Monday, February 2, 2015

Plunging In - Ready or Not

SCBWIThis week I head to my first SCBWI national conference. SCBWI stands for: Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the international professional organization for writers and illustrators of children’s literature. It is a non-profit that started in 1971 and is the only professional organization specifically for those of us writing and illustrating for children and young adults in literature, magazines, film, television, and multimedia. Several of the most widely recognized, award-winning writing professionals sit on the SCBWI Board of Advisors, contribute to their monthly magazine, judge their various writing contests, and attend their annual events.

SCBWI has local chapters and I am a member locally, and attended their conference in the Fall. It was awesome to be among local writers and illustrators, and have publishing professionals from both coasts come as speakers and guests. The energy in the room was strong, but friendly and there was much celebrating of the accomplishments of others. It felt like a close-knit group, even though most came from all over the state. 

I had just signed on with my literary agent and many writers at the conference congratulated me throughout the event, welcoming me to the exciting (and long) road to publication. They also shared valuable advice and offered assurances that I highly appreciated. The workshops were full of practical information and it made me feel like I was back at a grad school residency, which I loved. It made me incredibly excited to get more involved with the organization as a whole, and locally. At the conclusion of the local conference I registered for the national conference. 

Attending the national conference is a total leap of faith for many reasons. For starters, it is a huge monetary investment. Registration, even the early registration discount is not cheap. That doesn't include getting to New York where the winter conference takes place, plus lodging and expenses while I'm there. Luckily I have friends and family in the area with whom I can crash, or I don't think I would be able to swing it. 

Secondly, being in a room with the "rock stars" of young adult literature is nerve-wrecking. I get totally star-struck when I meet authors of works I've read, even more-so when they've written something I like. My respect and admiration for published authors is through-the-roof-borderline-irrational. I admit it, I'm a total fangirl when it comes to writers. I want to know how they get inspired, compare writing processes, praise their work, learn how they came up with plot twists and characters...the list goes on and on. The problem is that when I get in front of them I can barely speak. I don't go as far as fainting, but I feel like if I'm not careful I might pass out. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point. In order to make this experience worth the time and money I have invested, I have to have a strategy to overcome my fandom and appear cool, calm, collected and absorb as much knowledge and wisdom as I can. I can't allow myself to become intimidated, or to think that I don't bring anything to the table simply because I haven't been published. I have to decide what my goals are for the conference, and how I want to use what I learn when I come back home. 

Those are things I should have determined when I registered, but I thought I'd sign up and then figure it out. I had months and months to do so. Now those months have dwindled to days and I had to get my plan in order. I'll share that here, in case it can be helpful to any aspiring writers reading this and planning to attend a similar conference. 
  1. Learn all I can about the featured guests, keynote speakers, panelists and workshop leaders.
  2. Decide on a few works in progress to reference during presentations, keynotes and workshops.
  3. Make a list of speakers, presenters and attendees I want to make sure to meet and prioritize that list.
  4. Ask my various writing groups for ideas, recommendations and tips.
  5. Create a mantra, something like: Writers are people just like me. No need to freak out. Repeat internally as often as possible.
Learn all I can about the featured guests, keynote speakers, panelists and workshop leaders.
Most conferences offer a list of all who will be speaking throughout the event. Be familiar with what they have written, edited, etc. Read a bit of their work, visit their websites, or look them up on Google and Goodreads to learn what others think about them. If they have a blog, read a few entries and comments. If you are really interested in them find a way to connect (via their website, social media, etc. before the conference and let them know you are excited to meet them at the conference so when you approach them it doesn't feel like an out-of-the-blue introduction.

Look for specific things in their bios that you're interested in. For example, do they teach writing somewhere? If so, what age group and how did they get into teaching? If those details aren't included in their bios, add them to your list of questions for when you meet them. 

Decide on a few works in progress to reference  during presentations, keynotes and workshops.
Events like these inspire a wealth of ideas. Have a notebook and pen handy to jot them all down. I find it can also inspire current stories. I have a number of stories that I am working on at any given time. Before the conference I'll brush up on where I am in the stories so the workshops can be relevant to areas I need to develop, plot snags I need to work out, and characters I need to flush out in order to strengthen the story or move it forward. 

Reading through and having some selected works based on the workshop content can give you a starting point, especially if there are any writing exercises. Writing exercises during presentations have been tremendously helpful to me in the past when I have been struggling with a point in my story. They have also led to scenes, characters and inciting events in past works. Be prepared with some top of mind stories you are writing will help you make the most of the time allotted so you don't spend it wondering what to write about.

Make a list of speakers, presenters and attendees I want to make sure to meet and prioritize that list. 
Trying to meet all the speakers and presenters is probably unreasonable and unnecessary. As you research them try to identify three to five and make it a point to meet and try to spend some time with as many as you can. I am interested in meeting more writers and editors of color. As you know from past posts, this is very important to me. This conference has a few Latina authors and an African American that I would love to meet, even if we don't have much in common in terms of the genres we write. However, I think there's value in recognizing their role in opening doors for other writers of color, thanking them and congratulating them because becoming published as a person of color is not easy. 

Aside from that, some areas of interest could include:
  • Their genre(s)
  • Their agent
  • Sub-rights of their work
  • Their editors or publishing house
  • Awards, book lists or recognition they've gotten that you aspire to
Ask my various writing groups for ideas, recommendations and tips.
I have joined various writing groups, both in real life and virtually and encourage any writer to find their Tribe. They can be a wealth of information. Many of them have attended these conferences in the past so ask them to share their experiences with the conference in general (i.e. What is the dress code? Is there much time between events to network? Is there any time to write during the conference?) If any of them are going to be there, it would be a great time to meet up, or at least look for a familiar face, especially those you only know via social media.

Those groups are also well networked, so they can help you decide on your prioritized list as you consider how best to manage your time there. They can also offer insider tips like who usually stays for networking events, who is generally easier to approach, and if they've had any personal interactions with any of the presenters. 

Create a mantra, something like: Writers are people just like me. No need to freak out. Repeat internally as often as possible.
I need to start repeating this to myself well in advance of the conference so I can clear my head and settle my nerves when I get there so I can focus on what I have to do to make the most of the experience. If you tend to get star struck around certain folks, it might be a good idea to have a plan for calming your nerves and clearing your head. Hopefully it will help keep your Fangirl tendencies in check.

Given that I'll be traveling and at this conference for the next few days, there won't be another post until February 9th, when I'll post my reflections on my experience at the conference

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