Eager but anxious, this first-timer will rely on The Writers’ Loft light-blue lanyards to find family.
by Cathy Stenquist
I WAS NOT OFF TO a good start. I had forgotten to scribble the SCBWI conference registration date on my calendar and to pre-read the course guide. I quickly ran downstairs to the computer, sure that it was too late. Missing the sign-up meant I’d need to wait till next year; but on the other hand, I could save some money I really didn’t have. That honestly didn’t sound so bad.
Then I had a second thought…I had worked hard over the past couple of years to learn about the craft of writing picture books. I knew deep down that I should go, that I was ready to go.
After a reassuring consult with my husband, Scott, I decided if there was a room available at the conference hotel, that would be my sign. Tapping the desk, I waited. “Yes, we have a room for you at the reduced rate,” the clerk confirmed. No backing out now. It was time.
“Oooh boy!” I sighed loudly. Scott muted the TV, offering more reassurances. I scooted my desk chair back so Camille could curl up on my lap. Leaning over her warm purring form, I took a deep breath and clicked the first tab on the SCBWI website.
Scott wisely advised: “If there is one that you REALLY want…book that first and then scroll back.” Lesson learned. Each step brought a bit more fear and anxiety. Yet, I was surprised that many of the courses I had hoped to attend were still available. My schedule was filling in nicely and I allowed myself to breathe a bit more slowly.
Then I came to the option for an agent consult, for an additional fee. Registration came to a halt. I took a minute to push my chair back, stroke Camille’s fur and think about this. After a few moments of doubt if I was really ready, I decided I might as well take full advantage, as long as I had the right expectation. To get a chance to speak one on one with a professional was an amazing learning opportunity. But what agent? And what MS?
I scrolled through the critique faculty and learned something else for next year: Do more research on agents ahead of time to gain some idea of who would be a good fit. Browsing through the bios, I highlighted four top choices and wrote my possible MS matches next to their names. Though most slots were already taken, I saw an opening and quickly checked it off.
Later I wondered what I had gotten myself into. The MS I was considering, about an anthropomorphic house, seemed to fit in with the agent’s love of “non-human” characters, but it badly needed revision. My excitement about completing my registration soon gave way to doubt.
“You’re okay,” I said to myself. “You have till April to pull it together.” Ah… But au contraire! Rereading the instructions, I realized I only had until the end of February, NOT April, to get it in shape.
I read my MS out loud. The lack of arc, the failure of the protagonist to solve their own problem and the lackluster ending glared at me like a flashing neon sign. Time to send in the posse!
I emailed my recently acquired online critique group and asked for a favor. “Yes, of course!” they yelled in caps, answering my call. I also submitted the same MS to my Writers’ Loft PB Critique Group scheduled for Thursday night.
“For now, my nerves are subsiding and I am becoming genuinely excited.”
Within 24 hours I had insightful, specific critique from all. Many lightbulb moments popped in my head as I read their advice. My fingers couldn’t wait to get tapping. Revising led to rewriting, but in the end, the story did stir that feeling you get when you feel your MS might actually be working.
Then onto the dreaded query letter. Dah, dah, DAH! It always amazes that what boils down to a formal letter can often be MORE difficult to word that the PB text itself! Little by little I formed it into one I felt okay about (Thanks, Query Support Group, for lessons learned!). Having met my deadline, I sent it off with a bit of nervous relief.
A few days later, I received an email with conference award opportunities: the SCBWI Work In Progress Grant, The Ruth Landers Glass Scholarship, and my favorite—The Karen and Phillip Cushman Late Bloomer Award. I wanted to win that last one just because I loved its title!
Thumbing through my manila folders, one of my stories caught my eye and seemed like a good fit. And so began that embarrassing and confusing process we all know too well:
Read instructions, Get everything ready, Read instructions again.
Double check your story… Read instructions again…
Send yourself an email first to see if it works… Read instructions again just to make sure ….
OK now… It’s time to stop obsessing! Click send!
Next I reached out to an online critique partner who had already attended the conference. I learned all the little details: what to wear (look professional), make sure to have critique questions ready, and there’s great Indian food nearby. Most importantly, I was reassured that writers are some of the most kind, generous, and welcoming people there are. But of course, I had already gotten a glimpse of that with my fellow Lofters.
For now, my nerves are subsiding and I am becoming genuinely excited for what is to come. After all, I figure when I have one of those “standing near the elevator and not sure where I am” moments, I can always look for those light blue Writers’ Loft lanyards to know I am just a few steps from family.
Three children, five goldfish, one rabbit, and three cats later, Cathy is embracing her empty nest and filling it with creative projects such as recycled collage art and writing children’s picture books. She is an active member of SCBWI, 12×12 Challenge, and The Writers’ Loft. Cathy is the author of “A Note from Heaven,” published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope and Miracles, and a contributor to WellesleyWeston Magazine. You can explore her writing and other creative and domestic endeavors on her blog Bread & With It at cathystenquist.tumblr.com.
Note: Whether you’re a first-timer or veteran, if you’re attending the upcoming 2017 NESCBWI conference in Springfield (April 21-23), you can use the Loft’s Facebook page to arrange carpools, dinner plans, and more.