Where Literary Legends Are Born

Tips for First Time Conference-Goers: Children’s Writers Edition

I recently got back from attending the SCBWI Western Washington Annual conference in Redmond, Washington and am on my way to another SCBWI conference in Sacramento next week. That said, conferences have been on my mind and I thought it could be a fun topic to go into for my blog post this week.

So, how as a first time conference goer do you make the most out of your experience? These tips will apply to more veteran conference attendees too!

First off, what is SCBWI? SCBWI stands for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and has chapters in pretty much every state (some states have more than one!) as well as international chapters. I tell every writer I work with to get involved with their local chapter as there are just so many pluses to doing so. You can check out SCBWI’s site to find out more and to locate your local chapter: http://www.scbwi.org/

Many chapters have an annual conference where they invite industry professionals (editors, agents, art directors etc.) to mix and mingle with attendees and share their knowledge. Faculty will often hold a “break out”, which is typically an hour session on the industry, craft etc. It can be so valuable for a writer or illustrator to learn first-hand from those who work in the industry! There also are typically longer, more in depth sessions on craft called intensives, which can be really helpful for more experienced writers. Although beginners will likely get a lot out of them too! Conferences may also have roundtables (where a few authors and an industry professional meet and give constructive criticism on first pages) one-on-one critiques, agent or editor panels and mixers.

Conferences are a great networking tool. You have the opportunity to approach agents, editors and art directors in person! Don’t be afraid to say hello and introduce yourself. The children’s scene is full of really nice and approachable people. I haven’t met a mean person who works in children’s publishing yet! Remember we’re there to help you and are excited to meet and talk with you. Though be mindful of when and where you’re approaching faculty. I’d avoid bathroom introductions! After a breakout session or during a faculty/attendee mixer are often the best places.

If you find yourself feeling nervous, bring a friend with you to the conference!

Do make sure to say hello and introduce yourself to the other attendees. You might meet your next critique partner or conference friends to hang out with at future events!

Bring business cards. You might meet an editor or agent on a roundtable or at a one-on-one critique who is interested in your work and wants to see more. Giving them a business card in this case can be a great way for them to remember you. But, make sure to also query them. I wouldn’t recommend waiting for them to reach out to you. Be proactive and take that first step, especially if they expressed interest. Remind them that they met you at a conference and wanted to see your work and include in your subject line that this is a conference request.

Even if an agent/editor/art director doesn’t specifically ask to see your work (or you didn’t get a chance to meet some of the faculty in person), do look at the faculty’s submission guidelines and send to those who seem like a good fit for your work. But…

Don’t submit too early! I often see an influx of submissions in my query inbox immediately following a conference.  Don’t feel that you need to rush a submission. While some faculty will only allow conference submissions for a set amount of time afterwards, many don’t set a timeframe. Any time restraints will be included with the faculty member’s submission guidelines. Take some time to think about what you learned at the conference and consider going back and tweaking your manuscript before sending out. Too, make sure to mark in the subject line (if an email query) that it is a conference submission and include the name of the conference. Most editors/agents will give priority to conference submissions.

Do sign up for a one-on-one critique with conference faculty if you’re able.  Getting someone in the industry to read your first pages is a helpful experience. Listen to their feedback and try not to be defensive. We’re only trying to help and not all feedback may resonate, and that’s ok. Hopefully the session will help you become a stronger writer and who knows maybe that agent or editor will request your work!

I wouldn’t suggest bringing print outs of your manuscript or first pages to give to faculty at the conference (unless you have a critique or roundtable with them). If you get a chance to introduce yourself to us feel free to tell us a bit about the project and if it sounds of interest we’ll likely ask that you query us. It is often conference policy that writers don’t give their manuscripts to faculty at the conference.  If every writer did this we’d be carrying around a lot of paper. Be mindful that we’re traveling to these events and have limited space. Following submission guidelines and querying afterwards is the way to go!

In sum, be open-minded and be prepared to learn and network! Most chapters have other events for members throughout the year such as retreats and meetings, so if going to an annual conference seems too big to start these are other ways to get involved in your local chapter.

There are additional conferences that also have programming geared towards children’s writers. Romance Writers of America often has YA sessions at their conferences. Others include: Loft’s Children’s and YA conference in Minnesota, Midwest Writers Conference in Indiana and Oregon Coast Children’s Book Workshop. A quick Google search of conferences local to you will likely bring up further options!

For even more on combating pre-conference jitters check out my blog post on nerves here:  http://christaheschke.blogspot.com/2014/09/beating-pre-conference-nerves.html

Best of luck!