It’s expensive to be a struggling writer; there are organizations to join, dues to be paid, subscriptions to maintain and conferences to attend. And the earlier you are in your journey to the holy grail of publication the more you tend to spend. In the beginning, I spent money to learn the craft, with classes online and at local writing enclaves like Grub Street. Then I started to attend conferences sponsored by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) so I could learn more about the business of publishing and broaden my network. After several years of that, I am reasonably confident that my work is solid and that I understand how the publishing game is played. You would think that would mean that I could save my money and stay home, but you’d be wrong. Writing is a lonely job, and the best way to combat that is to get out and mingle with other writers.
Last week, I was fortunate to be able to participate in a small conference in Rhode Island called Whispering Pines. The conference is sixteen or seventeen years old and is run under the auspices of the SCBWI and managed, in recent years, as a labor of love by an author named Lynda Mullaly Hunt. One of the many things she does to make the retreat a success is entice industry folks, agents, editors, authors and illustrators, to attend as mentors. Each attendee submits pages ahead of time that are then shared with one of the mentors who arrive at Whispering Pines ready to provide a critique. Every newbie hopes that they will have been assigned to an agent or editor who will love their work so much that they will sign them on the spot—until we discover that the best critiques come from the authors.
Agents and editors read hundreds, thousands, of query letters, first pages and partial manuscripts every year. The chances are that even if they started their careers as warm, nurturing, idealists, they’ve been worn down by the sheer volume of material they are bombarded with daily. As one editor explained, she can tell immediately if she’s interested in a submission—immediately. She scans the first paragraph and, most times, hits the delete key. Now, that doesn’t mean that she can’t give an excellent critique, but explaining why a non-agented submission isn’t good enough is not typically part of her job.
Authors tend to have a more empathetic approach. I assume that’s because they remember being on the receiving end of rejection. And that was certainly my experience at Whispering Pines when I had the opportunity to spend half an hour with Leslie Connor, the author of the picture book Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel (illustrated by the incomparable Vermont artist Mary Azarian), and middle grade novels including Waiting for Normal and Crunch. Her demeanor was warm and friendly, and her critique was thoughtful and thorough. I clearly still have work to do, but I left our meeting armed with all kinds of good ideas, encouraged and eager to get back to work.
And that is why writers continue to spend money on conferences; to remind ourselves that we’re not alone; to commune with people who understand what we’re going through; and to build up our creative reserves until the next time we can all come together. I consider it money well spent.