You’re doing it. Maybe you’ve meant to for a long while. Maybe it was a New Year’s resolution. Maybe you’ve just learned that a professional organization for children’s literature exists and you want to check it out. At any rate, you’ve decided to attend your first SCBWI conference.
The conference I know best is hosted by the New England chapter of SCBWI, or NESCBWI.
Don’t try to say it. Just. Don’t.
Anyway, NESCBWI is the largest regional conference in the country. Attendees are mostly from the New England states but not exclusively. Last year’s conference had visitors from Tennessee and South Dakota, if I remember correctly, and bookish people like editors, agents, and art directors come from all over. Prominent writers and others in the business swoop in from NYC, California, and even abroad to offer workshops, participate in panel discussions, and deliver keynotes.
None of this is free. Conferences, even regional ones, are expensive. You want to make the most of it and to help you do just that, I’ve assembled a list of tips. They are in sort-of alphabetical order. Know a good tip for K? Q? Feel free to chime in!
A is for Attire—Attire at conferences tends to the casual side of professional. Think spiffy and stylish but not fancy. Layers are a good idea. Why? The temperature varies from room to room. You’ll be sitting for long periods and then quickly moving between workshop rooms. Consider comfortable shoes. If feasible for you, taking the stairs is much quicker than waiting for a crowded elevator. You’ll bless me for suggesting you forgo the stilettos.
B is for Business cards—A must. There are lots of low-cost options. If you can, have them printed well before the conference to make sure they are correct and legible. Be sure to include all of your contact info including your (possibly brand-new) Twitter handle.
C is for Critiques—You’ll have to pay for these, so be smart and prepare your manuscript and/or portfolio ahead of time. These opportunities fill up fast and if you’re not ready to submit your stuff right away, you might miss your chance. Read the directions carefully so you’ll know what to do.
D is for Dog—Tons of children’s books are about dogs. They are universally beloved.
E is for Etiquette—The children’s literature world is a small one. Very small. Everyone knows everyone and no matter how excited you are to reveal your work to a waiting world, you must not follow an agent or editor into the restroom and pitch it. You are a professional. Act like one. Speech over.
F is for Food—Give a thought to food, especially if you have particular dietary limitations. Conference organizers do their best to please the crowd but can’t possibly attend to every need. Familiarize yourself with which meals are offered by the conference and which meals are not. Conferencing is hungry work and room service is pricey. Bring healthy snacks. Will your room have a fridge? If so, hooray! Make any necessary dinner reservations in advance. Include an extra spot or two to allow for serendipity. You’ll be meeting new people and they’d probably love to join you for dinner.
G is for Giraffe—Fewer books are about giraffes but they are still perfectly nice animals.
H is for Hotel—If you plan to attend all or most of the conference, you’ll need a hotel room. Reserve yours right away as conferences frequently sell out. There are good reasons to stay on-site. First of all, a lot of the meeting-and-greeting at a conference happens in the hallways and elevators. The fun doesn’t end when the last workshop is over. There are social events of all kinds at night. Open mic readings, illustration challenges, regional meet-ups where you can make solid connections, and quiet rooms for visiting. Here’s another truth: conferences are tiring. You’ll be glad to have a retreat when there’s a break in your schedule or when you simply need some alone time. Many writers also try to squeeze in some writing. One last thing: If you’d like to save some serious money, consider arranging to split a room with another conference attendee.
H is also for Homework—Please do your homework! Workshop presenters and keynotes are announced ahead of time for a reason. Look up people and their work. Read some of the writers’ work, if you can. Check out illustrators’ galleries (hello, Pinterest!) and study agent bios. You’ll get a lot more out of the conference if you do.
I is for Introvert—Lots of creative, bookish people are introverts. They are also super-friendly and welcoming. Say hello. Ask to join a lunch table. Whether you’re an introvert, and extrovert, or in-between-vert, you’ll be glad you did.
N is for Nametag. Wear it for the whole weekend. You never know who’s sitting next to you.
O, P, Q…
R is for Registration—Once again, be ready. Look at the workshops ahead of time so you can make quick choices. Popular ones fill fast so be sure to know your second and third choices. Know your SCBWI membership number to get the member rate. You do not HAVE to attend each and every workshop period. Maybe you’d like to get some rest (see R) or wander the bookstore. That’s perfectly okay.
R is also for Rest—Don’t be afraid to take a break now and then. Take a careful look at your schedule for appropriate break times. Drink some water. Breathe. You’re doing great!
S is for Social media—such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest.
At a minimum, I suggest you get a Twitter account. It is an easy and professional way to stay connected with your new colleagues after the conference and to learn about others in the field. Make sure you put your Twitter handle on your business card. If you have old business cards, take a few minutes and jot your Twitter handle on the back. Follow the people you meet.
Facebook is trickier for some, especially teachers and others involved in the care of young children, but consider signing up for an account. You can keep it exclusively for professional contacts if you like. It’s an easy and fun way to get to know people on a more personal basis and there are lots of relevant writing and illustrating groups to explore.
Tumbler, Pinterest, Instagram, and others are rich resources for writers and illustrators. Check them out.
V is for Victory. V is also for Volunteer. I beseech you to volunteer. Most of the jobs are easy-peasy and take little or no time out of your conference. It is the quickest (and most appreciated) way to feel like you belong. I guarantee you’ll learn at least one person’s name and feel that much more at home.
Y is for Yellow. Illustrators love yellow. Me too.
Z is for Zzzz… You’ll need it after the conference to get ready for next year.
If you are serious about your work—your writing, your illustration, your craft— you owe it to yourself to join SCBWI and attend a conference. You’ll find your people there. See you soon.
Enjoy the day!