Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Nuts & Bolts of the 2012 MWG Creative Writing Conference

Sarah Whitney, Publicity Chair
Tricia Sanders, VP and Conference Chair

It’s not uncommon for writers to attend a writing conference based on who will be speaking or taking pitches during the event. For the past few months, this blog has spotlighted the faculty of the 2012 “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now!” Annual Conference. I hope they’ve given you a sense of what to expect this coming April. Check the "Look Who's Talking" tab at the top of this page for feedback from previous conference attendees, former chapter presidents, former guild presidents, and former speakers.

Speakers, however, are only one part (albeit a big part) of planning a writing conference.
For this last couple of days, leading up to the deadline for early bird registration, I am providing a sneak peek behind the scenes of the making of this year’s “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now! Conference. When it comes to having the inside scoop, there’s no one better to interview than Conference Chair Tricia Sanders.

Tricia, Vice President of the Guild, has been working hard to plan this year’s conference since almost the minute last year’s event ended. She’s booked the hotel, lined up the speakers, found keynote speakers, made sure the conference content would appeal to writers of different experience levels, figured out networking events, and the list goes on.

Tricia: Thanks, Sarah. In some respects it feels like I’ve been working on this conference forever, but in others it seems like yesterday that I sat down and started the process. April will be here before we know it.

Sarah:  You’re right about that. It’s hard to believe 2012 is already here. To get us started, 
Tricia, could you give us a brief background on how you became involved with the Missouri Writers’ Guild and how you became the conference chair?

Tricia: I joined a local chapter (Saturday Writers) around 2003 and started hearing about the guild. Saturday Writers’ has had three members who eventually became presidents of MWG. I joined the guild in 2006, I think it was. Since then, I’ve been attending conferences and a couple of years ago I started wondering what kind of conference I would put together. Who would be the speakers? What would they talk about? I really dug in last year and helped Deb Marshall, so it was pretty much a given that I would do this year’s conference.

Sarah: When you found out you would be organizing this year’s conference, how did you react?

Tricia: Well, it is a volunteer position. No one twists your arm. (Not too much anyway ;) I was excited for the opportunity. It really has given me some great networking opportunities that I would never get by just attending the conference. Since June I’ve been constantly in contact with our speakers, so I feel like I know most of them.

Sarah: So what exactly goes into planning a writing event like this?

Tricia: If you take it in small bites and start early, it’s pretty amazing to watch it all come together. I did a lot of analyzing on which dates would be best to avoid other conferences and Easter. Once I secured the location, I started contacting agents and potential speakers. I have to admit that I had a few of the folks in mind long before I volunteered to put together the conference. Some of them had even been suggestions that I had written down on previous conference evaluations.

Sarah:  Why did you bill it as the “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now!” Conference?

Tricia:  So many times, we put off writing because we don’t have time or aren’t in “our writing place.” Most successful authors will tell you they write while they wait in line, are on hold on the phone, sitting in doctor’s offices or wherever they happen to be. In fact, one of our speakers, Claire Cook, wrote her first novel in a minivan while her daughter was in swim lessons, at five in the morning, no less. “Write Time! Write Now! Write Place!” is the motto I’ve adopted for myself. I’ve decided that wherever I’m at, whatever I’m doing, I’m going to carve out time for my writing.

Sarah: I think it’s a great motto to adopt – especially for the New Year. I’ve always struggled with getting my butt in chair to write as well. Speaking of struggles, what has been the most difficult/best part of being conference chair?

Tricia:  I’d have to say getting volunteers is the most difficult part. There’s a lot that goes on and it takes people who are willing to step up, take the responsibility, and run with it. So, that said if anyone wants to volunteer, email me at I still need shepherds, folks willing to pick up our speakers and drop them off at the airport, registration table help, people to fill goodie bags, make name tags. The list is endless. The best part is getting to know the speakers. And if you’ve already volunteered, thank you so much. I’ll be getting with you about possible assignments.

Sarah: I can see how getting to know the speakers would be the best part. You’ve done a fabulous job building a first-rate list of conference faculty including Jane Friedman, Christina Katz, Claire Cooke, Christy Craig, Michelle Mortimer and more. How did you decide who you wanted to invite?

Tricia: Some of these folks have been on my radar for a while. I met Jane Friedman at a Writer’s Digest workshop, Christina Katz at another conference. Jane was there, too. A friend on Facebook posted about Karen Docter’s approach to plotting. For folks who don’t know, Claire Cook signed up to follow Sarah’s Twitter feed, so Sarah did some investigation, found out who she was and set up the initial contact. I met Patricia Lorenz over 20 years ago at a writing conference. I also wanted to showcase some of the local authorities and talent St. Louis has to offer like Susan McBride, Paul Lesko, Shawntelle Madison, and John C. McManus. When I started looking at agents, I made a list of genres and topics I wanted covered and used several online sources to seek agents who fit those needs. When I contact Ann Collette of the Rees Literary Agency she suggested her client Carol K. Carr who lives in Springfield, Mo. Finding a children's writer was difficult.  Several authors wanted to come but had schedule conflicts. I was ecstatic when I found Linda Gerber and she agreed to come. It’s like putting together a big puzzle, you just keep fitting the pieces together until you get what you want.

Sarah: It seems like who will be speaking at a writing conference is always the biggest puzzle piece, but what other areas have you found writers consider when deciding which conference to attend? How does this year’s MWG conference stack up in those areas?

Tricia:  I can’t speak for others, but for me, it’s always about the agents who will be taking pitch sessions. If there isn’t an agent who is looking for my genre, I usually will pass on the conference. That’s why I tried to cover a lot of subjects with the agents I chose. I also look for networking opportunities with other writers. Is there enough time to socialize without having to miss sessions? We have a built-in networking session on Saturday. We also introduced the Open Mic last year and it’s back this year as well as an expanded Agent Reads the Slushpile. I dispensed with the standard agent/editor panel this year in favor of an expanded Slushpile Read.  Our conference also has the in-depth master classes for those who want “a little more” and who aren’t quite ready to go home.

Sarah: Could you explain how the agent pitch sessions work?

Tricia:  Sure, when you register for the conference you can choose up to three agents to pitch your manuscript to. Just because you choose them doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to get one of the agents, but the earlier you register, the better your chances are to get your first choice. It also doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to get three pitch sessions. We ask for three choices in case your first or second choice is not available. There are only so many hours in the day and we are limited in the number of pitches each agent/editor can take. This year our agents/editors taking pitches are Debra Hess from Highlights for Children, Rhonda Penders from The Wild Rose Press, Sarah LaPolla from Curtis Brown LTD, Ann Collette from the Rees Literary Agency, Ann Behar from Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency, Michelle Mortimer from Darhansoff & Verrill, Kristina Makansi from Blank Slate Press, and Katharine Sands from Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency.

Basically, if you get a pitch session you have 7 minutes to tell the agent about your work, sell them the idea and allow them an opportunity to ask questions. It’s a good idea to practice in advance. Do some digging on the web for what an agent wants to hear in a pitch session. Many agents have blogs where they give advice on how to pitch them at conference. Follow their advice!! 

If you are pitching fiction, be sure your manuscript is finished. Most agents don’t want to hear about a project unless it is finished and ready to go.

If it is non-fiction, it’s usually okay that it’s not finished. You’re typically presenting an idea, but the agent will still probably want an outline and sample chapters finished.

A little do and don’t advice-

Don’t expect an agent or editor to take your full manuscript with them.
Do bring a first chapter, just in case they ask.
Don’t take up more than your allotted time. When you’re asked to leave, leave.
Do treat it as a business proposition. Dress and act the part.
Don’t track down agents and ask them to look at your work.
Do hang out in the bar and offer to buy an agent a drink. In this case, don’t bring up your work unless they ask. They will.
Do be polite, even if you get a rejection.
Don’t be upset if you aren’t asked to send your work. There are plenty of agents to query.
Do send your work promptly, if pages are requested.

Do remember that our agents and editors are our guests. Please respect their privacy. If they are on the phone or talking to another conference attendee, do not interrupt them.

Sarah: That is all great info. Thank you for sharing it. So, what kind of networking opportunities will there be outside of the regular breakout sessions?

Tricia:  There are always opportunities between sessions, the networking social on Saturday, the luncheon and banquet, our Open Mic. Last year I was asked to provide a list of attendees and their contact information to all attendees. I didn’t feel right doing that without asking everyone’s permission. This year I’m going to have some sort of voluntary list. In other words, if you want your information shared, sign the list and we’ll share it. If you don’t want your information shared, don’t sign it.

And bring plenty of business cards to hand out. They are cheap to make on your home computer or you can order them at I always come back from a conference with tons of business cards.

Sarah:  Last year, Agent Kristin Nelson did a breakout session called an “Agent Reads the Slush Pile.” Attendees submitted the first two pages of their MS and she read through them, just as if she were reading her slush pile. It was very popular. You mentioned that you’re bringing it back this year? Can you give us any more details?

Tricia:  Yes, everyone loved that. It’s back in an expanded format this year. Most of our agents will be participating. I don’t have it all ironed out yet, but we’ll have a great time and plenty of room for everyone to attend.

Sarah: Multiple agents? Sounds great! Hopefully that will mean more chances for your pages to be read. So, I have to ask about our Keynote Speakers. Why did you select Christina Katz and Claire Cook? What makes them so good?

Tricia:  I’ve been a fan of Christina for several years. When I first started talking to her about being a keynote speaker, I told her I wanted to end the conference on a high note. A lot of times we hear gloom and doom about publishing at conferences or how few people really get the big contract. When Christina told me she had a keynote about “Never a Better Time to be a Writer,” I was sold. I want our attendees to walk out the door on a positive note, ready to go back home and make it the “Write Time and Write Place to Write Now.”

Claire was a no-brainer. She wrote and published her first book at 45. I’m a bit past that age, but it gives me hope that I can do it to. I’ve read all of Claire’s novels and they all carry the theme of reinvention. I’ve found myself thinking, “what if…” a lot. What if I had written my novel 20 years ago or what if I had enrolled in that MFA program instead of the MBA program. We can second guess ourselves, but unless we do something about it, what’s the point? It’s my hope that the folks my age who listen to Claire come away with the fact that it’s not too late and the younger group will come away with the fact that they can live their dream now.

Sarah:  It sounds like you’ve made some excellent choices, but I’m sure planning everything hasn’t been all roses and candy. Do you have any cool stories or unusual missives regarding conference planning that you could share?

Tricia:  Oh boy, I could get myself in trouble, but I’ll take the high road. It’s been a great journey. 
One I would not have wanted to miss. I’ve met some great folks in the writing business and hope to maintain the friendships that I’ve gained through the experience. I think probably the coolest thing is reconnecting with someone I met over 20 years ago at a writers’ conference.

As far as unusual, well, publish your email address on the Internet and in a major magazine and you can just imagine the kinds of emails I’ve received.

Sarah:  Oh my. I can only imagine. Your inbox and spam folder must be an adventure all of their own. So, next question. As a writer organizing a writer’s conference, what have you done to make sure writers of all genres and skill levels will benefit from this year’s conference?

Tricia:  One of my main goals was to have as many different genres and/or writing-related topics as possible. It took bringing in a lot of speakers, but I think I’ve done it. We have several writing technique sessions such as plotting, researching, character motivation, evaluating your first page. I’ve also worked hard to cover poetry, non-fiction, children’s writing, humor, women’s fiction. Then I made sure I to include the business-side with copyright, crafting the non-fiction query, synopsis creation, writer to speaker, the impact of Google/Amazon/Apple on your career and many more.

Sarah: I agree. I would think that any writer should have something they’d be interested in learning more about in that list. I bet you still get a lot of questions though. What is the answer to the most common question you get asked about the conference?

Tricia:  The question I’ve been asked the most if do we have a one-day registration? Unfortunately, the answer to that is no. Since the registration fee covers 1 ½ days, it would be extremely difficult to offer either a half day session on Friday or a full day session on Saturday. We also have contractual issues with the hotel in order to get our meeting rooms at a discounted price. If we offered the conference in increments, it would be very difficult to meet those obligations and that would raise the price of the conference for all attendees.

Sarah: That makes sense. Last year’s conference chair Deb Marshall hosted a wonderful and well received event. When you reviewed the conference feedback forms, what was the most common comment? If it raised a concern, how did you address it this year?

Tricia:  Great question. Deb and I looked at every evaluation that we received and paid close attention to what folks said. The feedback was extremely positive. Most of the concerns were for things we had no control over, like the way the conference was split between the hotel and the conference center last year, the temperature in the rooms, etc.

The biggie that we saw several times was about why we didn’t provide refreshments like soda, coffee and cookies during the morning and afternoon. Some even said they would be willing to pay $5 more on the registration fee for a soda and cookie in the afternoon. Believe it or not, it is much cheaper for attendees to bring their own drinks or buy them from a machine, even if the machine costs $2.50. Setting up a one hour break with soda, coffee and tea costs $10.98 per person.  And that’s just for one break and NO cookies. If we add cookies it goes to $14.64 per person. If we had two breaks on Saturday it would raise the registration fee almost $15 per person.

With the economy the way it is, I wanted to keep our prices as close to last year’s as possible. As it turned out, the price of meals has gone up considerably, so that is reflected in the registration price and the banquet price. Probably more than you wanted to know, but that’s the long answer for why we don’t provide beverages. 

This year we are looking for sponsors to sponsor a break or two, so if you know of a business willing to donate the price of a break for the conference, please ask them to contact me at  We have a several different sponsorship levels with perks for the donor.

Sarah:  I do love my coffee, but I understand keeping costs low is important. Hopefully, we’ll find a sponsor and get the best of both worlds.  My final question is what are the top five reasons this year’s conference is going to be awesome?

Tricia: Location, location, location. That’s three, right? We’re in a great neighborhood with lots of things to see and do before and after the conference.
We have an amazing lineup of speakers. Where can you see Christina Katz, Jane Friedman, Claire Cook, Christie Craig, Katharine Sands, Michele Mortimer, Missouri’s first poet laureate Walter Bargen and many more all in the same place?

Our price is still great considering the number of speakers, the number of breakout sessions, and two early arrival seminars.

We have David Lucas and Brad Cook hosting our Open Mic.

Again this year, our banquet will highlight the accomplishments of our members, as well as recognizing the talented winners of our conference contests.

And we’re doing Nightcaps again this year.

Sarah: The Nightcaps last year were so much fun and a great networking event. What a good thought to end the interview on. Tricia, thank you for taking the time to give us an insight into the planning of a writing conference that potentially helps so many writers. If anyone has any follow up questions or additional thoughts to add, please share in the comments.

Leave a comment, and you’ll be entered into a drawing to win a 2012 Conference tote bag. Sharing this blog via Twitter, Facebook, or a blog post earns you additional chances to win. Just let us know in the comments.

Don’t forget to register. This week is the last week to take advantage of early bird rates for the “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now” Conference. Starting Sunday, rates will increase to regular pricing. If you’ve learned something from reading this blog, please consider attending the 2012 Missouri Writers Guild Annual writing conference. We would love to see you there.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Headline: Writing for Children with Highlights Editor Debra Hess with Tote Giveaway

Anyone who has read to a child or been a kid in the past decade or so has probably read something Debra Hess has written or edited. She is the author of dozens of fiction and nonfiction books for children and has been published by Disney, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and more. She was a series writer on Eureeka’s Castle, editor of Scholastic News and Scholastic Action magazines and the editorial director of the Custom Publishing division of Weekly Reader.

By Sarah Whitney

Among the books she has written are Thurgood Marshall: The Fight for Equal Justice, a NY Public Library Best Books for the Teen Age, and Wilson Sat Alone, an acclaimed picture book that was made into a PBS Storytime Special.
 She joined Highlights for Children as a Senior Editor in June 2009. She is the genre editor for nonfiction, responsible for screening all nonfiction submissions, acquiring nonfiction, and editing all sports, arts, adventure, cultural, lower-level science and social studies, career and profile pieces.

In April, she will speak at the “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now!” conference, sponsored by the Missouri Writers’ Guild. She will present a breakout session entitled, “Why You Should Want to Write For Children’s Magazines.”  Her session will provide an overview of the children’s magazine market and why it is the ultimate stepping stone to becoming a published writer. Debra will also be taking pitches for nonfiction topics for Highlights for Children.

Sarah:  Debra, thank you for taking the time to visit with us about your upcoming presentation at the Missouri Writers’ Guild Annual Conference.

Debra:  I’m looking forward to it.

Sarah:  To begin, could you give us a little more information about your breakout session? Why is writing for the children’s magazine market a good stepping stone for aspiring writers?

Debra:  For one thing, you can begin small.  Once we have purchased anything from a writer—a craft, a poem, an activity—that writer is in our database and on our radar, and we then tend to pay more attention when submissions come through our doors.   There are also hundreds of freelance opportunities for writers in the children’s magazine market.  And, for children’s nonfiction especially, there is less competition than in, say, the adult magazine market or the children’s fiction market.  I’ll address this in depth at the breakout session.

 Sarah:  During the Editors Roundtable at the May 2011 Highlights Foundation workshop, you said Highlights “actively recruits and looks for new authors.” If someone at the conference is interested in finding out more information about how to become a Highlights author, how would you recommend they break the ice?

Debra:  They should attend the breakout session, and if I haven’t answered all of their questions after that, they are welcome to come speak to me.

Sarah:  In the same workshop, you said that the number one mistake people make when they submit nonfiction to Highlights is they don’t realize you guys vet all the pieces for publication through experts. I noticed on the Highlights website, you requested that all nonfiction pieces include a bibliography and an expert review. Could you explain the expert review?  What are you looking for in that? And how would you recommend a writer – new to Highlights – go about getting one?

Debra:  That’s a great question.  If the article is person-specific, say a scientist or a profile of an artist, then the writer would have already interviewed the subject and would simply need to ask for a review of the article before submitting it to Highlights.  If not, foundations, universities and zoos are also great places to find experts.  If an author isn’t certain how to go about it but has done solid research and attached a bibliography, we will sometimes take it upon ourselves to vet an article through an expert prior to purchase.

Sarah:  Highlights receives approximately 800 unsolicited fiction and 200 unsolicited nonfiction submissions each month. In addition to including a bibliography and expert review, what else can writers do to make their submissions stand out from the slush pile?

Debra:  I think most editors get asked this a lot, and the truth is that there is no trick to it.  If the writing is good and the story is a fit for the magazine, then it will garner the attention of an editor. I think it’s important to remember that editors have different tastes and magazines have different needs. Becoming as familiar as possible with the publication and its guidelines is good place to start.

Sarah:  Why is including stories for children about culture so important to Highlights?

Debra:  Highlights is dedicated to helping children be their “best selves.”  We value all children and all walks of life and hope to provide a window into the world for our readers.

Sarah:  In addition to being an editor, you’re also the author of several fiction and nonfiction children’s books. What are a few of the qualities you value in children’s books, and could you cite examples from your own work?

Debra:  I value the same thing as a writer of books as I do as an editor at Highlights.  Good, solid writing, accurate facts, attention to detail and respect for the audience. 

Sarah:  Debra, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope our readers here at the Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference Blog will glean some insight into the submission process at Highlights and will be interested in attending your breakout session during the Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference.

To everyone else, what do you think about this interview? Does anyone who has been published in Highlights have comments to add? Let us know what you think in the comments to win a chance to receive a 2012 Missouri Writers’ Guild tote bag. Tweeting, posting a link on Facebook and blogging about this post gives you extra chances to win. Just tell Tricia when you comment how you helped us spread the word.

In the meantime, if you learned something from any of our conference previews, you should consider registering for the upcoming “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now!” Conference.  By attending, you’ll not only learn from our talented faculty, but you will also have access to two early arrival sessions, individual pitches, and chances to network with faculty and other attendees during our cocktail hour, luncheon, awards banquet and Open Mic.

Early registration ends Dec. 31. That’s less than two weeks away!  Register online via Paypal or print the registration form and submit a check via U.S. mail.

The 2012 Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference is sure to be a great event. I hope to see all of you there.

Keep writing!