Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Cage Match -- SCBWI and RWA

The mere title of this post amuses me. A smack down rumble between children's writers and romance writers is an unbelievably funny idea to me. But I am a tad twisted.

No, I'm not going to suggest a war, I just thought that, after attending my first big SCBWI conference last weekend, I might talk a little bit about the differences in the organizations and their big conferences, based on what I observed.


The SCBWI conference was definitely skewed toward women, but there were more men there than at an RWA conference. I'd guess it was close to, or over, 10%. At RWA it's probably less than 1%.


The I in SCBWI stands for Illustrators. It was kind of cool to be at a conference where some of the workshops/contests/talks were for people who earn their living drawing and painting, rather than writing. And many do both.


If size matters,  RWA has SCBWI beat. There were about 1100 people registered at the SCBWI conference and that's less than half of what's usually at an RWA National Conference.

Chicken Dinners

SCBWI wins here, I'm afraid. Because of the absence of rubber chicken dinners. ;) We only got one "meal" at SCBWI, which was a cocktail party, not a big banquet, but the food was pretty high quality for that kind of thing. They also had bagels and cream cheese and coffee each morning. My only "beef" with the meal thing was only having an hour for lunch, which was a bit of a scramble on our own.


This one is a toss up, but I have to give the slight edge to SCBWI. For such a short conference (1 1/2 days) there were three big keynote speeches and they were all excellent. Four if you count a short one by Henry Winkler. (Yes, Henry Winkler.)

Here's the terrible photo I took of him right after his talk, when I accidentally ended up next to him waiting for the elevator. My apologies to Mr. Winkler.

Because of the absence of rubber chicken dinners, the keynotes weren't delivered over desert and coffee and therefore it was more practical for the keynote speeches to have content vs just inspirational messages. But one, in particular, by Chris Crutcher, was incredibly inspirational. I laughed and cried a lot during his talk. But I actually took notes during the other two keynotes.

One fun tidbit... Cassandra Claire gave one of the keynotes and I think one could argue that she's more of a romance writer than she is a children's writer... But that's the thing with YA: Children's publishers worry less about putting books in genre boxes... But what Claire talked about during her keynote was forbidden love and love triangles -- a talk that would not have been out of place at an RWA conference. And the SCBWI crowd (many of whom I'm sure would scoff at romance as a genre) ate it up.

Workshops and Panels

This is where the two conferences varied the most. It was set up completely differently and both ways have their pros and cons. At the RWA National conference, any member can propose a workshop and during each time slot there are probably 10-15 choices. Some talks will be awesome. Some will suck. Some will be just a chance for fans to fawn.

At the SCBWI conference, there were fewer workshop options, only three "breakout" times, and each workshop was offered during each time slot. That is, the presenters, gave the same talk 3 times to 3 different groups. This meant less choice, but it also meant that the quality of the presenters was much higher.

I was a bit worried, to be honest, when I saw the line up of workshops/speakers. Worried that the workshops would all be super generic and too basic, because almost all of the breakouts for writers were being given by agents or editors. And my experience at conferences (RWA ones and general writing ones) is that the agents and editors who give workshops often don't prepare, and instead wing it, mostly answering questions. And one can't blame them for winging it because they get asked dumb questions so tend to glaze over things, repeating: "Just write a good book," over and over and over. At this conference, no one let them get away with that. In fact, on the big editor and agent panels, which were for the entire 1100 people, not in breakouts, the moderator told them ahead of time that "just write a good book" was not an acceptable answer to any of her questions. :)

But in spite of my worrying, I got a ton out of all 3 of the workshops I attended. One, I admit, was fairly high-level basic information about the YA genre, but was well timed for me, because I'm giving a talk for Toronto Romance Writers on the YA genre in April, so I was taking tons of notes. The other two breakouts I went to were AMAZING.

One was on Thrillers by agent Sarah Davies. Top notch. If I parsed through every word, I think I'd heard most of it before in some form or another, but it was super-well organized and just what I wanted to hear right now.

The other was on revisions, by editor Cheryl Klein. Smart, smart woman. Wow. I've been to at least a half dozen workshops on revising over the years and have read at least two full books on the topic, so I wasn't sure I'd get much out of it, but she was awesome. I think hearing this stuff from an editor (rather than a writer), and from an editor of a fairly literary imprint (Arthur Levine Books) versus a genre fiction editor was amazing. That first part because I think writers tend to bias their talks toward what works for them, their "method", rather than being objective and/or talking about the big picture enough... And the second part because I was glad to hear her say the same things we hear in the genre fiction world: Tighten up your prose. Be clear. Make every scene, every character, every word count. And she mentioned Jennifer Crusie's collage technique and how much she loves her books. :) Her suggestions for the big picture stuff was awesome too. She calls revisions re-visioning.

Workshops for Published Authors

During the core part of the conference, there wasn't really anything specifically aimed at published authors. It clearly was a conference about getting published. But the day before the conference started they had full day "intensives". The one I went to was "Marketing for Professional Writers" and I have to say, it was one of the best learning days I've had at a writers' conference. I thought my head was going to explode. But perhaps that's mostly because I know I need to start thinking about these things for my upcoming release...

The other "intensive" choice for writers was a full day critique session. I didn't go to that, (chose marketing instead), but it also seems like an intense, but awesome experience. Basically participants bring 18 copies of the first 2 pages of their work. Then they are put into two different critique circles of 8-9 people, one of which, each time, is an agent or editor. So, by the end of the day, you've received and given crits from/to about 18 people and at least two agents or editors have seen your writing and had a chance to make a request or not. Intense. Beneficial, I'm sure. And to listen to a professional crit of that many bits of writing. Awesome, I'm sure.

Overall, I don't think I can pick a winner. The organizations seem very different, but on the other hand both are extremely supportive and encouraging.

D'oh! Just what a needed.... Another annual conference to get addicted to!

On that topic... Molly and I had a workshop proposal accepted for RWA in Anaheim this summer! So, guess I'll be going again, even though I arguably haven't written a romance since 2003. :)  RWA, why can't I quit you?


Stephanie Doyle said...

Please... SCBWI had Henry Winkler.

That totally wins!

Sounds like a great conference. And the thing is I think a good writer's conference is good for anyone regardless of the genre.

I don't write YA but I'm sure I still would have gotten a ton out of a good "revisions" workshop.

I say this because right now I'm in revision hell.

Eileen said...

Ah, RWA Conference love. It is hard to quit. I'm already feeling a little weird about not attending this year and its months away!

Glad you found a possible substitute, although you cannot tell me that you had as much fun, though. I refuse to believe the children's book people can be as fun as the romance writers.

Maureen McGowan said...

Eileen, you are right about that! Although I am generalizing. One of the keynote speakers actually said that drinking to excess was not acceptable for children's writers, so suggested chocolate and coffee instead. I'm sure it was tongue in cheek... mostly... But I would bet this group spent a lot less money at the bar. :)

Molly O'Keefe said...

RWA is so social - so party packed... and having just amassed this posse of wonderful fun women I don't understand trying to quit. I do actually but I don't want to.

I am so glad the NYC trip was worth it - and I'm so intrigued by the differences.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like such an amazing conference... excited to hear all the details...

Tasha said...

Thanks for the rundown! I've been wondering whether I should join SCBWI myself and have been holding off so far. They do have two big conferences a year, don't they? Not being locked into a summer conference sounds nice.

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