Last year I attended the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Plus conference. (Phew! That’s a mouthful. How ’bout I just say RUCCL from now on?)

It was my first big conference. It was my first conference, period. I thought I was prepared. I don’t get nervous in large crowds of people, nor do I find it difficult to go right up to someone and chat. And I love public speaking and performing. I’m not easily intimidated.

But, when I arrived, I realized it. I hadn’t fully prepared myself.

The day went by quickly. Those organizers pack the event chock full of excellent speakers and interesting topics. (See my post-conference notes from last year.) The time you have to meet people is the time it takes to walk from one presentation to another.

I didn’t get the opportunity to talk to many editors or agents. True, I had only just begun to write for children, and thus, I didn’t know who I should be chatting with anyway.

So I decided that I would try to help other first-timers. Here’s a list of lessons I learned last year. I hope they help you make the most of your day.

1. Research the faculty in advance.

rucclmentors

2008 RUCCL mentors arrive

Find out which editors and agents are interested in the kind of work you produce. Make a list of their names, and if possible, look up their photos online. No, I’m not encouraging anyone to be a stalker! There are 80 professionals mixing it up with 80 attendees, all wearing name tags. If you don’t want to squint at people’s chests all day trying to figure out who is who, go online and see if you can find a photo to recognize people by sight.

Approach editors/agents only during appropriate moments. Don’t interrupt another attendee or tap the editor’s shoulder while they’re taking a big honking bite of sandwich. You should know that the restroom is a no-no! The best time you’ll have to approach professionals is between sessions. Another good time is when they announce where mentors and mentees should meet. (They will announce pairings via alphabetical order and ask “A-F” to meet in a specific area, like near the fireplace.) When I went to find my mentor for my 45-minute session, I didn’t immediately see her…because another attendee had already pulled her aside to talk.

And I’ll say it: lunch is a good time to talk. They will seat mentors at numbered tables that correspond with the five-on-five assignments. Although not everyone sits in the right place, it will be easiest to find people during lunch. But again, if someone is chomping on chicken salad, it’s probably not a good time to interrupt.

Why is it important to talk to the faculty directly? Because they may not accept your submission post-conference if you don’t make contact. Now that’s contrary to what I had heard about conference submissions, but I did get one submission returned after RUCCL, citing that they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. (Yes, RUCCL was clearly marked on the envelope and in the cover letter.)

So find editors. Ask if you may submit. Ask for a business card. Don’t give them yours unless they ask. Be professional, courteous, polite and to the point! There’s not a lot of time, so don’t ramble. Which brings me to my next lesson…

2. If you know your manuscript needs direction, say so.

My submission last year was a novel I had only recently begun. I was not yet clear on the plot or direction. But when my mentor asked me about it, I meandered. I had two general ideas of the possible direction in my head, but I wasn’t certain which path I should take. Instead of asking my mentor what she thought, I tried to make it sound like I was clear. And I obviously was not.

Another attendee had it right. She told me, “I explained to my mentor that I had started the novel but stopped because I was stuck. I told her I wasn’t sure the direction it should take. She then gave me some very good ideas and we brainstormed the possibilities.”

3. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions.

During the five-on-five, the mentees had an opportunity to ask questions of the professional panel. But our discussion leader asked questions off a prepared, suggested list of topics. They weren’t necessarily the questions I wanted answered, but I didn’t speak up and ask what was on my mind.

Remember, this is your day. The conference is arranged to help you, the mentee, take the next step in your career. So if you don’t find the topics to be of interest, speak up. Politely interject and ask if you can introduce a question instead.

Mixing it up at lunch

Mixing it up at lunch

4. Prepare a list of questions.

Questions about your submission, questions about the market, questions about the publishing house, questions about your other manuscripts. Whatever questions you have, take them with you. Refer to them. If there’s information you want to collect, this is the place to do it.

Another good idea is to bring a list of your manuscripts with one-line descriptions. Even if you just have ideas, ask if they’re good ones. A mentor might tell you to pursue idea A and D but not B or C because of current market dynamics, competition, or other factors (remember, one of those factors might be personal taste).

5. Have fun!

This is your day. It’s a step forward in your career. Enjoy it, use it to your advantage, learn from it. Congratulations and have a great day!

FYI
I added the schedule from last year as I recall it, for those interested in how the day is structured. Please realize this may not be similar to this year.

2008 RUCCL Schedule
• Arrive, get folder with schedule/mentor assignment/faculty bios, read through it, have breakfast, free time to mingle with other attendees
• Introductory speaker (2008, Kay Winters)
• Mentor session
• Panel Discussion (2008, “How a Manuscript Becomes a Book”)
• Lunch
• Five-on-Five Discussion (You, your mentor and four other mentor-mentee pairs)
• Keynote Speaker (2008, K.L. Going)