October 16, 2011

Slice of PIE: A Writer’s Conference – Author’s Blackjack?

This isn't a Slice of PIE today -- more like the whole thing -- but I wanted to get it down while it was still fresh in my head!

I just got back from the 2011 Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Fall Conference.

I’ll tell you right now that going to a conference is a big gamble. What do I mean by that?

Let me define “gamble” first. It means, “to play at any game of chance for money or other stakes; to stake or risk money, or anything of value, on the outcome of something involving chance; to lose or squander by betting; to wager or risk; to take a chance on; venture; risk; any matter or thing involving risk or hazardous uncertainty; a venture in a game of chance for high stakes, especially high stakes.”

How can going to a writer’s conference be any of those things?

Let me clear the air here to say that it has nothing to do with the effort the planning group put into the event (yesterday’s MN SCBWI Conference was a wonderful day!). It has a little to do with the invited guests (all of whom were excellent in different ways). It has even less to do with where it was held, what we ate, or who the participants were.

It had everything to do with chance and a little bit of skill. Like blackjack, that’s where the gamble was.

The main guests were (in alphabetical order): Dawn Fredrick, non-fiction agent; Andrew Harwell, associate editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books; Allison McGhee, writer; Lonnie Plecha, CRICKET MAGAZINE editor; Dan Santat, illustrator; Nicole Tugeau, illustrator agent; and Mike Wohnoutka, illustrator. A smattering of other, more experienced writers and illustrators were also there informally. They mains were supposed to be at the disposal of the participants and they were wonderful about it, autographing books and answering questions both simple and complex with patience and grace.

The event cost me $125 and this is the first step in taking this gamble.

We are not rich and I don’t make anything but a tiny pittance of the family income off my writing. I’m pretty sure I didn’t directly bring in $125 this year to cover the conference cost. I’m NOT saying the event cost too much. My school district is shelling out over $1000 to send me to a training to learn to better coordinate the International Baccalaureate program as a counselor at the school I work at. However, the $125 came out of the family budget. That’s the money I have plunked down on the blackjack table.

Blackjack, while still a game of chance also involves a bit of skill.

But I haven’t reached the blackjack table yet! Another thing I’ve got to shed is the “wisdom” I gained. The authors, illustrators, editors and agents shared some amazing things. Because they shared so much and in order for me to get my money’s worth out of any conference I go to, I distill everything I heard into five tips or insights. Even though I took fifteen pages of notes, I can’t apply ALL of those ideas, so I boil the notes down and choose THE most important thing I learned from each of the workshops I went to or person I heard speak:

Dan Santat: the writer’s and illustrator’s ultimate goal is to be a storyteller (this from a man who turned down the Creative Director job offered to him by GOOGLE twice…)

Lonnie Plecha: does my work have TRUTH or “truthiness”?

Andrew Harwell: the plot arc defines character development

Allison McGhee: “Are you going to be Allison or are you going to be Penny Rosier?”

Dawn Frederick: “I am not competing against you, I want to partner with you.”

All of the above are good things.

I now have the cards in my hands, the dealers – in this case the agent and the editors (as wonderful as they are, the writer and illustrator can’t REALLY help my career as a writer). The dealers are Lonnie, Andrew and Allison.

Allison deals with non-fiction, so I lose here immediately because though I write non-fiction (my book and recent issues of TURTLE MAGAZINE and HOPSCOTCH FOR GIRLS all contain science experiments) I have nothing to offer her for representation. She’s a wonderful lunch companion, but as far as my writing goes – and I make no bones about it, I came to conference to advance my writing – meeting her is a wash unless I can parlay a deal with her partner who handles fiction (though she’s currently looking for paranormal and that’s way, way outside of my field).

That leaves Lonnie and Andrew.

It’s been a while since I submitted to CRICKET. I have a good idea and once I’ve written the story, I’ll send it – but there’s really nothing else I can do but submit. That is a normal gamble. It’s one I make every time I send out a story or article.


I took a real risk here. Between sessions, instead of going to get a cookie and water in the next building, I waited in the auditorium. In my back pocket, I had two notecards one with my elevator pitch (“a short summary used to quickly and simply define a product…The name reflects the idea that it should be possible to deliver the summary in the time span of an elevator ride…”) for HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERES (teen science fiction) and one with the pitch for VICTORY OF FISTS (teen contemporary). Andrew came down the steps next to me to the stage where he’d be evaluating “first pages” with Lonnie and Dawn. He talked with the Regional Advisor, Quinette Cook. I ran down the stairs, almost tripping (a dramatic entrance that would have been) and waited while Andrew and Quinette finished talking. Quinette (whom I worked with several years ago) introduced us and I pitched. He ignored VICTORY – high and outside (his area of expertise). But his eyes sparked at HEIRS, he took a swing and a moment later, I had his card. I'd earlier gathered from him that he was on the 19th Floor (“A manuscript will get to me a week earlier if you put that on it!”) and that he prefers HARD COPY to emails (“I have about a thousand emails in my queue right now. It’s a mess.”) I just have to find out if he takes full manuscripts or if I send a query with a partial…though HarperCollins “only accepts agented material” and I’ve already queried him. So, should I send a full or a partial? (“Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?”) Your insight would be appreciated!

I’ll let you know if my gamble pays off.

Image: http://www.casinosonline.co.uk/userContent/b2.gif


Paul said...

Congratulations on getting a toe in the door. Andrew liked your pitch, so maybe the next step is a partial, to see if he's still interested after considering it in a bit more depth and away from the conference atmosphere. That's just my gut feeling, so take it for what it's worth.

Diana Dart said...

Really appreciated how you dissected the potential pay offs at this conference. I'm with Paul on the partial.

GuyStewart said...

Thanks, Diana! Popped over to your website -- and now you've got a new fan! Thanks!

GuyStewart said...

Also -- thanks, Paul! The MS is on its way tomorrow! I'll keep everyone posted!