By Marlo Garner, Children’s Book Editor
It’s that time of year when many of my writer and illustrator friends and I are deep in preparation for what many of us consider the highlight our creative year—our regional Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference.
As an aside, if you’re serious about writing for kids—if you’re really, truly committed to the amazing journey this is—you’ll join SCBWI, you’ll find some trusted critique group members through SCBWI, and you’ll go to SCBWI conferences and events. You don’t need to be published to join, and it’s an excellent resource for those of you just starting out, as it is for those of us who have been at it for ages. You won’t regret it, I promise.
But whatever your genre, attending a writers’ conference is a great investment. Going to writers’ conferences is not only about learning, but information you’ll get aplenty. And it’s excellent information from people who have been on this journey a long time, from industry professionals who really want to share their knowledge with other writers (and illustrators). You’ll feel their care and passion as they impart it to you. While I’ve been on my writing/illustrative journey for a long time and have gathered a considerable amount of information, I never walk away from a SCBWI conference without knowing a lot more than I did beforehand. You NEVER stop learning—remember that.
Your very first conference might be about seeing what it’s all about and making sense of this weird, wonderful, inspiring new world, better understanding its social makeup, and hopefully making a few new friends. So whether you’re about to attend your first conference or your tenth…
DO go with objectives and realistic goals in mind, such as:
- A critique of your manuscript with an editor or agent
- Making ten new friends and contacts
- Getting an illustration portfolio review
- Entering a contest
- Overcoming your fear of attending
It is really up to you, and you only have yourself to answer to when you make your goal(s), but DO make your goal(s) a little bigger than you feel comfortable with. Do what makes you feel challenged. Do what makes you feel a little (or even a lot) afraid.
DO anticipate and prepare:
- Make sure you choose your workshops prior to the opening of conference registration. If your chosen conference is anything like mine, it will fill up fast. (The most popular workshops at my conference fill within in an hour or so of registration opening.) I go to each conference with a goal to learn more in specific areas, and I choose my workshops and activities ahead of time accordingly.
- If there is a contest offered, take careful note of the application and submission dates and keep them in your line of sight.
- If you’re preparing a manuscript, be aware of submission deadlines and any formatting or other guidelines.
- Don’t leave ordering business cards or postcards to the last minute, or be prepared to pay rush fees for production and shipping.
- If you’re preparing an illustration portfolio, start well ahead of time!
Do adhere to conference etiquette: Don’t stalk editors/agents/art directors/authors. Just don’t.
I recall one workshop I attended a few years ago where the speaker—an art director—actually said at the beginning, “You’re welcome to submit to me, but please don’t give me your manuscript today.” He also made it clear he had to leave quickly afterward to catch his flight. But at the end of his session, at least ten attendees raced toward him, manuscripts in hand, clamoring for his attention. It was absolutely mind-boggling. I have heard plenty of horror stories from editors and agents about being accosted in the restroom, finding manuscripts in their bag, and being unable to extricate themselves from conversations with writers determined to “ear-bash” them into taking their manuscript on the spot. Not only self-absorbed and clueless, but rather rude, too.
So with that in mind, here is a list of those things you should DO and those things that are DON’TS.
- Don’t bring copies of your manuscript. You will have a chance to submit to agents and editors speaking at the conference, but you should submit to them after the conference as per the guidelines they will provide. (If you are having a critique of your manuscript, however, do make sure you have a copy on hand.)
- Don’t expect to give your manuscript to an agent or editor at the conference.
- Don’t stalk agents and editors—I have to repeat that.
- Don’t monopolize people’s time. You and your work are no more important than anyone else or their work.
- Don’t refer to your manuscript as the next Harry Potter (etc.).
- Don’t tell an editor how much your kids, kids’ class, a friend, etc. love your manuscript.
- Don’t record workshops sessions or keynote speeches without asking.
- Don’t blog, tweet, or post about workshop or presentation content in any but the most general terms (that is, no more than a broad description of the workshop that is available online to anyone).
- Don’t share/post/blog materials provided at the conference by speakers.
- Don’t use gimmicks. You don’t want to look desperate.
- Don’t be self-absorbed. Be interested in other people’s work and journey.
- Don’t be too nervous. We’re all in it together, we all had a first conference, and you’re not the only one for whom this is a first conference. (Reach out and make a friend!)
- Do have professional business cards to hand out as you make connections. (I like to tuck mine inside my name tag so they are easily at hand.) If you’re an illustrator, bring postcards that highlight your work.
- Familiarize yourself with the speakers’ books or work before attending.
- Do choose your workshops carefully. Determine what you’d like to know and formulate questions ahead of time to ask when given the opportunity.
- Do be prepared to meet new people and make new friends and allies.
- Do remember this is a professional setting, so act professionally. Be courteous, friendly, kind, and respectful.
- Do dress neatly and professionally. Smart casual is the appropriate choice. (I also like to wear clothes of a similar color all weekend, so I am easily remembered.)
- Do be prepared to take notes. Come equipped with paper, writing material, or your laptop.
- Do sign up for a critique when you feel ready. Make sure you take notes and listen to feedback. Do NOT argue with the professional critiquing your work, and check your emotions at the door. He or she is working hard and thoughtfully to give you constructive feedback.
- Do practice your one sentence “elevator pitch” in case someone asks you what you’re working on. Fill in the following blanks to get you started: Protagonist is a who? who wants what? because why? but something/what? gets in the way.
- Do have a social media presence (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) so that people you meet can easily connect with you post-conference.
- Do consider getting a website or blog, so people have somewhere to go to learn more about you.
- Do be appreciative of the masses of hard work and many hours that go into conference preparation and be respectful and courteous to the volunteers working hard to give you a great experience.
- Do carry a water bottle and a snack and take advantage of breaks to refuel. Conferences are fast-paced and exhausting (in a good way), but they’re way more exhausting (in a bad way) when you allow yourself to get dehydrated and/or low blood sugar.
And most of all, DO have fun! You’re meeting all sorts of people who “get” it. They’re on this journey, too, and they’re just as deeply passionate about it. You’re meeting your peeps, your tribe, your true soul family. Enjoy it!
Marlo Garner is passionate about all sub-genres of children’s books, and is published in the middle grade and picture book markets.