Be a Sponge: Advice from a Veteran Conference Planner

As a part of this month’s focus on conferences, we reached out to Kim Turrisi, the Director of Special Projects at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, as she’s been working alongside Lin Oliver, the SCBWI’s Executive Director, for over 15 years, helping to plan and learning the ins and outs of two of the biggest conferences in children’s books (SCBWI’s Annual Summer and Winter Conferences).  Her advice works for any writer, regardless of audience.  See below for some wisdom about how to make the most of your conference experiences. 

You’re the Director of Special Projects at SCBWI.  Can you tell us a bit about how you came to be at SCBWI, and what you do there?
I started my career with Lin Oliver in film and television production focusing on family entertainment and, as you know, she is the Executive Director of SCBWI. Lin drew me into the SCBWI circle. At first, I only worked the National Conferences where I oversaw the one-on-one manuscript and portfolio consultations in Los Angeles and the writer roundtables in New York.
It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the organization and all it stands for before I asked for a more full time position.  Lin and I created a job which allowed me to, among other things, oversee many special projects such as our publications guide and as liaison with the publishing community along with Lin. The most rewarding and exciting part of my job is when one of our authors or illustrators is published as the result of a pairing I have done at the conference.
What are some important things that writers can take away from a conference?
Meet as many SCBWI members as you can. There is an incredible community of children’s book writer’s and illustrators. Both regional and national conferences and other events are fantastic opportunities to connect. So many friendships and critique groups form as a result of our conferences.
Listen.
Be open to revising your manuscript/portfolio and learning as much as you can about your craft.
Wait to query agents or editors right after the conference.  Sit with all the information from workshops and keynote speakers, process it, and make your manuscript even stronger BEFORE you query.  Don’t be in a rush.
What’s the best way for writers to plan for a conference?
Research the people teaching the break out sessions so you choose the best possible ones for yourself. 
If you are having a consultation, read the guidelines carefully and don’t wait until the last minute to submit.
For our LA and NYC conferences, if you have any questions about what might be suited for you, call our office and ask. We’re here to help.
What objective should authors keep in mind when attending a conference?
Be a sponge.  You are around creative people and have the opportunity to hear agents, editors and published authors impart their wisdom and experiences. Soak it in, take notes. 
What should writers NOT do at a conference?
Put an editor or agent on the spot by trying to slip them a manuscript.  While all of our faculty are open to queries after the conference, they can’t take a manuscript that isn’t solicited. It’s also not proper etiquette in the publishing world so you put yourself at a disadvantage opening with that.
Don’t pitch multiple ideas when given the opportunity to pitch an editor or agent during a session.  Focus on the one you are most passionate about.
Is there such a thing as conference burn-out?  When do know that it’s time to stay home (does that ever happen?)?
Well, I certainly haven’t noticed that. I think every writer and illustrator, published or unpublished, can always use inspiration and current information about the marketplace as it is ever changing.  As artists, I think you are always learning, evolving and improving your craft. Our conferences are designed to do just that.
You’ve seen some amazing writers speak at various conferences.  What advice sticks with you? – this could be for conferences specifically, for writing, or just for life.
Wow, there have been so many.  Here are a few that I have up in my office.
“My only advice is to stay aware, listen carefully, and yell if you need help.” Judy Blume
“Just say yes!” Kwame Alexander
“Revise fearlessly again and again.” Kate Messner
“Love what you write. Write what you know. Write honestly because everything counts.”  Sara Shandler
You’re a writer too!  What can you tell us about projects you’re working on?
I’m fortunate to work for two writers in Lin and Steve Mooser who foster creative spirit. Our offices are filled with books and every wall is a different color.  It’s hard to be around that much creative energy and not want to dive in. I’ve been working on a young adult book for several years on weekends and nights like most other writers. I’m currently revising my revision. I keep notebook with ideas that I’ve kept for years.  What’s really great is that nearly everyone in our office writes or illustrates. In our spare time.
Kim Turrisi is the Director of Special Projects at The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, a position she has held since 2002.  In addition to her work at SCBWI, she wrote Pretty Dirty Secrets, a web series for ABC Family’s hit show Pretty Little Liars. In 2011, she won a Daytime Emmy for a web series she wrote and executive produced.  She is obsessed with reading anything YA, college football and her dogs. You can follow her on Twitter @KimmyT22
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