Our SCBWI OK Spring Conference is a little over a month away, and it will be here before you know it. I look forward to this fun-filled weekend every year.
Are you attending a conference this spring? If so, are you ready?
Do you know what to expect?
Whether this is your first conference or your 30th (give or take a few) you can always use some good ideas to make the most out of your jam-packed day.
Here are some tips I’ve scrounged around among my dozens of conference folders, notebooks filled with years of furious scribbles of knowledge, and just words of advice passed along from my elders. I hope you find them helpful as you prepare for this spring’s conference season.
Do your research – You’ll get more out of the conference if you’ve read up on the speakers and know something about their work beforehand. If they are on social media, follow them. (You can see a list of all of our speakers and where to follow them in my previous post here.)
Know how to talk about your own writing – Practice your elevator pitch until you know it well enough to ad-lib. Be able to talk about it conversationally. DO NOT try to memorize it. One false stumble can lead to panic. I’ve seen perfectly composed writers turn into blubbering messes because they lost their exact wording. DO NOT LET THIS BE YOU!
Say hello to a stranger and start a conversation - Here’s a great opener that’s sure to work in a room full of authors: “What do you write?” or “Tell me about the project you’re working on.” Because that’s what writers do when they get together, they talk about their writing.(Another good reason to know your pitch.)
Take business cards if you have them – Networking is an important part of conferences. After you receive a card yourself – during a free moment later – jot down something about that person on the back to help you remember them better. It could be something about their manuscript, what they look like, or anything memorable you discussed. (Here are a couple of sites where you can design your own cards: Moo.com charges a small fee and Canva.com has many designs at no cost.)
Dress in layers – Cardigans, jackets, and scarves can be your best friends at conferences. In the morning, the room may start out freezing cold, but as the day goes on and all of those bodies heat up the conference space, you may find that you start getting a little too warm. Layers, my friend. Trust me.
Bring some spending money – Of course you’ll need money for food and possibly lodging. But more importantly, there are almost always fantastic books available for purchase and the authors who wrote them are usually available to sign them for you! (I don’t need to tell you what fantastic gifts personalized books make, either. Right?)
Be courteous and professional – Everyone wants a chance to interact with the speakers. Believe it or not, the speakers also want to talk with you. They just don’t want to receive an unsolicited copy of your manuscript from underneath the bathroom stall. At our conference, everyone has lunch at a table with either a speaker or a published author. It’s a fantastic opportunity to ask industry questions in a smaller group setting. Make sure you keep your conversation appropriate and allow others at the table to have a turn asking questions. That’s right, share the speakers. They are there for everyone.
Participate! Ask questions during Q&A sessions, attend pre- and post- conference events, make a writing date for after the conference with a new friend. Get to know your local tribe of writers and the speakers. Our writing community is smaller than you think and you never know what connection will lead to something amazing. Also, writing can be a lonely endeavor; we can all use every bit of support we can get.
Recognize your opportunities - If you get a critique or opportunity to pitch, take some time (I mean several days at least) to let the comments sit with you before deciding your life is over and you’ll never write again. Ever. Many of us have this dream that we will be that rarest of rare finds and be offered representation or a book deal right out of the gate. Most of the time, what agents and editors offer when they critique our work is an opportunity to improve our work. This is no small thing. You never know when these insightful suggestions can turn a not-so-fantastic manuscript into a dazzling one. One that can lead to a big fat ‘yes’ a little farther down the road.
Have you any tips you’ve acquired that work for you? What’s your favorite part of going to a conference?
Meeting a favorite author can be amazing. You get to hear about the story behind their novels, their road to publication, their writing process, how they keep themselves motivated, and all kinds of insider information about the world of publishing from someone who’s made it. And you don’t have to wait for a conference to hear an author speak. You can catch them at book signings, during book tours, or other events.
I’m often puzzled when I hear people say that they only want to come to conferences if editors & agents will be there. Not published writers. You can learn so much from someone who’s already gone ahead of you, so it only makes sense that aspiring writers should want to hear from published writers. Then again, these may be the same writers who think they don’t have time to read books.
It’s like expecting to walk away from your first conference with a book deal; it’s not very realistic. You may come away with fantastic ideas on how to improve your manuscript, and you may make some wonderful industry connections – which are both valuable, even crucial to success. And who knows? You may even come away with a green light to submit your improved manuscript to a closed house or agency. All great reasons to go to a conference.
But so is the opportunity to hear from seasoned writers.
Some of the most motivational, inspiring talks I’ve ever heard have been from writers. I’ve learned more about craft and why I want to be a writer and how I can never stop being a writer and why I should pursue the stories of my heart from hearing other writers speak than from any how-to book I’ve ever read. I love going to author events whenever I can. I always come away rejuvenated and ready to work.
So now that you know how wonderful author events can be, how can you get the most out of these opportunities? And where can you find them?
Familiarize yourself with the author’s work ahead of time. That doesn’t mean you have to read everything they’ve ever written, but at least read something so you have a feel for their voice. It’s like coming to class prepared. You get more out of the lecture if you’ve done the reading. You can also ask better questions during Q&A (or have something intelligent to talk about while getting your book signed).
Invite a friend or two. You’d be surprised how many of these events aren’t necessarily well-publicized. Especially library events. I went to one author event with only about twenty people in attendance. This author had just been interviewed on NPR the week before. Unbelievable. His talk was outstanding. I wish I’d thought to bring a friend. Now I know to spread the news and take a friend with me.
(You might even think about taking your child.It can be an invaluable experience – and talk about creating a love of reading! I’ve had the pleasure of taking my daughter to meet some of her favorite authors, and I know that’s made a huge impact on her. She could barely speak when she met her first author – Ally Carter, I think. But by the time she met Kate di Camillo, she was an old pro. She got to hear Kate talk about how she created the main character in THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX and when they brought out the microphone for the kids to ask questions, my daughter stepped right up and asked her how she came up with the idea of chiaroscuro. Kate smiled at her, complimented her creative attire, and answered her question in great detail. That kind of experience is unforgettable.)
Take notes! As I said, you can always learn something. If your memory is anything like mine, you will be glad you wrote it all down, instead of relying on your faulty brain.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Many times, the author leaves space in their talk for a Q&A session. This is why you do your research beforehand, so you can ask an intelligent question. So be brave and throw that hand up! I’ve seen many Q&A times go unused when I knew people really wanted to ask questions. When they were able to ask questions later in a smaller setting, they couldn’t stop asking questions. So, just in case you don’t get that second opportunity, engage with the author during the Q&A and ask away. That’s part of the reason they are there.
Check with your local libraries and universities. Many bring in authors throughout the year to speak. Some of these events may even be free to the public or have a nominal fee.
Follow local event planning organizations. Tulsa has a great organization called Booksmart Tulsa that “offers top notch literary events” at a wide variety of venues. They’ve held events for Audrey Niffenegger, Chuck Palahniuk, and Ransom Riggs. And soon they’ll be holding the book release for our very own Jennifer Latham.
Follow your favorite authorson social mediaor subscribe to their newsletters. That way you’ll know when they’ll be appearing near you.
As many of you in the OKC area may know we just had author Jay Asher come through. I had to miss him, unfortunately, but many of my fellow SCBWI friends were able to be there and had a great time including Regina Garvie, who wrote a fantastic post about meeting him, here.
One author visit I WON’T be missing is Neil Gaiman’s. He’ll be in Tulsa on March 10th at the Tulsa PAC. For more information about this event or to purchase tickets, click here.
So how about you?
Have you met any of your favorite authors? What was your experience like? How do you prepare for an author event? And how do you find out about author events in your area?
Rachel joined Prospect in 2007 to become an agent after she’d spent eight years editing children’s books for HarperCollins. She is looking for middle grade and YA novels, as well as the next big picture book illustrator. Learn more about Rachel from her agency bio here. Follow Agency Twitter account here. Follow Rachel’s personal Twitter account here.
Julie is an Associate Editor with Charlesbridge who mainly works with middle grade and picture books, both fiction and non-fiction. Follow Julie Bliven on Twitter here.
Founded in 1989, “Charlesbridge publishes high-quality books for young readers from birth to age 14, with a goal of creating lifelong readers. We continually strive to seek new voices and new visions in children’s literature.” Learn more about this house from their Facebook page here. Follow them on Twitter here.
Erica is an Assistant Editor with Abrams who is interested in picture books, middle grade, and YA. Follow Erica on Twitter here.
Launched in 1999, ABFYR is one of the imprints of Abrams Books, founded in 1949. This imprint runs the gambit from picture books to YA, from poetry to nonfiction. Visit the imprint website here.
Alyson Heller – Editor with Aladdin ( a Simon & Schuster imprint)
Alyson has been an Associate Editor with Aladdin since 2008 (and with S & S since 2006). She works on everything from picture books to middle grade. Learn more about Alyson from her publishing house bio here. Follow Alyson on Twitter here.
Aladdin is a Simon & Schuster imprint that features titles for readers of all ages up to tween. They publish paperbacks and hardcovers, single-titles and series.
For all of you illustrators out there, you won’t want to miss the opportunity to hear Kristine speak. And if that weren’t enough, Kristine will be giving twelve art portfolio critiques during the conference to the lucky few who register early.
Chronicle Books is based in San Francisco and publishes books for both adults and children. Follow Chronicle Books on Twitter here.
There are a limited number of manuscript and portfolio critiques available, as well as the ever popular pitch sessions, so sign up while they’re available!
This year, Tulsa is the host city for the conference. Mark your calendars for March 28th! It’s going to be another spectacular day of learning awesomeness.
ONLY 45 SPOTS LEFT BEFORE CONFERENCE IS SOLD OUT!
For more details on the conference or to register online, click here. I hope to see you there!
Wrapping up the month-long celebration of our local SCBWI Oklahoma group, I’m going to share some of my insights from our Fall Retreat. It was a relaxed, 3-day event packed full of inspiring, helpful information.
The first day was all about craft. Which is something all writers are never too advanced to brush up on, if you ask me. There were so many great workshops, it was a harrowing decision just narrowing down the choices, let alone finalizing a selection.
I sat in on a workshop by Anna Myers about point of view entitled “The Real Difference Between First and Third Person” where I learned that this difference is more than a matter of pronouns. To begin with, she told us that first person is the easiest and the hardest POV to write. It’s all about voice. Character drives the story in first person, in every word, in every sentence. “If you don’t have a strong voice, you shouldn’t write in first person.” Voice is still important in third person, but the story’s success is not as dependent on it. The great thing about third person is that not every word has to come from the viewpoint character. Anna walked us through a great exercise with a movie camera, demonstrating how the different aspects of third person – from third person intimate to third person distant – could move you in close or take you out wide of a scene, depending on how close you wanted the view to be – on how much you wanted the reader to experience.
In another craft workshop, this one led by Sonia Gensler entitled “Kidlit Romance and Friendship: Keeping it Real”, we learned how important it was to develop the main characters separately. You have to make the readers fall in love with the characters individually before asking readers to fall in love with them as a couple. “They must have an identity separate from the relationship.” Character is key. To attain this, Sonia suggests you start with an in-depth understanding of your characters before you start writing. It is especially helpful to know the answer to the fundamental question of what your character wants versus what your character needs. She gave the example from THE HUNGER GAMES using the main character Katniss. What she wants more than anything is to keep her sister safe. That is her motivation for volunteering as tribute in her sister’s place. But what she needs to survive in the games is to learn to let people in, to trust.
Pati Hailey taught us in her workshop entitled “Building Memorable Worlds” that every story has a need for world-building elements, even those populated by ordinary humans. What makes a world memorable is when the elements of the world are put into perspective and introduced throughout the story. Elements need to be specific, authentic, and distinct. A great way to add some of these elements is through the use of similes and metaphors that are not cliché, but specific to your world. Use them as an opportunity to tell something about the character or the world. When describing a room, be specific. Don’t give a laundry list of items; give things meaning and connect them to a character. Also be more original with body movements – wide eyes and shoulder shrugs are over done. Pay attention to what people really do.
After a complete brain workout with the amazing crafts, our day wasn’t even finished, we got a little introduction to our wonderful featured speakers. I tell you, our SCBWI OK group knows how to spoil us.
Minju comes from a small agency based in San Francisco that doesn’t do much advertising. They do work very collaboratively and they love SCBWI. She represents MG and YA of all genres and some PB as well. Minju was just brilliant and so enthusiastic about the business of books.
Minju said, “Rejection is inevitable.” She said she and her colleagues understand the frustration. They deal with rejections all the time as well.
She then decoded some editorial rejections for us:
“Not right for my list”This is an umbrella form rejection
“I love the idea, but I didn’t make a connection”View this as a bell curve. This means your manuscript is hitting the middle.
“I love this, but I couldn’t get my team on board” May have already tried to sell similar book and it wasn’t successful.
“I like the concept/character, but there’s not enough story”Quiet. This is a dangerous word. This means it’s difficult to sell.
Minju then said when she has a client receive this last type of rejection, she may suggest setting that manuscript aside to try again later. Maybe after they’ve made a bigger name for themselves and a quiet book won’t be so scary to publishers.
She was there to teach us everything we didn’t know about publicity. That, my friends, was a lot. After talking with us for awhile about everything that goes into promoting a book and showing us all of the different social media options out there, she said the important thing was not to get overwhelmed. (Oh, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t recognize half of the social media logos. And there were at least thirty of them!)
You have to be realistic with your books and with your goals. Know yourself. Be honest about what you want to do to promote your book. Do what is right for you and your book. Not every book needs a big tour splash. The publicity budget your publisher allots for your book may not be as big as you’d like. You may have to invest some of your advance or your own money to do some publicity yourself. Whatever you decide to do on your own, make sure to communicate clearly with your publisher’s publicity department. You may be surprised how much they can help you.
The most important publicity tip she gave us was to create an on-going contact database. This should be a detailed excel spreadsheet with every industry contact you’ve ever made – past and present. This will be an invaluable tool as you move to the publicity/promotion part of your career. Be meticulous! Keep city, state, and zip codes in separate columns. This allows you to search your database by location.
She had so many fantastic ideas for making connections and generating ideas, it was astounding. I wish I could share them all with you.
Our second day was all about the featured speakers. We were finally introduced to our third speaker, Brett Duquette, editor with Sterling Publishing. His appearance was delayed due to the fire at the O’Hare airport, or rather the fire set at the traffic control center near Chicago that grounded hundreds of flights. Yes, that fire. Brett had a less than stellar travel experience and yet he was still in great spirits when he arrived. He was just delightful. (Even though he announced being a proud Cornhuskers fan while deep in Sooner country, I think we’ll still claim him as an honorary member of the SCBWI OK tribe.)
Brett spoke to us on the elusive subject of voice.
Voice, Brett said, is the cornerstone of the creation of the narrative. “Everything comes from the voice. It’s where we begin to build something out of nothing.”
Brett went on to explain that in his mind, all parts of the story are the voice, really. Narrative isn’t just the beige carpet, it has a voice, too. The language used is in harmony with the character, narrative, setting, etc. Each piece has a voice which adds up to the capital “V” Voice.
Most people forget about the narrative and when they are told they need to work on voice, they only focus on dialogue. Voice is so much more than that.
Consistency is key to voice and good writing. Without it, the story feels unreal or boring.
It’s much more apparent in illustration when voice doesn’t work. You see it immediately. To avoid this, you shouldn’t over explain the action in your text. Make sure to leave room for the illustrators. Brett brought out CHICKEN DANCE by Tammi Sauer. “This is perfect picture book writing because it allows the illustrator room to do their job.” Brett discussed a series of pages spreads where the chickens were trying to pick a talent for the talent contest.
Bowling was out. So was juggling. And tightrope walking.
With concise language choices, Tammi set up the joke and let the illustrator deliver it.
Much to his surprise, Tammi was in the audience, just a few feet away. Brett then said it was a good thing he only had nice things to say about her book. It was a fantastic moment to witness. Then it was back to business.
He said the way you learn to do what Tammi did, to leave those spaces for the illustrator to be creative and tell part of the story, is you have faith that the editors will be able to envision a great book and the illustrator can do their job and create great illustrations.
Brett had so many great writing exercises for us to work through to help us really understand what he was telling us. It was an awesome session on voice with a capital “A”.
The final day was for wrapping up, a speaker panel, and for saying goodbye. Some goodbyes were more tearful than others.
Our dynamic leader of 14 years, Anna Myers, passed the torch on to Helen Newton with many tears spilled, but not before she received some love back in return. We all pitched in a gave her a quilt made with all 20 of her book covers on it, including her latest release, her first picture book. Anna will still be a part of our SCBWI OK family as an Regional Advisor Emeritus.
Although I don’t see how this retreat could ever be topped, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the next one was even better.
If you somehow missed this awe-inspiring event, make sure to mark your calendars now for the spring conference on March 28, 2015. You will not want to miss it.
Thank you to all of our guest speakers who traveled so far to be with us and to all of our fantastic local talent that made the craft day such a wonderful success. I learned tons of new information that will stick with me and I know I’m not alone there. This great event wouldn’t have been possible without all of you.
Maggie Stiefvater (or steve·otter, as she pronounced it) author of the NY Times best-selling SHIVER series gave an excellent workshop on character at the SCBWI LA Conference. Her novel THE SCORPIO RACES was a Michael L Printz Honor book. Her most recent series is THE RAVEN CYCLE.
She’s also a Character Thief.
This came about because she discovered that she could not create anything unique from scratch, the least of which was a believable character that could actually walk and breathe on their own. To create her own unique characters, she has to start with real, live human hearts. She moves on to create what she calls people portraits. Using her background as an equestrian portrait artist, moving on to people just made sense.
She wanted to create characters that you’d still be able to recognize as Stiefvater characters, not unlike pointing out master painters’ pieces, just from their style, from across a gallery floor.
Before she tells you how she creates her characters, she tells you some basic rules. Although she’s not big on rules herself, she did know the rules first. If you break the rules after you know them, then it’s experimenting.
The narrator should be the character who shifts the plot the most.
The narrator should also be the one who changes the most – a more intriguing character is one where the change is both internally and externally symbiotic.
Characters have to be sympathetic/relatable – Maggie doesn’t actually believe in this rule, herself. She feels you should understand the motives of your characters, but you don’t have to agree with their choices.
Writing as if you are the character – it’s bad writing to write self into a character. Especially if it’s accidental or if you’re having a character deal with a problem you yourself are facing at that moment. Ex: “When I’m angry, how do I react?” You should be wondering, “When my character is angry, how does my character react?” However Maggie also disagrees with this rule to a degree– if you accidentally do this, it’s bad, if you do it on purpose, then you’re creating a portrait of yourself.
How she steals characters is she begins with first impressions – like how you meet a person for the first time in real life. What you first notice about them.
Look past the first observations; look for something that contradicts your idea of who you think that person is. “Look at the moment when you change your mind about a character.”
She’s not a fan of character questionnaires – they don’t really tell you anything important about them. What they physically look like is mostly irrelevant. Doesn’t tell you WHY.
Character interviews can be helpful for voice. “I learn about my characters by moving them through the plot. I may throw out the first 10,000 words because I’m just using them to get to know the characters.”
Everything should be a character. This includes the setting, which can even have its own character arc. The forest in THE RAVEN CYCLE series, for instance, is a distinct character. It is sentient and plays a vital role in the series. The weather/setting arc in SCORPIO RACES mirrors the character arcs.
You want to lie as little as possible when creating your characters. The more fantastical you settings, the more realistic your characters should be.
Villains often have very clear motivations. Most people aren’t like this – not as clear-cut. For villains, whatever they want in life gets in the way of what the protagonist wants.
I had a chance to get a book signed by Maggie at the end of the conference, and true to her artistic roots, she had a little something extra for her fans who bought SINNER, the stand-alone companion to the SHIVER series. An original Stiefvater artwork book cover. Sweet, right?
Stephen Chbosky wrote and directed the feature film adaptation of his novel PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. That’s quite an impressive feat. He also gave an exceptional keynote address, giving away his top tips on how to write your own timeless classic, at this year’s SCBWI LA Conference.
Before that, I sat in on a breakout session he did with Jay Asher, author of 13 REASONS WHY. Their talk dealt with how to write realistic page turners. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to hear what these men had to say.
Chbosky stated his background was more screenplay-based and that he learned more about the page turn from watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer (created by Joss Whedon) and reading Alex Cross books (by James Patterson) than anything else. “It’s all about what happened or what happens next.”
Asher pointed out that his novel, 13 REASONS WHY, had a plot-driven suspense, while Chbosky’s PERKS was more character-driven suspense. Chbosky stated that he wanted the reader looking in the wrong direction so he waited to introduce elements to allow the reader to make assumptions or ask questions. Take Charlie’s teacher, for instance. He waited to introduce the teacher’s girlfriend to allow the reader to question the teacher’s motives towards Charlie. What’s the relationship here? Is the teacher gay? What’s going to happen to Charlie?
Asher added to this with a quote from Stephen King: “Making the reader guess.” Involving the reader in solving the mystery – making them guess the clues – keeps them reading, keeps them excited. As Asher was writing his book, he was thinking of how he was going to get the reader to guess the clues.
Chbosky said, “And that’s why he’s (Asher’s) so great. He’s making us write his books as we go along.”
Asher said another way to keep the reader turning the page is to write as clean as possible. He wrote 13 REASONS WHY so that the reader would not be able to put it down. He was afraid if they did, they would stop reading it. So, he kept the chapters short, with each leading into the next, and he created micro-mysteries that kept the suspense building along the way that did not allow the reader to come out of the story. He even made his character names easy to pronounce so readers wouldn’t stumble over them as they read.
Chbosky discussed that one of Charlie’s micro-mysteries is what’s going to happen with the sister when she gets hit and Charlie is asked not to tell. Chbosky stated that it’s important to get your readers invested in the well-being of every character. “If you can make your readers care about all of your characters – from the biggest to the smallest – that’s a major accomplishment.”
Moving on to Chbosky’s keynote, he started by pronouncing that, “The next generation of classics are literally in this room.”
He discussed the rejections he received for PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. It took him 70 pages of writing awful stuff, just to get a fantastic title. As he was writing this awful beginning that wasn’t working, he asked out loud, “Why?” The answer he heard in his head was, “Guess that’s what happens when you’re a wallflower.” He scrapped everything, but the title and started again.
This was the first step in his journey to writing a timeless classic. There are three steps to follow:
Find your Great Idea – He discussed how creative types have difficulty recognizing what’s beautiful or transcendent in themselves. How we as writers don’t always recognize the great ideas we have inside us. That’s why when you’re trying to find your great story, you should write down every idea you have and then share that list of ideas with the people closest to you, who genuinely want you to succeed. Everyone who reads the list will gravitate towards one or two ideas.
Find the Right Genre – There’s one that fits you and your story. Don’t worry about what’s popular. Find what matches your need to tell your great idea.
Study the Classics – Do this to spur you on, to challenge yourself. Because, what the hell, you’re gonna die; you might as well go for it.
Besides these three rules, he encouraged everyone to live a life that challenges you every single day. Find what’s beautiful in yourself. Find the story you’re meant to write. He calls it, “Fuck the market.”
Then take the time to make it great. “There’s no such thing as writer’s block; you’re just editing too early.”
He ended with this: “Books change lives. Books save lives. Books change the world.”
I had an opportunity to meet with Stephen Chbosky shortly after his keynote and have him sign his book for me. He was charming and dynamic. And told me a short, self-deprecating anecdote about having to give a speech shortly after President Clinton at an awards ceremony where he didn’t come off as well. Nothing intimidating about that situation. His speech was amazing and made us feel, if just for a moment, like we were all infinite.
It’s my turn to post over at the newly relaunched group blog, The Great Noveling Adventure. Since we now have set themes for each day, this is List of 5 Friday. I decided to give everyone a sneak peak at my top five favorite things I learned from the SCBWI LA Summer Conference. For those of you following along with my series of posts here, it’s a nice preview into some of the things I’ll be sharing more in-depth on this blog, coming very soon.
Don’t forget that I’m also hosting AM #sprints every weekday morning on Twitter @Novel_Adventure. Join me if you need some motivation to get started or if you just need some companionship as you work on your own great novel.