Recap of our Fantastical SCBWI OK Spring Conference – Part One

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The reason I love SCBWI so much is that it gives writers and illustrators a definite place to find encouragement, to learn, to become the better form of their creative selves. That is definitely what this past weekend’s conference was all about.

We had five excellent speakers who dazzled and enlightened us with their presentations from morning till early evening.

MTMiddleton_HeadMaria Middleton, the Associate Art Director at Abrams Books for Young Readers and Amulet Books, and rocker of some seriously gorgeous tattoos (what else would you expect from an art director, right?) spoke first. She discussed picture book design and her overall process, where she takes an original picture book manuscript and shapes this “nebulous idea” to give it more focus.

She said that design is an opportunity to continue telling the story; not  just to sum everything up. “Everything in a picture book should feel related to the story.” This means from the illustrations, style of the text, the endpapers, the cover, etc. That’s what design can do. Fascinating, eh?

Maria told me that she will speaking at this year’s SCBWI LA summer conference for the first time. So if you missed her this weekend and you want some summer sun, sign up for the big conference here and check her out in person!

To learn more about Maria Middleton and graphic design, read her blog, Thinking Made Visual, or follow her on Twitter here.

Next up was Katie Carella, Editor at Scholastic, Inc. She has a delightfully youthful voice and naturally curly hair that gave mine some serious curl envy. And that’s saying something. Katie talked about her professional journey and how she took a detour at one point to teach KatieCarellayoung grade schoolers. Once there, she discovered that although she loved kids, she loved acting like a kid more, which meant that she was perfect for children’s publishing!

Katie discussed Early Chapter Books. You know; that extremely hard to define niche of writing? Well she helped us understand it perfectly. Early chapter books are aimed at newly independent readers who are ready to graduate from picture books, but aren’t quite ready to tackle a full chapter book, yet. Age range is 5 – 8 (grades K-3). Early chapter books need to have four things:

  1. Relatable characters
  2. Fast-paced plots
  3. Cliff hanger chapter endings
  4. Easy-to-read and decodable text

Katie then broke down each step in great detail, using some examples from the new Branches imprint from Scholastic. They have several exciting releases coming out this year, including The Notebook of Doom, written and illustrated by Troy Cummings.

To learn more about Katie Carella, you can follow her on Twitter here.

claire-evansClaire Evans, Assistant Editor at Dial Books for Young Readers and Kathy Dawson Books, made her solo speaking debut at our conference. You wouldn’t have known it from her presentation. Spectacular.  And she brought prizes. Who doesn’t love prizes?

Claire walked us through the day in the life of an editor – which began with riding on the subway and strange looks from people for cramming in some reading time (What grown woman doesn’t read a book about sleepovers?) and ended after a day of meetings with design teams and sales teams, etc. – without her getting to the actual work of editing. That’s homework. It totally exhausted me.

The point was to press upon us how many different teams of people have to get excited about a book in order to get it sold. That publishing is actually a business. After all, when we first submit our manuscript, we have to sell our stories through our query letters and get editors and agents excited about our stories enough to read them. Claire showed us how to develop our marketing and pitching skills through several activities. (That’s where the prizes came in.) They were so helpful; I know I’ll be using a lot of those skills very soon.

To learn more about Claire Evans, read her Tumblr page, Work in Progress, or follow Claire on Twitter here.

All of this was before lunch. So…what happened afterwards?

Was there even more to this unbelievable day? Oh, yes!

Stay tuned for Part Two!

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Pitch Perfect? Oh, That Ain’t Easy!

If any of you follow me on Twitter (I’m @litbeing) you may be aware that I’m attending the SCBWI Oklahoma Spring conference here in Tulsa this weekend and that I’m hosting a pitch clinic for our attendees on Twitter this evening.

I used to hate writing pitches. I hated it as much as I used to hate writing queries and synopses. I don’t know many writers who embrace these bits with enthusiasm, but they are part of our reality.

And really, it’s so much handier to be able to coherently and briefly explain to someone what your story is about – especially in a way that intrigues them and makes them ask you more about it. I always review my pitches before a conference so I don’t end up staring blankly at a new acquaintance, my brain buzzing with panic because I can’t figure out how to condense my magnificent labor of love into a few sentences. Or worse, trap them in an uncomfortable discussion about the back-story of each character because I’ve begun to babble incessantly trying to make sure this person understands every important element of my tale, when maybe they were just being polite and making small talk and have no interest at all in hearing another word. It’s much more preferable to get them to say, “Oh, that’s sounds fascinating. Tell me more!”

That’s the purpose of a pitch. To intrigue.

To get the agent or editor to say, “Tell me more!” and request manuscript pages.

So how does one write a pitch?

After much research and studying, the consensus is to give the essence of your story without getting bogged down in the details and it should be done in one to three sentences.

Oh, is that all?

Carly Watters, literary agent with P.S. Lterary, says that a pitch is “a focused angle introducing the heart, high stakes and conflict of the story.” (From her blog post “Hook. Synopsis. Pitch: What’s the Difference?” See the full post here.)

Carly discussed pitches further in another post where she asked some probing questions that should help you when you think about writing your pitch:

“Who is your main character? What is their situation? What are they trying to overcome? How are they going to do it? What are the themes that are important to the main character and to us as readers? What is the essence of your book?

Those are the overall questions to focus one when crafting your pitch. We don’t need to know about subplots and details.

Rachelle Gardner, literary agent with Books & Such Literary, says to start with the plot catalyst, the event that gets the story started, then give the set up that drives the reader into the rest of the book. You should include the pressing story question or major story conflict. Simple, yes?

For a more direct example, Rachelle says:

“In the words of my friend the Query Shark (agent Janet Reid), your pitch needs to show”:

1. Who is the protagonist?
2. What choice does s/he face?
3. What are the consequences of the choice?

(Taken from Rachelle’s blog post “Secrets of a Great Pitch”. See the full post here.)

Now take all of these ideas and practice, practice, practice with your own manuscript until you can get the essence of your story down to a few coherent  sentences. Try them out on your critique group. Use them the next time someone asks you “Oh, you’re a writer? What do you write?” If you get that coveted response, “Tell me more!” You’re on the right track.

When you’re ready to test out your pitch, great contests come up fairly frequently, like the recent Pitch Madness Twitter Pitch Party. If you’re still unsure what a good pitch looks like, Carissa Taylor put together a comprehensive list of all the pitches that received requests from agents from this successful event. It’s a great list to review to get a good feel for what works. View her list here.

Feel free to join us at the Pitch Clinic this evening from 8-9pm CST. You can share your own pitch or give some feedback to others. Use the hashtag #SCBWIOKSpr13. You can always view the conversation later if you missed it.

Whatever you do, I hope you have more courage to develop your own pitch and put it into practice. After all, if you can’t get someone excited about what you’re writing, how is anyone else supposed to?

Why You Should Support Laurie Halse Anderson and her #Speak4RAINN Campaign

April is a popular month for causes. Maybe it’s because spring time brings a sense of hope with it, a renewed sense of purpose for those of us who spend the dark days of winter hibernating in our pajamas, feeling empty of all inspiration and will to live, like a used tube of toothpaste squeezed dry. The warmer, sunny days of spring fuel our ambitious natures once again and we remember that life is good.

Or maybe it’s just me and I’m part bear.

bc-speakHere we are with another cause that is close to my heart. So close to me in fact that I wrote a book about the subject – my current YA manuscript that’s out with agents now, Institutionalized; I’m not Crazy – but I digress.

This month is National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a fantastic book about it, too. Since hers has already been published and since she has put her voice and extraordinary talents behind a campaign to help survivors of abuse, we should talk about her. I first read her book, Speak, about five years ago. What an emotionally gut-wrenching little tome that was.

Here’s an introduction to the plot:

Melinda Sordino busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops. Now her old friends won’t talk to her, and people she doesn’t even know hate her from a distance. The safest place to be is alone, inside her own head. But even that’s not safe. Because there’s something she’s trying not to think about, something about the night of the party that, if she let it in, would blow her carefully constructed disguise to smithereens. And then she would have to speak the truth. This extraordinary first novel has captured the imaginations of teenagers and adults across the country. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

What the summary doesn’t tell you is that Melinda is unable to tell her friends why she called the cops. She cannot verbalize what happened to her. She then decides it’s safer to stop talking altogether to keep her world from completely falling apart. She instead begins to express herself through her art projects and diary entries. We as the readers can only watch her suffering from afar and wish that someone else knew her pain and was able to help her.

It’s a poignant and beautifully told story that every young woman (and dare I say it, even every young man) should read. And every parent should encourage a dialogue with their child about this subject so that they know that they don’t have to accept any unwanted violation of their own bodies and that they can report it and their parents will support them.

To learn more about RAINN (the Rape Abuse Incest National Network), visit their website here.

Laurie Halse Anderson is running a fund-raising campaign for this organization right now through April 29th, and her publisher Macmillan will match any donation up to a total of $10,000. You can’t beat that. I made a donation and you can, too. Even $10 will help someone through the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800-656-HOPE. To support Laurie’s #Speak 4RAINN campaign, follow this link here. You can follow the discussion about the campaign on Twitter at the hashtag, #Speak4RAINN.

I hope you’ll join us and speak up for those who can’t find their voice.

Learn more about Laurie Halse Anderson here.

Follow Laurie on Twitter here.

A Scavenger Hunt YA Book Lovers Should Enjoy

Do you like scavenger hunts? Do you love YA novels and love learning about new authors and their latest projects and getting to read bonus material from their latest projects? What about possibly winning lots and lots of books? Well, you’ve come to the right place! Or rather, I’m here to point you in the direction of the right place. The latest YA Scavenger Hunt , the brain child of author Colleen Houck, is off and running with a deadline to enter of April 7th. From the official website, here’s a description of what this hunt is all about:

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“The YA Scavenger Hunt is a biannual online event that promotes collaboration between YA authors from different publishing houses, offering fans an opportunity to see the latest and greatest in young adult literature. During the hunt, we showcase exclusive bonus material, give readers access to top secret insider information, and offer fabulous prizes and giveaways for zealous YA fans.”

I’ve already got half of my first list completed, so you’d better get started if you want to have a chance to enter! Click on the site for details on how to play. Follow the action on Twitter at #YASH.

Enjoy!

Happy Autism Awareness Month! Or for me, this is my life, every day…

I was down with a pretty nasty migraine, yesterday, so I missed World Autism Awareness Day and Light it Up Blue, but that’s okay.  In my more RSR2013logocolorlucid moments, I was with you all in spirit. I appreciate all of my friends who spoke out for me. And I have the rest of the month to make up for it, since April is Autism Awareness month. Our whole family will be running/walking to support our local autism center, The Autism Center of Tulsa in their big fund-raiser, the 7th annual Ready…Set…Run! 5K and Fun Run on April 27th.

We always turn this into a major event and get very creative with our team names. We love that our team has grown bigger every year, too! Last year, we were The Companions of Trevor (my son’s name) with a Dr. Who theme – complete with customized t-shirts for team members! This year, we’re going with a Walking Dead theme. Trevor has a favorite stuffed elephant named Fred, so we’re calling ourselves Trevor and the Walking Freds. Not too bad, eh? We’re inviting friends and family to come “zombie out” and be Walkers with us to help us raise money for a very worthy cause. If you feel like joining us or donating to our team, click here.

Some pics from last year’s walk:

Companions of Trevor 1Companions of Trevor 2Companions of Trevor 3Companions of Trevor 4

I’ve been told recently that I don’t talk much about what life is like with my son. I think sometimes it’s because I find it hard to explain what life with Trevor is like. I usually start by giving some lame generic definition of autism, explaining that it is a neurological disorder that affects 1 in 88 children, with deficits in social and communication skills, like that tells you anything about him. I guess I’m too close to it; autism has become so ingrained in my life that I can’t separate it. The adaptations I’ve made have become automatic. It affects every facet of my life – every decision I make, I have to think about how it will affect my son and his schedule. It’s like separating out your entire nervous system and explaining what it means to your body.

My son is a senior in high school this year. He still watches Sesame Street and The Wonder Pets. He reads at a third grade level. He needs supervision to do his daily chores and to complete activities of daily living. He has difficulty expressing his basic needs, especially when he’s angry, so he may become physically aggressive when frustrated. He can become fixated on one thought and ask you the same question over and over all day long. It can be exhausting just getting through a typical day, let alone a bad day. He is also very loving and caring. He hates to see anyone upset – even strangers, and especially babies. He doesn’t like it when anyone of us in the family are sad and always tries to cheer us up. I must get at least twenty hugs a day – not many mothers of teenagers can say the same.

There will be no going off to college next year for him. Instead, he will be working with some fantastic job coaches at A New Leaf and living at home. We will continue to help him to be as independent as possible. I know my son has a very different path set in front of him than his neurotypical peers and a very different time line for meeting certain goals – some goals may even be out of reach. But we won’t know unless we try. He has surprised us more than once on what he can do.

I love my friends to death, but sometimes all of their good news about their children’s bright futures is hard to stomach, especially when I’m just happy my son’s starting to socialize better and is no longer being combative with the school staff. My husband and I try to keep our perspective on him alone, his own personal timeline, but then there are those pivotal moments that sneak up on you – a child your child’s age does something that you know your child will never do. It can’t help but break your heart. We are human and we are allowed those moments of grief as much as we are allowed to find joy in those other moments when our children do something that for them is extraordinary that other parents would find mundane. There is a balance in there somewhere, we just have to find it.

It is very easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed about our son’s future, but he is happy, so to me, that is just wasted energy. Besides, my son has helped me appreciate life in a very unique way and I’m much more patient now than I ever thought I could be. If that’s not a clear picture of autism, maybe that’s helped you become more aware. For more information on all things autism-related, check out these helpful websites: Autism Speaks and Autism Society of America.