Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Kim: Conference Expectations

Great! You registered for a writer’s conference. It might be your first, or your twenty-seventh. Maybe it’s a regional SCBWI event, like the one I’m helping to put together in Seattle next month, which explains why I’ve chosen to blog about conferences. My brain is filled to the brim with conference. I’m so distracted thinking about conference tasks, I just splashed my own face with coffee. For everybody’s safety, we'll just stick with conferences as our topic.

You’re signed up, you’re excited, you’re ready for the most part— but why are you going? Do you know?

I attended my first writer’s conference in 2005. I didn’t really have any purpose other than seeing what it was all about. The faculty intimidated me and I remember talking to only two attendees. One asked if I was published and turned away when I said no. The other pushed postcards of her illustrations into my hand. I learned things about craft and the publishing industry in the sessions, but I walked away uncertain if I would invest in a conference again.

Why did you sign up for a conference?

Really think about your expectations. Think about whether they’re realistic, and if they’ll help you to gain what you need from the experience. I know. We’re writers. It’s hard to be realistic. Our brains go off on “But, what if…” tangents that color everyday activities. If we’re preoccupied with an upcoming conference, there is the potential to come up with some doozies just short of glass slippers and winning lottery numbers. But, what if (you ponder) Editor X stops the proceedings to proclaim that your prose made her weep, she was writing up a contract, and could everyone just rise for a spontaneous standing ovation? Alas, that is something that would only happen in our overworked imaginations.

Even if the conference stars aligned for the perfect ingredients to give your career the boost it needs, your serendipity would probably be such a gossamer web of small events and lumps of knowledge, you may not even be able to recognize it even in hindsight.

I (well, you know, Sara) sold my debut middle grade novel last month. I strongly believe that would not have happened if I hadn’t attended the writing conferences that I did. Not even if I had kept plugging along with classes and craft books for years and years. I’ve gained a ton of knowledge at conferences that I haven’t found anywhere else about the craft of writing, as well as the market. I’ve been looking back at all the wonderful fortuity and opportunities that brought me to this place, and a great deal of it came from attending writing conferences.

I signed up for manuscript consultations that offered critiques and constructive feedback. Sometimes editors and/or agents request to see more of your manuscript after a consultation, and sometimes they don’t. It’s a great confidence boost (and what writer doesn’t need that?), but the editors who asked me to send them the whole thing weren’t the one who wound up with the manuscript. And I’ve had critiques with authors that were just as, if not more, helpful.

I got to know my critique partners at conferences, and some of my best friends. Writing is lonely! Most of the time, I don’t mind. I’m an introvert at heart. People never believe me because I spend a lot of time up at the podium at our conference, and running around chatting at the others I attend. But, I am indeed an introvert. I hid under my bed at my own birthday party. It was my fifth birthday, but still. I wanted to hide under my bed at a few of my grown up birthday parties, too. But something about being around a bunch of people that get jazzed about books for kids the same way I do…that charges my batteries.

Let’s operate under the assumption that you are going to get published, if you haven’t been already. Congratulations! The market is not a place you will want to be in isolation when your book goes out of print, or your option isn’t picked up, or your cover gets whitewashed. When you’re stuck and discouraged? You need your writer friends. Who can help workshop ideas? Writer friends. Our non-writer friends are supportive, but they don’t really get it.

I considered quitting writing altogether last December. The thought hurt my heart, so I don’t think I would have gone through with it. I was just stuck on a revision and feeling frustrated. I went to the annual SCBWI Winter Conference in New York that January and really listened to the keynotes. I went back home inspired and wanting to write again.

So, what is your primary reason for shelling out the registration fee and signing up for a conference? Is it a book deal? Save your scratch and stay home. If it’s inspiration, community, or honing your craft that you are after, you are on the right track. And if you just want to be surrounded by a bunch of likeminded book loving neurotics with big dreams and weird ideas, you will be in the right place!

Make a note and remind yourself while you’re there what makes it worth it to you. Don’t waste an opportunity like I did my first time.

The important thing is being there and being open to all of the lovely (realistic) possibilities. And be careful with the coffee.


  1. Wonderful post, Kim! I've never been to a conference in person, but you may have just convinced me to give one a try.

  2. I smiled when reading your take on your first conference. My first experience was similar. I was freak-ing petrified, wished for Harry’s invisibility cloak, and went home with a headache the size of my Aunt Gertrude wondering if this whole writing gig was a mistake. But I kept writing and my confidence grew so when I attended the next conference and the next one, I allowed myself to relax. I met a TON of great people (that I keep in touch with still) and learned lots of cool stuff (at my last conference I discovered that Cynthia Leitich Smith discussed her desire to write for children with a duck in the park before going home to tell her husband? Seriously).

    I live in CT, but I am going to the SEATLE conference!!! I can’t wait. My best writing friend, who I met online in a writing class, lives in Seattle. Another friend lives in Oregon. For two plus years we’ve emailed and skyped, but never met. So I will get to meet them both and talk books and writing all day and all night and go to all those awesome lectures that you (and others) have planned, and meet more new awesome people, and, and….Yeah, it’s going to be heaven.

    So thanks in advance for all you’re doing to make the conference great. I’ll be sure to splash my face with coffee before I head out : )

  3. Excellent advice Kim! And very timely. I'm going to write down some specific reasons why I am getting a babysitter for my kids, shelling out hard earned money and stepping out of my comfort zone to go to a conference. Good luck with your book!

  4. Excellent post about conferences. My first conference experience was a little like yours. Since then I have been to 4 of them and I take something away each time. Sometimes a LOT of things. And I am getting better at making connections- which really helps the next time you go and you know people, especially if you follow them on their blog, FB or twitter.

  5. Thanks, Dianne and Christy!

    Paula, wow! That's great! I love to hear about people coming from far away. I hope we don't disappoint. Say hi if you get a chance!

    Jackie, that's an excellent point about keeping in touch online. It's a fantastic way of keeping in touch with conference friends, near and far.

  6. Holy Baked Potato, Batman, I'm glad you didn't give up three months ago. Wow!

    Thanks for the honest and encouraging comments, Kim. I've got conference on the brain, too. Hard to believe your first conference was only six years ago. You rock!

  7. Angi, I was thinking about giving up LAST December. Three months ago I was on submission. No way I was giving up then!

  8. Kim,
    From one introvert to another, I'm looking forward to leaving my island and seeing everyone in April.
    I'm glad you didn't give up! :)

  9. Your post, of course, was full of awesomeness, Kim, just like you! Strangely enough, I was having the identical first conference experience as you did--at exactly the same conference! It's really too bad we didn't meet up then, but we probably both would've run to hide under opposite ends of the bookstore tables. Thankfully we did meet soon afterwards, though. I couldn't walk this road without you!

    I think we all need a secret introvert sign to share with one another at conferences, don't you?

  10. Fab post, Kim. Thanks for this - and for resisting your introvert heart and being amongst us all. We love it.

  11. Great path story! I don't EVEN remember my first writer's conference any more, it was so long ago, but I spent money on a lot of 'em before I figured out how to really get value from them -- where were you 20 years ago with this advice, girl? Oh yeah, maybe fifth grade or something. :) Well, all of Sara's readers are lucky to get it now, anyhow! Just the tip of your sound iceberg advice, as some of us know!

  12. Wise, wise words of wisdom, Kim. I have met so many of my best writing friends at conferences! And you're right, we're best served looking at conferences as chances for fellowship and growth. :)

  13. Thanks, you guys! This has just made me even more excited about our upcoming conference!

  14. Great advice! I am going to my first conference this year (Philadelphia Writers Conference in June).

    I hope to pitch and pitch well. I hope to learn more about my craft and be one of the lucky ones to get my submissions critiqued. I hope to learn more about the promotion side of things, which is my bogeyman (introverts unite!) Mostly, I hope to enjoy the synergy of being with other writers and come away raring to dive back into the fray!

  15. And I am getting better at making connections- which really helps the next time you go and you know people, especially if you follow them on their blog, FB or twitter.

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  16. what a wonderful post, I've never been to a conference in person, but you may have just convinced me to give one a try.

  17. What an encouraging post to read for a newbie like me. I am doing my best to prepare for my first conference in April, (yahoo!), but I realize now that unrealistic goals may likely have led to lots of warm tears in a cold chardonnay ;) I appreciate the lesson on being grounded and having fun! I look forward to seeing what SCBWI is all about. Thank you for sharing.

  18. Excellent post about conferences. My first conference experience was a little like yours.

  19. And I am getting better at making connections- which really helps the next time you go and you know people, especially if you follow them on their blog, FB or twitter.

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