Thursday, May 5, 2011

Thoughts on the Indiana SCBWI Conference

Greetings and salutations, Esteemed Reader. I am back from a weekend at the Indiana Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. It was a fine event and one I recommend you attend if you get the chance. Really, if you've never attended a writer’s conference, you should find one and attend it. I know they’re expensive, but they’re worth the money, even if the conference leaves you feeling a bit bummed—which this one did, but more on that in a moment.

First things first, we have a contest winner to announce and a free book to give away. The winner of last week’s contest for a copy of The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless by Allan Woodrow, chosen by a blind drawing, is Ms. Yingling! Yea! Ms. Yingling come on down to claim your prize (or just email me—see my profile—and let me know where I should address the book to). As for everybody else, I’m sorry you didn't win (me neither). But stay tuned because we’ll have more contests coming up in the future. Also, you should check out Ms. Yingling’s wonderful blog,

So, anyway, about this conference: I got to meet our old friend Mary Kole and thank her in person for being interviewed here. This was by far the high point of the conference for me. I’ve been reading Mary Kole’s amazing blog for a long time, so in a way it was like meeting a favorite writer as well as a highly regarded literary agent. She gave multiple presentations and each was highly informative, and on the second day, she joined a critique circle and I got to have her tear apart my current manuscript in person. I’m always grateful to have my writing torn apart, because like muscle, it grows back stronger, even if like working out to tear muscle, it hurts like hell. No pain, no gain, Esteemed Reader.

The faculty at the conference was all top notch and the lunch was excellent (chicken and roast beef!). I appreciate how hard various members of the SCBWI worked to put on a fine conference and I hope we can do it again next year. They asked that attendees not blog about the content of the presentations, so I won’t, except to say that I wish there were separate conferences for beginning writers and more advanced (or perhaps just older) writers.

I realize, of course, that this isn’t practical. Some writers resent the grandmas who show up who haven’t written anything yet, but they’re meaning to and one day they will. To think that such inexperienced, unserious writers should get the same amount of face time with Mary Kole as the rest of us hard-at-work folks! But remember, such writers, and even their friends who have no intention of writing a thing, but like to be included, help to disburse the cost of the conference. Writer’s conferences are expensive enough without clearing out the revenue of unserious writers.

And after all, serious film makers inspire amateurs on YouTube and serious musicians inspire garage bands. Seeing so many would-be writers cheers my heart that writing is as much a respected and beloved art form as any of the others. Still, because there are so many of these folks, most of the presentations seemed to be geared toward the basics of writing and publishing. Addressing a query letter to an agent by name rather than writing “Dear Agent” is a great tip for a beginner, but those of us who have been around the block a few times can recite the rules of writing query letters whilst blindfolded and juggling snapping alligators.

But that’s okay. The main advantage of a conference is the opportunity to network. It’s nice to chat with an agent or an editor who may want your work, but it’s also nice just to meet other writers and hear their stories. I was particularly thrilled to learn that a friend who I've chatted with at other conferences has a book coming out later this year (and did I secure a 7 Question Interview—you know I did). I also got to chat with several writers who have published and hear some very exciting success stories.

And yet I left the conference feeling bummed out. This rarely happens. I even left a conference in which a particularly nasty literary agent, who shall not be named, ever, laughed in my face in a relatively good mood. But the danger in networking with other writers is that you get to hear the good stories in publishing and the not so good stories. I don’t write sour grapes posts about the publishing industry. If you want to read such posts, there are plenty available elsewhere. I did my research before deciding to pursue publication and I knew going in it would not be easy—something worth doing rarely is.

I have ears, however, and just because I’m not going to repeat some of the stories I heard doesn’t mean I didn’t hear them. I heard tales of writers who were almost published and then not because of various arbitrary reasons that make you want to laugh and cry at the same time. I heard of a writer who published a couple of moderately successful books and then was dropped by their agent and now can’t find another agent or editor, leaving this writer to believe that their “writing career” was a cruel tease played by fate. I heard tales of dismal sales and fortunes lost promoting books no one read. And on, and on, and on.

I hear these stories rather often, unfortunately—it’s just the nature of associating with so many writers. But on this particular occasion, I was overwhelmed. Sure, it bums me out when I brag at work about snagging an interview with a major writer no one there has ever heard of (seriously, how can you not have heard of Richard Adams). If no one’s ever heard of these writers, how can I expect them ever to hear of me?

And the rules. The rules, the rules, the rules. Every writer I met had an explanation of the rules of publishing that contradicted rules I heard elsewhere. Never begin a story like this, never write this, stay away from this subject, this story will never be published because of blank. And on, and on, and on—until the one rule seems to be don’t write anything. Well, to this I say that if there were one set of rules to follow to be successfully published, everyone would follow them and we’d all live in a mansion next to J.K. Rowling. Phoey to the rules, I say. Breaking convention is what makes a writer stand out and so I listen to the rules only to know which ones to break next.

All the same, the Ninja is only human and I can only hear so much negativity before succumbing. After the first night of the conference I went out with Mrs. Ninja and some non-writer friends. We ate a good meal, drank beer and played pool. We talked of life and made jokes and had a good time and no one assured me that if I didn't provide exactly the right opening to my novel I would never be published and would die penniless and alone.

And, well, I got to thinking “why am I still doing this?” And this on the heels of my most successful year as a writer yet. I’ve had a string of good news, most of which I can’t share yet, but be assured I have every reason to hold my head high and be optimistic. Still, for the first time in a long time I thought of quitting the writing life.

And why not? I have a good job I love and Mrs. Ninja, of course, and we have a brand new 3D television (it’s so awesome). Why am I still torturing myself every morning getting up while sensible people sleep to write things that even if published, no one is likely to read? Reading a middle grade novel every week surely takes away from time better spent with my Xbox (also now in 3D), and just imagine a week in which I got more than six hours sleep a night (dare I even dream it). Mrs. Ninja and I are preparing to start a family and so perhaps it’s time to put away childish things and focus on the practical nature of making money and spending time with those I love. It’s a good life, after all. Why not hang my Spider-man mask on the side of a dumpster and walk away?

Well, frankly, because I can’t. This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve tried to quit before and every time I think I’m out, they (my characters) pull me back in. I have to write. It’s what I do, it’s who I am, and there isn't anything for it. Even if no one ever read me ever (a distinct possibility, conference goers have assured me), I would still do it. It’s as simple as that. I’m going to keep eating (sometimes ice cream, which is at odds with my trips to the gym, but sue me), I’m going to keep breathing, and by god, so long as I’m me, I’m going to keep writing.

The second day of the conference was better than the first, though I still heard plenty of sob stories. But the morning of the conference, I got up very early and started a new project. It was the best part of my day. This particular project has been haunting me for the better part of a year now. It won’t leave me alone. It’s about a boy and his mother and I keep seeing them everywhere I go. I wrote an outline once to shut them up, but that wasn't good enough. God knows why, but they've chosen me to write their story and they won’t leave me alone until I do, so I’m doing it already.

I've rejected their story on numerous occasions. It’s not particularly marketable, it’s schmaltzy, and it doesn't comply with any of “the rules” of getting published. I can’t imagine who will want this story and so I have stuck it on a shelf and busied myself with more commercial work. But I’m writing it now, knowing full well it’s not likely to bring any tangible benefit to me.

Except that the writing itself is a benefit. It makes me happy to write it and I don’t care that editors might not give it a second look. If editors knew everything, there would be no New York Times Bestseller List because every book published would be on it. In a way, I hope e-publishing continues to grow and that all books are eventually self-published. Let readers decide what they want to read. And above all, let’s stop listening to the rules. After all, my English professors in college routinely assured me that Stephen King was a terrible writer and that his success was a fluke of media invention. Tell that to his devoted fans all over the world who could care less that he isn’t following the established rules.

And Grandmas of the world who haven’t written anything yet, but are hoping to: Go for it. To write is a beautiful thing, and publication or lack thereof doesn’t change it. The act itself has meaning and is worth doing. “My grandchildren love my story” is a perfectly acceptable reason to write another.

I’ll see you next week, Esteemed Reader. Until then, I have an un-publishable manuscript to finish.


  1. Rob, at the top of your comment form, it says "You are Awesome."

    Right back at you, man. You are awesome and your blog is a joy to read. I mean, if it's not hedgehog petting, it's alligator juggling. No wonder you're a ninja.

    And if someone has never heard of Richard Adams, I retreat to my favorite Shakespeare and say "Fie on you! Stoppeth thy dispiriting of my favorite ninja, sirrah. Go mend, go mend."

    That said, congrats to Ms. Yingling. Now I'll just have to go out and buy that amazing sounding book.

  2. That's awesome you and Ms. Ninja are thinking of starting a family. Being a mom is one of the great things of my life.

    Sorry the conference wasn't inspiring. I've gone to some too which left me less than inspired and left me wondering if I should quit. I thought about it seriously last Fall after a depressing conference experience. Because it seems so hard to get an agent and published. So sad about the hard author stories you had to hear. I know my friend who went to the conference has one.

    But like you, I keep coming back to my writing. Even if I never get published, I'm going to enjoy it and meeting wonderful people like you through blogs.


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.