Friday, August 10, 2012

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED--A Dog-Loving Introverted Homebody Scales Mt. McKinley!

Karen Grencik's Report on the SCBWI Los Angeles Conference! 

The only thing that will be harder for me (and I say "will be" because I hope I'll have the courage to scale it in the future) is Mt. Everest. That will be if and when I ever speak before the large group at the national summer conference.

Okay, so here's the scoop:

For the very first time I was on faculty at the national summer conference in LA, meaning that I was invited to all the parties put on by SCBWI--kind of like being invited to the Academy Awards after parties. Sounds exciting, but for me, it was frightening. Even though I know many, many people by now, I still get very insecure. Thank God for Ellen Hopkins and Emma Dryden, who took me under their wings and helped me navigate the Thursday evening cocktail party at the X-bar. And for the highlight of the evening--Amazon's own Tim Ditlow, Associate Publisher, who said to me, "Hey, you're Brenda's (Sturgis) agent. Margery Cuyler told me to look for you and introduce myself. " I think I've officially arrived!

Friday morning began with the faculty parading up to the stage, stating our names along with a single word that might inspire attendees. My word was "gratitude". I could not believe that I was standing up there!

I had made homemade muffins in an effort to save breakfast money, but that savings was quickly wiped out on Friday afternoon when I inadvertently missed the first two critiques I was supposed to give. I had in my mind that it was 11:45 when I'd left the last workshop before lunch and thought I had an hour and 15 minutes to schmooze with my clients over lunch. When I looked at my phone to make sure I wouldn't be late, 1:36 blinked bright and clear. I almost had a heart attack. My first invitation to be on faculty, my first two critiques, and I'd missed them! I was sure I was NEVER going to be invited back!

Needless to say, the critique coordinator was more than a little bit angry with me. I promised I would make it up to the authors, and I did. I offered them private critiques in my room on Sunday morning, had a pot of coffee delivered, and served them homemade morning glory muffins. I also took the authors and one husband to dinner on Sunday evening at Breezes, where they enjoyed the pleasure of my fabulous clients' company, Golden Kite wInner Sarah Wilson, Linda Whalen, and Kathy Urban. The authors thought they'd died and gone to heaven. The critique coordinator told me at Lin's on Monday evening that she would definitely have me back. Whew!!!

On Friday evening, at the PAL party, I met many authors and RAs with whom I'd been communicating, then escaped for dinner with a Red Fox author who shall remain nameless ( although her initials are BH!). She'd had a fabulous critique with an editor who will also remain nameless, and the editor basically said that she loved the manuscript with all her heart and would be pitching it to her colleagues as soon as BH made a small revision. BH whisked me away for a lovely dinner on the patio and I think we both drank a little too much wine that night in celebration! By the way, I am known for celebrating every single small step towards publication. Why wait?

Saturday morning dawned and I had breakfast with two lovely authors, Morgan Shamy and her colleague, Courtney Pearson. Morgan had sent me a full manuscript that I had requested last year that was so beautifully written, yet it was fantasy, which I'm not all that fond of, and I felt so guilty that I'd had her mail it that I threw a $20 bill in the return envelope to make up for her mailing costs. She will be a friend forever and is now writing something other than fantasy! Yea, Morgan!

I was on time for my critiques on Saturday, thank goodness, and had great meetings with the authors. Then Saturday afternoon my very best friend drove down from San Luis Obispo to help me throw the first ever Red Fox Literary party in my room. It was PACKED, and Neal Porter made a special appearance. Thank you, Neal! I'd ordered food from BJ's across the street and got twice as much as I'd ordered and charged twice as much as I'd expected, but it was an over-the top success. Very fun for me to be able to serve my talented authors and illustrators and get them primed and ready for the Hippie Hop Party. During our party I got the great news that Red Fox Literary's own Juana Hernandez Neal had won the Grand Prize for Best Portfolio in the Illustrators' tight competition! Go Juana!!!

At the Hippie Hop party I reached out to everyone I saw who looked uncomfortable or alone, just as I'd asked my clients to do. There were no takers, but at least the offer was extended and I felt I'd done my good deed for the day. One person I reached out to I learned the next day was Agent Natalie Fischer. No wonder she didn't need to join me! The Flash Mob was a HUGE success, and once again Lin and Steve were celebrated for their incredible efforts and accomplishments.

Sunday was filled with meetings and meals with clients, including the authors whose critiques I'd missed, but you already know all about that!

Monday dawned with breakfast with Kari-Lynn Winters, a very successful Canadian author whom I'd met with last year. At the time she'd pitched mostly concept manuscripts, which are not what wins my heart. This year she shared with me two fabulous books that will be coming out soon, No-Matter-What Friend, which brought me to tears, and Gift Days, two picture books that I would have been honored to have represented. Let me tell you, I was so sorry I let her get away. She now has a NYC agent who is selling her manuscripts like hotcakes! So always remember that a "no" today simply means "not now". Tomorrow you could get a "yes"!

What followed was the scale to the top of the mountain, when I was supposed to speak for 15 minutes about Red Fox Literary. Rules are made to be broken--right?--so instead I spoke about how I had become an agent and about my first time at the national conference. Both stories are amazing and they were very well received. I hate public speaking more than ANYTHING IN THE WORLD! I'd gotten an A+ in speech in college because my teacher said she had never seen anyone who was more traumatized by public speaking who actually finished the course. I'd been a waitress at Coco's at the time and was much more comfortable when people focused on their food and not me, so I spent my hard-earned tips buying snacks that related to my speeches so that everyone was eating while I spoke. It's the only way I got through it!

Knowing what my body does when faced with public speaking, I took a beta blocker an hour and a half before my scheduled panel, yet my heart was still beating out of my chest and I could not stand up. My body floods with adrenaline just like a car floods with gas and stops functioning. Not only do my knees collapse, but I start crying with the first word out of my mouth. Just ask Philomel publisher Michael Green, who was in the audience in Nevada at my very first presentation 11 years ago. Boxes of Kleenex came flying to me that day!

So, back to the present. I took another beta blocker an hour before and my heart was still beating out of my chest and I still could not stand. I thought I'd never be able to do it! So I took another half a half hour before, wondering if I would be awake and coherent for my presentation or if my heart might stop. Beta blockers are for people who have tachycardia or high blood pressure. My prescription is written for me to take one half of a beta blocker whenever I have to (or, in this case, request to) public speak. Yes, I had e-mailed the coordinator and asked for this! When 10:15 arrived, I approached the table with a calm confidence, sat with the other agents, and presented like I'd been doing it all my life. Yep, 2-1/2 beta blockers is the magic recipe!

The grand finale was the party at Lin's extraordinary home in Hancock Park. Nothing could be lovelier. While standing in line to say hello to Lin, Michelle Parker-Rock came up to me and gave me the biggest and warmest hug imaginable. I reciprocated, then asked her where she was from. When she said Arizona, I said, "I'll be presenting there in October." Her response was, "You have no idea who I am, do you?" I reluctantly admitted that I hadn't placed her name in my brain's rolodex and she laughed and told me she was the RA who'd invited me to Arizona! Thank you for your kind forgiveness, Michelle!

My best friend had the time of her life being surrounded by fabulous authors, illustrators and editors while I mingled with colleagues and friends, and It was an awesome ending to an amazing five days. We were both exhausted so we grabbed a cab and headed back to the hotel early, sharing a cab with Arthur Levine--okay, just pinch me!

All this to say that EVERYTHING I do, every meeting I have, every letter I write, is as hard for me as submissions and critiques are for you authors. My heart is my voice that is unique from all other agents. I look fun, happy and confident--yet inside I am terrified, shaking and cannot wait to get home to my loving dogs.

It's 8:23 a.m. now on Thursday and I have a 9:15 appointment with my doctor to follow up on how the beta blockers worked. My stash will be replenished and I will be ready for the Denver, Phoenix and Iowa conferences this fall. I hope to see some of you there.

And now that this blog is finished, I hope that my leg will stop shaking, my heart will stop pounding, and the blood will come back into my hands. You see, I am even afraid of blogging--thus, the need for our fabulous client, Jed Alexander, to provide our Foxy Friday blogs. Thank you, Jed!

And a great big thanks to all of you for taking your precious time to read this very long post!

Happy writing and illustrating!



  1. Wow, Karen! You did have an amazing, very busy time at SCBWI LA. I have to say that my one criticism of the event is the way they schedule their critiques—I missed the one I paid $100 for last year (because I thought the workshops ended before the critiques started) but agent Josh Adams who did my critique was very nice and found an extra 20 mins. in his day to share his feedback with me. I love hearing about your beta blockers and fear of public speaking. I can so totally relate. I just sent Jed an essay that maybe will show up on this blog in the future about my ordeals with reading in public and school visits. Anyway, glad you're back safe and sound even though your dog's excitement to see you (for those of you who don't know, Karen got a nosebleed when her dog bumped her on the nose in his excitement) was probably more dangerous than getting up on stage! But I know for shy people like us, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to be up in front of that many people. I quake in front of 200, I can't imagine what it feels like to be up in front of 3,000! All I can say is you're a brave, brave woman, Karen. Good job!

  2. Whew! Karen, no wonder you were exhausted! And you know what? Reading this post further reminded me that agents are regular people, too--people who get nervous. And here I thought it was only shy writers who were introverts <3

    I think I'll link this to tomorrow's post!

  3. I'm shocked with your fear of speaking! You come across very cool and collected :) And what a whirlwind! I'm exhausted reading this! I'm not sure what would have me freaking out more... speaking in front of everyone or sharing a cab with Arthur Levine...

    And having breakfast with you was definitely the highlight of the conference. You are beyond delightful.

    Thanks for such an entertaining post! And huge congrats to Juana!

  4. It was so fabulous to meet and chat with you that morning! Glad you made it through everything, sounds like you had a whirlwind of a time! :D

  5. Thanks for sharing, Karen. It sounds like you rocked your first faculty experience. Overcoming fears always brings us to a new place. Good on ya! Of course, the kidlit community is about as supportive as it comes, too. That sure helps!

  6. There is pasta sauce on my manuscript from our celebration! I'm keeping it forever.

  7. Thanks Karen! Great essay, and it sounds like a great (if exhausting!) time. I'm looking forward to meeting you sometime in the near future!

  8. What?! My larger-than-life, can-do-it-all, extraordinary superhero of an agent is really just a beta-blocker popping human being? I didn't think it could be possible, but I adore you even more! Congrats on a successful conference, Karen! Now the whole SCBWI world knows how lucky we are to have you representing us!

  9. You did it! You did it! I knew you could and would, my friend. I loved out time together, was honored to sport one of the first Red Fox Literary t-shirts, and our very special lunch! Your time is now! Fly!

  10. I'm so grateful that Julie Musil included the link to this post in her own blog post. Thank you for sharing so honestly about your experiences at SCBWI LA. Those of us who are pre-published tend to view agents as somewhat super-human and impervious to the things that shake our worlds. I so appreciate that you've taught me that such a perspective is erroneous -- it is so much better for all of us to see each other as human and real. Thank you for the gift of that refreshed perspective.

    Now, on to Mount Everest!

    1. Thank you Karen, for your kind words and for your honesty. It helps us remember that we all have insecurities (authors, illustrators, editors, and agents alike) and to always show kindness.

      All the best,

  11. It was a pleasure to meet you, Karen. Your story was very inspiring. I hope you'll come to next year's conference, too.