Last year when I decided to take the plunge and take my writing seriously, I would never have dreamed of the places I would go or the people that I would meet.
One year ago, I would not have dreamed of having just spent the weekend in Melbourne attending an awesome and amazing writer’s conference.
I did not imagine that I would meet and chat to children’s book authors, both emerging authors (like myself) and established authors that I had met on Facebook, or read their books, as well as the many varied and talented illustrators.
In my wildest dreams I did not imagine that I would have the opportunity to have two of my picture book manuscripts assessed by a publisher that I would otherwise have needed an agent to get near.
I did not think that I would ever be sitting in a conference hall at the Victoria State Library and listening to panels of publishers, editors and an agent, answer our myriad of urgent, crucial questions at the first Meet the Publishers Conference.
And yet that is where myself, along with 159 other delegates found ourselves last Saturday, 7th of May 2016.
It was a mild May Melbourne morning - we were standing outside the Victorian State Library in the surprisingly warm sunshine. The atmosphere while standing in line was one of warmth, friendliness and excitement, and it set the tone for the rest of the day.The doors opened. We crowded in and received out lanyards with our names and sweet illustrations on it.
I spotted various ladies wearing lovely cardboard crowns on their heads, working busily handing out lanyards and making sure everything was running smoothly. They were the lovely and amazing organisers and their team – Alison, Dee, Nicky, and Jaquelyn. Alison's husband ran the assessments. (He was not sporting a crown).
Nine o’clock came around and I left to find the Just Write For Kids Group at the Mr Tulk Café right next door, where we had organised to meet. We greeted each other like old friends, many of us feeling like we knew each other from our chats on Facebook.
After a quick chat, a promise to try to catch up later, and the excitement of swapping of business cards, we headed off to the Library’s Conference room. The atmosphere in the room was electric. I could scarcely contain my excitement. Here we all were; presented with the opportunity to hear twelve publishing professionals, in various panels, answering our most burning questions.
We were looking forward to an amazing and full day with the Picture Book, and Chapter and Middle Grade Panels before lunch, and the Illustration, Young Adult and Question Time Group Panel after lunch. Spread throughout the day were assessments and pitch sessions for authors and illustrators. And we were not disappointed.
Michael Wagner was MC and did a great job. He kept us entertained throughout the day with his questions of the various panels, and his wry sense of humour. There were some questions that, when answered, brought a collective gasp of disbelief and people looking at each other shaking their heads.
One time was during the Picture Book Panel when the publishers were asked about word count and they all just looked at each other.
This was so different to what had been drummed into my head in recent months.
Imagine my relief, along with many others, to be given permission to just write the story that is blazing within us to be told. It will fit somewhere. Yay!
Another Picture Book Panel question was regarding rhyming books. As long as it is good rhyme it is fine. (Sorry. I couldn’t help myself). But it has to be very good rhyme.
As an emerging Picture Book author, I did pay more attention to this particular panel, the publisher’s likes and dislikes etc - I know now where to send at least two of my manuscripts to. However, I think that - except for the bit about illustrations - the following is applicable across all age levels.
The panel shared what, to them, makes a picture book great:
What is a big NO in picture book stories?
However, one publisher does like stories for children that are on the scary side. So there is at least one exception to one rule.
When asked if authors should have an illustrator in mind when submitting, the answer is no. Again there was one publisher, fairly new on the publishing block, that didn’t mind an ‘already working together’ team. But this was also an exception. So it pays to check before sending your manuscript as to their individual guidelines and preferences.
When asked what do editors dislike and often receive in the slush pile, the answer was:
If you, and I’m speaking to the authors here, have ever wondered what sort of dream author a publisher would like, the publisher's answer is:
One thing that was interesting to note is that the publishers are calling for stories featuring strong female characters. It seems as if the market has been flooded with stories for boys. And as much as we would like to think that there is no such thing as books for girls and books for boys, there is. Girls are happy to be seen with books featuring a male protagonist (main character). But boys would not be caught reading a ‘girls’ book.
“It is our culture,” said one of the panel.
So there is a challenge for all the authors out there: to create a story with a strong lead female character that boys will happily read and be seen with in the school yard. Hmmm. Is it possible?
I met an emerging author at the conference, who has written a gorgeous Christmas story. It is pure poetry and makes for a great read aloud experience. She was concerned that she would be unable to get a publisher interested. Imagine her relief and delight when she heard from the publishers that they are keen for a commercial hook. Namely, holiday tie-ins like Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and… Christmas.
The rest of the day seemed to me at least, to pass in an excited blur. Breaking for a quick morning tea and catching up and meeting so many people, then the Chapter Book and Middle Grade Panel. But, I barely could pay attention. My assessment was coming up. I had managed to get two of my picture manuscripts in front of a publisher. I had two other manuscripts ready to pitch, just in case the first two weren't accepted. I kept going over and over my pitches in my head. Then it was my turn.
I wasn't very nervous. I had worked hard. I had planned and prepared as well as I could. I went in with the attitude that I wanted feedback on my stories from someone who knows what is wanted in the industry now. They would know how I can tweak my stories to really make them sing. And I had back ups for the eventuality that the first two were not accepted. I wasn’t disappointed.
My takeaways from my assessment:
Lunch was an exciting affair. The food was delicious and the friendly chatter contagious. It was so much fun. I played spot the people I know as friends on Facebook - the smiling faces and excited pointing and, “Oh my goodness! It’s you!” were just priceless.
The afternoon went by in a flash. The Illustration Panel; afternoon tea; the Young Adult Panel; The Question Time Panel.
And then there was the closing of the conference and the inaugural Meet the Publishers Conference 2016 (kidslitvic2016), was over.
Some went to the Cocktail party to chill, relax, to let their hair down and to mingle. Others were heading home or had planes to catch. As for myself, my friend Ester (illustrator), and our new found friend who was staying the same hotel as we were -- we got take away, a bad bottle of wine and headed back to our hotel room to wind down and celebrate an amazing day. We read out loud to each other our stories and works in progress, and talked about the wonderful experiences that we had had that day.
Here are the words of this new friend (who had never been in a writer’s group before), with tears in her eyes said, “I’m with my kind of people. You get me. You understand how I feel about writing and my stories.”
So if you have never considered going to a writer’s conference before, I would highly recommend it. This post is longer than many of my others, and I have barely scratched the surface of what the publishers said, and the wisdom that was passed on in general conversation from those that have gone before us and are further along in their publishing journey.
I didn't mention the many delegates who had flown in from as far away as Queensland for the opportunity that the conference held. I didn’t even talk of the incredible illustrators that had their stunning and varied portfolios on show upstairs. Suffice to say, it was an incredible and wonderful opportunity that Dee White and Alison Reynolds created for us. An amazing time that did not, at least for my friends and I, end at the conference. You and your team did a sensational job. Cheers! Bring on Meet the Publishers Day 2017.
If you are thinking of attending a writing conference aimed at children's authors here are a couple...
Upcoming children's author/illustrator conferences:
SCBWI Conference to be held in Sydney—September 4-6, 2016
CYA Conference to be held in Brisbane--2nd July 2016
Story Arts Festival to be held in Ipswich—5th September 2016
Please feel free to leave a comment about your own experience of the conference, any questions, comments, observations. I'd love to hear from you.
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