I invited Sheridan Davis, author of Pretty for a Dark-Skin Girl, to write a guest post for my blog because her book and her passion to encourage and heal people in areas concerning race dovetails closely with what I'd like to see myself do in this next season of life.
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In the past several years I've had the pleasure of attending a couple conferences more than once (others I've attended only once). What I like so much about going to the same conference year after year is that I get to build relationships and face-to-name recognition with some of the return conferees. I get to see their progress. I get to hear wonderful updates. I also get to hear the same stories I heard the year before...
Staying on the path to achieving your dreams is not easy. Quitting seems like a really good option on most days. Ignore those thoughts. Seriously. When you think of quitting, shun it like the dark evil it is. Recognize it. Call it out. Encourage yourself all over again with stories such as this from Christian fiction author Kariss Lynch. In this piece she shares her story of her journey to publication. I hope it inspires you to never, never, never give up on pursuing what you know you have been specially chosen for.
New York City is known for being the epicenter of book publishing, and in times past I have often wished I lived in New York--if it had Florida-like weather. But I have decidedly stepped out of my wishing to be there to enjoying being here, and what I've discovered is a flourishing love of the literary arts in my local area.
You finally meet with the editor or agent, and to your surprise, after thinking their favorite word is no, they say they like your concept and would love to see more of it. “Here’s my card,” they say. “Please email me a full proposal.” The words you had practiced to combat any objections are caught in your throat and all you can say is, “Oh! Oh, that’s great. OK! Yes? Really? OK! Thank you!”
Yes, they want you to send them your manuscript (or proposal). But you know what some writers do? OK, wait. This requires a list.
The conference was held at the Lake Yale Conference Center located by one of the many beautiful lakes Central Florida is spotted with.
I wouldn’t have had much time for reflection anyway. My days were pleasantly filled with meeting with writers who had a passion for their craft and wanted to share their gifts with the world.
When I stepped in the door of the Raintree auditorium on that cool Wednesday afternoon (day one and faculty meet-and-greet day), Billie met me with a joyful, “Hello, Jevon. So glad you could come,” and four manuscripts that were awaiting my editorial critique. No time to be laid back and play the newbie card. But that wasn’t too bad; I could handle that much. They had to be read, marked up with comments and suggestions, and returned to the hospitality desk by Thursday before noon. (This is what I thought I heard, but later, after I had stayed up ’til midnight and rushed to have mine in “on time,” I found out that I didn’t actually have to have them in until Friday before 5:00 p.m. or something.) Although I was a novice writers’ conference attendee, being a half-way experienced book publishing professional somehow balanced out my newness to the whole scene. I am also not afraid to ask questions, and I did ask lots of them: “What time is it?” “Where am I supposed to be?” “Who do I turn this into?” “What is your name again?” “What was I just saying?”
The schedule was an exciting whirlwind of activities. I inched my way through the hallways and foyers to the many appointments as every few feet I was being stopped and introduced to a first-time conferee or one who had been bold enough to make the first move and meet me on their own. Idea after idea was hurled at me like a merciless dodge-ball game. This conference presented possible once-in-a-lifetime moments every smart writer knew they needed to seize, and I am sure every other faculty member was equally as in demand.
I have since received emails and gracious hand-written notes from the conferees who were encouraged by my listening ear and advice. I am thankful for them too for being brave enough to set out into such a fickle profession as writing, for bearing their heart and soul to people they may never meet but whose lives they may change, and for showing me that there is life, energy, and creativity still brewing in high concentrations all around the world.
I had a great time covertly comparing notes with the other faculty who attended. I was honored to sit on a nonfiction book panel with Christian publishing veterans Suzette Jordan, acquisitions editor at JourneyForth Books; Steven Lawson, senior editor at Regal Books, Jeff Braun of Bethany House, Craig Bubeck of Wesleyan Publishing, and Rick Steele of AMG Publishers. They each had impressive bios that I scoped out beforehand on the conference Web site.
The audience who questioned us held no punches. When the very popular question about author platform arose, I thought it was funny how we all played hot potato with the mic, took turns clearing our throats, and shifting our bodies in the seats. It’s not that there wasn’t an answer, but I think Craig Bubeck said it best, "It’s a little like trying to nail down Jell-O." I think that it is also something that, in the Christian book market, we have a hard time accepting and dealing with because Christians are often taught to be selfless and humble. And on the surface, it would seem that building an author platform is a lot like tooting your own horn. But it’s not. Building a solid author platform for your specific goals as a writer is simply using the tools available to let as many people you can know about the special niche, gift, or advice you have in order to enhance their life in a meaningful way. I think that’s service oriented, right?
The overall response to the panel was positive. Many of the participating publishers had a variety of outlets for almost all of the projects represented, and the writers seemed like they had their needs met.
My takeaways from that experience: become more knowledgeable about author platform, and the most difficult kind of book to place (all of us admitted) is the personal story a writer tells of his triumph over a tragic situation. I met with many authors who had that kind of story.
I got a chance between appointments to fire my own set of questions at Vicki Crumpton executive editor at Baker Books; Nancy Lorh, acquisitions editor at JourneyForth Books; Steve Lawson, who I mentioned earlier; and David Long, fiction editor at Bethany House. While talking with David, I discovered that Bethany's fiction imprint puts out about forty fiction books a year with a team of like twenty or so editors. I was shocked! How in the world is our team of two acquisition editors, one imprint editor, one developmental editor, and two copyeditors putting out sixty traditionally published books a year (fiction and nonfiction), some of which have been among our nine New York Times best sellers and countless CBA, ECPA, and Publishers Weekly bestsellers? No wonder we don’t go to writers’ conferences! I wonder if the other publishing houses are trumped that tight with editors.
I also enjoyed cutting up with my buddy Jeff Gerke, fiction editor and publisher for Marcher Lord Press, who helped us launch our fiction line, Realms. He is so cynical with a great sense of humor. I love it! I made new friends with author and template queen Cheri Cowell; Rebeca Seitz of Glass Roads PR, who helps us promote our new historical fiction line; and Meredith Smith of Creative Trust Literary, who will hopefully be sending us some good historical fiction stuff. I connected with Carol Wedeven and Angela Hunt who had both written some beautiful children books for our now-on-hold CharismaKids imprint.
The Workshops and Keynotes
For my own personal growth, I attended about four of the 101 classes that the conference offered: “Understanding Show vs. Tell and Point of View” by Jeff Gerke, “Beyond Words: Writing Great Prose” by author and speaker Jeanne Gowen Dennis, “Branding Yourself for Maximum Impact” by social networking specialist Laura Christianson of Blogging Bistro, and “Understanding and Negotiating Book Contracts” with legendary agent Les Stobbe.
I was glad I could fit in the fiction and prose workshops because I mostly edit and “write” nonfiction, but what I love to read is fiction. What a dynamic couple nonfiction and fiction/prose-type writing make when they marry. So I am secretly working on that for my own repertoire. I also know that the skills these fascinating teachers taught me will help as I edit and develop nonfiction.
The branding and contracts workshops also served a dual purpose as I make strides to continue growing and expanding my career as well as advise my authors about how to build a platform, what leverage they need to negotiate contract terms, and how to present a credible personal brand to their readers.
The keynotes were impressive because they kept reinforcing a very critical asset every writer needs: authenticity. Cec Murphey, ghostwriter for Gifted Hands by Dr. Ben Carson (a book that changed my life FOREVER. I read it in middle school and literally was never the same) and coauthor of 90 Minutes in Heaven with Don Piper, spoke Thursday night, Friday morning, and Friday night. Jerry B. Jenkins of the famed Left Behind series, the Jesus Chronicles, and Riven spoke on Saturday night. Though both of these men are completely different characters, they brought to life the same emotion in me—hunger for well-written, honest, and engaging reads. They encouraged all of us to know and accept who we are and share that bit with even the one person who may read our work and be impacted. They took us all down from our lofty visions of huge worldwide notoriety to a place of intimacy and humanity with that one reader. They helped us to know that being significant isn’t about sales numbers but about putting out our best and truest work no matter how many actually get to read it. I liked that a lot.
I read a lot of stuff, and I can just say that a majority of the time a writer is copying the tone, topic, and style of another writer. There may not be anything new under the sun, but there is only one you who can say what you can say, the way you can say it. Find that thing--whatever it is--and perfect it. Don’t be afraid to commit to it. Go…all…the…way!
My first writers’ conference experience was fantabulous as you can see. Exhilarating even. I would totally do it again. My preparations did pay off, and the reception was warm among my peers and the conferees.
By the way, JOB is for "Jevon Oakman Bolden," not for the perfect man in the Bible who lost everything in the whirlwind only to gain back more the second time. Although...
OK, I’ll admit that I don’t always like to show all my cards amongst my peers (and I am good at cards—well, Spades), but the truth is I’ve never been to a writers’ conference. I’ve spent the last six years in the books—editing, editing, editing. I think I’ve got it down enough to where it’s time for me to look up for a minute and check out the beautiful scenery around me. So I figured a writers’ conference was in order.
I found the Florida Christian Writers’ Conference through a colleague’s mention. I checked it out and saw that it was close and maybe I could afford a last-minute trip a few hours away. I didn’t know how accommodating they would be at my wanting to come at the last minute. (Like I said, I’ve never been to one.) Apparently book editors are well received at these shindigs, and I was asked to be one of the faculty who will review manuscripts and meet with authors/writers one-on-one. A few e-mails up the chain of command at the office, and my attendance is approved as work time out of the office. How awesome!
Since last week my mind has been going a thousand miles an hour trying to make sure all my ducks are in a row, so I won’t look or act like I’ve never actually been to one of these. In other words, credibility, professionalism, and confidence are paramount in my book. And I can’t have any of these without being prepared. Here’s what I’m doing to be on my A-game:
1. Connecting with the writers’ conference community
I found out that this particular conference has a Web site, blog, a Twitter page, and Facebook fan page. I jumped on all four by becoming a fan and follower to keep up with news. I read all the blogs and Twitter and Facebook posts to get a glimpse of who the faculty and other conference attendees are, their areas of expertise, their suggestions on how to get the best out of this conference experience, and why they're coming.
2. Checking out the list of faculty and sessions schedule
To see who’s coming and who I may want to meet (everybody, really), I made notes on the faculty—what classes they’d be teaching and a little about their work history. This way, I’ll be sure not to miss some of the key connections I hope to make. I also made a personal schedule of some of the classes that are about things I need more knowledge in, things that would enhance my own position as an editor, and things that will help me relate better to my authors. I am there not only to advise but also to learn. Since many of the tracks occur simultaneously, I figured this would be a way for me to not be overwhelmed with all the scheduling once I arrive.
3. Making a list of questions or observation of the industry I hope to have answered or discussed
This will help me hone in on some of the things that I wonder about during my daily activities. There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors, so some of the things I can’t answer within my sphere may be answered amongst a larger pool of professionals. I expect that once I get there, all the excitement and speed of this jam-packed weekend will cause me to forget many of the things I hoped to learn. So I make a list.
4. Contacting attendees in my area or those I know from other networks and letting them know, “I’ll be there!”
Another thing to help me build my network and make new connections is to make it a point to meet my friends in social-network land face-to-face. It takes the relationship from abstract to concrete. Letting people know I will be there and them telling me they will be there, helps us to take time out to meet and greet each other despite all the huff and puff of the conference.
5. Doing a little research about what’s expected of someone in my position at a writers’ conference
I have a little book that I’ve been “eating on” for a few weeks now. It’s called Editors on Editing edited by Gerald Gross. Yes, I know, it’s old, but it is so resourceful. It tells everything about what an editor does. Each chapter is broken down in essays written by well-noted industry professionals. There are three essays I am working through specifically for this conference: (1) “What Editors Look for in a Query, Letter, Proposal, and Manuscript” by Jane von Mehren, (2) “The Editor and Author at the Writers’ Conference: Why They Go, What They Do” by Michael Seidman, and (3) “Editing for the Christian Marketplace” by Janet Hoover Thoma. In addition, I am reviewing blogs and articles by other editors and writers about their experiences at writers’ conferences. This will help me have a gauge of what people expect from me as an editor when they come up to meet me, what kinds of questions I may be asked, and what questions I should ask. I want to be fully engaged with everyone on all sides of the publishing paradigm.
6. Deliberately planning what I will wear
Regardless of what anybody says, I believe without a shadow of a doubt that looks (outside physical appearance) play a huge role in what people initially think of me. Some try to play that aspect down and say that it’s the inside that counts. Yeah, OK. No one gets to your inside until they get past your outside. You have to look the part (whatever your part is). I want to be approachable, welcoming, credible, professional, and teachable, so I am going to dress for that. Comfortable shoes, I hear, is a must at these things. I think I have some three-inch red pumps that are pretty comfortable. The dress is usually casual, some people wear jeans. I think I can ring up some freshly creased, wide-legged, cuffed slacks with a little bling-bling to accessorize the deal. Bottom line: I plan to dress for the reception I want from others. “Comfortable” is relative. Comfortable is confidence. Comfortable is being taken seriously. Comfortable is not being self-conscious. Comfortable is matching my outside with how I feel inside—and like James Brown, “I feel good! Dunna-dunna-dunna-duh.”
7. Remaining open and teachable
Yes, I am going to be a resource to aspiring authors and writers, but I am really going to learn new things and take part in the conversation. I am looking forward to the opportunity to expand beyond the books my company publishes, our publication and submission guidelines, and what goes on in our day-to-day. I know that I will gain so much from every interaction, the classes I attend, the other professionals and how they interact, different ways to do things, new ideas, and on and on. This is going to be a rich experience. I expect to see my perspective broadened and my understanding and relationship to the market increased.
How do you prepare for a writers’ conference? Is there something I should add to my list? Let me hear you!