Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Rant About SCBWI in The Washington Times

Today, I read an article Julia Duin wrote in the Washington Times about SCBWI conferences and content in children's literature.

This is what she has to say about the conferences given by the Western Pennsylvania SCBWI chapter.
These conferences lure you with the hope that you can be the next J.K. Rowling.
The reality is far nastier...

I've been to several SCBWI conferences. Not once have I been promised to walk away from one with a contract in hand. What I have been promised is this: to learn more about children's publishing, hear a professional's take on what's currently selling, and learn more about the craft of writing. I am not sure where Ms. Duin got the idea that these conferences promise you fame and fortune. In all the conferences I've attended, I've never been promised that. If I had, I'd be wary of money-sucking scams.

She goes on to talk about the current state of literature for children.
Such is the 21st century, where much juvenile literature is a mile wide and an
inch deep. The discerning parent and teenager will have to seek meatier stuff
from previous centuries, when heroism and ideals still carried the day.

This quote probably disturbs me the most. There are a lot of great books available to kids, many of them published in the last decade. The fact that Ms. Duin disagrees means two things.
1) She isn't reading current children's literature.
2) If she is reading, then she's either not reading enough or is looking in the wrong place.

If she wants to publish a children's book, she must know what's already out there. To do this, you have to read everything you can get your hands on - this familiarizes you with who is publishing what, and you see how different authors handle various aspects of the craft of writing.

The other thing that's terribly wrong with this quote is that she's basically trashing all the current books out there. I could talk about how unprofessional and dangerous that is, but Nathan Bransford has done it for me. So I'll defer to his professional opinion. :)

Basically, Ms. Duin's article comes across as a rant about her personal experience at one conference. And if one conference was this way, then the rest of them are, too, right? Wrong. Sure, conferences aren't perfect, and not everyone gets what she wanted out of it, but that's not how it is for everyone.

To be clear, I'm not saying that Ms. Duin has absolutely nothing to complain about and should keep her mouth shut. There are definitely ways to improve conferences, and to minimize disappointment in paying attendees. Also, if she was concerned about an undeveloped area in books for kids, then she should voice those concerns.

But that isn't how her article comes across. Her ignorance regarding children's publishing is painfully obvious, and the saddest part is that a little research would have alleviated many of her complaints. Instead, she came across as someone unwilling to learn the basic necessities needed to succeed in children's publishing. Which is kind of sad.

What do you think?


Angela Ackerman said...

Boy that article burned me. I would have left a comment but the WP doesn't like my canadian postal code.

Liana Brooks said...

Sounds like sour grapes to me. There is some great literature out there, even in the YA and MG sections. Even written in the last decade.

The whole heroes of the past thing makes me wonder if this isn't a case of Speshul Snowflake who's upset that their Artistic Vision isn't understood.

Hopefully the authors rant won't discourage future writers from checking out conferences or getting information before they get equally disheartened.

Courtney Johnson said...

I think what really gets me here is her comment "I can't say anyone at the society's conference I attended advised us how to create books that will last beyond our lifetimes."

I sort of feel like: if you don't know how, then you probably can't, at least not right now.

And as for the idea that she can just...sell a book by walking into a conference? Insanity. Why not just go to a conference to meet other people, be they writers, agents, editors or, I don't know, just plain readers? Why does everything HAVE to be about selling? It seems disingenuous.

Anna Staniszewski said...

Ugh, I read this article yesterday and then spent a while ranting at my poor husband. Like you said, she has a right to her own opinion. But when someone has such a strong opinion and it's clear she hasn't done her research, it's just maddening.

What got to me was when she trashed all the "problem novels" out there (many of which have vampires in them, apparently) and then said that children should be reading LOTR and Little House on the Prairie instead. Clearly she doesn't understand that these are all different genres she's talking about. How can you compare MG historical fiction to YA realistic fiction and YA urban fantasy and adult/YA high fantasy and think they're all for the same readers?

Finally, if she's interested in Christian books and homeschooling books, that's great. But that means she should go to a conference attended by those kinds of publishers, not the more mainstream ones. As for thinking conferences are for aspiring writers to hand their manuscripts directly to editors - ha!

Okay, rant over. Thanks for your thoughtful comments on this article!

Tabitha said...

Angela - yeah, me too. It was so clear that she didn't know what she was talking about. Because of that, she ended up making herself look pretty darned bad.

Liana - yeah, I'd say sour grapes sums it up well. :) Fortunately, there are lots of comments on that article, and all of them are pointing out how misinformed Duin is. :)

Courtney - yes! That quote irked me, too. I mean, if it were so easy to teach, then everyone would be able to do it. But it's not that easy, and it takes YEARS to learn the craft that well. Writing for children is NOT easy. Not by a long shot.

Anna - yeah, I found her her issue with problem novels to be pretty superficial. Actually, her whole interest in children's literature is pretty superficial and one-sided, considering she'd rather narrow kids books to the things she listed. Kind of ironic, don't you think? :)

Cate Kariaxi said...

I think she does have a point about the cost of those conferences, becase I know speaking for myself... I wouldn't be able to afford the trip, hotel stay, and conference. In these times, there are other things I must put my money towards.

That said, I have a feeling the reason why eyes were glazing over because she approached agents and publishers the way she did in the article. Attacking the books that kids today like to read, while pushing books she read back in the day. Shows she's not paying attention.

Tabitha said...

Yep, totally agree, conferences are expensive. Whether or not they are worth it depends on what you expect to get out of it. It sounded like she was expecting a contract, so of course the high costs weren't worth it for her. But if you're grounded in reality, you might come away with a very different viewpoint. :) But, yeah, even the local chapters can be expensive. And the national ones are downright 8-0. :)

And you're absolutely right that she's not paying attention. That's like a medical student who wonders why she can't get a residency because she didn't pay attention in medical school. Would you want her in your hospital?? :) Granted, it's not the same risk-wise, but both situations show a general lack of respect for the profession.

Rena Jones said...

She sounds very narrow-minded, which is sad. Like you, there are a lot of wonderful (meaty) books out that are recent.

Tabitha said...

Agreed. If she were open-minded, she would have done at least a little bit of research.

I'm wondering how she's responding to all the commenters on her article, telling her how much she just doesn't know. Is she resisting, or is she opening up to learning? Hmm...

MaureenHume said...

A very wise lady once told me 'when someone speaks badly of others it says more about the speaker than the people they are speaking about'.
Maureen Hume. www.thepizzagang.com

MaureenHume said...

I better clarify! I mean Julia Duin, not you guys.
Maureen Hume. www.thepizzagang.com

Anna said...

My goodness. I really couldn't believe my eyes when I read that article. It was, as you say, painfully obvious that she knows little of the current children's and YA book market. Her call for moral stories reminds me of how Madonna once said she wrote (er, *ghostwrote*) her book because there were no good children's books available. You can't really say anything to such a statement. ;-)

Bish Denham said...

I can't afford these conferences either, but I'd love to go to one. As for the rest of her rant, I got the sense that she expected a magic wand would be waved over her head by an agent and/or editor and "poof!" she'd be a famous children's book writer with books that would be read for the next century.

I don't think when Milne, or Baum, or Wilder wrote their books they were writing them with the intent perpose of their being around 100 years later. I think they were writing from their hearts without thought about the future.We can't know, anymore than they could, which of "today's" books will be around in the next hundred years.

We might be surprised. Whatever books stand the test of time I suspect they will be as precious as Pooh, or Oz, or a little house.

Kelly Polark said...

Oh, wow! She may have had one bad experience, but like you said, you can't judge all conferences (or anything else for that matter) by going to ONE!
If anything, SCBWI conferences are realistic about the state of publishing. (remember Underdown's presentation?) And they are there to help you hone your craft and for writers to be with their peers.
What a frustrating article! What is funny is she is obviously a writer if she is writing articles, yet she isn't doing all her homework!

Unknown said...

One of the funnier aspects of the article is that she harps on the price of conferences. Having been to many conferences in other professional capacities, I can tell you that SCBWI conferences are downright bargains! My husband's conferences within the business world (with no guarantee of a sale involved) can easily cost upward of $1000 for a one-day conference.

It's true, though, that just attending conferences won't automatically make you a better (or more publishable) writer. That takes hard work perseverance, and a bit of God-given talent.

And the J.K. Rowling comment was just bizarre! SCBWI members and conference organizers would be the absolute LAST people to suggest that anyone is going to be "the next J.K. Rowling".

Tabitha said...

Maureen - that's a very wise lady indeed!! :)

Anna - yeah, saying things like that is kind of insulting to the industry... :) I really liked Nathan Bransford's post about doing that exact thing, and how bad it makes you look. :)

Bish - you're so right. No one can predict what's going to be a bestseller, or an award winner, or a classic, because everything is subjective. What stands the test of time is solely dependent on how much readers love the books. All we can do, as writers, is write what we love, and hope others do, too. :)

Kelly - it's baffling, isn't it?? How can a writer not do homework in her own profession? I just don't get it...

Karen - you know, I'd forgotten about this! I've gone to day-job related conferences, and that's pretty much what they cost. And lunch wasn't always included. You're so right that writer's conferences are a steal compared to others. :)

Unknown said...

I think the most clueless thing she said was that she "had" to jump editors and agents in the lunch line, etc. The most rudimentary knowledge of professional etiquette would tell you not to do that, not to mention about ten million agent/editor blogs that implore writers not to do that.
I saw this appeared on the ultra-conservative Washington Times Christian page. Maybe that's part of her problem, that she wants to moralize and is offended when not everyone likes her sermon.

Keri Mikulski said...


Tabitha said...

Writerperson - yep, it is. On top of that, it is *always* announced at the beginning of each conference that you should NOT corner agents and editors in the salad bar line. So, even if she hadn't known coming into the conference, the organizers would have announced this to the whole room. Which just blows her argument out of the water. :)

Keri - you said it. :)

Ronald L. Smith said...


I'm not surprised. It's like that NYT article a while back that thought that all children's lit was "message" books.

Ocatvian Nothing
His Dark Materials
Paper Towns


Mary Witzl said...

I've been reading YA and MG for years and in my humble opinion, never has there been such a selection of great books with real lasting power. Kids today have it a lot better than I did: there is so much to choose from.

Has this lady spent all her time reading Goosebumps and Sweet Valley Twins? If so, she needs to get to a library fast!