Welcome to Part 2 of our fantastic Oklahoma SCBWI Spring Conference recap!
Beginning from where we left off in Part 1, we broke for lunch where each table enjoyed the company of a conference speaker or a published author, allowing all of our attendees to have an opportunity to ask their industry questions in a more relaxed setting.
After lunch, we heard from our second literary agent of the day.
Rachel Orr, Literary Agent with the Prospect Agency, gave a two-part talk beginning with, “Main Conflict: The Spark That Fires Up a Manuscript” and ending with, “A Conversation with an Agent & Author” where local author Jennifer Latham joined her to discuss their working relationship and her journey to publishing.
Many problems Rachel sees in novels revolve around conflict:
- Some writers are afraid to give their characters flaws. They want to keep them as nice as possible; to avoid any conflict. This equates with boring.
- Some writers have scenes that can fall into any order – when this happens, it makes her wonder about the strength of the story. It’s much better to have things build upon each other.
- Another problem is when writers use a character as a vehicle to talk about a topic of interest or when they place conflict on a character unnaturally.
“Everything starts with character.” If you know your character well, conflict will follow.
Other problems Rachel notes involve the structure of the manuscript itself.
Conflicts may be introduced, but then they are resolved too quickly. “Instead of plot slopes, you have moguls.” This is a flat-lining approach. In picture books, this can be the day-in-the-life stories with no conflict.
Literary novels tend to be character-driven. Manuscripts like these with problems, nothing happens in the story. Even though your novel may be character-based, it still needs movement; conflict.
Conversely, plot-driven novels with very clear end goals still need some kind of change to take place in the character.
“Make your characters uncomfortable.”
For the second part of her talk, she invited Jennifer to join her and they discussed their professional relationship.
Rachel began by saying her approach to revision/editing is to point out the issues in a manuscript and let the author solve them. “This is what I think needs to be changed, you figure out how to change it.” This type of direction is important for her as an agent and Jennifer is very good at doing this.
Jennifer’s first project received many rejections. She said, “Four rejections is a starting point.” She also learned from her rejections. “Every editor who gave me feedback told me something useful.” It was like her own MFA program. But after so many rejections, She and Rachel decided it was time to shelve that first manuscript.
Jennifer stated, “I deserve to be represented by someone who believes in my writing, not just one project.”
Rachel did believe in her and helped Jennifer navigate her way through a few missteps until SCARLETT UNDERCOVER, her debut novel, was born. Jennifer’s book is scheduled to be released May 19, 2015.
Our next speaker talked to us about picture books.
Julie Bliven, Editor with Charlesbridge Publishing gave a fascinating and informative talk entitled, “Elements of a Successful Picture Book”.
The top two elements are:
- Narrative Voice
Why Beginnings Matter: “A successful picture book beginning knows its ending.”
Problems she sees with beginnings are too much description and too much back story.
3 TYPES OF PICTURE BOOK BEGINNINGS:
- The introduction is about character experience – has personal and immediate conflict. Examples include I WANT MY HAT BACK, ZEN SHORTS, and LITTLE PIG JOINS THE BAND
- The introduction recounts person, place or event. Examples include GRANDPA GREEN, ELLINGTON, and BALLET FOR MARTHA
- The introduction has an instrumental setting – something really important. Examples include THE CURIOUS GARDEN, IMOGENE’S LAST STAND, and EXTRA YARN.
What contributes to voice?
- Distinctive language
- Author’s attitude
- Clear structure
- Illuminating metaphors
- Definitions in context
- Use of quotations
- Awareness of audience
- Sense of story
- Remarkable facts
In BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY by Melissa Sweet, the author’s voice shows through distinctive language by her use alliteration and simile.
Think about word choice. Circle all adjectives and verbs and consider if they can be replaced with something more descriptive or active.
Peter Sis shows an example of voice through clear structure in THE WALL when he shows two world views in juxtaposition; his own personal view versus the global world view.
We find a good example of voice through definitions in context within the pages of THE DAY-GLO BROTHERS by Chris Barton and Tony Persiani.
Awareness of audience is shown in FEATHERS by Melissa Stewart and Sarah S. Brannen by understanding how different aged readers experience picture books. The main storyline used similes for beginning readers like this: “Feathers can dig holes like a backhoe”. Then the second layer of text for slightly older readers included more detailed facts.
Our final speaker of the day gave us tips on tightening those first pages.
Alyson Heller, Editor with Aladdin Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) enlightened us with some great ideas for improving our beginnings with her talk entitled “Put a Spark in Your First Pages/Chapters”.
This is your book’s handshake, the opening to your reader. It should be assertive and strong.
- Asks a questions (not always in a literal sense)
- Sets the mood/directs the reader to what you want them to experience.
- Sets up voice of a character.
- Can throw out a surprise.
Books with great opening lines: DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth, CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White, MATILDA by Roald Dahl, and WINGER by Andrew Smith.
“It was a day that changed my life.”
Did you get a new dog? Meet a best friend? Fall in love? Witness the Zombie Apocalypse?
Define it better than in that generic, non-specific way.
- Should involve the main protagonist. The reader needs to care. This means your character has to be sympathetic, doesn’t mean likable.
- Have a sense of drama/conflict – do you have internal as well as external conflicts? Make sure to introduce the opponent. Is your protagonist proactive? They should not just be reacting to events.
- Tone – set through dialogue, pacing, and voice.
Book Recommendations: THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins, SEEING CINDERELLA by Jenny Lundquist, BUCK’s TOOTH by Diane Kredensor, EXTRAORDINARY WARREN SAVES THE DAY by Sarah Dillard.
Make your first chapter like the perfect skirt; “long enough to cover the essentials, but short enough to keep it interesting.”
Our conference closed with a Q & A Panel with our speakers that was fantastic. What an amazing group of ladies!
I did manage to buy a few books from some of our published members. We’ve had quite a growth in this area. At this rate, we may need to add another table to the book store soon.
And I almost forgot to mention the part of the day where I nearly lost my mind. During announcements, when our new Regional Advisor, Helen Newton, announced that for our Fall Retreat in October, LINDA URBAN WILL BE SPEAKING!!!
If you haven’t read A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT or THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING, you must get yourself to a bookstore immediately. And once you’ve read her work, you will be compelled to come to our Fall Retreat. So I’ll see you there.