Starry-Eyed—The 2017 NESCBWI Conference

I just returned from the 2017 NESCBWI Conference. (NESCBWI = New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.)

This conference was packed—from very beginning to very end—with activities, sessions, keynote speakers, keynote panels, lunches, breakfasts, open mics, pitch competitions, illustration portfolio exhibits, bookstore shopping, networking opportunities and lots, lots more. (And, that doesn’t even include all the events and activities I didn’t participate in—critiques, sketch-offs, peer reviews, and, again—lots, lots more.)

In fact, I was so focused on absorbing every last molecule of information and connection while I was there, I didn’t check social media once. And, I forgot to take pictures.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I did manage to get a shot of the outrageously-cool carpet in the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place 3rd-floor ballroom. I mean, how could I go home without capturing that pattern, which reminded me both of the art from Yellow Submarine, and Milton Glaser’s iconic poster of Dylan.

Sheraton ballroom carpet

The Sheraton’s ballroom carpet—the psychedelic road to book publishing glory.

This conference was a huge success for me, even before I turned my car northward, because it started with a great story.

In one of those wonderful, ridiculous coincidences that social media drops in your lap every now and then, I connected with a friend from my college days. She was from Brazil at the time, but going to university in London. I was at school in D.C., but had signed up for a semester abroad. We were on the same floor of a random, ugly mid-rise dorm across the street from Madame Tussaud’s, and around the corner from 221B Baker St. (Yup. We used the “Sherlock Holmes” tube station.) We were young and adorable and went to High Tea and did cartwheels in Kew Gardens.

Flash forward 23 years. I’d just sent out a Tweet asking if anyone else was going to be a newbie at the conference, and among the many lovely responses I received was this: “It’ll be my second time… Such a friendly event!” It came from a person with an oddly familiar name. A quick look at her Web site, and—holy macaroni!—I knew that it was my wonderful London pal, and that against pretty much every odd I could think of, she was living in the same state I was, and was going to be at the conference.

Needless to say, a reunion was had.

Reuniting with Juliana Spink Mills at the 2017 NESCBWI conference

Reuniting with Juliana at the 2017 NESCBWI conference. Thanks to Christy Yaros for the photo!

Not a bad way to start a conference, huh? And, that was just the beginning of the constant-inundation-of-good-stuff this event offered.

There is so much to share (I’m still in the early stages of processing everything), but here are just a few of the 20 billion juicy pieces of information I took home with me:

  • Boy, are comps important. I heard this over and over again in multiple sessions, in keynote panels, and from speakers. Be sure you can comp you book to something. It may not even be to another book. But, be sure you can make that comparison. It’s a critical tool in communicating to agents and editors—and then to librarians and booksellers—your book’s look/feel/personality.
  • Don’t grant an exclusive. But if you do, put a time limit on it. (I heard variations on the limit from one or two weeks to one month, but none longer.) But, don’t grant an exclusive.
  • Make everything count. Be it every element of an illustration, or every word of a manuscript, every single piece should have earned its place in your work. If not, ditch it.
  • It takes a looooooonnnng time for a book to get published, and that’s after you’ve received an offer. (Picture books usually take the longest. Five years isn’t unheard of.)
  • Or, it might be surprisingly quick, if you’re doing a work-for-hire (or IP) book. They tend to have speedy turnarounds.
  • Speaking of which, there is a lot of work-for-hire work out there. A lot.
  • Don’t just look at the “Big 5” publishers. Independent publishers and self-publishing may be better options for you, depending on what your goals are.
  • The average picture book work count is 350 words, down dramatically from “the good ol’ days,” when they were more in the 500-1,000 range. Now, that doesn’t mean that 1,000-word picture books aren’t published anymore. Length depends on target age, and certain subjects may require more copy. But, the average is down around that 350 mark.
  • If you’re a “pantser” vs. “plotter,” (yes, I had to look those terms up in the middle of one of my sessions), just a little pre-planning before writing can save you enormous amounts of revision time, later. There are numerous prewriting methods out there; it’s worth taking the time to explore them, to find one that works for you.
  • Be distinctive. I heard this over and over—and over and over again—from agents and editors. Don’t write something anyone else can write. And…
  • …Be authentic. If you yourself don’t have a certain experience within your wheelhouse, but one of your characters does, go find someone in real life who does have that experience. Talk to them. Ask them to read your stuff, and let you know if you’ve gotten it right, or are way off-base.
  • Nonfiction is a hotbed of opportunity, right now. Books used in schools are swinging ever-more-heavily toward the nonfiction end of the spectrum. Oh, yeah, and STEM-based books are HOT.
  • Avoid the lesson-heavy stuff. Don’t over-moralize or preach. By all means, weave in realizations and ideas that may inspire kids to think or behave differently, but do it subtly and masterfully. Don’t beat them over the head with a carnival sledgehammer of moral pontification. Kids aren’t stupid. They know when they’re being condescended to. (I was so happy to hear this from several people throughout the weekend; this is one of my teeth-clenching pet peeves.)
  • Thinking about school visits? Schools prefer to work with authors/illustrators who are there for the kids, not themselves.
  • Similarly, don’t let your social media develop into a steady stream of me-me-me. Retweet other folks’ news. Share colleagues’ books that are coming out. Offer help to someone who’s asked a question. If you approach things from the “What can I offer you?” vs. “What can you give me?” point of view, you’ll develop a community of people who respect and admire you, and want to help you right back.

Lastly, and not surprisingly, the message heard over and over and over and over again was: Keep going. Discouraged? Keep going. Rejected? Keep going. Don’t think you belong? Keep going. Made a dumb mistake? Keep going. Tired? Bored? Disillusioned?

Keep going.