Saturday, February 6, 2010

Okay, Conference Report

And I'm back, clearheaded and ready to overachieve. But first, let's talk about conferences.

When we last left our story, I had wiped myself out going to a one-day SCBWI conference in Austin. I bought two books, both signed; met one Newbery honoree; remet a few people; did not introduce myself to a single agent or editor; forgot my crappy-looking business cards; ate a lunch that probably had more sodium in it than my doctor wants me to eat (most meals cooked by other people do); ate trail mix for supper; and wiped myself out for a week. But it was worth it.


Well, let's see. All the speakers were excellent. Although a lot of SCBWI programming is focused on the author who wants to break in rather than the author who has an existing career, and some of what I heard is what you hear at every conference, none of the speakers bored me. My favorite talk was the one by Marla Frazee,, even though, or perhaps because, I'm not and never can be a picture book author and don't know anything about art, not even what I like. Yeah, I think that's a "because." I understand how stories work. I do not understand how art works, so everything she said was new. Will I ever use that new knowledge? What does "use" mean? Maybe I'll never need to understand how artists think for a story, but understanding visual art better is a good in itself.

All of the agents and editors I avoided meeting are accepting manuscripts from conference attendees, met or not, for awhile (time varies). All that information is in my packet (which was, thank goodness, closed when the cat got sick on it, so everything is still legible). My husband, looking this information over, found it discouraging, focusing more on how to go about submitting than on what to submit. But that's okay, because I was able to size up each of them during their talks, and having a set of instructions for submission is a tried-and-true way to weed out the wannabes who aren't putting in their best effort without having to read their not-ready-for-prime time submissions. Editors and agents don't come to conferences if they aren't looking for new work and clients. My chance with them is as good as anybody's there.

As good as? Seriously? I was in an overcrowded venue with two Newbery honorees (Kirby Larson and Jacqueline Kelly), a Sibert honoree (Chris Barton), a double Caldecotter in Marla Frazee - and I think I have the same shot at acceptance as them?

Yeah. I do. And that's not vanity. The degree of excess self-esteem I have may be measured by the number of editors and agents I have ever deliberately walked up to at a conference and introduced myself to (zero), even when I'm well. I am nothing special; my books are pretty good. I prefer to present my books before I present myself. This strikes me as reasonable. The numerous authors who haven't sold any books have as good a chance as I do, also; a dozen publications and a school award don't make me better than them. When I am among authors, I am among my peers, not my competitors and not a range of my superiors and inferiors. There is no hierarchy.

(Well, okay, most of us are inferior to Diana Wynne Jones, but I'm talking about ordinary mortals here. And I could probably even speak to DWJ without stammering much. As good a shot at representation or publication, though? No way.)

Industry Internet Goddess and all-around great person Cyn Smith, when she saw me at lunch, threw her arms around me and cried: "Peni! Penipenipeni!" That was worth the trip right there. She tried to persuade me to go up to the editors (everybody underestimates my conviction that I'll make a bad first impression) by saying if she were them, she would be excited to meet me. I don't know where I get off not believing Cyn, but I seem to be physically incapable of it on this point. But I like seeing her, and she was sitting with Jacqueline Kelly and Varian Johnson, so I got to talk to them, and to Cyn's husband Greg. And a couple of people from San Antonio who I don't see often because I don't often go to local meetings were there, Heather Powers and Catherine Stier.

Talking to other authors, to people who have the same priorities and problems and can either advise you about what to expect, or benefit from your own experience; that's a big, big reason for going to conferences. Writers live in their heads a lot; and when we don't, we live in a world of people who aren't looking for the story elements and character arcs in real life, people who have no idea what it's like to have a book in your head and midwife it out where it can be seen. If we hang out together too much, we talk about it instead of doing it; but if we never see each other, we get tired and lonesome and discouraged. It's worth a conference fee and a drive to shake off that feeling, talk face to face with kindred spirits, and get a free pass for a couple of "no unagented submissions" and "referral only" obstacles.

And if I gave anybody my cold while doing that, my apologies.


  1. I'm glad to know I'm not the only fearful one who would rather let my manuscripts talk for me than me do the first meeting. I worry that I am forgettable while my other writer friends are full of vivacious personality. So, I'm glad it's not just me. :)

  2. Among writers, when it comes to insecurities, it is never just you! Most of your vivacious friends are fronting. You can learn that, too.

    But there's such a thing as rational self-assessment. I've known myself for 48 years now and I have two modes: silence, and can't shut up. When I'm overstimulated, underrested, or improperly fed (and at conferences I'm all three) the odds of my doing or saying something completely off-the-wall, and to be unable to stop saying them, are astronomical. And I never learned how to introduce myself to total strangers. No clue how to do it. Writing a query letter tends to paralyze me with irrational terror, but at least there's rules I can follow, and I can edit, and sleep on, what I say as often as I need to. In person - well, it's not chickening out, it's self-preservation.

    Besides, I don't care what anybody says, I'm not selling myself. I'm selling the books.