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I’d heard that the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator’s (SCBWI) conferences could open doors to the traditional children’s publishing world for writers. I wasn’t exactly sure what this meant, but, being a self-published kids’ writer, I was interested in finding out, and also in getting a sense for what’s going on in children’s publishing in general. In November 2012, I joined the SCBWI ($85.00 USD annual fee) and paid the early bird, member rate for the annual winter conference tuition ($380.00 USD). Tuition would give me access to the full conference at the Hyatt at Grand Central Station on February 2 and 3rd. I was particularly excited to see keynote speakers Shaun Tan and Mo Willems.
When I registered online, I saw that there was a third, pre-conference day of intensives on February 1, including a Writers’ Roundtables, and a workshop called Elements of the Novel. Both had limited space and were sold out, but by January my name made it up the wait-list and I had a spot in the Writers’ Roundtables. I wasn’t totally sure what it was, but, from the online description, it appeared to involve a group of eight writers reading the first 500 words of a project and receiving an on-the-spot critique from an acquiring editor. There would also be some exclusive talks about children’s publishing by editors and agents. I paid an additional $225.00 USD for this full-day intensive.
SCBWI New York Day -1: Writers’ Roundtables
When I arrived at the Hyatt on the morning of February 1st , I was surprised to find myself in a grand ballroom full of hundreds of conference attendees making small-talk at rows of round banquet tables. Each table had a metal pole displaying a table number and the name of an editor for a major publisher. I was perplexed. I had overlooked the “s” on Roundtables and imagined the intensive as an exclusive event, in which a lucky, and very small, group of writers had a private session with some industry insiders. Would it surprise you to say I’m known to be naïve at times? This was an international conference in New York City. Of course there weren’t only eight writers allowed in.
I was surprised but not phased. Everything I’d read was true, just with more participants. Once in the morning, and once in the afternoon, I had ten minutes to read the first 500 words of my middle-grade sci-fi novel to a small group of fellow writers and one acquiring editor from a major publishing house. It seemed that the editors had agreed beforehand with the SCBWI that writers in their sessions would have a window of opportunity following the conference to submit a project to them directly. Oh, I thought, so that’s what they mean by opening doors. The editors in question normally have closed submission policies, meaning they don’t accept un-agented or unsolicited submissions. The editors provided the writers at their banquet tables with their personal email address and some submission guidelines. One editor put an expiration date of thirty days on the offer (which seemed short) and the other allowed six months to a year (which was wonderful).
The Roundtable sessions were preluded and concluded with talks by a group of editors and a group of agents. The editors gave quite detailed and personalized commentary on their own tastes regarding submissions. Some of this advice was familiar: show don’t tell, don’t be didactic, don’t talk down to kids. Some was more idiosyncratic: don’t start with a dream, don’t have a mysterious new boy who your main character falls in love with, don’t give quirks to your characters just because, don’t use clumsiness as quick route to likeability, don’t use “like” or “whatever.” Like, even in dialogue, okay? (Whatever. Ever heard of versimilitude?) The editor panel emphasized the importance of agents in their own job of acquiring manuscripts. According to them, agents are necessary these days, for writers and themselves.
The agents spoke about their role as champions of writers for the long haul, and about trends in publishing. They had tips about what’s selling now. Newsflash: vampires are dead. Dead, we said! Got it? Okay, good. Maybe try some non-dystopian sci-fi. (I doubt vampires are over, but I felt their pain in wishing it to be so.)
Both the editors and the agents insisted that writers not follow trends. But, they added, make sure you know what the trends are while you’re writing. Right. I think I get it. This denying-while-embracing-trends paradox was repeated a few times during the conference by different industry insiders.
My takeaway from the day was that editors and agents are just children’s literature enthusiasts like the rest of us. They have tough jobs, and they do them because they have a passion for the end product. It was heartening to see the personal side of the business.
In all, I left feeling that the Writer’s Roundtables were worth the money. I met other writers, got an inside look at what editors and agents are thinking, and got a toenail in the door with two editors at major publishing houses, along with their professional feedback on something I had written. I didn’t leave with any illusions that the editors were going to welcome everyone’s manuscripts. They promised to review our submissions, but that could mean a lot of things, including that they might read the opening line and delete the email. We were, however, assured by these editors that they had acquired the manuscripts of some conference attendees in the past.
SCBWI New York Day 1: Breakout Sessions and Shaun Tan
The conference proper started with a funny and acerbic keynote by author Meg Rosoff before a crowd of what we were told was just under one-thousand attendees. She took umbrage with two offenders: those who consider her career choice of children’s book author to be a last-ditch effort at success requiring little talent, and celebrities who decide to publish a picture book during a lull in their career. She ended with a wonderfully chosen quote from A. A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, in which Christopher Robin realizes he’s about to outgrow Pooh. In her view, this passage is one of the great expressions of coming of age in all of literature. Her point was that it’s a children’s book, and, yes, it’s as great as real literature and deserves recognition by the serious, adult literary world.
Rosoff was followed by a Bookseller’s panel, which again spoke about trends in children’s publishing, this time from a retail perspective. The highlight of this session was Jon Fine of Amazon’s admonishment to everyone in the children’s publishing world to take hallucinatory drugs to broaden their minds about what is possible. When asked what will sell, rather than answering with specific categories, such as "short fiction," “high-interest non-fiction” or “contemporary multi-cultural” as the other panelists did, Fine said: “Don’t write shit.” He was speaking to the self-publishing crowd.
Two breakout sessions followed the morning talks. When registering for the conference back in the fall, I was asked to choose two editors/publishers whose breakout sessions I would attend–not that I knew what a breakout session was. I made this decision based on brief bios containing descriptions of their current interests, trying to match these with my own current project.
To get into our chosen sessions, we presented a ticket at the door. It was clear that without a ticket, you would not be permitted to enter. There were about thirty to fifty people in each of my two sessions (that’s a guess—I’m not great at estimating numbers of gathered people). The editor or publisher stood at the front of the room and spoke to us about what “hooks” her in a submission. Near the end of the first session, I learned that, as with the Writers’ Roundtables the day before, the presenters had agreed with the SCBWI to accept submissions from the attendees for a pre-determined time-frame. We were given submission guidelines and promises our work would be read by the presenter personally. The submission window offered by the speakers at the breakout sessions I attended ranged from two to three months.
By the end of the first session, I understood what people meant when they said SCBWI conferences open doors to the children’s publishing world. It was simple: editors of major publishers such as Harper Collins, Scholastic, Little, Brown, and Penguin, which have closed submission policies, open their inboxes for a select few who pay to attend the conference and choose their sessions. I didn’t read about this opening of submission policies in any promotional materials from the SCBWI. They were much vaguer than that, providing assurances that the annual conference is a great place to make connections. But it became clear that direct access to an editor at a major publisher was one of the benefits I paid for by signing up for the conference. Kind of crude and reductive to put it that way, which is probably why it didn't appear in any promotional materials. But there it is.
After the breakout sessions, multi-award winning illustrator Shaun Tan gave his keynote. The crowd sat mesmerized as he spoke in a monotone Australian accent about growing up in Perth, showed us photos of his art workstation at home, and gave us a preview of his newest project. The highlight for me was his presentation of a drawn sequence about Eric, a Smurf-sized foreign exchange student with a leaf-shaped head, which appears in Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008). He wanted to demonstrate his tone to us, so he read the matter-of-fact, mundane words that accompany these drawings aloud while the images displayed on the three giant videoscreens in front of the room. His dry narration combined with his stunning, bizarre drawings was hilarious and moving. If it wasn’t clear to me before, it was then. The man is a genius.
Next was the art browse. The illustrators at the conference had the chance to present a portfolio of their work to conference attendees. The tables were cramped and there wasn’t much space to maneuver. I talked too long and barely made it half-way through. I filled my pockets with artist postcards and business cards. There were so many talented artists there that I just didn't have time to see all their work and talk to them all.
An evening gala (with food and one drink included in the conference fees) and some socials followed, but I wasn’t able to attend those as I had booked a Broadway play.
SCBWI New York Day 2: Mo Willems
The final day started with an awards ceremony that dragged on too long, eating into the time for author Margaret Peterson Haddix’s keynote. After Haddix, screen actress and children’s author Julie Andrews and her co-author and daughter spoke about their numerous children’s books, one of which, The Very Fairy Princess, had just made number one on the New York Times Bestseller list.
Finally, it was time for Mo Willems. I had been looking forward to Willems, who used to write the character Elmo on Sesame Street and is best known as author/illustrator of the wonderfully interactive picture book Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (2003).
Willems energized the crowd the moment he stepped up onto the stage. He started by posing holding a shoe and running back and forth across the entire room with his arms waving. This was to be the audience’s chance to take photos. He then asked that we put our cameras away, aurging us to be here, now, in the moment. Most people respected this. A flash went off later on and he asked the woman directly, with just the touch of an edge in his voice, to not do that.
He offered hilarious writing advice, such as be succinct, a rule he went on and on about. Don’t be repetitious, he repeated over and over again. He identified one nearly impossible step to writing: “be superlative.” His speech was full of tidbits of provocative advice for writers, a few of which I here attempt to paraphrase. Don’t write what you know, write what you don’t know to keep yourself interested. Your dreams will never come true. So dream bigger: then when your dream doesn’t come true, you’ll still accomplish something not so bad. Using a story about a turd found in a car, he showed, rather than told, us that a hook isn’t really anything of substance. Not enough to make a really great book. The hook was the turd, but the real story there, the meat, was “Who is Deborah?” (She’s the one who put the turd in the car, the character we have all the questions about it).
Everything he said was thought-provoking and insightful and funny, but one moment shone through the rest, probably because it seemed the most heartfelt. He reminded us that growing up sucks, and that our one job as children's writers is to be some kid’s friend. Anyone who has read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus understands that this is indeed a guiding principle of Willems’ work, one he has mastered. Making friends with the audience just seems to be who he is. He certainly was a friend of everyone there during his talk. It was probably the best keynote I’ve seen at any conference or occasion, ever. Thanks Mo.
The day ended with an autograph session that I avoided because the line-ups were ridiculously long.
In all, the conference was inspiring, insightful, and encouraging. A lot more happened than I have been able to capture here. Another fulfilling side to the weekend was simply meeting so many likeminded people, writers and illustrators both. The icing on the cake was that I was in New York City, which I tried to enjoy as much as possible between conference sessions and at the ends of the days.
Do I need to mention that I would definitely go again?