The Unicorn Writers’ Conference

Saturday, I attended the Unicorn Writers’ Conference at St. Clements Castle in Portland, Connecticut.

Some of my conference swag.

Some of my conference swag.

It’s the title I would have given to a writers’ conference if I were designing one when I was ten years old (or even more recently; you all saw my Race to the 8th Calendar). The conference color is even purple, which is totally my color. Both signs, perhaps. I found this conference HUGELY valuable, inspirational, and educational.

The Unicorn Writer’s Conference is a day-long event filled with workshops on various parts of the writing and publishing process. Many beginning writers attended, as well as all the professionals giving the workshops. Also in attendance were lots of literary agents.

If you registered and paid for it beforehand, you could have a one-on-one session with a literary agent during the day, who would give you feedback based on the first forty pages of your manuscript. I didn’t have one these sessions, as I am still holding my recently completed manuscript draft rather close to my chest at the moment. I did, however, go to the conference fully prepared with business cards, the prototype version of Wanderlust from from May 2012 (it has current illustrations, even if the text is out of date), and an only slightly-rehearsed 30 second pitch (actually, I have a very well rehearsed five-second pitch. It gets a bit fuzzy after that). And I spent much of the day talking to people about my book.

It was terrifying, of course, to actually introduce myself to John M Cusick, YA writer and literary agent, when I saw him sitting at a table just behind mine during lunch. Still, a chance to talk with people in the industry was one of the reasons I was there, and I didn’t want to leave the conference with any regrets. Mr. Cusick was very kind, and took several minutes to talk to me about my project. He recommended aging my characters down, if possible. I’m aware that my characters are slightly too old for typical YA, and it was good for me (like eating my vegetables) to hear that this might be a serious roadblock to publication. While sitting in my next workshop, I even began wondering if I could write a version of Wanderlust where Vanya and Taniel are 16 and 19, or 15 and 18, rather than 19 and 22. It would be a very different story in many ways. I really enjoy the story and characters I have now, and I believe there is an audience for the story I have written—but I’m not convinced I wouldn’t want to read the one with younger characters. It’s something to think about, anyway, especially as I move forward with the publication process and with getting Wanderlust to the right readers.*

We hear every day about self-published books that do well and get picked up later by big-name publishers. John Cusick, however, advised me to submit to agents before self-publishing. This is because it can be awkward for an agent or publisher to take on a writer if there are already some copies of that writer’s book in existence. Obviously this depends on the situation and the individuals, but he said that agents and editors will often ask for changes and revisions before publishing a book—and if a thousand fans already have a copy of the book without those changes? It might be enough of a hassle that the agent decides to pass on signing the writer after all. This might especially be a concern for me because, if I self-publish, I will be dealing with the entirety of the book design, including illustrations and how they interface with the text. If I get an agent and a traditional publisher, there will be a book designer working with my book. I don’t want any contract for Wanderlust that doesn’t include my illustrations, but it has occurred to me that Wanderlust might really benefit from someone more experienced than I in the ways of fonts and margins and chapter headers. Anyone who thinks that stuff is easy or unimportant has never tried designing a book. Getting it traditionally published might mean a very different visual look than what I would create on my own. Even though I know self-publishing doesn’t mean you can’t go the traditional route later, Cusick’s point made a lot of sense to me. I think you can approach it from either side. You might say, “It can’t hurt to self publish before querying agents.” You could also say, “Yeah, but it can’t hurt to query agents before self-publishing.” I think it depends on your book, on your luck, on which agents you’re submitting to, and on your long-term publication goals. I’m still figuring out which path to follow, but right now I’m leaning towards querying first. It can’t hurt.

7422080John Cusick is an agent at the Greenhouse Literary Agency and the author of the YA novel Girl Parts. He also has a wordpress blog ( I highly recommend his March 4 post on the relationship between writing and work. Also, Girl Parts. I started reading the amazon preview today and I’m totally hooked. It’s dark, near-future, clean, scary, beautifully written, and very enticing. That’s what I got from the first few pages, anyway, and I’d like to read the whole thing very soon. Also, there is a FREE kindle short story set in the same world called Abandon Changes. I’m going to read it as soon as I finish this blog post.

I may get a lot of blog posts out of this conference, because talking with John Cusick was only ten minutes of a very full day. I have so many new things I’m thinking about that I hadn’t even begun to consider before. The Unicorn Writers’ Conference was right where I needed to be this weekend for my development as a writer and a professional, and I look forward to sharing some more of my insights with you in the days ahead.


*Also, some of the reasons I’d prefer not to down-age is that Vanya is a very young 19-year-old, and the story doesn’t deal with any adult concerns like job, family, bills, etc. beyond the initial setup of Taniel’s “Lost my job, life is ruined!” sad-face in the beginning seven paragraphs of the novel. My point of view, given the above, is this: “These are young adults that teens will relate to, so there’s no problem with the current ages.” I’m aware that the flip argument is: “If they’re not really doing adult things and he acts younger than he is, why wouldn’t you just make them younger?” Ultimately, it’s a matter of figuring out where that line is between sticking to your artistic integrity and obstinately refusing to follow practical advice. Right now I think I’m on the side of artistic integrity, but if it’s something I keep hearing over and over again, especially from people who have read some of the book, I’ll have to consider changing my opinion.


8 thoughts on “The Unicorn Writers’ Conference

  1. LIKE I was saying, totally jealous! I ALSO love unicorns and the color purple, plus, you know, all that writer stuff. 😛 I think it’s so cool that you got to meet Cusick–he’s one of the dudes I follow on the Tweeter and the like. (Plus might have to read that book!) It’s a good point about the ages, although as you said that might me kind of a substantial re-write. It’s such a pain when you have an idea that you love, but parts of it are conflicting for your intended audience! (My friend and I have been working on a book like that, and we just can’t figure out how to either mature it up or kid it down. SO. HARD.) I like the idea of querying a bit before you settle 100% on self-publishing–it’s just like, why not, you know? (Although I’m quite eager for you to hurry up and release it in one form or another so I can read it!) Can’t wait for more posts. 🙂 Sounds like you had a really fun and educational time!

    • Ah, the tweeter. I finally made an account yesterday, perhaps you noticed an increase in your followers by one? For some reason I’ve been avoiding it for years, but in the wake of all the conference networking I was finally able to take the plunge… and it’s not that scary after all!
      Are your characters college-age in the book you and your friend are writing? It’s a weird age group, but I think there’s sort of an emerging genre for it. I’ve heard the term “New Adult” being splashed around. Maybe in a few years it will be less hard. And maybe in a few years we’ll be publishing books direct to the electronic gadgets hardwired into people’s brains. We’re trying to make it in a industry where everything’s changing!! All we can do is stay true to our stories and maybe re-define our definition of “making it,” which is something I plan to talk about in an upcoming post.

      • I did! And actually followed you back today. xD Way to take the plunge. 🙂 I was reluctant as well, but I mean, it’s a good tool. Some people just abuse it! In our book the characters are actually early-to-mid twenties, which would normally throw them in adult territory, but the events are… a little more whimsical. xD Which is what makes it so complicated. We’ve been throwing around the idea of trying to make them younger, but there are aspects to that as well that just make things complicated. (Like the jobs that they have, the places they’re at in their lives, etc.) We might end up compromising and trying to go into that New Adult that you speak of, which I’ve heard tends to cover ages, like, 16-25 or so. It would still require some suspense of disbelief, but don’t all books? x) Guess we’ll see how it goes, because I love the story a lot. AND that was a huge big thing. xD And don’t talk about brain chip implants! @_@ The idea freaks me out, ha ha. But you’re right, I’m sure there will be more changes, although I still hope to be long buried before books are obsolete. If not the thought would probably kill me, lol. Can’t wait to read your post though, sounds like a good topic!

  2. Okay, here’s my two cents worth: leave the ages alone and do query agents before going the self-publishing route. It can’t hurt to query, but it really can hurt to have it out there already if someone wants to publish it. Of course, as celestedewolfe90 said above, I’m eager for you to hurry up and release it so I can read it. I’m also jealous of your conference. It sounds as if you had a wonderful time and I’m looking forward to reading more about it in your blog.

    • So far, that’s what I’m planning to do. That was pretty much Cusick’s end advice too: Even if I can’t change the ages, query first. Getting any response from agents, even if I don’t get signed immediately, might be really helpful in figuring out where to go and how my novel fits into the industry.

      And yes, I highly recommend literary conferences! Aside from all the networking opportunities, I really enjoyed being in a learning environment again after a year off from college. The last workshop I attended in the day (which I do hope to blog about in more detail this week) felt like just the best university writing class ever, and it was good to end the day on a note of inspiration for the act of writing itself, in addition to all the concerns and considerations of getting your book out there and getting published.

  3. Hi Grace, nice post on the conference. I enjoyed reading about your experiences. I also took the plunge and introduced myself to a few of the agents with varying levels of resulting mortification. John was very nice and, though I didn’t actually talk with him about my book, he gave me some things to think about in general. The conversations I did try to start by talking about my book felt very awkward. I guess I need to work on the pitching part. 🙂 Looking forward to reading about that last workshop you attended–I was in the agent panel at that time.

  4. I loved your post (I read it on my lunch break) and agree with you. It’s better to go with your gut and try your novel with intended age level. I do remember the editors saying that you have to write what you love. If you don’t love it, the story won’t happen for you. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Sketches, and Writer with a Day Job by Áine Greaney | Grace Makley

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