Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Storymakers Conference Recap

We humans missed out on a lot of things in 2020. For me, one of the things I missed the most was attending the Storymakers Conference. The conference organizers did an amazing job with changing the format of the conference from a live, in-person experience to a virtual one, so I didn't miss out on the writing education. Indeed, it was one of my best years for learning and growing as a writer. But I missed my road trip with my bestie Taryn Skipper and I missed feeling the energy of hundreds of writers in the same place all trying to be their best.

I started my term as president of the Whitney Awards committee on June 15th, 2020, unsure that we'd be back in person for the conference in 2021. But we'd successfully held the awards virtually, so my committee forged on, dedicated to giving the authors the same great Whitney Awards experience they'd come to expect no matter what was in store for us in May 2021. 

And then the vaccines came, and things got better, and it was determined that the conference would be a hybrid format, both virtual and in-person, from now on. It's an exciting change that opens up the Storymakers experience to many writers who otherwise would miss out. We figured out how to do a hybrid awards gala, which was a struggle because I'd only ever attended our virtual gala from the previous year! Having to put on an in-person gala without having been to one was a challenge, but well worth it.

One of the most rewarding parts of being on the conference committee was being involved in the strides our conference chairs made in improving the conference's diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. They'd received feedback that it was an area in which the conference was lacking, and it was hurting attendees of color. So we worked on it, guided by Dr. LaShawn Williams, who is absolutely amazing at helping people and organizations identify pain points and work to improve them. Is everything perfect now? No. But it's much better, and I hope it made people who have felt marginalized at the conference feel like they had a place again.

So... the conference itself! I'd gotten the second dose of the COVID vaccine before attending, which felt amazing. Taryn picked me up on Thursday, bright and early, this year with her sister Kim joining us on our trip. Kim and I were roommates in college, and we have the kind of friendship where it doesn't matter if we haven't talked in years, we can pick right back up where we left off. Hanging out with the McQueen sisters all weekend was a blast.

We stashed our stuff in our hotel room Thursday afternoon when we arrived, then quickly split up to hang out with our respective local friends. My friend Bex took me to a Korean restaurant and we stuffed ourselves with amazing food before I had to rush back to the conference center for tech training. One of my additional roles at the conference was a session moderator, which meant I got to run the tech that allowed us to live stream and record the classes.

Technology, as always, is not perfect, but we did our best to make this hybrid format work. As a session moderator, I was assigned to one room all day, so I got to listen to classes I might not have chosen to attend on my own. I loved getting to hear new things! Storymakers has such an amazing faculty every year. The instruction is top-notch. I'm excited to spend the next several weeks watching the recorded classes and (hopefully) leveling-up my writing game once again.

Friday night was the Whitney Awards gala, which had kept me busy for months as we worked out all the details. Thanks to my committee, everything ran so smoothly that I even got to sit back and enjoy the gala after giving my speech. The absolute best part was watching the winners walk to the podium with tears in their eyes. I was touched by how much the awards meant to them. It made the hours of organizing absolutely worth it.

This is my incredible committee (minus Emily Paxman, who lives in Canada and wasn't able to join us in person).

After the gala some of the committee came back to our hotel room to hang out and decompress, which was so fun. We've been communicating over Slack and Zoom all year, so seeing these lovely people in person made me so happy. Definitely a conference highlight for me!

We had Martinellis and snacks, gotta eat fancy to match our fancy clothes!

Saturday was another busy day of moderating, though it was much less stressful without the gala hanging over my head! I was able to enjoy it much more. I had two critique sessions with a literary agent, and we had a great discussion about the market and how my work might fit into it. She requested more work from me, which was a nice win as I'd had to put writing and querying on hold to prepare for the gala and the conference. Time to get back to work on my own writing! I'm very excited.

This is my happy place.

With Cindy Baldwin, the author of my 9yo's favorite book, Beginners Welcome. I asked him if he wanted me to take the book with me to get it signed and he wrinkled his nose and said, "Why would I let someone write in my book?" So I got a photo and some stickers instead!

With Emily Inouye Huey and Stephanie Huang Porter, two of my favorite fellow conference committee members.

Probably the fanciest conference badge I'll ever have, highlighting the many hats I got to wear over the weekend. I've learned that I really like to be behind the scenes, so maybe I'll do it again in the future!

I had a Twitter pal tell me I should put my speech from the awards gala on my website, so here it is! Lucky thing I have to write my speeches/church talks out word for word, so I actually have the whole text.

I wish I knew which part of the speech this was!

Hello everyone, both here in the conference center and joining us virtually over Zoom. Thank you so much for being with us tonight. I am thrilled to be here, in person, with so many of you. While the virtual conference last year was incredible, and a true testament to the innovative spirit of the conference organizers, there’s just something special about being surrounded by other writers and readers. It’s been far too long since I’ve seen your faces, especially the bottom halves. My name is Kara Reynolds, and I am the president of the committee that ran the Whitney Awards this year. It’s my privilege tonight to share a few thoughts with you before we present the winners of the 14th Annual Whitney Awards.

When I was in college, I worked at the happiest place on Earth. No, not Disney World; I worked at a pirate-themed bookstore! The best part of that job was a tie between the giant pirate ship that was built around the kids’ section and the employee discount.

One morning, before work, one of my friends who was recently off his mission called to tell me he had gotten engaged to a girl from his hometown. He wanted me to meet her, so we agreed to meet at the Institute when I got off work. Before I left to meet them, I used my amazing employee discount to buy the highly anticipated last book in a trilogy. It had only been out for a few days, and I figured after meeting my friend I would hang out on the couch at the Institute and read for a few hours. So picture a much younger me, walking into the Institute, clutching my new book to my chest. My friend and his fiancée stood up from the couch to greet me. And the first words out of the fiancée’s mouth were, “Oh, I just finished reading that! The ending was so sad!”

We were so close to being best friends. If only she hadn’t spoiled the ending….

I imagine, though, if she and my friend had stayed in our college town, I would eventually have forgiven her for spoiling my book and we would have become friends, as people who love stories tend to do.

Stories have the power to unite people. Do you remember last March when everyone was watching Tiger King on Netflix? Social media was nothing but conspiracy theories and Carole Baskin memes for weeks. It gave us a way to come together when we were all facing the possibility of not being physically together. I’m sure many of us introverted writer and reader types thought, a year ago, that social isolation wasn’t such a bad thing. Now, though, it’s never been so clear that we humans need connections with other humans. More than one member of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles touched on this subject in their talks for General Conference this April. We were encouraged to watch out for each other’s loneliness, and to reach out to those who may be in need of contact. Elder Gary E. Stevenson said, “As you extend yourself with kindness, care, and compassion, even digitally, I promise that you will lift up arms that hang down and will heal hearts.” The 45 stories that were Whitney Awards finalists this year gave me an amazing opportunity to extend myself to connect with people in my life in ways that were much more meaningful than tiger jokes. Here are a couple examples:

When I was 8, I wanted to read “grown up books.” My grandmother gave me a book from Lillian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who cozy mystery series to read. She’s also the person who introduced me to Agatha Christie. In retrospect, maybe an 8-year-old shouldn’t have been reading so much murder, but I’ll always be grateful to my grandma for taking me seriously as a reader and encouraging me to try new books. So when I read an incredible mystery this year for the Whitney Awards, who do you think I called as soon as I finished the book? Being able to recommend a book to my grandma for once made me feel like that proud 8-year-old reading grown-up books all over again.

My children also love books, though one of my biggest struggles as a parent has been getting them to branch out and try new books instead of reading the same ones over and over. When we announced the finalists for this year’s Whitneys, I felt prompted to read the Middle Grade finalists with my kids, who are right in that target audience age range. We sat in the living room every night and read a few chapters. Every time we finished a book, we discussed what we did and didn’t like about it. My 9-year-old always hated whenever anything bad happened to a character (I won’t be recommending any murder books to him), which gave us the opportunity to talk about how good writing makes us care about characters and the things that happen to them. Being able to share two things I love, reading and writing, with my children, was one of my favorite experiences as the president of the Whitney Awards committee.

I could share so many more stories about the ways I was able to connect with other readers through the Whitney Awards. I’m sure you have your own stories about the ways these books have helped you draw closer to someone distant, or distracted you from your troubles for a few hours, or made you laugh, or made you think. The authors whose work was featured in the Whitney Awards have done all these things and more for their readers. In a time when we have all felt the need to be swept away from our trials, when we longed to connect with other people, the books in the Whitney Awards were a gift. Thank you to all the authors: nominees, finalists, and winners. Thank you for allowing me and everyone here to escape into your stories.

It takes more work behind the scenes to run the Whitney Awards than most people realize. Luckily for me, I had an amazing group of people to work with on my committee. I asked all of them to join the committee in May 2020, when we were still largely unaware of how much the pandemic was going to affect our lives. One of our committee members, Emily Paxman, couldn’t join us in-person tonight as she lives in Canada, which still has a very strict border crossing policy. I don’t think any of us would have guessed that would be the case a year ago! Even amidst the enormous trial of living through a pandemic, my committee members faithfully took on any task given to them, and helped the Whitneys run as smoothly as possible for the authors, judges, and readers. Their names are in your program, and you’ll see them tonight as our award presenters, but I’d still like to acknowledge Gina Denny, Taffy Lovell, Emily Paxman, Angie Taylor, Elisa McLean, Jamie McHenry, and Taryn Skipper. Their dedication to making the Whitney Awards a wonderful experience for all involved was nothing short of miraculous this year. Please join me in thanking them with a round of applause.

I have loved serving on the Whitney Awards committee for the past two years. I’ve gotten to know so many authors and readers and stories that I otherwise wouldn’t have met, which I enjoyed far more than my introvert self would have ever believed. One of my responsibilities as committee president is to select the president of the next committee and hand the reins over to them so the Awards can continue running smoothly. I’m very grateful to our next Whitney Awards committee president for agreeing to take on this role and continue the work. She’s already shown her dedication to the Whitneys and the Storymakers conference, and I’m so happy to have her take the lead for the 15th Annual Whitney Awards. Please join me in welcoming Emily Inouye Huey as the next Whitney Awards committee president.

And now it’s time to celebrate some truly amazing authors and stories. The first round of Whitney Awards judges read a total of 187 books, narrowing down each genre category to the top five. The Whitney Awards Academy then read these top five finalists, and cast their votes to determine the winners.

My local library does a promotion every Valentine’s Day where they wrap books in brown paper, so you can’t see the covers, and the librarians list out a few key elements of the book on the wrapping paper to entice readers to check it out. They call it “blind date with a book.” We wanted to help you get to know the Whitney Awards finalists, all of which were incredible books, so we asked the authors: what would a blind date with your book look like? It turns out they aren’t just good with words, they also make some pretty fantastic videos. Without any further ado from me, here are your 14th Annual Whitney Awards finalists.

Post-gala, exhausted and ready for bed!

1 comment:

  1. Hybrid sounds good. So much more to experience when virtual is an option.
    Pirate themed bookstore? YARR!!!

    I had a productive month reading for a read-a-thon, writing a few book reviews, checking in with hospitalized family members, and writing a WEP flash fiction.
    Have you seen the notebook on the current (Aug 25) giveaway at Operation Awesome? That is some amazing custom art. Debut authors are always surprising me.
    I'm ready for the summer heat to be over. 🥵