It was pouring rain when I arrived at the small college campus a few miles from my house for my first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference. In my bag I had six copies of the first ten pages of my manuscript, one complete copy, my query letter, and a one-page synopsis. I’d spent the week memorizing my logline. I’d researched all the presenters. This time, I felt prepared.
It had been ten months since my first query attempt. It was a minor push (and prematurely executed), but I learned something important from the five agents who rejected my manuscript. They each told me kindly that my story idea was interesting and marketable, but my writing needed work. I read that feedback as: (1) I wasn’t wasting my time with this project, but (2) I needed some help.
I enrolled in a YA Fiction Writing class through MediaBistro (more on that experience here) and then spent the next six months working one-on-one with a writing coach and a series of critique partners. I wrote and polished and wrote and edited and cut a lot.
When I thought my manuscript was ready—really ready this time—I registered for the SCBWI conference and signed up for the manuscript critique. On the deadline date, two months prior to the conference, I put my packet together and fed it into the mailbox with shaking hands.
I was told I wouldn’t know which faculty member critiqued MOBIUS until the end of the conference. So you can imagine my surprise when an email from Caryn Wiseman of The Andrea Brown Literary Agency—the agent and the agency I most wanted to work with—appeared in my inbox on the Tuesday prior to the event. This is what I read:
I’m critiquing your opening pages for the SCBWI conference, and I just wanted to say hello and tell you how much you have captivated me with your manuscript so far. I am dying to read the rest! I’ve never contacted an author prior to a conference before, but since we don’t get to meet and discuss my comments, I hope that you will introduce yourself to me at some point. If you would like to email the full manuscript to me now, I’d love to see it; otherwise, I will certainly request it from you in my critique.
I ran off to tell my husband and emailed the small handful of friends who knew I was even writing a novel. Then I spent the next five hours reading my manuscript to be sure it was as flawless as I could make it, addressed an email to Caryn, and pressed “send”. After that, the week slowed to a crawl while I wondered if the rest of my story lived up to those first 15 pages. By the time that rainy Saturday came along, I was about to burst out of my skin.
I spotted Caryn just before the conference began. I took a few deep breaths, made my way in her direction, and introduced myself. And she beamed. And shook my hand. And said, “I read MOBIUS in one sitting. I love it and I want to represent you.” I think I said, “Okay” or “Yes” or “No way, where’s the hidden camera?” or maybe I just smiled and tried to hold back the tears.
And that was it. Caryn and I spent the next three months editing my manuscript. She pointed out my tics, told me where the story was strong and where it wasn’t quite working. She brainstormed plot twists with me in person during the agency’s Big Sur Writer’s Workshop and via email for weeks afterward. She asked big questions. She worked with me like this story mattered to her as much as it did to me. Then she sold it with the same devotion.
After a totally unexpected four-house auction, I selected an amazing editor. She’d spoken that same day, at that same SCBWI conference: Lisa Yoskowitz with Hyperion. I’m sure the fact that I’d seen her speak helped me feel like she was absolutely the right editor for me, and the right champion for this story.
Writers often ask me if I think conferences are important. I tell them this story. I tell them to go prepared and be bold while they’re there. To have a one-sentence description of their story committed to memory and to be ready to deliver it. To be brave and proud when they talk about their work.
Most of all, I tell them to look for an agent who falls in love with their story, because that might just lead to an editor who does as well. If you’re really lucky, you might even meet them both on the same rainy day.