The Big Break by Donna

I’m going to be honest with you. Every big break I ever received in children’s publishing was a direct result of attending a writing conference. It all started several years ago when I attended my first national writing conference. I stepped onto a crowded elevator in LA and met a woman—Big Break #1. That chance meeting led to my writing one of the top 500 bestselling children’s books of all time (according to Publisher’s Weekly) and also writing several episodes of a very popular children’s television show for PBS. I’ll tell you that story in a future blog post, but this week the YA Muses want to share how writing conferences have helped us in our journey toward publication and highlight some of the best.

After that chance meeting in a LA elevator, life happened. I eventually stopped writing for children to focus all my efforts on writing for tenure at a research university. I was granted tenure, but I longed to write something a little more creative than “The applied multiple regression correlation of the blahblahblah” and “Complexity arises in the behavioral sciences when one departs from the orthogonality of factors in the blahblahblah.” Attending a conference seemed a good way to get back into the game, so I signed up for the Big Sur of the Rockies conference sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI. From the beginning, the conference was different from my past experiences. I was required to submit manuscript pages ahead of time and had to be accepted to attend. I submitted twenty pages of my first attempt at a middle grade novel, Boob Blogs, but had little more than that completed. My biggest hope for the weekend was that I would be motivated to finish the book.

So on a crisp, fall weekend I checked in at Chautauqua in Boulder, Colorado. That night at dinner I saw my personalized agenda and knew this definitely wasn’t like any other past conference. The weekend was organized around two different critique groups. Each small critique group was led by one of the faculty members and met twice during the conference weekend. Writing time for revising the manuscripts, based on the feedback, was scheduled between the critique group sessions. Large group presentations, featuring the editors, agents and authors that served on faculty, were also scheduled—but the focus of the conference was on the critique groups. As I reviewed the agenda, a slip of paper fell into my lap and I started to hyperventilate. My first critique group was going to be led by Andrea Brown, agent extraordinaire and President of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. A woman sitting beside me at dinner, whose husband I later learned was a basketball coach, whispered reverently over my shoulder, “It’s like getting a chance to try out for the pros.” And it was. Later that evening, I found myself sitting on a couch in a quaint cottage with four other writers nervously passing out stacks of papers. Andrea Brown sat in the circle with us, smiled supportively, and asked, “Who wants to start?” I didn’t know it at that moment, but it was to become Big Break #2.

Big Sur of the Rockies was an amazing experience. Both critique groups that weekend were thoughtful, tough and encouraging. More importantly, both resulted in better manuscripts. I certainly left with the desire to finish my book, but I also left with amazing connections that eventually led to my signing with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and my super agent, Mary Kole. I also learned that the Rockies conference had been patterned after the original Big Sur Children’s Writing Conference organized by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. I decided to go to Mecca.

Last December, I attended the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop in California. It was designed very much like Boulder, but the faculty was even larger and more impressive. Top agents, editors and authors were everywhere! This time I had the privilege of having bestselling author Ellen Hopkins and Abigail Samoun, editor at Random House/Tricycle Press, as my two critique group leaders. Once again the groups were small, intense and focused. That weekend I had the opportunity to meet my wonderful agent, Mary Kole, in person and received incredible, enthusiastic feedback on my writing from multiple editors. It was definitely a Big Break moment, but not in the way I thought it would be. Big Break #3 ended up being the small group of writers I met in my critique group who became the YAMuses. I might never have met them if not for Big Sur, and I thank my stars every day for their support and encouragement. Nobody understands this frustrating, exhilarating world like they do.

I realize my big breaks involved some elements of good fortune. I could have missed that elevator, or had someone else as my critique leader, or been in another small group. I could have also had all these opportunities, yet not been able to take advantage of them if I hadn’t also followed the “put your butt in the chair and write” rule. Nothing takes the place of that. That being said, if I hadn’t been at those conferences, making connections, and putting my writing out there—those particular breaks would have never come my way.

So enjoy our journey through the writing conference world this week and leave us your questions and comments.

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