Thursday, October 6, 2011

Why You Should Attend a Writer's Conference - Guest Blog By Heidi Horchler

Having recently attended a regional writer's conference, with the speakers' words still buzzing in my head and the buzz from my Starbuck's French Roast still twitching through my veins, I knew exactly the topic I would choose when Anne so graciously asked me to guest post here at Will Write for Coffee: attending writing conferences.

So, you get this urge every time you walk past the office supply section at Target. A vortex sucks you in and forces you to stand there in front of the notebooks. You don't need a notebook. You have two at home that are half full, and you just bought one last week. It has birds or curlicues or robots on it. It's sitting on your night table, pen uncapped at the ready, just waiting for those middle of the night brainstorm ideas that you know you'll lose if you don't jot them down, RIGHT NOW. But, you think, I'd better grab this one with the kittens on it, to make sure I have a spare. 

You know who you are.

You still have a copy of your first Judy Blume book (Tales of a Fourth Grade NothingAre You There, God? It's Me, Margaret? the racy Forever??) You've saved all of your favorite picture books and now read them to your kids. You have an idea for a story *POP* into your head at the most inopportune times, but you write them down. Maybe you even have a manuscript or two.

Now what?

You open your favorite picture book to the publisher's page, scribble down the address on a manila envelope, shove your story in there along with a cover letter that reads:
"To whom it may concern,
This is an awesome story about a teddy bear who learns to bake cookies and has a friend who is a bullfrog named Jeremiah. My kids love it! My son even drew the pictures!
I hope you like it!
No, I'm not being mean or snarky, because that's pretty close to the same thing I did for my first submission. In return, I received a very concise, polite photocopy of a response they send out to all the hapless wanna-be writers out there which said, in a nutshell,
"Thanks, but no thanks." 
If that's enough to deter you, if it was just a whim, and a Hail Mary shot, then good for you for trying and you can stop reading now. But if that "Thanks, but no thanks" got your hackles up and made you more determined to give it a go, read on.

1) Join a critique group. You can usually find one at your local library, school, or even online.

This is very scary, because now you will have to take all of those great little ideas out of your notebook and share them with about 5-10 strangers who will rip them apart. But that's good. Don't get defensive; rather, be a sponge and absorb what you learn, and don't be afraid to "kill your darlings." Be mature enough to accept critique, and give constructive criticism in return.

2) Always use proper format.

No Futura, no Helvetica (I know, I know), and for sure no Comic Sans. When printing your manuscript, even for your critique group, always, always, always use
Times New Roman*, 12-point font; double-spaced; one-inch margins (left, right, top, bottom).
This is an industry standard, and the sooner you start utilizing it, the better. The reason? While I'm not 100% sure, it's said that the serifs in the font make it easier for the eye to flow from one letter to the other; 12-point double-spaced font is just easier to read, and the one-inch margins are to allow room for editorial comments in the margins.
*The only exception would be Courier font, which is more commonly used in screenplay manuscripts.

3) Get your hands on a copy of The Writer's Market.

The library will usually have a reference copy (one that stays in the library and cannot be checked out), and there will often be a copy that you can check out as well. If your focus is writing for children, or if you are an artist or illustrator, there is the Children's Writer's and Illustrator's MarketI cannot stress the indispensable nature of these books. If you study either or both of them the way your kids study YouTube or Facebook, you will have an amazing head start.

The first half of The Writer's Market books contain information on: how to write a query letter; format; selling to magazines; interviews with authors, including how they sold their first book; and advice from agents, many of whom will speak to what sort of material they currently need. The second half of the guide is a directory of agents, publishers and editors, what they represent or publish, and how to submit your work to them. Current is the key word here−although you will find useful information in second-hand copies, the publishing industry changes so rapidly that you will want to find the newest version available.

4) Attend conferences, and join writer's organizations.

It's worth the drive to your nearest city; it's worth the $150-on up registration fee. Plan ahead and save your money. The knowledge that you will gain and the acquaintances you will make−personal and professional−are worth it. For children's writers or illustrators, find your regional Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) chapter, and attend whatever events you can. (More organizations listed below.)

In the past four years that I have attended our regional conference−and I'm not even talking about the whopper events in L.A. and New York−I have heard and/or met editors from: ScholasticRandom HouseAmulet/AbramsChroniclePenguinFarrar, Straus & GirouxHarper Collins and more. I've had a face-to-face critique with an editor from Roaring Brook. I've heard first-hand advice from agents on what they are looking for and how to submit. I've seen presentations from art directors on how a picture book is made. What catches an editor's eye and will keep them reading the next 20 pages, or make them toss it.

I've also made some very good friends, and seen a few fellow writers go on to publication.

If you offer to volunteer, it will not only give you a chance to help out, you will have the opportunity to meet more people. Remember, it's not only about learning, it's also about networking.

But besides learning about the industry and how to navigate it, the best residual effect of a conference is the motivation. Nothing will light a fire under your butt more than hearing the first-hand story of how a successful book made it from notebook to publisher's auction to print.

This year we were treated to the story of Tom Leveen's YA novel, Party. There to tell the tale were Tom, his agent Jennifer Mattson, and his editor at Random House, Suzy Capozzi. Tom told us the story of how he wrote Party, Jennifer talked about how the two of them worked together on it, the process of presenting it to editors, and Suzy explained what takes the book from a point of interest, to a sale, and the final product. It was incredibly interesting, and brought the entire experience down to a more realistic, maybe even attainable level. By the way, I got a copy of Party at the conference, started reading it that night, and couldn't put it down until I finished it two days later. The last book that did that to me was The Hunger Games. So, bravo, Tom, and thank you.

Attendees were given a workshop on how to pitch a book, and an opportunity to have their manuscript read and critiqued by one of the faculty, among other demonstrations.

More highlights of this year's conference were: a discussion on ideas that stand out from Amulet and Abrams books senior editor Maggie Lehrman, presentation on picture book format, from Simon & Schuster associate art director, Lauren Rille; and a lesson on marketing and publicity for today's writers, by industry pro Tracey Daniels of Media Masters Publicity, who also revealed a new project called Bookigee, a completely new way to look at books, and the movies, music and everything else connected to them.

In short, writing a book isn't just about the writing anymore. Sure, the writing has to be there−and has to be better than ever to compete in the market of today−but the whole experience of a book is changing. Not only to people want to read the book, they want to hear podcasts, read interviews, use interactive apps, go to events, and tweet all about it.

In order to get your awesome idea from scribbled notebook to the bestseller list takes more than just throwing a manila folder in the mailbox. It takes research. Not only in your subject matter, but in the publishing industry, social networking and marketing as a whole.

If it's one thing that stood out to me from the whole day, it was the idea that we, as conference attendees and SCBWI members were one step ahead of Joe Q. Writer, in preparing ourselves for the ultimate goal of publication.

So go, buy that notebook, kittens and all. And put a change jar on your counter with a sign taped to it that says "WRITER'S CONFERENCE." Whenever your kids swear, or forget to do their chores, charge them a dollar - you'll have it saved up in no time.

Sisters in Crime - Mystery writers

Authors I've met through SCBWI:

Authors I've met through library-hosted critique:

Not to mention Anne - but I've known her since way before any of this writing stuff :)

Many of these people are the ones who've taught me what I've learned so far, and what I've attempted o pass on to you. I hope you will find wisdom and inspiration in their lessons, as I have. 
Now get your notebook and start writing!

Heidi can be found online here: