In the first week of July, I went to my first writing conference, the annual LA conference with the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI.)
And holy cow, did I learn. I learned so much I feel as though my head will never stop spinning.
As I decompress, refine my goals, and stare at my revision to-do list with creeping horror, I wanted to share what I learned with you.
1. Publishing takes time
This one is pretty obvious, so I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I had completely unrealistic expectations about publishing before I went to the conference.
I was under the misguided impression that you pitch your novel to an agent, then an editor, and get a contract lickety-split.
What can I say? I’m a noob!
The more realistic road to publishing goes something like this:
- Write a terrible manuscript.
- Write three more terrible manuscripts.
- Join a critique group, get your manuscript torn to shreds, and slowly revise.
- Pitch your book to an agent. Get your first rejection.
- Pitch your book to fifty more agents.
- Swallow the rejections, learn from them, and keep going.
- Write another manuscript.
- Work on your craft.
- Pitch again. Get rejected again.
- Pitch again. And something finally clicks.
Or, as Kwame Alexander said,
“Dribble, fake, shoot, miss,
Dribble, fake, shoot, miss,
Dribble, fake, shoot, miss,
Dribble, fake, shoot, swish.”
For some reason, I thought that writing was exempt from the rule that you have to work hard to succeed. I knew that I should practice writing every day, but I mistakenly believed that I wasn’t far off from being published myself. (Yikes!)
Now I know that writing is like any other career—you have to put in hours, days, months, years of your craft in order to grow and hone your skills. (I’m kicking myself for thinking otherwise.)
I had somewhat of a paradigm shift at the conference—after hearing story after story of how many years it took to become published, how many first drafts and abandoned manuscripts and new ideas and query letters—my brain went from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
If you’re unfamiliar, a fixed mindset is a worldview based on the idea that talent is fixed from birth and you can never master a task, subject, or activity that you’re not naturally good at. On the contrary, a growth mindset stems from the belief that nothing is fixed, and with enough practice, you can learn and improve your skills in any area.
I’ve read about growth mindset before, but I’d never seen it demonstrated so clearly in my life. Now I’m looking forward to growing my skills and cultivating my craft. It’s going to be a long journey!
2. It’s all subjective
Publishing is a subjective industry. Our tastes are different, and what may work for one editor or agent may leave another unimpressed. Oftentimes, editors are looking for specific types of stories or just don’t open your query letter at the right time.
If your manuscript is rejected, part of the reason may be personal preference or just plain bad timing. Of course, there’s always room to improve, but a rejection is not necessarily a blanket judgment on your writing skills. The authors who succeed in getting published are the ones who persist despite rejection and continue submitting their work to agents and editors.
3. You need a thick skin, wine, and friends
I absolutely loved seeing all the deep friendships and connections at the conference—people who’ve walked alongside one another for years. They’ve pushed each other through hard times, been there in the dark times, and popped bottles of champagne in the joyous times.
No one can understand the hope and pain that this industry carries better than a fellow writer.
You need people who are willing to discuss finer plot points with you, who intimately know your characters’ names and inner lives. (Family and friends usually get wearied with these discussions after a while!) To last in the writing industry, you need those deep relationships to get you through the years of struggle and rejection. And you need a thick skin, to be able to absorb critique without letting it destroy you.
4. Follow submission guidelines
This sentence was stated so often by exasperated agents and editors that it became a bit of a catchphrase. But it bears repeating—when sending a query letter, follow submission guidelines! There’s no sense in pouring time and energy into a query letter only to send it with the wrong subject line. I’m definitely committing this lesson to memory.
5. People want to meet you
From the two Canadian women we spontaneously had lunch with to the woman I chatted with at the train station to all the people I met in sessions and workshops—people want to meet you and hear about your story. This is your one chance to tell a stranger about your work—in no other situation would anyone be interested!
And it’s so much easier to talk to strangers at a writing conference. You’re all there for the same reason, you probably have the same interests, and you can cut past a lot of boring small talk by simply asking, “So, what do you write?”
There are countless stories about the long-lasting friendships and partnerships born from meetings at conferences. You never know who will be your next critique partner, sounding board, cheerleader, or commiserator. So be brave and talk to the people around you.
6. Agents and editors are humans
A good author/agent or author/editor relationship is like any other—based in mutual admiration, shared values, and similar tastes. It’s important to find an agent or editor who will be a great professional fit as well as a good friend.
That said, I think writers are guilty of forgetting who’s behind the screen when they send their query letters. Agents and editors are human beings with inboxes crammed full of queries and submissions. They get run down and tired and they have a lot to deal with, so remembering that, giving them grace, and respecting them for their time will go a long way.
7. Your brain might explode
If you’re anything like me, you’re an introvert who doesn’t love meeting new people and being in crowds all day.
And while conferences are incredible, they can also be incredibly draining. Your brain might explode, so take necessary precautions (like skipping a session if you’re utterly wiped, going to bed early, or watching mindless YouTube videos during your lunch break.) Take care of yourself so that you can begin each new day ready to learn.
8. Don’t lock yourself in your hotel room
At the same time, don’t be too much of an introvert. This is your chance to meet people who dare to dream the same crazy dream as you—you could meet your next writing partner, mentor, or best friend. Who knows? Don’t turn down an event just because you’re scared or uncomfortable. If you push through that fear, good things will be waiting for you. You just have to open the door and step in.
I’m so glad I went to the conference this summer. I learned so much more than I could ever have expected, and I can’t wait to return next year. I hope these insights strike a chord with you, and let me know—what did you learn from your first writing conference?