It’s been several years since I’ve attended the regional SCBWI conference. That’s Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, in case you’re new to the organization. I stopped going to conferences when the economy dipped, but more than that, I felt that my time would be better spent learning the craft of writing. I was showing up at these writing conferences with a smug, “I know I can write because I majored in English” look on my face and beyond rotten manuscripts in my hand. Ewww, the stink! They were truly awful!
I know I’m not alone — the majority of slush piles on every editor’s assistant’s assistant’s desk is chock full of manuscripts just as ooky as mine were. Characters lacking motivation for the things they do, stories that lack tension and rising action, mushy overused adjectives and adverbs, passive voice, stories that have already been done a million and one times by those more adept at writing for children than I. The conferences were invaluable at first in that I met people, put faces with names of people I’d met online, and learned various aspects of the publishing business that would prove invaluable over time. But something wasn’t right. It was my writing!
In all the excitement of learning about the “biz,” I had stopped writing and stopped revising what I had already written. In some cases, I lost the manuscripts altogether when my elderly computer up and died. I forgot to back up my work on an external hard drive. What a crazy thing to do! So now, as I reflect on the years lost to just plain stupidity, I’m realizing a few things — tough lessons learned the hard way.
First, follow your dreams, and follow your heart, but do NOT follow authors and editors into the elevator at the conference, wagging your manuscript in their faces. Do follow the authors, editors, and agents you like on Twitter and connect with them through Facebook. Don’t harass them! But do check in occasionally and watch and learn. They will begin to recognize your name as time goes on, and if nothing else, your commitment to getting published and to writing for children will show through. When you have a manuscript ready to submit, you will have already made a “name” for yourself.
The second thing I’ve learned is there is no set path or easy way to get published. Every author’s story is slightly different, but each one follows a similar pattern: Work hard at the craft of writing, join a critique group, revise, submit, and wait for a publisher to say yes! If you have been working steadily, learning consistently, and you are still not published, give it some time. You still have to be at the right place at the right time, and your story must fit the needs of a busy publishing house in a highly competitive market.
I began writing this blog entry thinking I was writing about when it’s time to submit and whether it’s the right time to go to a conference, but I think the process will probably look a little different for each new writer. Backing away from conferences for a season was the right thing to do — for me. My writing ability needed to grow, my manuscripts needed to percolate on the back burner for a while as I learned the skill of writing fiction and picture books for children. Even though I was connecting with people at conferences, I was not improving. I was thoroughly enjoying myself, basking in the kidlit “vibe,” but that was getting in the way of the very hard work I needed to do — practicing writing with skill, taking what I’ve learned from various writing classes and books on writing and putting it all to good use, coming up with a dynamic concept and actually turning idea into topnotch manuscript.
My fellow Mudskippers were a tremendous help. Having a critique group keeps you accountable to write. After all, you have to have something to submit to them month after month. If you submit total garbage, they’ll be the ones to gently smack you upside the head and tell you to focus your attention, get back at revision, and keep moving forward. They will also tell you straight up that your manuscript is not going to work as it stands, and whether it needs major revision or just a mild tweak here and there.
Next week, I’m going to the Carolinas SCBWI conference again — after four or five years of not going. This time I’m going prepared to soak in all I can about the writing process, meet up with friends, and when all is said and done, submit several manuscripts to different publishers. Yes, I’m submitting. I think I may finally have several viable manuscripts ready after working on them for the past ten or so years. It’s about time!