As those of you who follow me on Twitter know, I attended my first SCBWI conference this past weekend. SCBWI stands for Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators, and there are many regional chapters all over the world. I belong to the Rocky Mountain Chapter.
For the benefit of those who may wish to attend one of these yourself someday, here are some rules I urge you to follow:
First rule: Don’t sit with people you know
Ha! That’s easy when you don’t know anyone. But I did know a couple of people who were attending, and I ran into someone there whom I had no idea was a writer. It would have been easy and comfortable to hitch myself to one or two of those familiar folk and never be alone. And it was tempting, especially in the morning when it seemed that everyone else knew, well, everyone else.
But by sitting with different people in every workshop, my experience was so much richer. I met a woman who runs a non-profit that rescues horses. I sat with an elementary school teacher who is writing books for emerging readers: kind of a modern “Dick and Jane” series. I chatted with an environmental scientist for the EPA. There were authors who have been published and authors who are just starting to dream. I spoke to shy people who were there with friends and clearly would never have spoken to me if I hadn’t said, “Is this seat taken?”
I will confess, though, I did eat lunch with the people I knew from before. Not only did I want to catch up with them – I hadn’t seen them in three years, except virtually on Facebook – but I remember well the lesson from middle school: never eat lunch alone.
Second rule: No celebrity moments allowed
No, there was no chance that a famous movie star was going to show up, but let’s face it: being in the presence of actual, living editors and agents is unnerving. While nationally famous literary agent Kristin Nelson set up for her workshop, I pondered whether it would be easier to describe my novel to her or to discuss politics with President Obama. No question: President Obama, because the stakes are so much lower. Would I be nervous? Sure. Excited? Of course. But after the initial jitters, I’d manage. With Ms. Nelson, I’d freeze like the proverbial bunny in the path of an on-coming Mack truck, and it would not be pretty.
But no! I would not allow this to happen! Agents and editors are human beings and while we may imagine that they hold the power of life or death over us, they do not. In the end, each of them is only one person with one opinion in an industry full of people with opinions.
So when the woman munching a bagel two seats away from me turned out to be an editor, I did not slide under the table and disappear. I did not sit quietly and let others speak. I met her eyes and smiled and I contributed my thoughts and experiences to the conversation. (As my daughter would say, “What now?” If you don’t have a teen, you may not be familiar with the triumphant tone of that phrase. Trust me on this.)
And yes, in Kristin Nelson’s workshop, I spoke to her even though it terrified me. We exchanged words, thoughts, ideas. She challenged some of my precious notions and delusions. That is huge. Is she a goddess handing down divine law? No, but she’s making me think. She’s making me work. And work is good.
What if I had been content to sit and bask in the glow of her presence?
Third Rule: THEY ARE NOT GOING TO SIGN YOU SO JUST FORGET IT
That’s the fantasy, isn’t it? You spend some time in the same room with these people and they’re going to be so impressed with you – you personally, or your pitch, or your ideas, or, yes, maybe even your writing – that they pull you aside and say, “Listen, I’ve never done this at a conference before but I want your contact information so we can talk on Monday. I think you’ve got something really special…” But that’s not going to happen. You have to get that little fantasy out of your head and focus. Meet people. Learn something. Have fun.