Conferences


Logo for WriteOnCon.WriteOnCon 2018 is officially over, and I attended about two and a half days of it. (Not that “attending” means tooooo very much when everything is online.) And now that it’s over, let’s talk about how it went!

First thing’s first: what is WriteOnCon?

WriteOnCon is an online writing convention for people writing children’s literature. It covers everything from picture books to new adult, and it’s 100% online. There are several different elements:

  • The Forums: The WriteOnCon forums are active from a week before the event. They’re totally free, so anyone can participate, even if they aren’t participating in anything else in the event. The forums include boards for talking about writing and craft, finding writing partners, and review boards where you can get feedback on your queries and first pages. During the event, agents scour the forums, and they may request your stories if they like what they see.
  • Blog Posts and Pre-recorded Video Posts: If you pay the $5 admission, you get access to blog posts and pre-recorded videos. These were created by agents and successful authors and they cover a boatload of topics, ranging from craft to personal experiences. About two of these were posted every hour, so there was a ton of content to experience.
  • Live Events: Additionally, if you pay at least $10, you get access to the live events. There was one live event held every hour of the event, running from 9:00 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET. These were one-hour-long events with some element of participation. Most of them were Q&As (so you could ask agents and authors your burning questions), workshop events, or agent pitch events.

So we’re talking about an absolute TON of content. And since this is all online, you didn’t have to “attend” all three days in person. You can watch the content whenever you want, even after the event. (But how long you have access depends on your admission–the $10 admission gets you access to the content for a week, and the $15 admission gets you access for a month. So if you weren’t there during the event, you do have a limited amount of time to catch up.)

So that’s what it was. What did I think?

The Forums

The forums were just like I remembered them. Again, I only participated in one place: the YA query review board. So how’d that go?

  • Everyone is so enthusiastic. You will get feedback from someone.
  • The feedback is, on the whole, extremely useful. I thought my query was pretty good going in. It’s better now.
  • You have to give feedback if you want to get feedback. The forum suggests you review at least 5 other people’s queries if you want feedback on your own. Try to review as many other queries as you can.
  • This also means there’s a lot of quid-pro-quo going on. If you aren’t getting enough feedback, try reviewing more queries!
  • You probably want to participate early. Go when the forums open. (That’s a week before the event.) Improve your query then. The agents don’t show up until the days of the event, and you’ll be more effective if the bulk of your edits are done by then.
  • Remember that a lot of these people are very new writers. This means you need to be critical about the advice you get. Not all advice is good advice. Look at what they’re suggesting, think about whether it matches what you know, and see if multiple people suggest the same things.

I got a ton of feedback. Some of it was iffy, some of it was amazing, but all of it was useful. I now have a much stronger query than I did going in.

The Blogs, Videos, and Live Events

WriteOnCon had a ton of content. And since this is an online event, that content varied widely, from polished, well-scripted videos to things shot on grainy webcams, in dark rooms, or without tripods or stationary webcams. There were technical problems. The website got mobbed on day #1 and wasn’t stable for about two hours.

And I found several posts, videos, and panels that I loved. Susan Dennard’s video on Why Failure Isn’t the End (which is publicly available on YouTube, even if you didn’t attend the event) is incredibly heartfelt and inspiring.

I can’t link to the rest of the content I watched (as you’d have to attend the event to see it), but I enjoyed a lot of stuff:

  • A live Q&A panel with several debut authors where they spoke about their “first year” experience, and how they got their agents and publishing deals.
  • Several amazing panels on using social media
  • More fantastic blog posts that I can count–there were several useful ones on writing descriptively, organizing your writing time, and maintaining motivation.

There was a ton of good content! Do I have some caveats? Absolutely!

  • WriteOnCon does seem geared toward beginning writers. At larger conferences, there are just more panels, and that means that you can choose between really basic panels on simple topics or really specialized panels on specific topics. At WriteOnCon, you have only one live event and maybe a pre-recorded 10- to 30-minute video every hour, so they tend to be about universal concepts, like “being motivated” or “writing dialogue.” The blog post were most likely to be about very specific things–but the panels? They were usually high-level. This means that a lot of the content is about things you’ve probably heard before: why it’s important to structure your stories, what voice is, what too much description looks like, how agents have specific querying requirements and you need to follow them… Yeah. Stuff like that.
  • You hear a lot of similar questions in the Q&As. And due to WriteOnCon’s low barrier to entry and the low admission rates, you get a lot of basic questions. So most agent Q&As had questions about what queries were, how long they should be, and why people get rejected. Every Q&A about social media ended up going down the “do I really need a platform? why?” track. You really don’t need to watch every single event that happened in the convention, particularly the Q&As. When Q&As cover similar topics, they usually have similar questions.
  • The query events weren’t very well organized. Here’s how it worked: some agents read your query letters live and responded to them verbally. If you wanted your query to be read, you had to post it on a specific thread on the forums. And the forums opened a week before the event. And, more importantly, I didn’t see those advertised anywhere. The WriteOnCon schedule only listed that pitch events were happening. It didn’t say “Hey, post in this thread if you want your query reviewed!” I didn’t notice them on the forums (although they were probably more obvious.) So what did I do? I waited until the day the pitches were supposed to occur. 45 minutes before the pitch event, I’d see a post saying “Post here if you want your query read!” And then I’d realize that they were already 5 pages deep, because people had been posting their queries for days. (Additionally, there was some sort of kerfuffle mid-event about how people weren’t following the rules of submitting, and this made at least one of the query pitch events go sour. I didn’t follow that since, by that point, I had simply accepted that I had lost my chance because I hadn’t posted my query in the days before the event.) Soooo I didn’t get my queries in front of agents’ eyes. That’s fine. I know how to query the old-fashioned way. But it was still disappointing.

My thoughts overall

As a semi-experienced writer–at least one who knows how to query, knows a smidge about publishing, and has one book out with a small press–WriteOnCon’s events were hit-or-miss. Some of the events were fantastic! Some of the Q&As were amazing! And… some of the Q&As felt identical, and some of the panels were just really, really basic.

But WriteOnCon is still absolutely fantastic, and I’d recommend it to any writer in kidlit. I mean:

  • You can see everything for $10. $10! You can’t beat that price.
  • It’s online, so you can watch as much or as little as you want.
  • You can watch and read the content after the event, if you want.

And you know what? I’ve gotten trapped in real-world panels at real-world writing events where I was bored out of my mind but didn’t want to disrupt things by getting up and leaving. But if I get bored of something in WriteOnCon? Close that video. Find another. Watch that instead. DONE.

If you write children’s literature, WriteOnCon is an easy, cheap, low-effort way to get a taste of a conference experience. There’s got to be something in those ~100 blog and video posts that you’ll find interesting, insightful, and inspiring.

Advertisements

Logo for WriteOnCon.

WriteOnCon is coming up! This year, it’s running from February 9 to 11, Friday through Sunday.

Haven’t heard of it before? Check it out. WriteOnCon is a writing convention for children’s book authors, including everything from picture books to New Adult. It’s also completely online, which means you don’t have to go anywhere–just register, sign on, and watch the panels!

It’s only $5 to read all the blog posts, $10 to see all the content, or $15 to see all the content and also have access to it for a month after the conference. So it’s dirt cheap, it’s fun, and it has a lot of seriously good speakers and topics. And Susan Dennard (author of the Something Strange and Deadly and Truthwitch series) is doing the opening keynote! How cool is that?

My experience with WriteOnCon is limited, but it’s something!

I attended WriteOnCon half-assedly in… I’m going to say 2014? It’s hard to compare that experience to now, because the convention was managed by a different team, went down for a while, and now has apparently been revived by a different team.

But that’s not really relevant for this post, because this much is the same: in 2014, I literally only signed up for the forums. I paid no money and didn’t attend any panels. I specifically did the Query Feedback forums, which are exactly what they sound like:  you post your query and you get feedback from the tons and tons of attendees.

Better yet: since agents are participating in the event, they look at the forums, too! And if you get super-super-super-duper lucky, you might get a request!

But chances are you’ll just get a ton of feedback, which is still super useful. You do need to take it with a grain of salt, of course–the attendees range from brand-new writers to honed veterans, and since everyone wants to be fair (if you get feedback, you want to give feedback, too!) you get a lot of feedback. This means you’ll get a mix, some great and some decidedly iffy.

Back in 2014, I was querying Justice Unending, and I got an absolute bucketload of feedback. And while I definitely didn’t use all of it, WriteOnCon did help me forge the query letter I eventually queried with.

Buuuut, I admittedly don’t know what to expect.

That said, I’ve never attended the full event before, so I have no idea what to expect. I’m attending this year, though! I’ll be  listening to all three days of events and participating in the forums. And, hey, it’s $10 and a few days. This isn’t a massive investment.

So if you write kidlit, give WriteOnCon a look!

I attended the New England SCBWI writing conference back in April, and one of the most intriguing panels I attended–and the one that’s stayed with me the best–was called “And Then There Were More: The Art of Writing a Series with Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette.”

I’m a fantasy author, so–be it for better or for worse–series are part of the landscape. And when I plan a trilogy, I only know one way to do it. I’m an outliner, yes? So if I was going to make three books, I’d outline all of them at once. I’d think big, come up with a large conflict, and then break it into three, self-contained arcs that inch closer to the “true” final battle. This is how I think.

But know why this panel stuck with me? Because Ms. Paquette explained that you can’t really think that way if you’re getting published with a traditional publisher.

So, my friends, if you’re one of those folks who wants to go the big, big publisher route, gather ’round and listen. Here was her advice.

A publisher might not agree to a full series right off the bat.

The crux of Ms. Paquette’s talk was that, if you’re getting published with a big publisher, guess what? You can’t choose whether you get a sequel or not.

You can want one. You can tell the publisher you have ideas for a series. That’s great! Publishers love knowing you’re ready to write more. But do you actually get to say “Hey, guess what, I’m taking a three book deal or nothing?” Well, probably not. (Not if your agent wants to steer you clear of the chance they say “Great! Nothing it is!”)

Instead, the publisher gets to decide if you get one book, two books, or whatever. And if you’re new, unproven, or they just aren’t sure about this project yet, they may want to wait and see.

So they only sign a contract with you for one book. They want to wait and put out the first book before making any decisions. They want to see if there’s any interest in it. Is it selling well enough to justify a sequel? If so, awesome! Let’s do more! If not, oh well! We all got one book out of it, didn’t we?

…And that means you have to change how you think about planning a series.

So, you can’t guarantee you’ll be given the number of books you want. How on earth do you write a series?

Ms. Paquette recommended:

  • Write one standalone novel, which has potential for more novels, but doesn’t require them.
  • Put all your best ideas in there, because:
    • If you want a chance at a sequel, you need to blow sales out of the water. Your best shot is the idea that you love the most.
    • Your readers will only choose to read book #2 if book #1 blows them away.

I mean, this makes sense, right? The idea that you have the most passion about is the one you’ll write the best.

And if you were planning a trilogy with two small crises you kind of care about, leading up to one mega-ending that you love dearly, then you could shoot yourself in the foot. if Vaguely Interesting Conflict #1 sells so-so, what publisher would want to pay for Middling Book #2? Who would read 500 pages and two books of buildup just to reach the thing you really wanted to write about in book #3?

So you frontload that stuff. You use all your best ideas in book #1.

This turned my thinking around,and… also made it really hard to plan.

OK. Fair warning: I do a lot of how-tos on this blog where I give advice about writing. What follows is not advice. It is me, whining.

At the beginning of this post, I said that I plan linearly: If I do a series, I think of one big crisis and break it into pieces. But let’s think about that: if I put my best ideas first, in book #1, then… I can’t really plan like that, can I?

This is really hard for me! Ok, so I should… write one standalone book with my best ideas. But have more ideas! Just not the ideas that made me desperate to write
this thing. Just other ideas, which are hazy ideas, which could become full-fledged books, if they needed to. But which aren’t yet! But still have those ideas, because the publisher wants to know you have a plan.

Ooof. So many variables.

I mean, I’ve done this before. Justice Unending is a standalone novel with series potential. It’s one book, it has a crisis, and it resolves it. It has an really, really open ending that leaves room for more novels. I just didn’t plan any. I wrote one book and did not, in the process of writing that book, think about what book #2 could be about. That’s great for pitching (apparently) and terrible for my own personal planning, because it’s way harder to feel like I’m done and then to think, “OK, but if I was going to do more, what would I do?”

(Apparently I should, though, since all the book reviews mention wanting a sequel.)

And my current novel–which is not a sequel to Justice, sorry!–is just a standalone adventure in one mysterious land, designed so that this adventure in this country would be resolved, and any other sequels (if there were any) would just be other adventures in other places. You know, almost episode-style.

But this is tricky. It is, undoubtedly, way easier to plan if you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, and this is something I struggle with mightily. Because writing in limbo–the book that can be book one-of-one and also book one-of-three–is hard.

This is the sort of thing that makes self-publishing way easier. At least then no one’ll tell you you can’t have a series if you want to have a series. But if you’re going the traditional publication route, you’ve got to be a little more flexible.

All’s fair in love and marketing, I suppose.

So, uh, I’ve never attended a full-fledged writing conference before. I’ve gone to one-day workshops (I even wrote a post on the last one I went to, the 2015 Writer’s Digest Workshop!) But the real deal? Multiple days, in a hotel? I’ve… never done that.

And after many years of dragging my heels, I finally went to one. I attended the annual New England Society of Children’s book Writers and Illustrators conference (which I am now going to just call “NE SCBWI,” even though that’s only slightly easier to type.) I only went for one day and I didn’t do any critiques or queries, so I really just did the bare minimum one can possibly do. But I still learned a ton!

The absolute best part of the conference was the networking.

My favorite experiences happened during:

  • An after-hours regional meetup, where people could meet other authors who lived in their area
  • Breakfast
  • Lunch
  • The periods when were were waiting for the keynote speeches to begin.

Every time we were herded into the ballroom, I would hunt down a half-populated table, sit myself down, and introduce myself to everyone there. I usually found at least one person who I had something in common with–a similar genre, a similar location, or a similar place in my publishing career–and we’d have a nice chat.

The panels were neat and the speeches were cool, but my absolute favorite moments–the “Oh, I met someone who wrote steampunk!” or “I had an awesome talk with a career author!”–happened completely by chance.

Lesson Learned:

  • Bring loads of business cards. Lots and lots of business cards. Mine are old (I made them before I published Justice Unending, so they have very little meaningful branding on them) and I forgot to replenish my stash before I left… But holy moly, I threw those out like candy. YA writer? Lives within 20 minutes of me? We had a fun conversation? CARDS, CARDS, CARDS FOR EVERYONE
  • Speaking of business cards, it can be helpful to make notes on them. “Guy at lunch who wrote MG fantasy” or “lady at breakfast who wrote a steampunk” can help you with the next step, which is…
  • … Email every single one of those people when you get home to say how nice it was to meet them. It’s very hard to make a lasting friendship in the ~10 minutes you talk during breakfast. But if you connect with them afterwards, you may be able to meet up afterwards!
  • Be prepared to talk about your stories–not in a pitchy sort of way, but a one sentence, “It’s about a girl who gets possessed by an immortal…” kind of summary. You’ve probably prepared a 2-sentence elevator pitch for agents/critiques/pitch events, but your peers just want to know what kind of book you’re writing.

The panels were interesting, but not exactly life-changing.

I only attended one day of the conference, so I definitely missed out on some panels that would have been really cool. Still, the panels weren’t the best part of the conference.

They were interesting, yes. I met some cool people. I heard some inspiring tips. But I didn’t come away from the panels thinking, “Holy moly, I never thought of that before!” But when an experienced author or a well-established agent says, “This is what really gets me excited” and you think, “Hey, maybe I can do that!!” that’s pretty inspiring. And that’s the whole point of these things, right?

Lessons Learned:

  • Panels are hit or miss.
  • If you have time before the class, introduce yourself to the people sitting nearby. At least those people are likely to be interested in a similar genre and topic as you are, since they’re at the same panel as you are.
  • Consider using a notebook. I tried to take mine on a laptop, and I spent the entire day worrying about my battery life. It’s far easier to just take notes on paper, even if that means you might need to transcribe it to computer later.

You probably should have something ready(ish) to pitch.

I didn’t, and… I kind of regret that. Kind of. There were two (maybe three?) kinds of pitch-related opportunities at this event.

The first one–and the one I was aware of– was the good ol’ “pay money for an opportunity to pitch to an agent” thing.

But I was surprised about the other kind: the incidental, accidental kind of pitching. I was in a panel where an agent took volunteers to read their first few lines. There were casual pitch events where your peers gave you suggestions on how to improve it. There was a panel event where you put your name in a hat and got to pitch to a panel of agents if you were chosen. There were tons of free events where you could get suggestions, even if you weren’t directly sharing with an agent.

Finally,  some of the agents who attended the event said they’d accept pitches from attendees, even if they weren’t otherwise open for queries, which meant that attendees now have a limited, 3-to-6 month opportunity to query certain agents.

I figured, “Hey, I don’t have something that’s ready for an agent, so I won’t spring the $50 for a meeting!” And then I didn’t prepare a pitch at all. That was a mistake, because there were a lot of other ways to get feedback.

Lessons Learned:

  • There may be other opportunities to pitch your story, even if you don’t pay for one.
  • Even if you don’t pay for agent queries/critiques, it’s helpful to have a brief pitch ready.
  • If you do intend to query, it can be helpful to have a manuscript more or less ready to go around the time you go to your event–just in case, like with NE SCBWI, the agents say their inboxes are open for your pitches!

Overall, it was a super fun experience!

I got halfway through breakfast before I realized that I… should have signed up for more than one day.

It was a fun experience, and in all the most unexpected ways. It was very different than the one-day workshops I’ve attended in the past, and in a much cooler, richer way.

They’re definitely expensive, but if you can manage to attend one? It can be a great way to meet other authors.

First off, I want to make a confession: I signed up for this thing totally on impulse. I really, really wanted to go to a conference this year, but I had missed all the big ones, all the local ones, and all the appropriate ones. So I decided, “Hey, who cares? I just need to to go to something, right? I’m only going so I can meet people, anyway.”

What I’m trying to say is: This was a good conference, but it was totally not for me.

One look at the official website should show you why–and it should have keyed me in, too! So shame on me! Because it’s really pretty obvious: this is a workshop for beginners.

So let’s talk about it!

The Panels

The entire event was presented by Chuck Sambuchino, who’s best known as the editor for the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and the author of several comedy and non-fiction books on how to write.

And he’s good. He knows his stuff, he’s inspirational, and he’s funny. He also speaks at roughly five thousand words per minute, so I’m going to guess he really likes his coffee, too.

There were five panels:

  • Your Publishing Options Today: An introduction to traditional publishing and self-publishing with an overview of the pros and cons for each.
  • Everything You Need to Know About Agents, Queries, and Pitching: This covered queries, synopses, and finding agents.
  • Chapter One Critique-Fest: The agents read the first page of several manuscripts and raised their hands at the point when they’d stop reading. Then they all explained what did and didn’t work for them.
  • How to Market Yourself And Your Books: A one-hour summary of Chuck’s book, Create Your Writer Platform, which went through why you need a social media platform and how it can (and can’t) help you.
  • How to Get Published: 10 Professional Writing Practices That You Need to Know NOW to Find Success as a Writer: Just a nice, rah-rah, inspirational speech with ten common-sense tips on writing.

Did I get a lot of out them? Er, not really. But I’m not the target audience here. I’ve queried three novels. I know what agents are, I know how to write queries, and I know what to do when you get a full request. I might not have an agent yet, but I at least know how to get there.

But would this kind of workshop be useful for a beginner? Definitely! It provided a high-level overview of where to publish, how to query, how to find an agent, what agents think when they read your stuff, and how to promote yourself along the way. For someone who has just started writing and has a gist of what publishing is about, this would be great.

Mostly, Chuck is just a really good speaker. None of this was new to me, sure. But I was very rarely bored. Chuck is fun enough to listen to that the panels were entertaining even when their content was pretty basic.

So What Did I Get Out of It?

I was in a stupid-lousy situation, really. I had already queried Justice Unending, my 65,000-word YA fantasy, to all the YA agents attending. (It’s also pretty much done–I’ve finished its query runs and moved on to small/medium presses.) I have the first draft of a MG fantasy done, but I finished that a couple of weeks ago. I’m really not ready to pitch that thing.

And I’ve already mentioned that I didn’t get a lot out of the panels. So what did I enjoy?

Networking!

Seriously. I don’t get out a lot. I definitely don’t meet a lot of other writers. I’m reasonably new to the Boston area, I’m shy as heck, and I haven’t really reached out to others. So hey, committing myself to a conference kind of forced me to get out and meet people, right?

And that was worth the price of admission. Sure, sure, yeah–I could probably have achieved the same thing by being less shy and going to SCBWI events. Or joining a writing group. Or something. But this was the kick in the butt I needed to go out and talk to writers. And it was fun.

So, overall…?

I don’t know if Writers Digest throws these mini-workshops often, but if you’re new to publishing, new to writing, and want a great, big infodump on how it works, then these workshops aren’t a bad deal. It was a one-day event, it wasn’t ridiculously expensive, and Chuck was a great speaker. As far as conferences go, that’s about as low a barrier to entry as you can get.