My first writing conference — organizing

I’ve said on this blog numerous times that I’m a HUGE fan of writing conferences. When I took on the Regional Advisor job for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, I wanted to honor the organizers of all the wonderful conferences I’ve been to over the years and put on an event that was just as good as theirs.

When myself and the rest of the regional leadership team — Assistant Regional Advisor Shelley Ann Jackson and Illustrator Coordinator Amy Farrier — sat down to start planning, we had four goals, all things we’ve experienced at the best conferences we’ve been to:

Matt de la Peña

Matt de la Peña inspires the crowd; Photo by Sam Bond

Learning: Whether it’s craft or career, the best conferences make me leave with pages and pages filled with notes. The more I’ve learned about publishing, the more I’ve learned the importance of craft, so we wanted to make the craft of writing and illustrating the focus on our conference. But, in Austin we’re blessed with a membership that’s varied from those just dipping their toes into children’s books all the way up to multiple-book published authors, so having some offerings for the more experienced writers and illustrators was important too.

Sharing: I don’t mean sharing work here. I mean sharing experience and support. Publishing is not an easy industry to be in, filled with highs and lows, disappointments and rejections. It’s easy to feel alone when you’re the sole creator of your work. Whether you’re writing a story or developing an illustration style, having people around you who know what it’s like is so important. Critique partners and friends are also supporters, and being surrounded by like-minded people for a weekend can leave you with enough love to last a while.

(l. to r.) Editors Laura Whitaker, Madeline Smoot and Sarah Ketchersid and agents Abigail Samoun and Liza Pulitzer Voges

Laura Whitaker, Madeline Smoot, Sarah Ketchersid, Abigail Samoun, Liza Pulitzer Voges; Photo by Sam Bond

Inspiring: Never underestimate the power of inspiration. Writing and illustrating for children is perhaps one of the best jobs in the world, but as I said in Sharing, the industry isn’t necessarily easy on our egos. But we don’t do it just for us. We’re the only ones who can tell our stories, but to keep pushing on, to keep creating, we need to stay inspired. Keynotes and sessions at conferences, hearing about the challenges others have overcome, can be like fuel to the flame within us. We need to keep it burning.

Next Level: As in coming out of the conference and feeling like I can take my work there. I usually come out of a conference with at least one nugget that I can hold on to to push my work and career to the next level (sometimes a giant leap, sometimes a small step, but something that moves forward), and I wanted that for our attendees. Whether craft or professional, I wanted each attendee to leave with at least one nugget that they can put in their work to give them a boost in their next step.

Kelly Murphy and Laurent Linn

Illustrator Kelly Murphy and art director Laurent Linn; Photo by Sam Bond

Last weekend, our first conference was held. Bouncing off the goals above, we  tried to have something for as many people as possible, novelists, picture books and more. We also introduced some new items, including a Professional Development track, with sessions on school visits and pitching, and an all-day illustrator track.

We invited speakers who could inspire, teach and offer opportunities for signing with an agent or getting a book deal. Award-winning author Matt de la Peña and award-winning illustrator Kelly Murphy gave the keynotes, reminding attendees why we should push our art. Simon & Schuster Art Director Laurent Linn encouraged the illustrators to grow in their style. Agents Liza Pulitzer Voges of Eden Street Literary and Abigail Samoun of Red Fox Literary gave sessions on plot, series and more. And Candlewick Press Executive Editor Sarah Ketchersid and Bloomsbury Children’s Books Associate Editor Laura Whitaker taught writers about picture books, novel opening lines, rasing the stakes and looking your best in front of editors.

P.J. Hoover, Liz Garton Scanlon, Nikki Loftin and Don Tate

Local authors P.J. Hoover, Liz Garton Scanlon, Nikki Loftin and Don Tate; Photo by Sam Bond

We also invited four published authors (Liz Garton Scanlon, Bethany Hegedus, P.J. Hoover, Nikki Loftin) and an author/illustrator (Don Tate), as well as a local micro publisher (Madeline Smoot of CBAY Books), who live in the Austin area to do sessions and sit on panels, reminding attendees there’s so much to learn from the people in our own community, as well as providing inspiring success stories that are close to home.

When the weekend was over, the conference proved to be a raging success. Attendees said it was the best they had been to in a long time, and even our faculty said they left feeling energized.

I was left happy, satisfied and humbled. But not so much because of the work we did. I mean, sure the months of organization helped it run smoothly; and yes, the researched schedule and speakers offered opportunities; and wow, our local published authors was incredibly generous in their door prize donations. (And I can’t thank our speakers and volunteers enough for all they did!)

Austin SCBWI 2014 conference attendees

Attendees at the Austin SCBWI 2014 conference; Photo by Sam Bond

But what made this conference so special were the lessons, sharing and inspiration that all our faculty members gave, and our attendees’ willingness to learn, share and soak up as much inspiration as they could, all so we can get to that next level, not just for ourselves, but for our work and for children’s books.

And that’s what conferences are all about.

If you haven’t checked out an SCBWI regional conference somewhere in the world, I highly recommend you do. They’re all listed on the organization’s events calendar. And if you can make it next to Austin February, we’d love to you. We’ve set the bar high and plan to push it even further in 2015. Hope you can join us.

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