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Writing Young Adult Fiction: the High School Hierarchy

A very interesting conversation about writing young adult fiction happened in one of my workshop groups during this past weekend’s Big Sur conference. One participant had painted a character very vividly in his particular high school environment, to the point where everyone in the group knew exactly where this character belonged on the social ladder. But that wasn’t the unique part.

writing young adult fiction, writing about high school
Writing about high school: are you conveying the social climate without the usual telling?

Writing Young Adult Fiction: Show, Don’t Tell

The refreshing thing was that this character never lamented his nerd status, he never described his clothes in a way that hinted to us that he was (let’s face it) a loser, he didn’t go into any detail about how out-of-reach the popular kids were. He just went about his business, thought his thoughts, and through the author’s scenework and his interactions with others, we got perfect context for where he lived in the high school hierarchy. But never once (in my recollection) did he come out and tell us exactly where he did or didn’t fit in.

Some of you reading are like: Yeah. We get it. Show, don’t tell. Right. But writing young adult fiction that touches on the teenage social order is a particular issue where “show, don’t tell” is even more relevant. The pecking order is present in every school, in every group of kids or teens, and, as one person from our group said quite well, everyone always knows, at a glance, what the deal is. Kids know their place and the place of everyone around them. It’s as innate to teens, as instant and unconscious as breathing. Now, this isn’t a blog post about whether that’s right or wrong or how damaging it is to the development of our social mores. The fact is: it’s true. So if we’re writing about high school, how do we reflect it in a way that’s believable?

The Tired Run-Down of the Social Scene

Most people who are writing young adult fiction include a run-down of the social scene. This usually happens in the first chapter for stories set primarily in school and within the first 30 pages for stories that don’t immediately need to put us in a popularity context with the character’s peers. The character will be walking down the hall and commenting on

the Goths, with their black eyeliner, the emo kids sulking into their genderless thrift store cardigans, the cheerleaders puffing out their push-up bra-enhanced chests at the jocks, who are crushing soda cans on their foreheads and emitting caveman grunts…

Etc. Etc. Etc. I have read this list in probably every well-meaning YA manuscript and many published books. The thing is, most YA readers will know the high school archetypes. They don’t need some thirtysomething (and, lest anyone get offended, let me repeat, again, well-meaning) writing about high school in such detail. Most writers include this obligatory run-down for their own sake, to get the lay of their land and to put themselves back into the high school mindset as they write.

Sublimate the Atmosphere

So when we’re writing young adult fiction, how do we convey this atmosphere more organically? How do we sublimate it without the usual telling, without the list of the school’s cliques? I’d love to hear some examples in the comments of books that you think paint a social picture without being too obvious about it. One great exception to the tried-and-true high school hierarchy descriptions, fresh in my mind because I recently reread it, is BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver.

The main character, Sam Kingston, is a popular girl, and a bitchy one, at that, but Oliver describes Sam’s unique take on the social hierarchy in a fresh and very voice-driven way. There’s also a lot of tension inherent in the story premise, so whenever Sam describes her peer group, there’s something working beneath the surface, also. So Oliver doesn’t necessarily get away without any telling, but this is one instance where it worked for me.

Examples, Anyone?

However, I’m also looking for your thoughts on writing about high school that avoids talking about the social structure altogether. And here’s the kicker — it still manages to convey the character’s rightful place and all the longing and disappointments and hopes that the high school caste system inevitably inspires. Any thoughts on the subject, readers? Bueller?

Working on a young adult novel? YA is my favorite category and I’d love to be your young adult editor.

Best. Quote. Ever.

From now until forever, I am going to refer writers who ask me query questions to this quote. It comes from Andrea Brown, my brilliant boss and mentor, and it’s about query letters:

A query letter is like the perfect skirt: long enough to cover everything but short enough to be exciting.

I have worked with the woman for about two and a half years now and have never heard this gem. Where has it been all my life?

This Big Sur, I think, was my absolute favorite. Sure, it was at the Embassy Suites in Monterey (as our March workshops are) instead of the gorgeous Big Sur Lodge in Big Sur proper (as our December workshops are), and the weather spoiled on Sunday, but I think this mix of writers, faculty, and agency clients along for the ride was one of the best I’ve experienced.

A special shout out to Jamie Harrington and Pat Netzley, and to my wonderful colleagues. We missed two of our Jennifers (Mattson and Laughran) at this Big Sur. Fabulous faculty members like Ellen Hopkins, Eric Elfman, Mary Colgan, Anica Rissi, and Deb Wayshak shared their writing expertise with our group of just under a hundred attendees.

My two workshop groups inspired several blog post ideas which you’ll read in the near future. For right now, though, I’m going to catch up on my sleep after this exhausting weekend and start chipping away at my pent-up email. Today is a very exciting day for me in San Francisco, Berkeley, and the Napa valley, which all ties in to my secret new blog/professional project. Soon, my pretties, soon all shall be revealed! For now, delight yourselves with Andrea’s fantastic quote.

Live from Digital Book World!

This week has been a whirlwind so far. Digital Book World, which is where I’m sitting right now, listening to a talk on ISBNs, started for me on Monday afternoon and goes through the end of the day today. I’m here with my colleague, Andrea Brown agent Laura Rennert, and we’re soaking in all the latest news of the digital book landscape.

What’s the biggest takeaway so far?

Standardization. We needs it. I can haz mutual agreement? There are many, many platforms for users to consume ebooks and apps, from the iPad to the Android to the Kindle, etc. And each platform has related-but-different-enough standards and protocols for coding data. So a publisher is running the same book or app through the coding process several times through to fit with every available platform. This makes no sense. A publisher should be able to export in one standardized format. That’s where EPUB3 comes in, and it aims to make the digitization/export process more cohesive.

There are just so many things out there to take advantage of. Almost like all the sites we’re bombarded with these days…Twitter, MySpace, flickr, Facebook, WordPress, Blogspot, tumblr, aaaaaaaaaah! So many! What do we do? It seems to me that with a standard format, it’d be much easier to leverage the same content across multiple venues.

On the agent/rights front, we’re still standardizing which rights should be owned by who, what rights go into digital publishing, standard ebook royalty rates, etc. That landscape is going to shift rapidly, and I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the turmoil on the rights front.

I’m going to be writing up a much more cohesive post when I’ve had some time to mull DBW over. Since I’m still in the middle of it, I feel like I’m just spewing ideas. These are my biggest impressions so far. You’ll have more from me on Friday!

For those of you who are on Twitter, you can get lots and lots of tech-savvy people live-Tweeting the event with a series of custom hash tags. A general one to follow is #dbw or #dbw11!

The Agent’s Role in Today’s Digital Book World

It’s a flummoxing time in publishing right now. Most publishers, editors, developers, marketers, and creators freely admit that the digital book world is the Wild West. We don’t quite know what to expect, but most of us are hitching up and riding for the horizon.

Literary agents are among those forging new trails. Some spectators (and even some colleagues) are now wondering whether there is a place or even a need for these middlemen of publishing in the digital future. As an agent, I want to say yes, of course, and, self-interest aside, I do think there are new and exciting opportunities for both authors and agents in this changing landscape.

At the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, we’re working on concrete strategies for apps and ebooks every day. Since we’re a sales leader dealing almost exclusively in children’s books—a sector where app and game opportunities are growing rapidly—we’re seeing a lot of the changes firsthand.

My thought is this: There will always be people who want to produce writing or art and see it be made available to readers/viewers/players. There are creators and their content, and then there are the people bringing that content to market. The agent’s role will still be necessary to act as intermediary between the two parties, whether working to create an app, a film, a licensed t-shirt, or a printed book.

In fact, I’ll argue that, as publishers embrace different content delivery systems and processes, agents will take on more packaging responsibilities: editorial work, marketing consultation, design, etc. Whether we’re presenting a book to editors or an app proposal to a digital publisher, we will have had a more active hand in its reaching “market ready” status.

That’s not to say that editors, marketing staff, sales teams, and all the other hardworking people of traditional publishing will be obsolete. But already, as we saw from James Frey’s latest venture, publishers are relying more heavily on “camera ready” packaged work. It makes good business sense (as long as you don’t use Frey’s contract) to invest in a developed product ready to go to market.

My colleague Laura Rennert has recently been exploring digital options for her clients, some of whom include high-profile children’s bestsellers like Ellen Hopkins, Maggie Stiefvater, and Jay Asher. “We have to figure out digital parameters as we did with book rights parameters,” she says. “What rights we hold, what rights we cede; what royalties, revenue share, and subrights splits should be. This is the time of start-ups. We have to figure out what media or dimension a book’s content should occupy.”

Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management agrees: “The role of the agent, fundamentally, is to act as an author’s advocate and to serve as a bit of a sieve between aspiring writers and content producers. People will still be writing. And they will still want to connect with readers and make money off of what they write.” Traditional roles, in other words, are relevant no matter the medium.

Blogosphere favorite, former agent, CNET staffer, and author Nathan Bransford sees a segmented agenting community in his digital crystal ball. Agents, he thinks, will be broken up into those that have blockbuster clients and those who don’t. Agents-to-the-stars will deal primarily with major publishers and do business as usual, while others will act more like managers, consultants, and publicists to help smaller authors navigate small presses and self-publishing.

“As long as the polarization between blockbusters and everyone else continues,” Bransford says, “it’s going to be hard for agents to make money unless one of their clients should take off. There’s still a need for authors to be able to draw upon experts who can help them get a leg up and reach their readers, and smaller agents may fill that niche.” In Bransford’s view, then, it’s possible for agents to exist, but they’ll work and earn their keep in new ways. “It seems like it’s a time ripe for experimentation with new agenting models,” he concludes.

For now, I say we delve into new venues for our existing properties and experiment. We should negotiate contracts with the shifting new digital parameters in mind, hold digital rights, insert renegotiation clauses for digital deal points, monitor ebook sales, and collaborate with print publishers as they devise digital strategies for our clients’ existing books. Several of my colleagues are now developing standalone digital book or app ideas and approaching the new crop of digital publishers and developers.

In fact, I’ll argue that agents should start treating their clients’ business like a tech start-up. As a Silicon Valley ex-pat (and a former product manager for a Facebook app development venture that recently sold to Google), I feel lucky to know the ins and outs of the dot com sector from experience. The key there is relentless development, speed, novelty (Twitter, anyone?), and the willingness (and often capital) to delve into new ideas.

For clients rapidly expanding into digital, I predict that no-advance/higher-royalty sales and experiments that require start-up costs will be much more prevalent in the next two years. Agents will also have to keep a hard eye on tech and industry developments, learn the basics of the gadgets, understand tech and programming capabilities, explore what makes a good app (a good starting place is School Library Journal’s “Planet App: Kids’ book apps are everywhere.”), and be at the forefront of brainstorming digital strategy with clients who want to play in the app arena, including developing new properties to pursue. The revenue-sharing model for the agent/client relationship might also change, especially on the digital front and for properties developed mutually.

I’ll be the first to admit that seeing digital topics on our agency meeting agenda always seem to coincide with the flare of a tension headache. Just like the original frontier cowboys, though, we’ll all have to strap on our six-shooters and figure out just what kind of terrain lies over the western ridge of the great Print-Digital Divide.

The one thing we can’t do is pretend that things aren’t changing or that apps don’t exist. Things are and apps do, and that’s why I’ll be at Digital Book World 2011 in two weeks, to see what all this change means for this year and beyond.

***

This article originally appeared on the Digital Book World website, and I will be doing a more extensive write-up of my thoughts after I attend the conference, which is January 24th through 26th. Thanks to Guy, Chuck, and the Writer’s Digest team for the opportunity!

Belated Inspiration for 2011

I promise not to get all weepy and new-age-y on you — I am Tough Agent Lady! (Some of the time…) — but there’s this amazing photographer called Meg Perotti who works in the SF Bay Area and she posted a wonderful, inspiring image on her blog to ring in the New Year. (MK trivia time: I love photography. I have written for a photography trade magazine called Rangefinder. I’m better at appreciating it than doing it myself, but I am an absolute sucker for a stunning photograph, especially portraiture, which is how I fell in love with Meg Perotti’s blog in the first place!)

It’s a bit small here but if you click on it, you can blow it up, print it out, and look at it often, because that’s what I’m doing. I know that New Year’s Eve was, like, a week ago, and everyone is already over it and back to work and slogging through and waiting for the next vacation, but, dang it, there’s too much that’s good and creative and powerful about life to let it streak by unnoticed!

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the bottom of this picture is the beeeeeeautiful city of San Francisco, which I will be visiting next week.

I got a nice month’s break from traveling in December and now it’s back to the skies. I’m flying to ALA in San Diego today for some fun, meetings, and face time with my Southern California colleagues Kelly, Jen, and Jamie. Then on Monday I’m up to San Francisco to see family and friends and to meet with my NorCal colleagues, Andrea, Laura, and Caryn.

For a belated Christmas present, I’m taking my mom to go hear Elizabeth Gilbert speak next Friday. (I think this Gilbert lady wrote a book? Something about eating? Just kidding. It’s pretty hilarious, actually: my mom just discovered EAT, PRAY, LOVE. I’m all like, “Remember that whole collective ommmmmm hovering over 2006? No? Oh well!”) Then it’s back to NYC for a whirlwind!

On January 17th, I’m doing my last Learning Annex class for now. It’ll be in the evening, somewhere in midtown Manhattan, and you can find a link to the event here. If you’ve already gone to one, this will be the same material: an overview of the children’s publishing marketplace. Come out, see me, and get your work critiqued! Next weekend is the Writer’s Digest Conference (see you at the Pitch Slam!), then Digital Book World (more on this next week), and the NY SCBWI. (I’m not speaking or giving a workshop, I’m doing the roundtable critiques on Friday, so I’ll be around all weekend, but I’m not doing any Saturday or Sunday sessions that people can show up for. You’ll just have to find me. Hint: I’ll be near the coffee…) That’s all within two weeks, folks!

Whew! It’s no wonder I’m finding so much calm, solace, and inspiration from Meg’s lovely thought for 2011! I hope you all enjoy it. See you next week with ALA updates.

Writer’s Conference Checklist

Melissa asks a great question about a writer’s conference checklist:

I’d like to attend the January SCBWI conference–my first. Could you maybe post about what a first-timer should bring/be prepared for to get the most out of the experience? Let’s say the writer has a completed book (that has been beta-critiqued) but has not queried yet.

writer's conference, writers conference, conference checklist
Writer’s conference checklist: If you bring the right tools and mindset, it’s more likely you’ll have a fulfilling conference experience.

A lot of the things that should be on your writer’s conference checklist are actually mental, not physical. (For more thoughts on conferences, see “Should I go to a writers conference?”) Even so, I will try to make a list of things to bring and things to leave at home. Even though I now attend writer’s conferences as a faculty member, I keep these things and more in my head and in my suitcase when I travel!

Writer’s Conference Checklist: Mental

  • An open mind: Lots of people go to writer’s conferences to learn and to meet new people (and ideas!), so approach every conference with an open mind. You don’t know everything there is to know and your work isn’t perfect. That’s not an insult…that’s a good thing! With that attitude, you’ll get the most out of a conference and take your savvy and your work to the next level as a result.
  • Your social butterfly hat: Conferences are very social and you get more out of them if you’re willing to engage, meet new people, strike up conversations, and, yes, *gulp* approach faculty (at appropriate times, of course). Even if you’re naturally shy, dip a toe outside your comfort zone and you’ll meet new friends, potential critique partners, other writers on the same journey, and maybe even a business connection.
  • Your relaxation tools: Conferences are stressful and overwhelming, especially for first timers. The days are packed, the nights offer lots of socializing/writing opportunities, and you’ll probably feel like you haven’t slept in days when you get home. Bring something to help you relax and unwind (pleasure reading, a journal, your sweatpants), or something from your home routine (jogging shoes, your iPod, a movie on your computer) to help you keep your sanity.

Writer’s Conference Checklist: Physical

  • Journal/notepad and lots of pens: Writer’s conference panels and workshops are chock-full of ideas that you’ll want to jot down and take home with you. You’ll get to do very little actual processing while you’re at the event, so take copious notes so that you can revisit them once you’re home and settled down. If audio recording is your thing, take a recorder. Just make sure it’s okay with conference organizers (it may not be) before you record any audio or video at the event. Important: Your notes and/or recordings should be for your own use only. We all work very hard on our presentations, and they’re our intellectual property, so don’t reproduce, reprint, or transcribe our words verbatim for your friends or on your blog. Writers who may see us speak in the future may feel cheated if we give a talk that they’ve read a transcript from before, but most of us only have a handful of talks that we like to give.
  • Camera: Capture the fun (and the faces of your new friends) of a conference. Make sure you have your camera, film/memory stick, and your battery charger.
  • Networking swag: Before you go to a conference, make sure you have business cards, bookmarks, or another paper form of publicity for yourself that you can give away. Even if you don’t have an agent or a book deal yet, make attractive cards to give around. Most faculty will not take cards or papers from you — we don’t need the extra thing to lose, nor do we want it weighing down our suitcase. But you will meet lots of other people at the conference, and you will be grateful to have something with your name and contact information to give out to new people. It’s a lot better than having to scribble your email address on torn-off paper corners, and attractive and customizable business cards can be had for free (or the cost of shipping) from websites like VistaPrint.
  • Art and previous books: If you are an illustrator, have postcards made of your work to hand out as well (I get postcards printed by NextDayFlyers.com for my illustration clients). If you have a portfolio, bring a copy to show to attendees and faculty (at appropriate times). If you have previously published books, do bring them as an example of your work (but not to give away, see below).
  • Travel necessities: Don’t let anything stress you out at a writer’s conference. Check and double-check all the nitty gritty stuff in your suitcase: chargers, toiletries, etc. For me, forgetting to bring my phone charger or computer cable is enough to throw me off my game, as I’m always worried about the battery status of my gadgets. By checking the “duh” stuff and making sure you have it all, you’ll take them off your mind.
  • Good clothing choices: Bring comfortable shoes. They are a must. Also, bring sweaters, cardigans, layers, and light jackets, even if you’re going to Phoenix during a heat wave. A lot of conferences are held in big hotel ballrooms and meeting rooms, and those always tend to be freezing. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve made the mistake of bringing a flimsy cardigan and shivering my way through a weekend. The temperature in the conference city is for outside, ladies and gentlemen. The inside of hotel conference centers operates on its own climate altogether!
  • Food for thought: For the bigger weekend conferences, your registration fee will usually cover meals. Sometimes these hotel catering affairs are decent. Other times…oh boy. And food choices in an unfamiliar location can be a nightmare for people with dietary requirements. (For example, some hotels will just serve pasta at every meal to vegetarians…) If you like to eat consistently and not have to worry about food while you’re away, bring some snacks from home and check ahead to see if there’s a grocery store near the hotel. When I travel, I like to go grocery shopping on the first day. Most hotels will have a mini-fridge in the room. If not, you can have one delivered for either free or a small daily fee. If you have dietary needs or just plain think hotel food is yucky, having some of your favorite food will be a great comfort.

What Not to Bring to a Writer’s Conference

  • Your manuscript: Nobody will take your 300 page manuscript home with them, even if they like your work. Most faculty will request samples after the writer’s conference that you can then send. Don’t come with printed copies of your work, unless it is required at a workshop-type conference and the organizers have explicitly given you instructions. It will, in 99% of cases, end up leaving the hotel with you after the weekend is over.
  • Bound books: The same goes for self-published or otherwise printed books that you want to give to the faculty. If there is interest, you can always send it after the fact.
  • A book contract: If you’ve been offered a book deal, don’t bring your contract in the hopes that a faulty member will be able to look it over for you. This type of thing, again, can be discussed and arranged, if desired, at a later date.
  • Your know-it-all attitude: Nobody likes a know-it-all. Don’t be hostile, combative, or pushy with faculty or other attendees. Most people come to conferences to learn new things, and those characters who show up with the wrong attitude not only disturb this atmosphere, but they get a notorious rap with the faculty.

I hope this is a good writer’s conference checklist to get you set for your first conference, or a reminder as you gear up for subsequent events.

You don’t have to wait for a conference to receive manuscript critique. Hire me as your one-on-one book editor and let’s get you in shape to pitch.

Vacation!

Hey all! I’m going on vacation! Later today, I’m jetting off to Ireland and Scotland to drink Guinness, eat fish and chips, flounce around haunted castles, drink Guinness, delight in authentic brogue, and otherwise have a great time. I’ve been to Dublin before, but never to Edinburgh, so this will be an exciting trip that mixes old favorites with, I hope, new ones. I also have a client in Scotland…and we are, of course, cooking up appropriate shenanigans.

Long story short: I will not be monitoring the blog, reading comments, responding to emails, or doing any of my usual deskbound stuff until the week of September 13th, and even then, you’d be wise to give me some time to catch up on all my correspondence.

I do have posts scheduled for the duration of my vacation, so the blog will carry on in my absence. However, if you are new to Kidlit.com and have never commented before, your comments will go into my moderation queue until the week of the 13th and won’t be posted on the site until I have a chance to check them out.

You can still query me and send me emails and all that good stuff, just know that I’ll be blithely ignoring them until I get back to New York.

In the meantime, don’t forget to sign up for my Writer’s Digest webinar, which is happening on Thursday, September 23rd. You can enroll by clicking here. It’s the next best thing for all of you who have been waiting to see me live…and you don’t have to leave your pajamas! If you have to miss the live event itself and can’t call in, you can always register for the webinar and have access to the recording of it for one full year.

I pledge to answer all questions posed to me, either during the seminar or later, in writing, and, as a registered student, you will get a critique of the first 500 words of MG or YA novel or the first 300 words of your picture book manuscript, depending on what you’re writing. If I get a good turnout for this webinar, Writer’s Digest will host me again, and  you know how much I love getting teaching opportunities, so tell your friends!

Speaking of Writer’s Digest, if you pick up an October issue or order one online, you’ll find a mini-profile of me in the “27 Agents Looking for New Writers” cover feature. I’m on the “annual hot list”! Hot dog!

WriteOnCon This Week!

Hey all. If you’re thinking that you’d love to attend a virtual writer’s conference for kidlit writers only — maybe you’ve never experienced a conference, maybe you’re still nursing your SCBWI-LA-is-over-for-another-year blues — you’re in luck. This week is WriteOnCon, a fantastic virtual kidlit writer’s conference put on, in part, by one of my fabulous clients, Jamie Harrington.

WriteOnCon features editors, agents, and published authors who will be writing articles, doing vlogs, giving presentations, hosting chats, answering your questions, hanging in the forums, and otherwise interacting with writers all week long.

The conference runs from Tuesday, August 10th, to Thursday, August 12th, is completely online, is completely FREE, and features a special vlog presentation (about character depth vs. character stereotypes) and a live chat with yours truly.

Check out WriteOnCon here, and register today: http://www.writeoncon.com.

I’ll also be hanging out in the forums this week and answering questions, so watch out!

BEA Roundup

BEA (Book Expo America) ended yesterday and, as of this morning, I’m finally feeling a bit more human. Expo week is always huge, busy, and full of friends, colleagues, parties and, of course, ARCs.

frazee_the_boss_babySome of the highlights of the week for me were: the Teen Author Carnival, running into Marla Frazee and her editor (Marla’s newest book, out this fall, THE BOSS BABY, is one of my absolute new favorites), seeing my fantastic colleagues (and our agency’s phenomenal foreign rights and subrights co-agent, Taryn Fagerness).

BEA is always crowded and it’s hard to get where you’re going without running into people you know or recognize if you’ve circulated in the publishing industry for any length of time. So you can set up all the meetings you want, but you’ll always be surprised by who you bump into.

brown_childrenI also loved meeting Peter Brown (whose newest picture book from Little, Brown, CHILDREN MAKE TERRIBLE PETS, out this fall, is the best thing I’ve ever seen), reconnecting with some old friends and making plenty of new ones (just in time for my move!), meeting agents from the tight-knit agenting community in NYC, and seeing an AWESOME panel for the new GUYS READ: FUNNY BUSINESS anthology coming out this fall from HarperCollins/Walden Media (the panel featured children’s book heavyweights Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett, Adam Rex, Jeff Kinney, David Lubar and the editor of the anthology, Jordan Brown).

keplinger_the_duffIn terms of YA news and ARCs, I went to the YA Editor’s Buzz panel, an annual event where five excited editors talk about the big books on their list. Ally Condie’s MATCHED was the big book for Penguin, of course, Erin Bow’s PLAIN KATE was Scholastic’s exciting new find, Rebecca Maizel had INFINITE DAYS on the St. Martin’s list, and Sophie Jordan’s FIRELIGHT will be coming out from HarperTeen, but there is one book that I kept hearing about over and over and over again: THE DUFF, coming this fall from Little, Brown.

Kody Keplinger was seventeen, I believe, when she wrote THE DUFF (which stands for “The Designated, Ugly, Fat Friend” in insult lingo). She appeared at the Teen Author Carnival, had several signings and panels at BEA, has sold movie and foreign rights all over the place, was flagged by her publicist and editor wherever she went and was otherwise a consummate professional…and she’s just getting started! I can’t wait to read THE DUFF and have heard from pretty much everyone that it is amazing. I had a chance to talk to several Little, Brown editors and they’re really getting behind an amazing list for next season (including Daisy Whitney’s phenomenal debut, THE MOCKINGBIRDS, which got lots and lots of buzz).

the-mockingbirdsOther impressions I got at BEA from editors and panels and all that jazz: paranormal needs to be absolutely unique (don’t start writing a vampire, angel, werewolf or zombie book unless you want to give yourself the steepest odds possible). This applies to mythology, too (Greek and Egyptian will be a hard sell unless we haven’t heard about those characters before).

Mermaids are definitely on the uptick in terms of acquisitions, as is dystopian: those books will start coming out next season. Editors are definitely looking for thrillers, contemporary/realistic, mystery and stories of friendship, romance, and betrayal, in both MG and YA. This is great because all of these themes are right up my alley — I’d love to stop seeing derivative paranormal romance and hear from writers who are really telling unique stories. It’s finally time to break out of the TWILIGHT mold, and it seems like more and more of publishing agrees.

On a purely personal note, I got to meet and fangirl about Bernadette Peters. She was there, signing her newest picture book. I think finally meeting one of my theatre idols made my life at least 117% better. Overall, a fantastic week. Now, off to catch up on emails from all those patient people who’ve been trying to reach me. 🙂

Should You Go to A Writers Conference? A List of Pros and Cons

At some point in every aspiring writer’s life, they will ask themselves: should I invest in a writers conference? That’s how you should phrase it, anyway. It is an investment in how to get published: of time, of money, especially if you want manuscript critique from one of the attending faculty. A lot of people report feeling more committed and professional after an event. But is a writers conference right for you? Or right for you right now? Read on!

writing conference, how to get published, writer's conference, writers conference
Look at these writers conference attendees, meeting peers, learning how to get published, and feeling awesome!

Writers Conference Considerations: Pros and Cons

Here is an easy list of pros and cons of a writing conference, in case you’re on the fence about going to your first or going again. Use this list to keep your writing conference expectations in check (very important).

Cons: Why You Might Not Want to Go To A Writers Conference

  • Expense: Conferences are expensive. The conference fee (usually between $100 and $500 dollars). Hotel. Airfare. You’re usually looking at about $1,000 bucks if you go to a larger writers conferences outside of your home state. Some conferences, though, do offer scholarships. It’s always a good idea to ask. Smaller conferences and  regional SCBWI days are a good alternative if cost is a huge factor.
  • Intimidation: This might be one of the first times in your life you’ll be meeting real, walking, talking agents and book editors. Some of them may be giving you a manuscript critique. You just want to know how to get published, maybe you’re not ready to be up close and personal. This makes some people more nervous than excited. My advice: try as hard as you can to get used to the idea. We’re the people you want to work with. And we’re just people who love good books. Look! We already have something in common!
  • Other writers and workshops: For some more advanced users, conferences are frustrating because some of the other writers operate on a really basic level. For some complete newbies, the advanced level of other attendees might be really scary. Workshops at conferences are also a mixed bag. One time, I was at a conference where someone raised their hand (totally unrelated to the discussion at hand, mind you) and asked what the difference was between fiction and non-fiction. Color me underwhelmed! It’s best to go into it eager to make new friends and expecting to learn something (but not have your mind blown) from the workshops.
  • Crazy opportunists: Conferences are rife with crazy opportunists, desperate to crack the code of how to get published, or people who hawk their projects to anyone who will listen. These are the people you hear about, sliding their manuscripts under the bathroom stall to a terrified agent. You’d be wise to avoid these folks. If you ARE one of these folks, don’t waste your breath/time/money. These tactics are much more “cautionary tale” than “success story.”
  • Unrealistic expectations: It is very, very rare that you will spot an agent from across the room, leap all over each other like Romeo and Juliet, and ink an agency contract by the end of the weekend. Writers connect with agents and editors all the time, especially in a manuscript critique setting. But don’t expect it to happen. You will most likely get your heart broken if that’s the only reason you’re going. And don’t, whatever you do, show up with 10 copies of your full manuscript, all nice and printed out, and try handing them out. Nobody will take them. It’s ALWAYS best to query after a conference or, if you make a connection with an agent or editor, to send them a follow-up e-mail. I repeat: nobody will take the 300-page brick of paper off your hands right in the middle of the hotel ballroom. Don’t try it.

Now for the good news! There are tons of reasons to go to a writers conference.

Pros: Why You Should Go To A Writers Conference

  • Agents and editors: Most people, people really serious about launching their careers, go to conferences to network. Forming bonds with other writers is great but … at a conference you can meet (and impress) some agents and editors. Saying “I met you at so and so” really does catch my busy eyes when I’m combing the slush.
  • Motivation: A near-guaranteed aftereffect of a writers conference is that you will get new ideas and get really pumped to write them. Don’t take your meanest writing block to a conference and expect it magically fixed, but you’ll be impressed with how motivated you feel.
  • Other writers: Yes, you’ll probably make some friends who also are learning how to get published! Friends are good! Friends on the same journey are better!
  • Manuscript Critique: Writers conference settings are great for getting your first critique or pitch session in with a real, live publishing professional. Yes, they cost money. But the way I figure it, you’re already spending a lot of cash. What’s an extra $50-$100 for a critique? Skip lunch and dinner and opt for sandwiches from the corner store, if you have to. You’ll get to sit down with an agent or editor one-on-one and talk about your work. You might even get a request for more material, if your work is really polished.
  • A change of pace/scenery: Sometimes, a conference is great just because it doesn’t feel like your real life. You feel like you’ve just vacationed in Writerland and that’s a nice way to recharge your batteries.
  • Self-confidence: Every little bit helps, right? Well, after a conference, a lot of people get much more comfortable with the idea of writing, the logistics of becoming more committed to their work. It can work psychological wonders and, if you haven’t figured it out already, writing is a mental and emotional challenge for the ego.

Writers Conference Encouragement

So there you go! Literally! Go, if you feel compelled to.

For kidlit writers, I highly recommend making it out to a national SCBWI writers conference at least once. More info here: SCBWI. I prefer the summer one in LA over the NYC winter conference, though maybe I’m biased because the shorter flight has lured me. Seriously, though, it is the longer-running one and, puzzlingly, seems to attract more New York agents and editors. Manuscript critique opportunities are plentiful. If you can’t make it to one of the national conferences, do go to your regional SCBWI chapter’s events. Some excellent chapters throw amazing conferences, like the Nevada SCBWI chapter run by Ellen Hopkins. Why I like SCBWI events: all the people you meet are into kid’s books. Every single one of them. So you’re not sitting next to a cozy mystery/romance thriller writer at lunch.

With any writers conference, you have to watch the list of participants and speakers like a hawk. Seriously. Do your research. Google everybody. Figure out where in publishing they are. The last thing you want to do is spend all that time and money and show up at a writers conference populated by non-fiction or adult fiction agents and editors. This is not how to get published. Make sure at least a handful of children’s book professionals will be there. The benefit of zeroing in on the kidlit people at an adult conference, though, is that you’ll likely have more face time with them as one of the few children’s writers in attendance.

So no matter which writers conference you choose, take this list to heart and take the plunge. It’s worth it at least once in every writer’s life.

You don’t have to wait for a conference to receive manuscript critique. Hire me as your one-on-one book editor and let’s get you in shape to pitch.

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com