I originally wrote this post while participating in a group blog, The Great Noveling Adventure, that is no longer active. It was first published on March 9, 2014.
I still find it very relevant to me. Maybe you will, too.
In a very nebulous, non-scientific, late-at-night-inside-my-head-before-I-fall-asleep way, I have wondered about the connection between artistic talent and depressive temperament.
Many writers and artists I know, including myself, struggle with depression in one form or another.
Is it because we are more emotionally sensitive to the world at large? Is it because as the saying goes, writing is easy, all you have to do is open a vein and bleed?
I came across two pieces on the web this week that added some food for thought to this question.
This first piece I heard on Fresh Air while driving in my car. It’s a fascinating interview on NPR of Alexander Payne, the director of “Nebraska”. At one point he discussed how all great actors have ready access to their emotions at any time. What he said next was such an, “Ah ha!” moment for me, I sat in my driveway for ten minutes in my car mulling it over after the interview ended.
And that’s why life is often so difficult for them because they can’t keep their emotions tamped down, as like…as you and I can. So then if you can put an oil pump on that spurting oil well of emotion, then you can be a professional actor…
It’s beautiful to see how fully they wish to give of themselves. And I’ve always been confused by people saying of a certain actor’s performance, oh, it’s so brave. What a brave performance. What I think, that’s what they’re there to do, they’re there to do anything. It’s not brave. I think it’s the job. And it also should be coming from an attitude of fun and playfulness, and isn’t it delightful to be doing this and to be expressing these emotions and going deeply, deeply into who we are. And showing those of us who have less ready access to our emotions, and often have to pay people to help us get in touch with our emotions, to show us what’s available, what’s beneath the surface. It’s beautiful what they do.
I loved this so much. It made absolute sense to me. How similar is that to a writer connecting to the emotional truth of a scene? Of a character?
This second piece was written by one of my favorite YA authors, Libba Bray. She recently posted this deeply personal look at her own struggle with depression on her blog, entitled Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land. I would strongly encourage you to take a moment to hop on over and bookmark this page. You will want to read this over and over again.
She describes depression as I’ve experienced so well. You can have a good moment and still be depressed. You can laugh at a joke, make it through a day okay and still be on the verge of losing it.
As she describes it:
There is an undertow to depression. It doesn’t take you all at once. It leaves you with some false sense that you are coping. That you are in control. That you have the shore still well in sight, until, at some point, you raise your head to find yourself all alone, battered by rough seas with absolutely no idea which way you should swim.
I was moved by Bray’s words. She mentions a shame that comes with depression that makes it hard to talk about sometimes because it’s an invisible disease; you can’t see the wound it leaves like a broken limb. The gaping hole we may feel inside isn’t obvious to others around us. This is why it’s even more important to know that you are not alone.
So what are your thoughts on the creative soul and depression? Do these thoughts resonate with you?
Welcome to Part 3 of the conference highlights. To catch up on previous posts, you can view Part 1 and Part 2 before continuing.
The final day always comes too quickly, and yet is still somehow packed with a ton of literary goodness. We started off the day with the Picture Book Panel (which included our very own SCBWI Oklahoma star PB author Tammi Sauer!) and ended with an inspirational send off by the amazing Laurie Halse Anderson followed by the always fun autograph party.
Did I mention that there was dessert with Judy Blume in the middle? Crazy, I know! What a fabulous day!
Laurent Linn led this awesome discussion about picture books. He had each panelist introduce themselves first before the questions began.
Leuyen Pham — She’s worked on about 90 picture books and she said picture books are the closest you can come to whispering in a child’s ear. The search for characters is always a lot of fun for her. She does background and research on the characters before starting. There’s an emotional move from line drawing to art – analytical turns off to the imaginative.
Javaka Steptoe — He said he’s not just trying to create art, but an experience. He’s trying to feel what the character is feeling when he’s creating. He thinks back to when he was a child, when he was drawing, making noises, to create that moment on the paper, the experience.
“I don’t want to just draw a picture.”
When he uses found objects, he’s using things that have had a life. That brings a richness. It’s there, it’s alive. For kids, when they see something they identify – like, wow, I have that in my house – it’s a bridge.
He’s always thinking, “How can I bring you into my world?”
Learn the details of a moment; it’s about the subtleties and how it creates the big picture.
Tammi Sauer — (Tammi may have received a giant shout-out of ‘OOGA!’ from her Oklahoma SCBWI fan club when she was introduced. Maybe.)
She then flawlessly went on with her stellar presentation and gave her three favorite writing tips for creating relatable characters readers will care about. Make sure to follow her ARF formula:
A – Active
Raúl Colón — For his latest picture book, his editor told him that the pictures were telling the story. She told him to get rid of the words. That’s how DRAW! become a wordless picture book.
When beginning a new manuscript, he starts with sketches. Vision of pictures have to come to him as he’s reading or he won’t be interested in working on it. He plays music while working, He gets lost in the work, especially while doing the final art.
Question #1: What’s the first step in a new creation?
Tammi Sauer — Come up with a fresh idea. Celebrate the weird. Ideas are everywhere. Your job is to capture them.
Raúl Colón — I agree. I was inspired by an exhibit I came across.
Leuyen Pham — My first step is hard. Every book is a reinvention of myself. I freak out. I have to leave my studio. Take a sketchbook and just start sketching. While actually working, I can’t look at others’ work.
Javaka Steptoe — I agree with what everyone just said. You have to find some idea that sustains you. Ideas can come from anywhere. From life. You shouldn’t force a story. It should be fluid. I think about the background materials – asphalt for Swan Lake, wood for Jimi Hendrix.
It looks effortless, but it takes lots and lots of work to get there.
Question #2: Picture books can seem simple. When you have something to say, how do you balance this?
Raúl Colón — In the book ALWAYS MY DAD (by Sharon Dennis Wyeth) a story about divorce, it could’ve been tricky, but we made it as joyful as possible by showing all the things they could do together – focused on hope.
Leuyen Pham — I tend to stay away from stories like that. My approach tends to be more subtle. I’ll find a way to work them into the pictures. For example, two lesbian mothers pictured that are not mentioned in the story.
Her favorite writers are those generous enough to let some words go.
Tammi Sauer — I try to keep the 4 year-old version of my son in mind. Something kids connect with, something with humor. He would either give two thumbs up or say, ‘Wow, that’s a dud’.
Keep it subtle – don’t beat people over the head with a message.
Javaka Steptoe — The story is the most important thing. If it’s not a page-turner, take it out. The writer can show you the road, the illustrator can show you the beauty of the road.
Question #3: What is your purpose?
Tammi Sauer — Something kids can connect with – humor and heart.
Raúl Colón — Something they don’t see every day.
Leuyen Pham — Making another one of me. Feeling an intimacy with a book that will touch that kid.
Javaka Steptoe — I just want to talk with people. Write children’s books like a letter we send back out into the world and we keep going.
STEPHANIE GARBER SHARES SAGE ADVICE
Stephanie Garber, who already gave an outstanding breakout session, now dazzled the entire conference with her keynote address. She shared some sage advice she’s learned along her journey as a writer thus far.
The story of her overnight success took seven year. Seven years and five novels. Yes, it wasn’t until the fifth complete novel she wrote that she started to see positive responses to her writing from queries. That fifth book is the one that landed her the agent. And the sixth book was the one that finally sold – CARAVAL.
There was a lot of doubt and questioning of life choices before that book sold, so what helped her keep going and get through that sixth book?
Stephanie said these things were key to her success:
Write the book you’re brutally obsessed with — After all, your readers won’t feel something you don’t. (Please don’t write a book that’s safe.)
Deal with the things you’re afraid of — (She wanted to get an agent, but she didn’t want to go to a conference to get one – she was terrified of conferences.) There’s something very powerful about confronting fears and it’s better to do it before you’re published. Make your mistakes now. Besides, once you publish, things don’t get easier.
Let Go — Great things come from letting go. A manuscript can be salvaged, and it can be good to persevere. But it can also be a good thing to let go of ideas. It’s dangerous to latch on to the idea that you know everything. There’s always something to learn, especially about craft or the industry.
Read Widely –Don’t just read, read deeply. Make a personal list of what inspires you. What books do you want to emulate? (Your Cannon) Write the kind of books you want to read.
GOLDEN KITE LUNCHEON
The Golden Kite Luncheon and Awards Presentation was beset by a wee bit of a crisis this year when by some twist of fate, the kitchen only prepared place settings (and meals) for half the number needed. Our group was lucky enough to acquire a table, and reparations were made to those who didn’t, but they sadly missed out on a fabulous conversation between Lin Oliver and Judy Blume that took place during dessert.
For most of the conversation, I sat there mesmerized. Judy cast us all under her spell, as she is prone to do. I do remember that Judy talked about how writing saved her life, literally. And how it changed her life. Lin asked her if she’s retired from writing. Judy said that she’s written everything she’s wanted to say, “But there’s this one little thing…”
That got the whole room very excited!
Now that she’s (semi) retired from writing, she’s still surrounded by books at Books and Books, the independent bookstore in Key West she and her husband George have opened. She also invited everyone to come visit – but maybe not all at once.
She also talked about how much an organization like SCBWI would have meant to her when she was a young writer, which is why she is such a big supporter of it now, and why she’s on the board.
One quote I came away with was when she was talking about determination – “You can have all the talent in the world, and if you’re not determined, you’re going to let something stop you from doing it.”
How much do we love Judy Blume?
BREAKOUT SESSION – KWAME ALEXANDER AND ARIELLE ECKSTUT TALK ABOUT THE BUSINESS SIDE OF THINGS
Kwame and Arielle were wonderful and shared so many fantastic ideas. My absolute favorite thing that Kwame said was that a big part of his success was starting local. Embracing local bookstores and developing relationships with local owners long before you’re published should be a priority.
He was also very creative when it came to marketing. He once had 50 friends call a bookstore and ask for his book before he called them himself to ask if they’d like for him do a signing there. SMART!
He also called anybody he knew connected with morning radio shows and read poems on the air. (And I can only guess how effective that must have been, because when you hear him read his poetry, it is really something.)
Always have a plan that has reach – stretch goals. Constantly create opportunities.
Remember, you are the main driver of your book’s publicity.
So many great things, I could have listened to them spout off ideas for another hour or two.
CLOSING TIME – FINAL KEYNOTE LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON
Laurie Halse Anderson greeted us and gave a special shout out to any introverts who were present (no small task!). She acknowledged how difficult it was to carry the bubble of love, the place of acceptance and understanding, we’d created in our conference back home with us after the conference ends.
She gave us a few secrets to help carry this feeling home:
“You are the boss of your brain, and your brain is the boss of your emotional state.” She’s done the research. She then suggested we take a cue from the country of Denmark and embrace the idea of “hygge”. A warm, pleasant, and comfortable atmosphere. Void of annoyance or distraction, at total ease.
Get Started! You have to give yourself permission to suck. Revision is about clarifying. If you can just get started with your suckage, doing your art makes you feel better!
Creating books for children is a tremendous privilege and responsibility. We create for the luckiest audience who will ever live.
Choose to make messy art whenever you can.
It was a wonderful way to send us off. What a fantastic conference!
I may have gone a little overboard with buying books, but I actually showed some restraint and stopped myself way before I had to buy a second suitcase. I may not enjoy the mad dash and waiting in long lines takes to get all of these treasures signed – honestly, it’s the closet thing I come to experiencing Black Friday, and I barely survived it – but dinner with friends is at the end. And along the way, I do get to meet and thank these authors who have written books I enjoy. Worth the suffering of crowds and long lines? I think so.
For the first time ever, I was able to attend the Intensive workshops following the conference on Monday – so worth it!
After all the workshops were over, our group had our final meal together and the staggering flights back home began. Before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye to LA…until next year!
Hope you’ve enjoyed the highlights of the summer conference! I thoroughly enjoyed attending!
There were so many wonderful speakers and panels on Saturday that heads would explode if I covered everything. I’m skipping ahead to my favorite breakout session of the day.
STEPHANIE GARBER SHARES SECRETS TO ENDINGS
Stephanie Garber, author of CARAVAL, the phenomenon of a debut novel that has everyone talking, ran a fabulous breakout session entitled “Five Steps on How to Write Five Star Endings”.
She began by sharing a list of six classic story endings:
Happy Ending – Disney ending. Hero versus Villain with hero triumphant. The Happy Ever After
Tragic Ending – Hero gets what he wants, but loses something in the process
Unhappy Ending – Romeo and Juliet (works because reader is told from the very beginning this is a tale of woe)
Bittersweet Ending – Main Character makes sacrifice for the better good, i.e., Batman in The Dark Knight lets people believe he’s a villain because it’s what the city needs.
Vague Ending – open to interpretation, makes people question.
Series Ending – Cliffhanger or Hero gets what he wants, but Villain gets away.
While twists and surprises are awesome, you don’t want to spring an ending on readers that is unexpected; not in line with their expectations.
The tone of the ending should align with the tone of the book.
Think of the Harry Potter books, which were progressively darker with progressively darker endings. All deaths were earned and endings expected.
Think about whether or not the price for your story ending has been paid. Has the success been earned by the hero or villain? Think about endings not just for your main character, but for all of your characters. Make them all earn their endings. Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter earned her ending.
One of my favorite tips she gave was about villains. She said you should makes sure to give them screen time. Put them in the path of your main character. A face-off with the villain is a great opportunity to show character development.
Have a kick the cat moment versus a save the cat moment.
Don’t just say they are the villain; show it. Show the villain arc.
She ended with stating you should leave readers with a sense of hope, even if your story is a tragedy.
Think about this: What is the final message you want to leave readers with?
There were so many fantastic places to eat near the hotel. Some of us had lunch at Katsuya. Great sushi and a lovely atmosphere, including a most fascinating bathroom. Everyone took turns checking out the unconventional sinks. (Yes, just like tourists.)
At some point one afternoon, we had a gathering of all SCBWI Oklahoma members and tried to pose for a group photo. After three attempts, we succeeded in capturing 13 out of 14 of us. So close! Here’s the collective result.
This photo was blatantly stolen from Jerry Bennet’s Instagram feed. Don’t worry, he won’t even notice. 🙂
CONVERSATION WITH KWAME ALEXANDER AND SONYA SONES
Two phenomenal poets having a conversation about poetry. Wow! Was this amazing! I can’t share the live poetry that flew back and forth – beginning with Sonya’s awesome intro – or the chemistry they had, or the humor that filled the room. Just imagine that this experience was unforgettable.
Sonya Sones asked the questions and this was her first one:
SS: Tell me about the moment of your conception.
KA: 1967. Harlem, New York. A dormitory at Columbia University.
(I mean, honestly! They had us rolling.)
SS: When did you first know you were wonderful?
KA: At 12 years old. When I wrote a Mother’s Day poem.
I hate Mother’s Day
In my heart
Every day is
That’s when I first knew words were powerful.
SS: How does the study of poetry help children?
KA: Poetry is a rhythmic, concise, emotional way of sharing view of the world. If a child gets through it and understands, they can crossover and it’s profound.
SS: What’s the first book you ever wrote?
KA: A book of love poems inspired by a woman. I wrote her a poem a day for a year – and it worked. (He married her.)
There was so much more. I wish I could share it all. It was a fantastic conversation.
One of my favorite events is the Portfolio Showcase. I love looking over all the artwork of so many talented illustrators. This year, I had the pleasure of running into our very own Illustrator Coordinator, Jerry Bennett, while I was perusing the portfolios. Always a treat to get an artist’s take. And he’s somewhat amusing company as well. 🙂
SILVER LININGS GALA
Saturday night means party time!
This group knows how to let loose! (All videos I recorded have been deleted to protect your, um, signature dance moves, let’s say – and you’re welcome.)
Hope you enjoyed the Day Two highlights. Stay tuned for Part 3 coming soon!
I was very honored this year to be a winner of the SCBWI Tribute Fund. (Even if it meant I had to stand up in front of over 1500 people!) A brief moment of awkward public embarrassment was well worth what I received in return. I honestly can’t thank the entire staff of SCBWI enough. From Stephen and Lin for providing this grant and selecting me, to everyone in the main office I interacted with regarding all the details – they were all just so lovely.
And of course, a huge thank you to Helen, my Regional Advisor, who nominated me. (Who also took this awkward picture of me waving awkwardly to a crowd of 1500 people. AWKWARD!)
Now I would like to share with you my favorite parts of the SCBWI LA summer conference that I was able to attend this past July as a winner of this wonderful grant.
One of my favorite things about attending these conferences is how energizing they are, how they recharge my creative battery, and remind me that what I do is important. Especially in these uncertain times, it was such a reassuring thing to hear Lin welcome us into our own “Bubble of Love” (complete with actual bubbles).
It was also nice that our region got a shout-out for having such a large group in attendance, along with a handful of other states, but you know ours was the LOUDEST!!! We got a few more shout-outs, just so everyone could hear us make some more noise – something we were not shy about doing! (This happened several times during the conference, which was fun.)
In her keynote entitled, “Diversity Designed by Adversity”, Vanessa said we could let adversity ruin us, make us sad, or lean into it, wrap our arms around it, shake it off, and pack it under.
To illustrate her point, she told a story of a farmer who had a goat that fell down a well. Bemoaning the loss of the goat, he threw dirt down the well to bury it, but the goat just shook it off, and packed it under. Soon, it had a pile tall enough to climb out of the well.
“That’s been my life.”
She was born with dyslexia, synesthesia, and she also struggled with stuttering. Her dyslexia caused her to to go inward, to draw pictures. The synesthesia influenced the use of bright colors in her art. Her parents were both singers and helped her deal with her stuttering. “I sing in my head” the words she wants to say out loud. All these things didn’t stop her, they influenced her work.
Vanessa talked at length about the need for diverse books. She told the story of wanting to be a Breck shampoo girl when she was younger. She thought to have blonde hair, she just needed the shampoo.
She didn’t see herself reflected.
Then came Ezra Jack Keats and THE SNOWY DAY. She didn’t remember the words, but the pictures were powerful.
She told us how Ezra Jack Keats said, “I drew Peter because he should have been there all along”.
Vanessa called on us as artists, as writers to embrace our own challenges.
“You’re built for adversity.”
Some of the best stuff is raised out of adversity. You gotta be willing to put in the hard work.
You need to dream so big that it scares the hell out of you.
She ended by singing to us, and I don’t know if there was a dry eye in the room when she was done.
Emma Dryden led a thoughtful discussion with this fantastic panel of authors.
Question #1: What led you to express the experience in your own life in novel form?
Alex Gino – Middle Grade is a big part of my heart. The only time I experienced any instance of transgender as an adult was as a joke. “I knew GEORGE was the book I wanted and needed to write.” It took 10 years.
Aisha Saeed – She never saw herself in books with the exception of the role of the bad guy until she went to college. She knew she had to tell her story. She wrote her debut novel about forced marriage because she had many friends who were going through this experience. If they said no, their parents would disown them. She writes to make sense of the world. She wanted to understand why parents who loved their kids would do this.
Ruta Sepetys – “Much of my identity is wrapped up in being an immigrant’s kid.” Not a lot has been told about Stalin and what happened in Siberia. She wanted to bring this story to young readers because YA readers are deep feelers and deep thinkers. Books we read as kids have the potential to make a profound effect.
Kim Turrisi – When she was 15, her sister committed suicide. Her story is about the aftermath of suicide. She didn’t see herself in any books like this back then. She wrote about the experience to help.
Question #2 – Glimpse into choices you had to make to stray away from the truth to serve the story.
Ruta Sepetys – She was interviewing human beings condemned to death who then survived. “There’s a tension between history and memory.” She will interview 100 people and interweave the stories to create a single one – very different from nonfiction. This will hopefully be more representative.
Kim Turrisi – She used notes from 25 different people to cobble together the backgrounds of the secondary characters.
Alex Gino – Many people assume that my book is autobiographical. The way my character is transgender is not the same way that I am. My main character isn’t much like me, but the way people respond is.
Question #3 – Talk about the process of going deep into the story.
Kim Turrisi – I had the suicide letter. I put it on the wall to challenge me. My editor challenged me by saying some things that actually happened may not feel authentic. Give more. It was tough.
Ruta Sepetys – As writers, we should go there. Emotionally we need to get in the trenches. If I feel loss, I have loved. If I feel it, hopefully my readers will too. Amplify the hope in the hardship. Someone has to make it out.
Aisha Saeed – She did the emotional digging. What would it be like to go through this? Why would she run away? Her editor helped her bring out the nuances.
Alex Gino – You have to have a balance between optimism and realism. My responsibility was to provide a mirror for kids who are Trans. We get to have nice stories, too. Then my editor had to remind me that bad things have to happen, so we feel better when there’s redemption.
NOVA REN SUMA – QUEEN OF THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR
Break Out Session, “The Power and Possibility of the Unreliable Narrator”
POV is one of the most exciting tools you have as a writer. Make good use of it.
What is an “unreliable” narrator?
Withholds information from the reader
Breaks your trust (We expect to trust the narrator)
Drives the plot
Should be unreliable for a reason – an important mechanism for the plot.
Unreliable Narrator often has a surprising, unexpected secret.
WHY is your narrator not telling the whole truth?
WHY is the big mystery.
You as the author need to know the answer.
Favorite example: Mary Katherine Blackwood from WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson
More Unreliable Narrator examples:
Mica from LIAR by Justine Larbalestier
Julie from CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein
Mary from Allegedly by Tiffany D Jackson
Whim from CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn
Caden from CHALLENGER DEEP by Neal Shusterman
Nova went on to explain how using craft choices can help you show your unreliable narrator to your readers and ways to create an unreliable character.
This was such a helpful session! Nova really is a fantastic teacher.
After a full day of amazing keynotes and breakout sessions, our SCBWI OK gang met up for dinner with a former member who recently relocated to LA. She may have moved to California, but she’ll always be a part of us, too!
Hope you enjoyed the first part of my conference experience highlights. Stay tuned for Part II coming soon!
This year’s SCBWI Oklahoma Spring Conference set a high bar for future conferences. A month later and I’m still processing the wealth of information the speakers imparted. Here’s Part I of the brief recap!
This year’s conference began with something new, a warm up event on Friday evening. With three different options, I chose to attend the Friday Night Panel with Ally Carter, Matt Ringler, and Linda Camacho.
This fun and informative panel was asked everything from their views on professionalism to what keeps them reading a manuscript to what other agents and editors would say about them. Needless to say things got interesting!
The three speakers held the attention of the packed room and started the conference off with great enthusiasm.
One of my favorite stories was from Ally Carter. When answering a question about professionalism, she commented that she was simply doing what her mother taught her when she wrote a thank you note to a very important book seller. She found out later that he actually kept it displayed. It was the only one he’d ever received from an author. A reminder that being thoughtful to everyone in this business can make a difference.
Our first speaker of the day showed us the power and beauty of using fewer words to tell our stories.
Katrina is currently a Senior Designer for the trade imprints of Random House Children’s Publishing, where she designs and art directs approximately 35 middle grade and picture book titles per year. She was previously Art Director at Amazon Children’s Publishing. Recent projects she art directed include the 2015 Geisel Award-winner “You Are Not Small” (Anna Kang/Christopher Weyant), “Grover Cleveland, Again” (Ken Burns/Gerald Kelley), and “This is My Book” (Mark Pett).
Katrina gave a talk entitled, “(Almost) Wordless Picture Books” where she gave examples of picture books that used few words to tell great stories. The (almost) wordless manuscripts may have as few as 50 words. With a limited word count, it’s helpful to have a road map. That’s why most wordless (or nearly wordless) manuscript submissions include illustration notes.
She also walked us through the illustration process – from submitted manuscript to finished book – for EAT, SLEEP, POOP by Alexandra Penfold.
One thing she emphasized about nearly wordless picture books is that emotional expressions of the characters need to be extremely clear. After all, the illustrations are doing a lot of heavy-lifting with the story-telling.
To learn more about Katrina, follow her on Twitter here.
Prior to the conference, Katrina participated in a Twitter chat with us. You can view the Storify version of our conversation with Katrinahere.
Next, a true power couple shared tips on how to write authentically for a YA audience.
Ally Carter writes books about spies, thieves, and teenagers. She is the New York Times bestselling author of the EMBASSY ROW, HEIST SOCIETY, and GALLAGHER GIRLS series, which together have sold more than two-million copies and have been published in more than twenty countries. She lives in Oklahoma, where her life is either very ordinary or the best deep-cover legend ever.
Kristen established the Nelson Literary Agency in 2002 and over the last decade+ of her career has represented over thirty-five New York Times bestselling titles and many USA Today bestsellers. Clients include Ally Carter, Marie Lu, Scott Reintgen, Gail Carriger, Stacey Lee, Marcia Wells, and Simone Elkeles. When she is not busy selling books, Kristin attempts to play golf & tennis. She also enjoys playing Bridge (where she is the youngest person in her club), and can be found hiking in the mountains with her husband and their dog Chutney.
NY Times best-selling author (and Oklahoma native) Ally Carter joined her agent Kristen Nelson to give a presentation together entitled, “‘So You Want to Write YA…Start by Asking the Right Questions!”.
One of those right questions was instead of asking how to learn teen slang, you should ask if you have a voice that appeals to teens.
Slang comes and goes, and is often regionally specific. Besides dating your manuscript, it can end up alienating readers instead of connecting them with your story.
Another great question was instead of asking if you can just age your characters up or down to ‘make’ your book YA, you should ask yourself if you’re telling a true coming-of-age story that will resonate with teens.
It’s not enough to have characters the same age as your readers. Age doesn’t equal connection. You have to engage your teen readers with a story they can relate to.
And this one was my favorite:
Q: Should I alter myself when writing for teens?
A: Ally – “Yes, write smarter.”
Kristen – “I’ve never heard a teen say, ‘I felt obligated to keep reading’.”
Teens expect the writing to be great from page one and will put a book down the minute it stops delivering.
To learn more about this dynamic duo:
Follow Ally on Twitter here. Follow Ally on Instagram here.
Visit Kristen’s agency site to view what she’s currently seeking and to observe her submission guidelines.
Prior to the conference, Kristen participated in a Twitter chat with us. You can view the Storify version of our conversation with Kristen here. Follow Kristen on Twitter here.
The final speaker of the morning dazzled us with his presentation and his wit.
Matt is a senior editor at Scholastic specializing in chapter book, middle grade, and YA fiction. He is the editor of the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, the Game Changers series by Mike Lupica, the STAT series by Amar’e Stoudemire, and the Little Rhino series by Ryan Howard. His YA list includes the New York Times Bestseller Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky and It’s Not Me, It’s You by Stephanie Kate Strohm.
Matt spoke about “Writing Success at Many Levels”. He started out by giving us some background on himself (started as an intern for theDavid Levithan – can you say fangirling?) and some mind-blowing Scholastic stats (like Scholastic publishes 1 out of every 3 books, and first experience most kids have buying their own books is through Scholastic Book Fairs).
Matt moved on to talking about writing, and specifically about not fighting your own writing process, even if it changes from one book to the next. You change as your experiences grow – you’re not the same writer you were a few years ago. It’s okay for your process to change. Embrace it.
Matt shared an insight into his selection process. When deciding what projects to take on, Matt said, “To work on a book, it’s a year. It’s committing to a relationship. If it doesn’t feel right for me, I’ll pass on it.”
That’s another reason to not take it personally when your manuscript is rejected because an agent or editor didn’t love it enough. That doesn’t mean your work isn’t good, just that their commitment level wasn’t right for the relationship to work. You want your book to succeed and you want someone to champion your book. That’s going to require a strong commitment to your story.
Matt went on to discuss the different kinds of success:
All aspects of success can build on each other. Writing is hard! Don’t forget to celebrate the little steps of success along the way.
To learn more about Matt, follow him on Twitter here.
Matt will be our guest for #okscbwichat on Twitter August 22nd from 7-8pm CST! We hope you’ll join us!
Break time means networking (read “socializing”) and taking selfies with my writing friends!
One of the best parts of writing conferences is connecting with my fellow writers (and the odd illustrator or two, Jerry). I love my tribe!
READY TO PITCH IN THE BIG CITY? photo by Wojtek Witkowski via Unsplash
Back in March when I attended the SCBWI OK spring conference, some of you may remember that I won a couple of face-to-face critiques with speakers at the conference. During one of my sessions, I took the opportunity to ask Melissa Manlove, editor at Chronicle Books, what she thought of my 40-word pitch for my manuscript, which was included as part of the program. I’m fairly new at writing pitches and I knew that I could use some guidance. I’m very glad I asked. She was so generous with her time and her insights. What she said next really clarified the whole concept for me. I’ve been meaning to share that bit of wisdom for awhile, so here it is.
First of all she said my pitch was something to the equivalent of “Meh”.
Here is the pitch I submitted:
A childhood prank gone wrong leaves Will Harris crippled by fears and homebound. During an outing for his recovery, he witnesses a crime. No one believes him. He must find the courage to solve the mystery and prove his sanity.
I think by ‘meh’ she was being kind.
Next, she said, rethink the whole idea of trying to get the point of your story across in the length of an elevator ride. For a middle grade story, she said to try this:
Pitch your story like you’re telling it to a bored eleven-year old on an elevator.
And then lightning struck my brain.
I got it. She expanded this thought to say you should tell your pitch to this eleven year-old with the idea of convincing him this is a book he’ll be so excited to read, he’ll want to grab it right out of your hand. Get to the good stuff; the action. Kids don’t care about the backstory or character motivation when you’re trying to convince them to read a book, they want the main events.
Hey, I know this story that you are going to love. It’s all about this kid who gets locked up in a museum at night and then he finds these thieves stealing some of the paintings. He sets off the alarms, but when the police arrive, there’s no sign of the crime and no one believes him. He decides to solve the crime himself and that’s just the beginning of even more trouble.
That pitch is a little less “Meh” if I do say so myself. Sure, it’s a little longer than it’s supposed to be, but now let’s put it into a more refined form and see if it still works when we distill it back down to a 40-word count. (Just FYI, pitch lengths can vary. I kept mine to this length because that was the guideline for this particular conference submission. It’s not a bad idea to have a few different pitches on hand of varying lengths – some even Twitter length as many pitch contests arise and you never know, that agent or editor you’re dying to pitch to may one day participate in one.)
Will Harris gets locked up in a museum the same night thieves break in. Will triggers the alarm and police arrive. They find no sign of crime. The trouble gets started once Will decides to solve the crime himself.
Much better than the first one. And who knows, we might get that bored eleven year-old to snatch that book out of our hands, yet.
See if keeping your audience in mind helps when you write your next pitch.
This is a timely topic as I just served on a pitch panel for this month’s meeting for our local Tulsa SCBWI group as our members prepare for our spring conference. I spoke about this same experience with Melissa Manlove before we got into the pitches. I still use this idea – that and knowing the stakes. If you can convey something about your character and what’s at stake for them, you’ve pretty much got your pitch nailed.
What do you think? Are pitches easy for you? Do you have a successful method that helps you write them?
Sara will be discussing the topic of humor in writing. “Humor draws in and hooks readers, and it keeps them engaged!” In her talk, she will discuss different types of humor and how you can apply them to your own manuscripts.
In her work as Executive Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, Sara focuses on fiction and nonfiction in the picture book, middle grade, and young adult categories.
Previously she was an Editor at Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Sara has worked with New York Times bestselling author Abbi Glines, National Book Award finalist Deb Caletti, Jennifer Echols, Julie Cross, Aaron Karo, and Martina Boone, among others. She also received her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern University. You can sometimes find Sara eating takeout and reading on the couch. You can always find her online at www.sarasargent.wordpress.com and on Twitter and Instagram @Sara_Sargent. Sara lives in Brooklyn.
Valerie Lawson: Sara, thank you so much for doing this interview. It’s a pleasure to speak with you, today.
What makes a story an evergreen? What gives it staying power?
Sara Sargent: I’ve always wanted to edit books for the same reason I want to read them: for escapism. I love getting lost in a story, getting wrapped up in characters and their struggles. So, to me, a story with emotional heft and amazing characters will be perennial. It’s important to allow the reader to see the human experience reflected back at them from the pages of your book, to let them get entangled in the emotions and the drama.
We’ve all had that experience where a book “doesn’t hold up,” where we re-read a novel we loved as kids and are no longer sure what we loved about it. Sometimes we grow up or move on or mature, and a story doesn’t have the staying power it used to. But, to me, all that matters is whether we connected with it emotionally at one point in time. For a book to be successful, it needs to find its mark and connect. Regardless of whether that happens when we’re 5 or 50, and whether it remains true always.
VL: Emotional connection with amazing characters – yes, that describes all my favorite stories. I must say, the idea of connections changing as we age is very intriguing. Our life experiences change, why shouldn’t our experience of a story change?
What hooks you when you’re reading a manuscript? What doesn’t?
SS: I like to tell writers that, no matter what genre they’re writing, they are all mystery writers. Because you have to think like a mystery writer to plot an interesting book. For me, that advice comes from a personal place of loving twists and turns and surprises. What hooks me—and keeps me reading—is not knowing what’s coming next, whether that’s in the actual plot or for character development or with a romance.
VL: Fascinating idea! I love a good mystery.
You’ve mentioned that lack of character development is one major reason you might reject a project. What are some others?
SS: Weak world-building, especially in fantasy, is a tough sell for me. I am happy to edit fantasy projects and work with authors to improve their world-building and to help them transfer the wonderful images in their heads to the page. But, if the logic of the world doesn’t hang together, and there are strange twists or turns that feel aimless—I am likely to pass.
Also, when it comes to realistic contemporary novels, I love evergreen tropes that resonate time and time again. But I do not like stories that feel too similar to others I’ve read or edited. With the realistic genre, I need fresh and new and different for me to want to buy it.
VL: With your focus on social media and digital platforms, what can you tell authors and illustrators about the importance of online time?
SS: Pick one platform—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Tumblr, blogging—and really commit to it. There is no point in spreading yourself thin and trying to be active on every social network known to humankind. Develop an authentic and genuine presence for one profile, and then focus your energy there. Getting people to connect strongly with you in one space is amazing, even if it feels limited. That’s how you start building your brand.
VL: NOT spreading yourself thin? I’m so on board. It’s so easy to overdo it and leave no time for real writing.
We often hear the advice to research before you submit your work, what’s the most important thing writers and illustrators need to know before they submit to you?
SS: It’s important to know what an editor likes, and it’s important to know what she’s acquired. But what’s even better is to recognize what she likes and what she’s acquired, and get to the next level of thinking. Which is to say: send me something with the essence of what I love and have already edited, but with a new twist or take—that’s the best way to go.
Sending me a manuscript and saying “I’m sending this to you because you acquired a book just like it, so I know you will love it!” is not the way to go. Show me that you recognize why your book is a fit for me, because you know I love the genre but also because I’ve never acquired anything like it before.
VL: Excellent advice. Well said.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, today, Sara. They have been very enlightening. I look forward to hearing your talk at our conference!
Learn more about Sara and read her Acquisitions Wish List here.
Follow Sara on Twitter here. Follow Sara on Instagram here.
**Sara does not accept unsolicited manuscripts, however conference attendees will be permitted to submit to her for a limited time.
This is an excellent reason to come see her speak at our conference in Oklahoma City on April 16th!
For more details on our 2016 SCBWI OK Spring Conference or to register online,CLICK HERE.