I had the pleasure of attending SCBWI‘s SouthernBreeze SpringMingle 2014 in Atlanta this past weekend, and I must say, this conference packed a lot of punch. Not only did SCBWI schedule some of the industry’s most renowned editors and agents, but also the very reasonable entrance fee included three great meals, Starbucks coffee, and cookies that fell straight from the ovens of heaven. Let’s be real; it’s all about the food. In all seriousness, this conference was rich, both in its format and in the support that it offered to its attendees.

SpringMingle is by far the most spiritual conference I’ve been to, with several faith-based books making slideshow appearances. The facilitators held a moment of silence for “thanks” before each meal. Even the regional advisor, Claudia Pearson, wore a wide-brimmed hat, one for each day, that brought me right back to the Easter Sunday mornings in the old Presbyterian church of my childhood. I still see a hat like that every now and then at the church I attend a in Atlanta, but those sightings are few and far between.

Enough about food and hats. What about the conference itself? I went to the conference to meet agent and author Ammi-Joan Paquette as well as editor Cheryl Klein, perhaps best known for her work on the last two Harry Potter books. In addition to meeting these two lovely ladies, I got to see an inspirational presentation from the prolifically talented Ruth Sanderson, and a heart-warming presentation by Cheryl Willis Hudson, editor and author of “My Friend Maya Loves to Dance.” I also got an inside look at what an art director does thanks to the lovable and humorous Lucy Ruth Cummins.

My interactions with the panelists were warm and cordial and the unspoken “no pitching” rule, as in no pitching your books outside of a formal pitch appointment, added to the nourishing atmosphere of this conference. “No pitching” may sound like a huge turnoff to writers looking to sell their book, but let me explain why it’s not. “No pitching” encourages attendees to be in listening, as opposed to talking, mode. Removing the possibility for pitching also makes the presenters less on the defense and, thereby, more likely to strike up natural conversations with attendees. They don’t have to worry about being put on the spot, and attendees can get to know them on a personal level.

Just because you can’t pitch your project in person, does’t mean you can’t pitch via email later. In fact, all attendees were given special pitch instructions for each panelist. The message behind this pitch-later approach is clear: The quality of your writing is what really matters. It’s true that agents and editors might sign with you because you’ve successfully sold yourself to them, but when your book comes out, it’s the writing that sell its. Your book must sell itself. Unless you’re a celebrity, it usually doesn’t matter how charming, smart, or witty you are. Having thousands of Twitter followers is great, but numbers won’t impact the quality of your writing. The agents/editors at this conference are serious about publishing, and when they’re considering your book, they want to know that it can stand up on its own.

If you are planning to attend SCBWI conferences in the future, which I highly encourage you do if you write children’s books (all ages through YA), here are a few tips that I hope will help you to maximize your experience:
1) The Southern Breeze website is buggy. Be diligent and follow up with anything you sign up for.
2) The email list is hard to find, and if you’re not a SCBWI member, you might miss out on important instructions. Try to get on the listserv, if you can find it.
3) Follow the instructions (if you can find them) for anything you submit to the conference. The facilitators are strict about this.
4) Sign up immediately for critique sessions and one-on-one meetings with panelists because these slots fill up FAST.
5) Don’t expect questions or materials you’ve submitted for group activities to get addressed during the conference. You might be one of the lucky ones whose material/questions reach the top of the pile first, but think of any such feedback opportunities as icing on the cake.
6) Be patient. Almost all of the activities are run by volunteers, and things don’t always go smoothly.

Don’t let these minor glitches stop you from missing out on the wonderful opportunities awaiting you at the next SCBWI conference. Also, if you’re not a Christian, no worries. The faith-based touches are subtle and the quiet moment of “thanks” before dinner is religion-neutral. This group is truly all about the writing and the nurturing of that writing. For me, attending SpringMingle was like getting a big warm hug from a Southern grandmother who loves her pastel hats.