over it, suggesting new ways to look at things, circling the strong parts, and offering her email if I wanted to talk further.

My most painful day ended with a huge amount of compassion from fellow writers who’ve been there, who know how personal it is, no matter what, and how essential it is to keep on going.

Hotel Ice Bucket

What I love about ice buckets is their versatility.  Some might keep a bottle of wine chilled.  Some might cool down a caffeinated, diet beverage for an after-workout treat.  I, myself, like to keep it by my bedside for easy access to the ice I use for reducing eye puffiness from crying.

The Do’s and Don’ts for treating red, puffy eyes while staying in a hotel:

Do NOT walk across the street to the Duane Reade pharmacy looking for a cosmetic solution for red, puffy eyes.  The pharmacy staff will stare at you, then ask if everything’s okay (which it is not, especially in a crowded pharmacy at 5pm in New York City).  You will begin to cry again.

Do NOT purchase a product called Eau Thermale Avene, even if the bottle says, “Redness relief soothing cream”.  It will be very expensive.  It will not work.  You will not be able to pronounce it.  And, your purchase will be accompanied by a free gift at the checkout counter, which the clerk will have trouble finding the barcode for, delaying your egress from the busy pharmacy at 5pm on a busy New York City night.

Do NOT take the free “gift” from the clerk, even though it comes in a cute white cosmetic bag with orange trim because you will go back up to your hotel room and open it up (whispering to yourself, “Well, at least SOMETHING good happened today”), only to discover the free gift is a bag of cosmetics for the aging woman.     You will begin to cry even harder.

DO glob on tons of concealer, even though it pools in the creases of your swollen eyes.  Any attention you get will remain focused on the horrific makeup rather than on your sadness.

DO turn down the lights. Do avoid the mirror.

DO go to dinner with a college friend who’ll make you laugh immediately with his honesty. “Wow,” he’ll say. “You weren’t kidding.  You really WERE crying hard.”

DO put your pride aside and share your sob story with your friend.  It’s guaranteed to make you both laugh until you begin crying again.

DO reconnect with another old friend with whom you haven’t seen in 20 years!  Melissa (Carey) Shanker and I started at Leo Burnett on the same day (I believe it was June 22, 1990).  We’ve both since ditched our advertising careers to become happy moms and aspiring children’s writers, and it was fantastic spending the weekend with her.  Here we are, just after we’ve seen each other for the first time in two decades (note my puffy eyes):

Christine and Melissa (Carey) Shanker. It happened to be Melissa's 43rd birthday. She might be taller than me, but she's a LOT OLDER (by 70 days).

DO go back to your room and fill your ice bucket.

DO get a wet washcloth and lay a row of icecubes on the washcloth.

DO roll the ice cubes into the washcloth.

DO grab the plastic bag provided in the ice bucket and wrap it around the washcloth.

DO lay down on the bed, turn on your favorite TV show, and lay the ice-roll on your eyes.

DO replace the ice every fifteen minutes.

DO feel like you’re doing something pro-active, even though the swelling doesn’t really go down at all.

———

The Official Conference Begins…

How could I forget all the important reasons I came in the first place?

In my insane effort to hit a home run during the Writer’s Intensive, I’d let myself forget the primary purposes of attending a Writers’ Conference:

–Camaraderie

–Motivation

–Empathy

–EDITORS’ and AGENTS’ CONTACT INFORMATION

While my conference experience focuses on children’s writers and illustrators, I’m confident there are parallels across many genres.

Writing can be a lonely sport. But when you’re gathered with 1100 other peers who want the same thing you’re working toward, it’s a sign you’re doing something worthwhile.

Despite the emotional breakdown I felt on Friday, Saturday and Sunday were packed with useful, inspiring messages. By Sunday afternoon, I left the conference feeling ready to take on the world.  I was fortified with understanding and new friends and energy.  I left with contacts to send my manuscript to and a greater sense of where the children’s publishing industry stands.  Here are the highlights I took away from the conference:

Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry — an exquisite writer and presenter.  Demonstrated in her speech that even the tiniest comment can turn into a novel if you let it sink deep enough into your psyche.  Sees the innocence of children and the power of their wonder. Appreciates their questions, even when those questions focus incessantly on dogs.

During Lois Lowry’s presentation, I happened to be sitting next to an Evanston native, Alison Cherry, who’s working on a Young Adult novel.  We laughed and shared our manuscripts with each other.  I’m so grateful to have connected with her.  Even though she now lives in New York, she’s an example of a woman raised in Evanston, who attended ETHS, then Harvard, and went on to lead a fabulous independent life in NYC.  I can only hope to raise children as wonderful as Alison.

Christine and Alison Cherry, current and former Evanstonians. Stay tuned for her debut novel, RED, coming out in 2013...

I attended three breakout sessions with editors from various publishing companies.  When you register for a conference, you’re allowed to select from a list of speakers whose discussions fit the needs you have.  For some just starting out, it’s important to learn the difference between an agent and an editor.  For the seasoned writers who’ve got their manuscripts ready (or close to ready), it’s important to hook up with editors representing the publishers you admire and hope to work with.  I selected three editors looking for middle-grade novels and listened to their opinions on the state of the industry.  Everyone seems to offer similar messages:  no more vampire stories needed; electronic books are real and here to stay; voice is key — it must be honest and believable; middle-grade novels are selling big right now; it’s hard to get boys to read Young Adult novels; middle-grade boys are still interested in reading; it’s easier to get girls to read boy books than the reverse; Borders Books is near collapse, which poses an interesting situation — everyone hated the Barnes & Noble and Borders for stealing sales from independent bookstores, but now that Borders is drying up, we’re bummed our books are losing another home.  As much as editors have asked for series in the past, a good novel must stand on its own two feet; having a literary agent is key.

But WHY do I need an agent?

Jerry McGuire, the sports agent. Good literary agents are out for more than the coin. Their mission is to handle the business end of things so you can focus on your writing; the exceptional ones provide editorial feedback to make your work the best it can be.

An agent will be your advocate throughout the process of selling your book.  (S)he will guide your manuscript to its finest form before submitting to editors, then navigate the business dealings throughout a sale so you can focus on the work of writing your next great book.  Many editors won’t look at unagented submissions; their time is stretched so thin with this economy that a manuscript better come ready to go if it’s worthy of even opening.

One editor confessed she doesn’t do any manuscript reading during her workday.  She reads after work hours, because her day is filled with the business end of being an editor (she didn’t elaborate, but I assume that means meetings, paperwork, phonecalls and discussions with peers and agents, etc.).  She said she’ll generally read 50 pages of a manuscript (and know much earlier if it’s a keeper), because even if a story starts slow, it might take 50 pages to convince her to put it down.  If she gets through 3-4 manuscripts a week, she’s thrilled.

R.L. Stine

Author R.L. Stine gave the luncheon keynote, and was he amazing.  The modesty and humor this man has astounds me.  I’d expected a creepy, slightly dorky guy, but he’s actually witty, silly, and a confessed humorist-turned-accidental-horror-novelist-for-kids.  I loved how honest he was about stumbling into writing horror for kids.  “Never say no.  Always say yes to opportunities,” was his primary message.  “You never know where an opportunity may take you.”

When the day was over, I met with members of the Illinois chapter of SCBWI for dinner at Grand Central Station.  What a refreshing evening.  We shared opinions about the bad experience I’d had at the Writer’s Intensive (because I just couldn’t let it go) and how to keep going when it feels hopeless.  We laughed and traded stories that only writers can appreciate about avoidance, perseverance and hope.

Sara Zarr

Sunday morning’s keynote speaker was Sara Zaar.  I’d never read her work, because she’s a YA novelist, but I was moved to tears (are you sensing a theme?) by her speech.  Here are my notes from her 45 minute talk:

At the 2001 conference, she’d been writing about 5 years.  She was a bit “angry” then.  Wondered why no one took her writing seriously.

At the 2005 conference, she’d been writing about 9 years.  She was beyond frustrated.  And, she lost her purse in the hotel.  Figured it was a sign.

They say you write the book you want to read.  She wants to give us the speech we want to hear [how did she know how I was feeling?].

Her agent says the time between when you’re no longer a beginner — yet not officially in the business — is the longest and hardest.  No one knows how long that time is.  That’s why it’s important to attend to the rest of your life during that time.  Rejection can’t take that away from you.  Keep creating.  That may be the only thing that’s completely yours during this time.  Crafting a creative life is essential — but let it also be quiet and normal and growing…a life you can center yourself within…calmly…in order to let yourself grow.

Here are the characteristics of a creative life, according to Sara Zarr:

1. It must be sustainable. You’re doing this for life.

2. It must be engaging.  It must move you.

3. You must invite company.  Seek a mentor, even if it’s a dead mentor.  Be a mentor to someone, and be as open as possible.

4. Know when to send company away.  Recognize when you need privacy with your work, your characters, your time.

5. Your work must be faith-based.  Not the religious faith, per se, but HOPE.  Especially before you’re published [my hand’s raised], people with hope are the people who write novels [she quoted someone “Flannery” about this…].

6. It’s a life that gives back.  Do what you’re meant to be doing, but then give back to those who are meant to do it, too [for instance, that’s why I’m blogging].

Here are the obstacles of a creative life, according to Sara Zarr:

1. Unsustainable habits — not taking care of yourself.  Many of us joke about being stressed, under deadline.  Most of us need to stop doing half of what we’re doing and do the other half well.  Figure out what sorts of habits and routines facilitate your creativity.  She recommended a book called The War of Art (eliminating drama in life).

2. Obsession with process vs. craft.  It’s so important to finish…not just to think, tweet, talk, workshop, analyze.  If you only see your work as commodification of a market, you’ll lose your creativity.  Yes, it’s important to understand the marketplace and your value in it, but don’t judge yourself against others’.

3. Being in the wrong company.  Agents, critique groups, support networks…it’s so important to have writing soulmates [I feel like I do have that…my critique group, my husband and children, my parents, the subscribers to this blog, my friends who check in and ask how I’m doing.  I appreciate them all.]

4. Self obsession.  Living inside our own heads can make us forget our lives and how to engage.  Make sure to do things for others.

5. Lack of faith.  Don’t let doubts of hopelessness override belief in self.

6. Disenchantment.  This is the opposite of engagement.  Cultivate and care for your creative self.  The answer is in the work.

Sara received a standing ovation after her speech.  Her acknowledgement of how hard this calling can be was met with appreciation and support by everyone in the room.  Hers was a speech that exemplifies why we go to these conferences.

A panel discussion about HUMOR followed, including three authors:  Mo Willems (www.mowillems.com), Marvin Terben and Lenore Look.  My stomach hurt from watching the men exchange witticisms and ad-libbed humor.

Linda Sue Park

The closing keynote was given by Linda Sue Park, who wrote the Newberry Award winning A Single Shard. Her website is http://www.lsparkreader.livejournal.com.  She was wonderful and inspiring and everything you’d hope from a closing speaker.  The best message she left for me was to focus on the work — and not how I (as a writer) compare to anyone else out there.  She was asked to write book #9 in the Scholastic series “39 Clues”:

Park said she’d been completely intimidated when her editor asked her to write book #9 — after all, big-time authors had written other books in the series, including Rick Riordan (The world of Percy Jackson ) and Margaret Peterson Haddix (what excitement hasn’t she written?).  What she learned, however, was not to compare herself to the other writers and their bodies of work…but rather focus on the project in front of her.  “I stopped making it about myself…and then I was able to write.”  Sounds simple, but if you’ve played the comparison game (to other writers, to colleagues at work, to other parents, friends, neighbors), you know how paralyzing it can be.  I loved her advice.

______________

So, after the closing keynote, did I check out of the hotel and hightail it to LaGuardia?

Absolutely not.  I left my bags with the bellman and walked…and walked…and walked.  I’d always wanted to visit Ground Zero, but so many friends and family members had said, “Why?  There’s nothing there to see these days except construction.”  Well, I walked from the Grand Hyatt to Ground Zero (stopping three times: once for a New York City pretzel; once for a New York City hot dog; and once for a new pair of boots.

Note the bootstraps. Helpful after a Writer's Intensive like the one I attended.

The boots I’d brought for the trip had holes in the soles. The new ones actually have “bootstraps”…a fitting accessory that I plan on using after my experience at the Writer’s Intensive.

Ground Zero

Here’s the video I shot of my visit:


When I finally reached Ground Zero, I didn’t expect much.  I followed a loud gentleman who appeared, well, delusional, spouting facts and figures about the events of 9/11.  He stopped at the corner of Liberty St. and Greenwich St., right in front of NYFD Ladder Co. 10’s station, and opened a binder filled with photos and maps.  A small crowd gathered around him as he spoke of the disaster with emotion.  He stood in front of the Firefighters’ Memorial (on the side of the fire department, overlooking fences surrounding the site.  The space that was once The World Trade Center now appears to be a massive construction site.  Still, there’s a feeling of solemnity when standing near such a place.  People walk slowly past the fences, trying to peer inside.  Twisted metal juts from some spots in the ground, leaving us wonder, “Is that left over?  Is it new?”  The snow has buried all the dust around the site, but if I could see it, I’d wonder, “Are there victims in this?”

Though I was told not to expect much, I felt more connected to the events of 9/11 than ever.  When I watched the scene unfold on television nearly 10 years ago, I couldn’t believe it was happening in my own country.  New York City seemed so far away…so unreachable…so much a part of other people’s lives.  Standing here at the corner of Liberty and Trinity Streets, I gained a greater sense of just how massive — both physically and emotionally — this event was.

I videotaped the man on the corner, who said his name is Harry John Roland, a.k.a. Ground Zero Man or The World Trade Center Man.  He said he’s on Youtube, and that he’s there every day, rain or shine, to let visitors know what happened on 9/11.  He said he worked in one of the 7 buildings destroyed on that day.  When I got back to Evanston, I found a Youtube video someone else posted, and the comments under the footage ranged from grateful to disgusted.  Some people find his facts and details enlightening.  Others criticize him for making a profit off others’ misery.  I can only say I appreciated his reverence and his dedication to the memory of the place.  So many do not know what happened, and whether his facts are 100% accurate or not, I felt his heart was in the right place.

I couldn’t stop researching him…trying to find some more details on this man.  Then, I ran across an NPR story on him (I’d been misspelling his name).  I realized he’s not a homeless man.  That he has a family.  That he’s not doing this for money.  That he’s out here, every day, to heal himself.

And as I write this, I realize Harry John Roland and I share a bit the same attitude.  We’ve both felt pain, and we both keep going. We’re not sharing our messages for staggering sums of money, but we both have important messages to share.  Some people think we’re crazy. Some criticize us for not presenting our messages in just the right way.  But our messages are our messages, and we have the right to share them as we know them.

And so, to writers out there, I say: attending a writing conference is exactly what you make of it.  You can choose to listen, to engage, to search for meaning, to find a single nugget that moves you forward…or not.  It’s up to you.

Ground Zero. January 30, 2011.

As one editor said to me during the Writer’s Intensive, “Listen, you don’t have to do what I’m suggesting.  It’s just an idea, and it’s your book.”

How very true that is.

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10 responses to “What Really Happens at A Writers’ Conference?

  1. Okay, here’s the thing about “feedback”—yes, it is good and there is some universally good take away stuff but, really it is a bit arbitrary. My best friend is an actor. She has worked hard for years. She has had to become Zen about acting. It is the only way to go on. She now just tries her best at auditions and hopes that she doesn’t remind the casting agent of the ex-wife that he hates. I have 4 different versions of a query letter out to agents. I keep thinking that my latest version has cracked the code. Truth: all 4 versions have gotten both positive and negative feedback. The universe somehow unfolds exactly as it should.

  2. Thanks for such a good post, Christine! You certainly are giving back to the writing community! I’m in that spot too – past beginner, but not yet professional…. I’m certainly going to copy down Sara Zarr’s words to keep me from losing faith!

  3. You wrote: “when you’re gathered with 1100 other peers who want the same thing you’re working toward” which is always what a writer’s conference is, I have learned (through a book coach at HarperCollins) to make my appointments with agents 5-6 weeks in advance of the conference. That was a great way to get one-on-one time.

  4. Hi. I;m one of the Wesley writers and I LOVED yyour most excellent blog. What a great job. Every bit of it. I’m so glad Steve sent the link. Diane

  5. Melissa Shanker

    Wow. You captured the weekend so perfectly. Please never doubt that you are a great story teller. It comes off the page so naturally, so charming, so funny.
    I am thrilled that we reconnected, and look forward to much more! Meeting up with you again, was definitely the highlight of my weekend.
    Melissa.
    PS. thanks for telling the world my age 🙂 you’ll pay for that.

    • Paybacks suck. I should have known better. Remember, though…I have the originals of the photo of you in that “purple” dress. Once you’re published, you might want to have your publicist keep any signs of that photo out of Barbara Walters’ claws.

  6. Great post, Christine. Such good reminders about why we write. It’s hard to remember that the goal is to tell our story-and tell it well-instead of worrying about who is going to hear/read that story.

  7. Christine! What a fantastic account of the Big Weekend! The Sara Zarr summary is great — thank you! You are so receptive, you’ll get there.
    The part about writing about feelings reminds me of this from Lynda Barry: “One of my students found a diary he kept in Jr. High and he thought ‘this is great! there’s gonna be so much great material in here!’ But as he read on it was just ‘feelings, feelings, feeeelings’, what HAPPENED?! He said it was like finding original film footage of the battle of waterloo, but it was shot by a monkey, so it was all footage of bananas and no Napoleon!'” I like this story because it makes me chuckle, but also, I know EXACTLY what she’s talking about! For what it’s worth, I would pay good money to read the account you posted here! Christine Wolff, SCBWI Reporter In Charge! ❤

  8. Your description of the writer’s conference was so real…could feel the tension of sitting there…waiting and hoping. I have never been to such a conference, but if I ever go…I’ll want to read this first and then medicate my expectations with a little zoloft before I arrive. Thanks Christine

    • Dear Sally,

      Thank you so much for the comment. And, now you know what one of your clients will get when you reply on your VERY OWN blog.
      Have a great weekend. Wonderful meeting up with you and Lisa this morning. Please send me a link to your website, blog, and all that good stuff when you’re ready. I’d love to become a “fan” of your business.
      Did I mention I’m a former preschool teacher with a master’s in early childhood ed? I love all that stuff!

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