Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The market conference

If you don't know much about the world of children's literature conferences, then you only know a little less than I do. There are plenty of conferences I've never been to and lots more I don't even know about, but I can tell you what little I've gathered, and that is that there are a few basic categories: academic conferences (where critical and sometimes creative pieces are presented and discussed, usually based on some common theme), creative conferences (where creative pieces are presented and craft is discussed, sometimes with more of a workshop atmosphere), market-driven conferences (where creative pieces and craft are discussed in light of the market), genre/series specific conferences (where specific critical/creative genres or series are the common ground of critical and/or creative pieces being presented and discussed), and endless blends of all of the above. That's not to mention the blurry area of literary festivals, book fairs, arts conventions, and library/education association conferences where children's literature folks end up just as often.

I've yet to make it to a purely creative conference, but I've been to festivals, market conferences, academic conferences, blended conferences, and will soon add international book fairs to the list. Of all I've attended, the most productive have been the academic conferences (though I have no talent for critical work, I still appreciate the discussion). My least favorite, on the other hand, have been the market conferences.

While the academic conference is a continuation of some aspect/s of the conversation taking place in children's literature as a creative/global/sociological/historical/age-and-category-defying/seemingly-sentient being, the market conference is where you go to find out what editors want and what's selling. It's one of the best places to go to learn what's currently being offered to the public, and of that pile, what the public is consuming the most of. The fancy term for that is market 'trend'; just keep in mind, trend doesn't mean it's what the people need or prefer--it's simply what they choose from what's available. Market conferences remind me of high school: a place full of cliques and shameless networking. I'm no more popular at these conferences than I was in twelfth grade, so you can see why I shy away from them. Craft and his friends quality and originality commonly stand in the shadow of the dollar sign. While the keynote speaker may be a successful author, the rest of the speakers are mostly editors and agents doubling as marketing experts. The written word is judged by its weight in gold (though to be fair, the general message is, "Write well," which isn't a bad message at all but which is fueled by a publisher's hope to make money on words well-written). The savvy attendee is armed with creative business cards, a vaseline smile, and an elevator pitch to melt even the iciest publisher's heart. Alas--I have no talent for this and even less interest in cultivating a talent for it. I suppose I shouldn't be frustrated by the market conference. It doesn't claim to be anything it isn't. But it still bugs the hell out of me, and I probably won't be attending one again for a long time. Being the type of writer that I am, the scene can feel offensive, but as someone who wants to eventually have creative work published, it might be a necessary evil, even more so if I'm ever attempting to promote a published creative work.

However, there are always gems to be found, even when I end up someplace that makes me want to quickly go home and shower before anything seeps in. For example, at a market conference in New York a few years ago, a lovely, reasonable editor gave a talk on 'quiet' stories (the modern take on the classic tone) which was incredibly insightful and has been helpful in my writing process and journey. Then at a market conference two years ago, the keynote speaker threw all the supposed rules of the market in the face of everyone in the audience and focused on good writing instead, much to our shock and delight. So there are often good things to bring away, like an honest word and like opportunities to submit to houses normally closed to anyone without an agent. But mostly, I just sit around feeling grumpy and judgmental for spending so much money for so little return and for what often feels like one big commercial.

This past weekend wasn't much different. I attended a market conference in order to spend time with a dear school friend, and, as with the others, in the midst of the money and the food and the constant, somehow insecurely (or is it fearfully?) presented question, "What genre do you write in?" a gem was to be found. He was down the hall from the main meeting room where most of the 150 attendees were listening to another speaker. I'd never heard of him but decided immediately that author/illustrator Andy Runton was the secret treasure of the conference. To about 13 of us, Andy described the road that led him to creating Owly.

Owly came from Andy's imagination early on but waited there patiently while Andy tried other characters and forms. Eventually, he came back to the friendly little bird, turned him into a graphic novel sensation, and decided, upon realizing words weren't his thing, he'd take a chance on a new-to-him form: the wordless story. The Owly books do have words here and there, but Andy gave up trying to use regular dialog, instead using pictures within speech bubbles to express spoken language.

Andy's love of classic comic book style is obvious. But the most striking thing about his story is that Andy has turned down lucrative offers to animate and otherwise sell the Owly character--even an offer I can't imagine turning down--one from the Jim Henson Company. But in order to maintain control of the character he created, that's what Andy's had to do. Sure, he's got his fair share of character merchandise (we can't all be Bill Watterson), but the control of the character stays with the creator. When asked if he plans to work on other characters, he said he'd found the character he was looking for in Owly.

I ended up with three Owly books, all thoughtfully signed and illustrated. My good friend, the one I went to the conference with, got me one as a thanks-for-letting-me-spend-the-night gift, and the other two are for my upcoming creative writing classes...because nothing teaches you the basics of storytelling, of character building, or of brevity like taking away your words.

I suppose I should say I don't mean any offense about this type of conference. No need to bite any hands, and all that. Like I said, they are what they say they are, and they were never pretending to be anything different. But when it comes to writing a story, to creating a life out of nothing and giving it conflicts, to taking us through your created worlds--if you can, think of nothing but the art. Don't think of advances; don't hope for success; don't consider market value; don't force supernatural elements; don't force your characters into trends; in fact, don't force anything. Just write. And with a little luck and a lot of hard work, your story will live happily and not force you to create other monsters like it in order to save your own life. :)