Writers’ conferences: Are they the only short cut left?


If you’ve heard me speak about writing and publishing—and chances are, if you’re following this blog, you have—you’ll have heard me say that conferences are the only short cut left if you want to get published (i.e. by someone else). So, half way through my 2014 conference season (two down; two to go), I thought I should put my oft-made assertion to the test.

Well, mea culpa, for a start, we have to get rid of the word “only.” If you are a celebrity—a movie star; a sports icon; English royalty; any household name—you have a short cut. If not everybody knows you, but several thousand people follow you, BING! BING! BING! you have a short cut again. If a publisher thinks they won’t have to work very hard to sell your book because you bring a crowd—or perhaps more accurately, a cloud—chances are they’ll publish your book.

What about the rest of us? For us, my assertion seems to prove true. And here are some concrete examples, culled from just two conferences within the past two weeks.

Conferences are the fastest way you can improve your craft.
I gave a workshop at the Book Passage Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference a couple of weeks ago, on writing middle-grade fiction. It was part of a three-workshop, middle-grade stream, all of which shared more or less the same title: writing for middle-grade readers. Each of the presenters sat in on the other two presentations.

Why were we there? You would think that faculty teaching the exact same thing would have the least to learn, right? But I learned a ton. I learned new ways to think about middle-grade fiction—Susan Lyn McComb’s must-haves in an opening paragraph; Amanda Conran’s what made a middle-grade hook. I learned new ways to edit the stuff. I learned new ways to teach it—both ladies went back to the books, read out relevant passages, taught by example. Oops! How had I missed the power of that?

I’m a better writer, editor, and teacher now. I guarantee it.

Conferences are the easiest way to find the best editor for you.
First, let me state something for the record. The second-best thing you can do for your career as a writer behind investing in conferences is finding the right developmental editor. (Okay, the two are so neck-and-neck that if I were writing a blog about the importance of editors, I’d probably flip this around.) Going out there unedited is like going to a job interview naked. In both cases, probably only Jamie Lee Curtis can get away with it.

But how do you find these fairy godmothers? You find them at conferences.

I’m going to change my metaphor: forget the fairy godmothers who are only needed during crises. A good developmental editor is to an author what a structural engineer is to an architect. Unlike the fairy godmothers, they are mandatory.

An architect’s need for an engineer has nothing to do with the architect’s ability or talent. No architect thinks “I’m so good, I don’t need one of those.” A structural engineer can see what even the best architect cannot see, and if s/he believes in the architect’s vision, s/he can help that vision get realized when without her/him, it would fall in a heap.


But notice how I said “if s/he believes in the architect’s vision.” You don’t want to collaborate with someone who doesn’t get your work. And how will you know whether they do or don’t if you’re finding your editor through the Web and going only by how much they charge—which is the same no matter whether they love your work or think they’re only polishing it for the bin?

At a conference, you can meet not only one developmental editor, but many. You can gauge who sincerely likes your work, whose comments resonate most with you, and whom you like. I watched a student of mine interact with several dev editors at the Book Passage conference. I wondered whom he’d end up picking. I knew that with all of them he’d be in good hands—but which hands would he find most suitable? To have the power and information to make that choice is a rare short cut afforded by conferences.

Conferences will get your work in front of an agent or publisher, leap-frogging the slush pile.
My editor at HarperCollins/Greenwillow once told me how many manuscripts he received in a month. The number was so staggering I made a mental note of it, and gave this bit of information to any number of classes. The problem is that with each retelling, it seems more unbelievable. The further removed I am from that number falling from his lips, the more I think, did I make that up?

All my editor friends say “no.” They have stories to tell about the enormity of their own slush piles. Goosebottom Books is a tiny publisher of fun middle-grade non-fiction with a bias toward girls. Can you get any more niche than that? And yet I have a slush pile that is hard for me to take care of.

That slush pile can take years to emerge from, if you manage it at all. When the slush is finally sorted, it’s often by an intern whose primary job is to reject as much of the contents as possible. To avoid the slush pile, you need an agent, which can take years to find (and the best way of finding one is meeting one at a conference—read the paragraphs on dev editors and substitute the word “agent.”)

However, you can save yourself all this time and angst by buying yourself a consult—with a publisher, editor, or agent. It usually costs just under a hundred dollars and guarantees you’ll have their eyes and mind for a precious sliver of time.

Conferences can help you in the parallel job of being human.
I’ve mentioned the Book Passage conference a few times now, so let us shift our focus to DigiLit last weekend.


I don’t know about you, but one of the things I find toughest about being a writer is that it takes so much time. Writing takes time. Researching takes time. As an aging publisher, all my “good eye” time (that finite number of hours before everything gets blurry) is completely consumed with things I have to read in order to do my job.

Well, surprise, surpise! At this conference I learned ways to make striking a balance easier. I learned about the new way of following news, for example, through Circa. This app not only lets you flag the stories you’re interested in, it keeps track of what you’ve read and what you have not, so no matter how long between drinks, it catches you up on what you’ve missed without making you wade through all that repetitive information other news outlets keep in there for people who’re only just getting onboard. Conversely, come to a story two weeks late, as I often do, and the app knows you’re a newbie and serves up all the information that the other channels are by now leaving out.

I learned that there are ways to streamline everything I do out there—err, here—to create a digital footprint. A more streamlined footprint = more time to be human. In fact, a more streamlined anything = more time to be human. So imagine my excitement at finding Quip, a way I can streamline our editing process! As their tagline says, “messaging and documents combined in one place.”

And most wonderful of all, I learned that the A List are also human. At a conference about publishing in the digital world, there can be no greater A-Lister in my book than Jane Friedman. I saw her washing her hands in the ladies’ room. In the mirror I could see not only her reflection but mine, and I noticed with consternation that I was bouncing up and down on my toes. How many times have I told my students not to stalk the faculty into the loo (oops, bathroom)! But if I let her go without professing my admiration, would I ever have the chance to speak to her again?!

YES. That is the beauty of conferences. For once in my life I listened to my own advice and let Jane wash her hands in peace. Later, I found her sitting in the exhibits area and went up to introduce myself. I told her the story I’ve just told you, and she laughed and blushed a little. Jane Friedman is shy.

And why is that the ultimate plug for conferences? Because at a conference you realize, first-hand, that we’re all human. And if a human can be an A-lister/on the faculty/published, then by golly

The resurrection of Richard III: A hump or not a hump?

The most-evil tyrants and wicked stepmothers of children’s lit could learn a thing or two from from Richard III of England. Entrusted with the care of his two young nephews, he locked them in the Tower of London and had them smothered with a mattress. His spine, like his morals, was twisted. His arm, like his heart, was withered.  Or was this portrait also pure fiction?

It’s hard to know. One thing I’ve learned in researching and writing nonfiction is that the experts often don’t agree, and even when the circumstantial evidence seems overwhelming, the distance of time can cheat us of any proof. But sometimes, crazy luck and modern science can tip the balance back.

In August 2012, five hundred and twenty seven years after his death, the remains of Richard III were found under a car park. If Richard could teach our dastardly dames a thing or two about being dastardly, the two scientists who have since lead the analysis could mentor Sherlock and Watson. Watch this video, you’ll see what I mean … and for all you educators out there, here’s your chance to harness morbid fascination in the service of science education.

Now we know where the king was buried. We know, in almost too much detail, how the poor man was killed.  We know the answer to that five-hundred-year-old question, a hump or not a hump? And with the help of even more modern science, in this case forensic facial reconstruction (see video below), we may have a 3D idea of what he looked like.

But one thing we still don’t know. Was this the face of a murderer?

I’m sure science will soon answer this, too. If the skeletons found buried in a chest in the Tower of London could be positively identified as those of the two princes, it would be almost impossible to argue that they had not been murdered. And if they were murdered, nobody but Richard had the motive to carry out the deed, and the power to cover it up.




Zen and the Art of Publishing—or, How Authors Should Measure Success.

I get asked all the time how Goosebottom Books is doing, which I hear—rightly or wrongly—as, is it a success? I never know how to answer that question.  In October, we will celebrate our fourth anniversary.  Yet, we are still not in the black. I haven’t made less money since college. (Yes, this is an appeal to you to buy a Goosebottom Book immediately!) On the other hand, we win awards and garner accolades. We have a small but enthusiastic fan base. People love our books. Some people see the books we publish as foot-soldiers in a cause, as an expression of high ideals—as we do. But more than that, selfishly, Goosebottom Books has made me happy. For four years, I’ve gone to bed fulfilled, and I’ve woken up excited. I don’t want to sound like a MasterCard ad, but isn’t that priceless?

Well, before my original-thinking-girl niece rolls her eyes at me for being a hemo—a “hippy emo,” which I believe she coined just for me—I have scientific evidence that it is.

In his TED talk, “Flow, The Secret of Happiness,” psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, I copy-and-pasted that) presents evidence that people are happiest when they’re being extremely challenged, and yet feeling extremely skilled. He’s got a neat graph to show what he means. Check it out: ted.com/playlists/what_makes_us_happy.

On the other hand, in the same TED playlist, psychologist Dan Gilbert in “The Surprising Science of Happiness” reveals that we often manufacture happiness by learning to prefer what we have. Maybe I’m just an expert in acceptance or even denial?

Be that as it may, nobody can take four years of happiness away from you. You’ll always have them, snug under your belt. Which brings me to my nugget of wisdom for the day; something I share often with my writing students. Take control of how you define success. If you let our capitalist/consumer society do it for you, it’ll come down to money, and not many authors (or publishers!) make a lot of that. Instead, recognize that you’re being paid in joy: when you open that acceptance letter; when a child wants your autograph; when a school asks you to visit, or a book store asks you to sign. And before you even get to any of that, recognize that you’re being paid in flow, in bliss when you share that telling observation or craft that perfect sentence. And, look forward to the day when you will first set eyes on your advanced reading copy, as Goosebottom author Janie Havemeyer did just recently. I caught it on camera. See that? For both the author and the publisher, that’s success.

Shirin Yim Bridges