By Leslie Colin Tribble
Have you attended a big state or regional SCBWI conference? If you haven't, you should. It's a great boost to your writing career and your emotional stability as a writer. Sitting in a room with hundreds of other people of similar goals, interests, frustrations and desires can be a real game changer for anyone who hasn't crossed that threshold of actually referring to themselves as a writer.
I've been a member of SCBWI for three years and finally went to my first conference last month. I did attend the Rocky Mountain chapter's Big Sur in the Rockies last year, but I was such a newbie and so completely overwhelmed by the experience I pretty much came home and crawled under a boulder and didn't write much of anything for another year.
Finally I dug myself out of my self-inflicted non-writing hole and decided that, yes indeed, I did want to pursue my writing. I realized it was "OK" for me to refer to myself as a writer (in answer to that dreaded question, "What do you do?" which is invariably followed by, "What do you write?")
If I was going to call myself a writer, then I also decided I'd better start doing something to improve that writing. So I made the leap and registered for the Letters and Lines conference held in September in Denver. After my dismal beginning at Big Sur in the Rockies, I knew I would have to engage and actually be an active participant in the whole weekend. So I spent the extra money and registered for a manuscript critique by an agent/editor as well as the picture book intensive. In for a penny, in for a pound!
I dithered over which manuscript to submit for the critique. I had plenty to chose from - all in desperate need of a professional thrashing to get to where they needed to be. Finally I decided upon my favorite piece. I'd submitted it to several agents but had gotten only one helpful reply - "I like this quiet story, but just picked up one very similar." Other than it being a quiet story, I couldn't for the life of me see what was wrong with it. So that's the one I chose for the critique. And of course I waited so long in choosing I nearly missed the submission deadline - I had to pay extra for two-day mailing.
Then I decide to apply for a travel grant. But of course, I procrastinated so long I again, had to pay extra for expedieted mailing. This was becoming a rather spendy proposition, this attending a writing conference!
Since I was spending a good bit of money to attend the conference, I wanted to go well-prepared. I asked the other GROGGERS what I should do before I go and got some great advice. I also re-read Pat Miller's article, Ten Ways to Prepare for Your Upcoming Conference. I took copies of other manuscripts, just in case I heard those magic words, "So let me see what else you're working on." In the evenings I jotted some notes of who I'd spoken to that day plus I wrote a few thank you's to various folks. You'll get more out of a conference if you do a little prep work before you go.
Now it's no small effort for me to attend an event like this. I live in northwestern Wyoming where the roads are few and we measure drive time in hours, not miles. My closest SCBWI state event would actually have been a three hour drive north to Bozeman, Montana, which was on the same weekend as Letters and Lines. But I knew I needed the push (kick in the pants?) that a bigger event would provide so I drove eight hours in the opposite direction. I did have an added bonus - my father lives just 15 minutes from where the conference site so at least I didn't have the extra expense of a motel stay, and I got to visit my 87 year old dad. Win!
The first morning of the event, I gave myself a pep talk as I entered the parking lot. "You must talk to people." "You must engage." "No hugging the back wall." "Sit up front." "Just because you haven't been published you're still a writer." The trepidation was immense as I walked up to the registration desk.
But the wonderful Kim Tomsic was behind the desk and when I said my name, she raised her head and said, "Oh, you came to Big Sur!" It was the salve my introvert's heart needed, those kind words, that recognition. It made me 'one of them' as opposed to being an outsider. It would be okay, I belonged here.
I learned a lot from Letters and Lines. I learned from key note speaker, Avi, that even though he's published over 70 children's books, he still thinks his beginning writing is awful and why would anyone want to read such drivel? I learned great tips about writing for children's magazines and how to properly pace a story. I also learned the magic of creating place and some great ways to do that. Each session was helpful and deepened my understanding of the writing process. And they were energizing - I was excited about writing and trying some of these new techniques.
My manuscript critique was inspiring. I met with agent Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary and she was very positive with all her remarks. I told her this was my very first professional critique so she carefully went over her process with me. I told her about chosing this piece because I had no idea what was wrong with it, and she replied that she didn't think there really was anything wrong with it, that SHE LIKED IT. That blew the top right off my writing world. It was an affirmation that I am a decent writer, that I can produce quality work. I totally understood that her liking it didn't necessarily mean it was marketable, but it was the confidence booster I needed to back up my self-proclaimed writer status.
The picture book intensive was with Carter Hasegawa, Candlewick Press. Now this was an experience requiring nerves of steel, immeasurable amounts of self-esteem and heroic amounts of yoga self-calming techniques. We sat in a circle, read our manuscripts outloud and opened our fragile, creative writing egos to critirque. I read a very raw, hurriedly written piece that had been rattling around my brain all summer. The intensive was magic. It was amazing to see how other's reacted to my story, how they saw things I hadn't noticed. I was told to develop an aspect of the story I really didn't even know was in it. The intensive was worth every penny.
So my very first SCBWI regional event was a very positive experience. In fact, I'm now thinking about going to other events, which is actually terrifyingly exciting. I guess I am a writer, after all!