I’m headed to one of the largest children’s book writing conferences in the world: the SCBWI Winter Conference (why our annual winter conference is in NY [where it’s supposed to be 8° this weekend] and the summer conference is in LA, I’ll never understand, but that’s another topic.) And OVER A THOUSAND fellow writers and illustrators will be there too. The event boasts many top (dare I say famous) editors, agents, art directors, authors & illustrators in the children’s publishing world. It’s going to be a fantastic few days of learning, inspiration, and friend making.
The large mix of attendees is weighted a little heavily towards the beginner, with many in the intermediate and many many in what I’d call the “seasoned professional” category. The NY conference is a little different from other SCBWI conferences in that, given the proximity to so many publishing houses, it practically rains editors and agents. You’ll see them at conference keynotes, intensives, panels, awards ceremonies, heck, even elevators. Some of them just show for the Art Show or Gala Dinner. Many of them are either new or overworked and don’t travel much, so you won’t see them elsewhere.
If you’ve never been, and have wondered if it’s worth it, I have to give it a hearty YES YES, two cramped writing thumbs up. And not just because I love my NY roots and will find any excuse to go back. But because it’s a writing experience like no other. It’s not a pore-over-your-workshop-notes-and-guarantee-yourself-an-aha-moment. It’s a wow-I’m-really-a-writer-surrounded-by-other-writers-and-this-is-where-I-want-to-be-moment. If you don’t have one of those while you’re there, well, you might not be a writer after all. And that’s OK, too. Isn’t that an important learning moment as well? No matter what you walk away with, I promise you won’t regret your decision to attend. There’s a reason a thousand people from around the world will be at this thing.
Now if you happen to be one of these thousands of fellow conference attendees this week or sometime in the future, and are fearing for your life because you’d rather be in your jammies creating in the privacy of your home and not in the middle of a grand ballroom surrounded by all these cat ladies, here are some conference tips to maximize your trip.
- You’re not going to get a contract (seriously, toss that thought right now), but you WILL make contacts. These connections might lead to a contract some day. But don’t pressure yourself, or others. Listen. Learn. Be present. Follow some new people on Twitter and Facebook (follow this blog!). It’s kind of like college-you aren’t really there to memorize the Periodic Table; you’re there to learn life lessons like how to handle a messy roommate or irrational professor.
- A simple trick: stick business cards (people still use them!) in your badge holder, so they’re handy. Make sure your website and whatever social media handles/hashtags you use are included–if not, write them in with pen.
- You never know who you’ll be sitting next to so be nice to everyone you meet. Author and illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi has some great conference tips including “make the first move” – suck it up and introduce yourself around! [See more of her advice, including charming comics about being an introvert at a conference, at her website here.] The person sitting on either side of you could be the afternoon keynote or tomorrow’s best seller. I got my first book contract by making small talk with someone sitting next to me in the grand ballroom. I didn’t know she was a publisher (she wasn’t wearing her badge)! We started talking and then met again after a session in the afternoon, where I realized who she was, and we started talking about the “call for authors” her company had issued. OK, I realized I said you won’t get a contract from the conference so let me clarify: technically I got thebook contract because she liked my writing sample, not a direct result of conference events. But the opportunity to send it to her wouldn’t have happened had we not had a nice, informal and unpressured chat.
- Be open. If you’ve attended a hundred conferences before and find yourself saying “I already know this,” you’re preventing yourself from learning anything new. I mean, if you already knew everything, why are you here?
- Many creative types are introverts. You are in good company! Regardless of your level of expertise, we know it can be hard to put yourself out there and start shaking hands like a cheesy presidential candidate. Look at the big picture; it’s more than just saying hello to the person next to you. And since most of us will be attending the conference alone (even if we traveled with a friend), it can get nerve racking. Wracking even. Take some “survive attending a conference alone” tips from themuse.com here.
- If you’re a true beginner and are looking for basic tips on writing your first children’s book, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point you towards a video I made for the beginning picture book writer. It’s fun. Really. https://bitsykemper.com/2014/03/19/179/
If you’ve got other tips or advice, please share. And since I hope this has convinced you to attend the winter conference some day, bookmark this for future use. I hope you’ll use it.