We had some fantastic #okscbwichats during my blog hiatus – a poet laureate, a literary agent, and an independent book store owner all stopped by our Twitter hashtag for a chat. We ended the 2016 #okscbwichat season at the end of last month with quite a bang.
Here’s the round up of the final chats and a link to each discussion.
Benjamin Myers is a professor of literature at Oklahoma Baptist University and is the current Oklahoma Poet Laureate. He is the author of two books of poetry LAPSE AMERICANA and ELEGY FOR TRAINS, which won the Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry.
His poems may be read in numerous literary journals including The New York Quarterly, Tar River Poetry, Borderlands, Salamander, Nimrod, and the Chiron Review, as well as online in Devil’s Lake, DMQ Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Elimae, Poetrybay, and elsewhere. He lives in Chandler, Oklahoma. You can follow Ben on Twitter.
Ben was our guest in September. During our Twitter chat, Ben talked about what inspired him to become a poet, how the study of poetry can help authors with their writing by calling very careful attention to language, and he explained how a poet uses a poem to convey a reader into an experience like Dr. Who uses his TARDIS. Fascinating!
*If you missed the chat, you can view the Storify version of the entire conversation here.
Her author client list includes award winners and best sellers such as Michaela and Elaine DePrince, Reyna Grande, Katheryn Russell-Brown and Angela Cervantes. Adriana is interested in picture books that are funny or endearing, with an element of the unexpected; voice-driven contemporary and historical middle grade and young adult novels, and narrative nonfiction, including biographies, and memoirs written by authors with strong platforms. Twists, strong concepts, and diverse points of view are all on her general wish list; works that are at once timely and timeless will always get her attention.
Adriana also represents artists with distinctive styles, and not-so-secretly yearns to bring more diverse illustrators into the market. You can visit her agency website to view her full bio and complete manuscript wishlist. You can also follow her on Twitter
Adriana was our guest for a special edition of #okscbwichat in early October. Adriana discussed diversity and who has the “right” to tell a story, she talked about how her experience as an editor influences her style as an agent, and she also told us one thing she wished new authors and illustrators knew about the publishing business.
*If you missed the chat, you can view the Storify version of the entire conversation here.
Joe Hight is not only the president of Best of Books, an independent bookstore in Edmond, Oklahoma, he’s behind the online persona, BOB, and the delightful tweets of the store’s Twitter account @bestofbooksok.
Best of Books is a family-owned bookstore celebrating its 30th anniversary as an Edmond institution. Joe and his family took over ownership a few years ago after they moved back from Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Joe was the editor of The Gazette. While working there, his paper won the Pulitzer Prize. Prior to the move to Colorado, Joe worked for The Oklahoman. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame in 2013. You can follow Joe on Twitter.
Joe was our final #okscbwichat guest of the year. He chatted with us at the end of October. Joe shared many insights, including the one thing he wished local authors knew about their local bookstores – always seek to build relationships! He talked about the advantages an independent book store can offer an author over a chain book store as well. Joe discussed the mistakes authors can make when approaching them for events, he also shared some ideas that can help authors have more successful events. Very enlightening discussion.
*If you missed the chat, you can view the Storify version of the entire conversation here.
I really enjoyed all the conversations with our guests throughout this year. My Social Media Committee and I are already planning some exciting new things for next year! If you have any suggestions for a guest you’d like to see – author, illustrator, or industry professional – feel free to leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you!
See you back for our first #okscbwichat of 2017 in January!
Yes, I’m back! I took some much needed time off from the blog to recharge my creative battery, which was getting frightfully low.
Part of that recharge included attending the 45th Annual SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles with my tribe. I never feel more at home anywhere in the world than when I’m surrounded by these people. I always come away feeling fulfilled and motivated.
We started out in a new venue this year, the (extremely haunted) Millennium Biltmore Hotel, which boasts many specters, one of the most famous being Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia, who was last seen in the bar before her death back in 1947.
Throughout the conference there were reports of doors and cabinets that refused to stay closed and bathtubs that filled up all on their own. Still, the spookiest thing that happened was when one of our own group from Oklahoma snapped a selfie all alone in the hallway of the infamous eighth floor. But it wasn’t quite a selfie – something was in the background behind her. It freaked everyone out who looked at it, I’m telling you. (If you’re really curious, just ask Ginny to show you sometime…at your own peril.)
Day One began with a marvelous welcome by the incomparable Lin Oliver and the always entertaining faculty parade. Then it was on to the first keynote.
Drew Daywalt Embraces His Inner Voice
Drew Daywalt launched the conference with his keynote entitled “Does This Keynote Make My Butt Look Big?” And yes, it was just as funny as you would imagine. But it was also touching and inspiring as well. His first two picture books, THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT and the sequel, THE DAY THE CRAYONS CAME HOME have both been very successful. This is not something he was expecting. “I come from a long line of failed picture book writers.”
After growing up one of six kids in a house that was most likely haunted (sensing a theme for the weekend?) he started his adulthood writing screenplays in Hollywood, but found that world very unsatisfying and a little too cutthroat. He kept coming back to something author Jack Gantos once told him, that he had a voice for kids’ books. Yet, he kept put off writing for kids.
Then one day, he saw a box of crayons and thought about how they always had crayons but he never remembered buying them. He gave it a shot and wrote his first children’s book. Ten long years later – it took his agent four years to sell the book – it was published.
After his first school visit, a kid “broke through security” to give him a hug and kissed his cheek. He talked about how that experience changed him.
“Hollywood knocked me down, and a million tiny little hands caught me.”
(Yes, there was a collective “Awww” heard round the conference room at that.)
His picture books express a unique voice, a unique vision. When addressing the concept of voice, he said, “it is absolutely your fingerprint.”
Every story has been told, so it’s been said, but none in YOUR voice. You have to be willing to be vulnerable, too.
Writing a story and asking someone what they think about it is like standing there butt naked and saying, “Hey, do you like it?”
It’s about honesty.
You have to be honest to your own voice, and then you’ll be fine.
Fantastic way to open the conference!
Arthur Levine Gets Personal
Moving into the workshop portion of the morning, the fabulous Arthur Levine, (Scholastic’s imprint Arthur A. Levine – Harry Potter’s American publisher, that Arthur Levine) gave a talk entitled, “When It’s Personal: Translating Life into Fiction”. He’s also an author and has written several stories that have been inspired from his own life.
“Arguably, all good fiction is drawn from the personal.”
How do we do this well? We take a story we care about that already has setting, emotions, and characters.
Blindspots are the problem.
When we’re telling personal stories to friends, we don’t have to be as careful about timelines, backgrounds, and setting. There’s a history built in with the audience.
When we try to translate these stories, we forget what’s visible. Interpersonal dynamics aren’t always clear. We don’t know how well this is showing up on the page. We still have all the work of creating characters that live on the page. It’s not visible unless we make it visible.
Sometimes memories aren’t complete. You may only have snippets of memories from one event that don’t give you a cohesive story. Diligent research can fill in for memory lapses.
Readers don’t know that you’re mixing and matching as long as it works and there’s fidelity.
Your stories and anecdotes are tools.
What are you trying to say? Does this plot support that? If not, you need to change it. The more changes you make, the more distance and objectivity it gives you.
“Feelings are clothing that other characters can wear – have to tailor to fit.”
Many great ideas for future stories came out of this session!
The great thing about our new location is that we were smack in the middle of downtown LA and there was so much going on around us and so much waiting to be explored. After dreading the long line at the hotel café, I saw a tweet mentioning food trucks across the street. Not only food trucks, but live music, and a beyond fascinating moving art sculpture canopy. Lunch time was saved!
Sara’s talk was entitled, “Cutting Edge YA Fiction”. She started at HarperCollins about a year ago to develop books that teens really want to read. She studied these teens in-depth. She thought we should get to know these readers, understand them, “and dare say, even love them”.
What a radical concept!
Here’s some marketing data on this Gen Z:
They are the 1st generation to be majority non-white
Have an average attention span of 8 seconds
Use an average of 5 devices – smart phone, laptop, desktop, tablet, TV
More tolerant of gender diversity than previous generations
Their experience at school is totally different than what your was.
**One of the main reasons Sara rejects a manuscript is because it seems like the author is writing to the teen they were instead of to who teens are today.
Who are you telling the story for? Do you know today’s teen audience?
Sara then gave many ideas on how an author could immerse themselves in teen culture to see what teens today are interested in.
So what does ‘cutting edge’ mean? It plays with expectation and form. To Sara, it’s pushing boundaries and trying new things – “Making me think in new ways.”
Here are some brainstorming ideas to get you started:
Using Adult Novels for Brainstorming – What exciting things are your favorite adult authors doing that you’re not seeing in YA? Same goes for TV shows, movies, webisodes, and Youtube.
Backward/Parallel Universe – Think BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver or Sliding Doors movie
Using Video Game as a Framework – Like Ready Player One.
Complete Opposite – Instead of something to escape FROM, give characters something to escape INTO.
Think about a world that has one element our world doesn’t have – one element. Take it away or add it. Think Pleasantville and color.
At the Plot -level – Think about character dynamics. Does the football player always need to be popular?
Period of time – Play with the limit of time your story takes place – 24 hours, a couple of hours. How would this change/affect a story?
There were so many great ideas. You can rethink storylines and come up with something innovative. The one point she made at the end was that you can be cutting edge while staying true to your own story.
Only way to top the first day of great speakers was with dessert…
And more relaxing time with my writer friends at the Golden Kite Awards Dinner.
My artistic soul on the mend at the end of Day One.
I always enjoy listening to illustrators when they give keynotes. (Maybe because they have great visuals in their presentations.) Even though I’m not an artist, per se, I love learning about their stories and their creative process. There is always something to learn and you can always find inspiration in another’s journey. Jon Klassen’s keynote was a great way to start day two.
Jon Klassen Thinks Outside of Himself
Jon Klassen opened Day Two with his keynote entitled “Finding Yourself in the Work”, which was all about how we go about the process of creating or rather how we don’t. “Your job is to take care of what creates your style, not to try to define it or try to think about it.” When it’s time to do the work, think outside of yourself.
Pretty heady stuff for a children’s book illustrator, yes?
Klassen gave the example of David Bowie creating music as Ziggy Stardust. He had to create this character to begin to create the music for the album. He had to get outside of himself before he could start the project.
Joseph Albert, known for solid color square paintings, would give his art students an assignment to paint a blue square. They would all be different. “All of you have your own style, even with the most basic instruction.”
Start with what you can do. “I was a horrible animator.” He did like drawing big animals who didn’t look like they wanted to be there. Bears, especially. “Bears have a lot of potential for violence.” A bear in your studio with a hat could go very badly. He didn’t know how to start with dialogue. Then he started thinking in terms of plays and his characters acting out and using their own lines, not his; it started to work.The idea for the book I WANT MY HAT BACK came about through this process.
He said at one point your process may even drift away from its starting point. You have to be okay that your process will wander in unexpected ways. At one point, it’s not yours anymore, it belongs to itself.
Marie Lu Gets Creative
I loved racing through Marie Lu‘s LEGEND series. More than anything, I loved the characters. So I didn’t hesitate when choosing my next breakout session to hear her speak on the subject, “Character is King: Bringing Imaginary People to Life”. This was immediately following her keynote, which was also fantastic.
Although she considers herself a panster versus a plotter, she does take a lot of time developing her characters before she starts writing.
“I always plan out my characters. They are very real people to me.”
She then decides how to build a world to suit them.
One idea she expressed that I loved was that when building characters, there should be some opposition to each other. Create tension before you even put them into a room together.
And that was another great suggestion, she plays around with her characters before getting down to writing her story. She will put two of her characters into a room together and write some dialogue just to see what happens.
She discussed many character building tricks she uses. My favorite one was flip it, where you write a scene where a character is forced to act opposite to their strengths and core beliefs until you discover the point that they become weak, selfish, etc. Or the opposite for a villain.
It helps to know what you want from the story and who you want to tell it before you begin.
Truly an enlightening talk.
Later I had the pleasure of getting one of her books signed. She was such a delight! (And I can’t wait to start reading this next series!)
As Saturday was my daughter’s birthday, I treated her to lunch at a fancy schmancy place of her choosing within walking distance of the hotel. Delicious.
Neal Shusterman Struggles with Chaos
I feel like I live at the corner of chaos and procrastination, so the title of Neal Shusterman’s keynote, “Making Meaning: The Writer’s Struggle to Find Order in the Chaos, and Stories Worth Telling”, was just what I needed to hear. He discussed he ever-so-slow journey to publishing success with its many failures and missteps and with surprising discoveries along the way.
He even shared some fallacies he discovered about the writing profession, like “never ask for feedback from someone you feed”. Friends may just want to make you happy and parents always have an agenda, he says, but kids will be honest. (Even the ones you feed.) He says the best feedback you can get is from other writers.
At the end, he asked, so why do we write?
How do we find the stories worth telling?
It’s about the reader.
Deep down we have a belief that we have something to say. We need to dig in to our own passions, wrestle with our own demons. If we’re doing it right, we always struggle with whether or not we’re doing it wrong.
I had the privilege of meeting him later to have him sign a copy if his outstanding book CHALLENGER DEEP. He was so nice.
BIRTHDAY TREAT AT LOUIE!!!
I couldn’t exactly bake my youngling a cake, but stopping in for a treat at this divine bakery was a fine substitute.
OFF TO THE BALL!!!
Saturday night means party time!
(And even though the youngling commented on the goofiness of the old people music and dance moves, she had a great time.)
I had such a wonderful time at the conference this year!
Jodell will be discussing the topic of pacing in picture books. The title of her talk is Pacing Picture Books (& Beyond) to WOW. “Attendees will walk away with oodles of editing options and a renewed excitement for just how fun crafting a story can be.”
Jodell wrote her critical thesis on pacing picture books and earned her MFA in Writing for Children & YA from Hamline University, 2009 and started agenting a few years later, and most recently launched Kidlit College. She hosts workshops and presents on pacing with Writer’s Digest. At Kidlit College, she brings in editors and agents to present and offers participants direct critiques. The webinars span from picture books (fiction and nonfiction) to MG/YA.
She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) and is passionate about helping writers pace their stories well because it allows writers the opportunity to enhance emotional resonance, tension, and find exciting ways to improve story arc with jumps and twists and pauses and stops that garnish editorial attention and help them get published.
Valerie Lawson: Jodell, thank you for doing this interview. It’s a pleasure to speak with you, today.
Your agency is considered a boutique literary agency. Can you tell us more about what that means and why an author or illustrator would benefit from choosing it?
Jodell Sadler: My focus has been on craft, and, particularly, Pacing Picture Books (& Beyond) to WOW. I’ve taught and shared this material in libraries with young learners, in middle school classes, and from secondary education to graduate classes in picture books and publishing. I come from a marketing/design background where deadlines were tight and I juggled multiple projects a week. I’ve worked with thousands of writers and students and have been sharing my pacing study since 2008.
As I started the agency, I wasn’t in a position to move, and really wanted to stay where I lived, so I also taught full time as an AP/Dual Credit English teacher as well. Like writers, agents are not much different in that we do whatever it takes to achieve our goals. I started KidLit College for this same reason. I wanted to give back, celebrate editors and agents, and help them share their expertise, while also providing a great option for writers and illustrators looking for an agent or who would benefit from an editor’s webinar and critique.
VL: You come with a lot of teaching experience. That is excellent. We should all keep learning our craft.
What makes you stop reading a query?
JS: Writers really do need to know that if they submit out a solid query and simply follows submission guidelines, that’s half the battle. So often I receive submissions for projects I do not take on, and they are addressed in a generic fashion: Dear Sir, Dear Agent, etc, and I no longer read these.
The ideal submission is one that focuses on the manuscript. It’s short and direct and gives me a glimpse at the author’s personality. Like most agents, I look for a short query that shares that connection and answered the question: why me? A pitch for that top-quality manuscript that’s been through a number of editors and has received favorable feedback from a critique group. And the ideal bio is simple and focused and screams you are serious about your writing and actively participating in conferences.
VL: Short, direct, and with a glimpse of personality. Got it.
What hooks you when reading a manuscript? What doesn’t?
JS: Voice, direction, great pacing, and freshness: This gets the attention of most agents.
Some manuscripts I read, I love but cannot take on because I rep something similar, and there are manuscripts I love but I just feel I cannot sell well. I also steer clear of holiday books and much prefer the true story and narrative nonfiction book: PB or older.
VL: What manuscripts are on your wishlist?
JS: Nonfiction, narrative nonfiction picture books as well as author-illustrators top my wishlist right now. I am closed to submissions except through conferences and events like this one.
VL: Yes, conference attendees will be permitted to submit to our speakers, SO EVERYONE SHOULD COME TO THE CONFERENCE!!!
Besides being an agent, you also teach webinars about writing. Tell us more about this.
JS: I teach. I teach. And I teach. I’ve been teaching since I completed my MFA in 2008, and I actually taught full time in order to jump into agenting, to even be able to afford that time to grow the agency. KidLit College is really a dream community I thought about creating back in 2010 when I started my doctoral studies.
I really wanted to make a difference, make connections, and create that way to share craft learning fun with other writers and industry professionals. We all have so much to share. I invite everyone to join us on our closed Facebook page and visit our KidLit College website and just see what we have going on, including a writing retreat and cruise!
VL: Sounds like a wonderful resource.
Speaking of teaching, I was fascinated by a discussion you had about the difference between using rhyme versus poetry in picture books, could you address this?
JS: A quality rhyming picture book is one is 100% committed to quality rhymes. It often focuses on end rhymes and shares poetic forms in creative ways, but for me, poetry is a huge gift to picture book writing, and it’s one of the 20 tools I talk about in my Pacing Picture Books to WOW class.
Poetry lifts our writing through the power of enjambment, prosody, page turns, poetic devices, and it shifts the language to this contagious level. There’s nothing like that quality picture book that provides that beautiful poetic or comedic pause that suspends the emotion and lifts a piece to this loftier universal level. Nothing like it. When we write, we must write to mind, heart, and ear, and poetry is a big part of that. I will be discussing this more in my presentation and here’s a little overview of what I will share.
VL: Write to heart, mind, and ear. I love that. I think we could all learn to be better writers by studying more poetry.
Tell us what happens after an author or illustrator signs with you. What’s the next step?
JS: It differs and depends on a number of factors, but the first thing we do is meet online to really determine focus, discuss manuscripts, and plan next steps. The clients I work best with are those driven to move their work out into the world, who are actively participating at conferences, and constantly providing me with updates and new work. That’s just such a gift.
Recent sales include Brunhilda’s Backwards Dayby Shawna J.C. Tenney (Sky Pony Press, 2017) Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs (Sleeping Bear Press, 2016) by Linda Vander Heyden, Snow Beast Want Play and Untitled (Roaring Brook Press, 2017) as well as the Friday BarnesMG illustration series project (Roaring Brook Press, 2016) by Phil Gosier, a picture book/board book (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan) by Ann Whitford Paul, as well as 5 NF MG projects, including my own (Rowman & Littlefield) and Medical Mavens (Chicago Review Press) by Susan Latta.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, today, Jodell. I look forward to hearing your talk at our conference!
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.
Today I may have to cut down on the caffeine intake because I’m already buzzing enough with excitement over my two guests. Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy both had extraordinary debut novels that made quite a splash in the world of contemporary YA fiction. (I seriously raced through them in record time. Loved loved LOVED!!!) And now, they are putting all of their fabulous talent together to host a workshop this February for Madcap Retreats. (Yes, THAT Madcap Retreats. The brainchild of Natalie C. Parker.)
One lucky reader will win $100 off this workshop! Stay tuned to enter!
Jennifer Mathieu is an English teacher, writer, wife, and mom who writes books for and about young adults. Her favorite things include chocolate, pepperoni pizza, and the super hilarious 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls. She can basically quote every episode. Jennifer lives in Texas with her husband, son, one rescue dog, one fat cat, and another cat that is even fatter than the fat cat.
When it comes to what she reads, she loves realistic young adult fiction (obviously), creative nonfiction, super scandalous tell-all memoirs, and anything that hooks her attention on the first page. She is the author of THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE (2014) and DEVOTED (2015). Her debut novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE, won the 2015 Children’s Choice Book Awards’ Teen Choice Debut Author Award.
Julie Murphy is a potty-mouthed Southern belle who was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but found her home in Fort Worth, Texas. She’s never seen Star Wars, but has yet to meet a made for TV movie she didn’t love. When she’s not writing, Julie can be found cruising Costco for free samples, watching Sister Act 2, stalking drag queens on instagram, obsessing over the logistics of Mars One, and forever searching for the perfect slice of cheese pizza. She lives with her bearded husband, two vicious cats, and one pomeranian that can pass as a bear cub.
Her debut novel, SIDE EFFECT MAY VARY (2014) was a NYT Bestseller. Her second young adult novel, DUMPLIN’ (Sept 2015), received glowing reviews including two stars from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and in less than a month after its release, hit #1 on the NYT best seller list for YA Hardcovers. The film rights for DUMPLIN’ have been optioned by Disney.
Valerie Lawson: You both have written stunning debut novels, which received much critical acclaim. Tell us about life as a debut author. What was the most surprising experience? What lessons did you learn?
Jennifer Mathieu: To be honest, I’m still surprised that I wrote a book and it got published. It took me seven years to publish my first novel. My first two manuscripts got very close but never sold. So I spent my debut year sort of in a haze that THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE was not only getting published but was getting a very warm reception.
I’ve learned to approach this writing career with enormous gratitude. It’s my childhood dream come true. It’s so easy to get sucked into the worry cycle or the gossip of the industry. But the bottom line is that once my debut novel hit the shelves, I became a published author. Nothing can ever happen that can take that away from me.
Julie Murphy: First, thank you! I am that horrible type of person who believes they can handle anything no matter how many times and how many people have warned them that the road ahead is difficult. There were so many incredible highs, but there were also so many lows that I never believed I’d actually experience or thought I was more emotionally equipped to deal with. I’ve learned that no matter how sane you are, planning a wedding or large family function can turn you into a special kind of crazy. That’s how the debut year is. You’ll be yourself, yes, but it may not be a version of yourself you’ve ever met.
The good news is: you are not alone. You will make fast friends with fellow debuts, because no one else can relate to you like they can. I would have to say the friendships were the most surprising experience and I’d go through it all over again to for these women if I had to. I poured so much of myself into SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY that I felt like I had nothing left to give and that this was my one and only chance, because I would never be able to recreate this magic. But that’s not true. My second book just came out and I love it just as much. I’m working on my third and am contracted for a fourth. There will always be more books. Sometimes publishing them won’t be so easy, but you will write another book.
VL: Gratitiude, yes. And realizing you’re not alone sounds especially important. I love how supportive this writing community can be.
How was the process of writing different for you when you wrote your second novel?
Jennifer: I will say writing my second novel, DEVOTED, was very difficult for me. I really had that classic experience you hear about where your debut is warmly received and you feel total paralysis with the second book. I ended up completely throwing out the first draft of DEVOTED and rewriting it from scratch. I was incredibly late on every deadline which is so not me. I cried multiple times.
Fortunately, my amazing editor at Roaring Brook, Kate Jacobs, talked me through it and in the end, I’m so enormously proud of my second book. I stretched myself as a writer and I’ve had multiple readers tell me that they can see my growth as a writer in DEVOTED. That makes me feel so good.
Julie: I was totally blind when I wrote my debut. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong or what I was doing right. Because of my huge ego, I assumed that if it didn’t feel off, it must all be perfect. DUMPLIN’ was an eyes wide open experience.
I knew my flaws. I knew the mistakes I’d made in my first book. For me, that knowledge was almost crippling. I knew what a published book looked and felt like and nothing about those early drafts matched those expectations. I had to learn to forgive myself of those mistakes and explore the narrative.
VL: Throwing out an entire draft? How terrifying!
Learning to forgive your mistakes and explore the narrative – love that.
You are co-hosting an intriguing Madcap Retreat this February entitled “More Than a Beach Read”, how did you come to be a part of this project?
Jennifer: Well the lovely Julie Murphy approached me and told me about Natalie’s plan to create Madcap Retreats. I immediately wanted to be involved. I think there’s so much to be gained from working intimately on your art with other artists in a concentrated period of time. I’m a huge fan of Julie’s work and Natalie’s work, and I knew I just wanted to be a part of anything they were involved with.
Julie: Natalie Parker is my partner in crime in many ways and when she floated the idea by me, I said I’d think about it. When she said it would be on the beach, I couldn’t say no. I knew I wanted to do something voice and critique intensive, and I knew that would be a lot to carry on my own. When we began to discuss bringing another author on, Jennifer was my first and most obvious choice. I have so many writer friends that I love and respect, but our styles and approaches really click. We both love contemporary and have the same type of values when it comes to storytelling. Let the record show: if I dropped dead tomorrow, I would have faith in Jennifer to finish my work in progress.
VL: That is a stunning compliment, Julie! (Please don’t drop dead.) That does speak well to how you must compliment each other.
What can you tell us about the workshop? What special programming do you have in mind?
Jennifer: Julie and I have been working on the agenda and we are looking forward to having roundtable workshop-style critique sessions as well as one on one time with each writer. We’re also planning on bringing in guest authors to tackle different topics. Julie and I really aim to focus on voice and building your writer voice. Some say that voice can’t be taught. While I do believe most writers have an innate ability to craft some sort of voice, I believe there are techniques and strategies you can use to strengthen your ability to make your work really come alive.
Julie: We actually just finished the whole agenda! Jennifer did a great job answering this one, so I’ll just add that the attendees will spend their morning with us really focusing on voice and in the afternoons while Jennifer and I (yes, we’re both reading each attendee’s submission), and supporting faculty members will help paint a broader picture by discussing critique, revision, and plot. In the evenings we’ll also be doing casual but themed panels to discuss our dealings in publishing and the business aspect of all of this.
VL: That’s a wealth of knowledge crammed into five days. And so much focus on voice! Wonderful. I know several authors who’d jump at this opportunity.
You both come from different occupational backgrounds – one an English teacher and one working with teens in public libraries – where you have worked intimately with young people. What has this experience added to your writing?
Jennifer: For me, the teaching feeds the writing. I mean, I basically get paid to do my research. I’m surrounded by the rhythm of adolescence on a daily basis, and it’s so energizing and inspiring. I hear snippets of teenage conversation all around me at all times. On a daily basis I’m reminded of the heartbreak and excitement associated with being a teenager. Of course, my plots are fictional, but my students certainly help me create what I hope are realistic characters.
Julie: Like Jennifer, working with teens hugely impacted my writing. I think it’s easy for young adult writers to romanticize the lives of teens, but seeing them every day, you are reminded of their limitations. The same limitations you most likely experienced as a teen, too. On the other hand, I was constantly reminded of how each generation is defying the boundaries set by those before them. I really miss working with my teens!
VL: Being surrounded by your inspiration. Excellent!
Your workshop focuses on enhancing character and voice in manuscripts. What can you tell us about your writing process that helps you bring these two elements to the forefront in your own work?
Jennifer: For me, the characters become real in my mind. I think about them all the time. I miss them when I’m done with the book and still think about them after the book comes out. For me, I believe crafting a character you almost believe actually exists out there is key to writing a memorable novel.
For the first time ever I struggled with that when writing DEVOTED. I was writing a story about a young woman in a very insular and conservative religious sect. I’d done all this research on the sect and was just information dumping throughout the entire book, but the truth is, I didn’t know my main character Rachel at all. My editor was like, “Who is she really?” and I realized I didn’t know.
That was such a terrifying experience because in my first novel (and in subsequent novels) my characters came into my mind fully-formed. I spent a full weekend fixating on Rachel, doing all these exercises like imagining what she kept in the drawer of her nightstand. Finally, she started to come alive for me and the book became much easier to write. I really do believe it all begins with character.
Julie: Voice and character are huge for me, and yet they never come first in my writing process. I never start with a detailed plot, but I always have the pitch and premise and from there is how my voice and character evolve. I usually like to hammer out setting as well since it’s such a huge contributing factor. I like dissecting the situation and deciding what type of person might exist inside the premise and setting.
But when it comes to actual writing, I can’t start anything in earnest until I have a fully formed character. That character and your voice are sort of like a lantern in a dark tunnel, especially in contemporary. You will get lost–and sometimes it’s even helpful to get a little lost–but as long as you’ve got that lantern, you will eventually find your way.
VL: Oh, that’s good!
So if you don’t know your character inside and out, maybe spend some time getting to know them better. Your story will thank you.
Tell us a little about your teen years growing up. What was the most embarrassing thing you experienced? What was the most memorable adventure you had with your friends?
Jennifer: Freud would have a field day with me. I hated high school so much and looking back I can see I was actually fairly depressed throughout my high school years. And here I am teaching high school and writing books for and about high school students. It must be some form of catharsis. There is no one singular embarrassing incident. I was embarrassed constantly, and most of it was over silly stuff I’m sure no one noticed. I ran with a very good girl crowd. I would say my most memorable adventure would be staying up all night at a sleepover and eating too much raw cookie dough. Honestly, that’s as crazy as it got for me.
Maybe the most embarrassing thing for me happened after some girlfriends and I went to see that movie The Bodyguard starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. They were all so moved by the film they were sobbing hysterically as they walked out of the movie theater and everyone was staring at us and I wanted to die. And all I could remember thinking was, “That was one of the stupidest movies I have ever seen.” I loved old black and white movies from the 50s and 60s like The Bad Seed and The Last Picture Show. I thought there was something wrong with me. I just hadn’t found my tribe yet, but eventually in college, I did.
Julie: Those were some wild years. I was a horrible student. You know those videos of cats knocking things off tables? That was me and rules. I carried myself with this false but impenetrable confidence, so even if embarrassing things happened, I played them off as jokes no matter how mortified I really was, so I can’t think of anything in particular.
But I really did have great friends who on very rare occasions I was even vulnerable with. We always went on great mini roadtrips or had ridiculous parties or even went to some amazing concerts, but what I remember most is just hanging out at home with my closest friends, rolling around on the floor laughing and creating inside jokes. We were all theater kids though, so we were constantly performing and cracking jokes.
VL: Ha! Fantastic stories.(I’m really partial to The Bodyguard one. I can so relate to feeling like that!)
What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?
Jennifer: Well I adored Julie Murphy’s DUMPLIN’ of course! I remember her reading a few pages from it at a retreat she and I went on over a year ago now, and I was so excited for the book and I loved it even more than I thought I would.
There’s another book I want to mention that I had the opportunity to blurb. I read an advance copy this year, but it won’t be out until March 2016. It’s called SAVE ME, KURT COBAIN and it’s by Jenny Manzer. She and I share the same wonderful agent, Kerry Sparks. I loved this book so very much. It’s fresh and nostalgic all the same time. Gorgeous, lyrical writing and a plot that kept me guessing until the very end. I think she’s going to be a voice to watch.
Julie: Sadly, this has been such a dry reading year for me. I’ve bought so many books, but time hasn’t allowed for me to start most of them. (Here’s looking at you, DEVOTED!) However, I am listening to the audio of SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA and the voice is incredible! Simon is someone I would have been friends with in high school and that makes for an authentic reading experience if you ask me.
VL: More fab books to add to the TBR collection. Nice.
What can you tell us about what you are currently working on?
Jennifer: I have my third book coming out with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan on September 20, 2016 and I am having the most infuriating time coming up with a title. But I can tell you it’s told in dual POV and it’s about two teenagers, Ethan and Caroline, and how their lives are linked by a tragic crime. It’s about healing from trauma and finding a soul-saving friendship in the most unexpected place.
(Update: Julie has a title! Her 3rd book has been christened AFTERWARD, and it comes out 9/2016.)
Julie: Sort of. Kind of. Maybe. Ha! I’m working on my third novel, which is currently titled RAMONA DROWNING. It’s about a too tall lesbian who lives in a trailer park with her well-meaning dad and pregnant sister. All is sort of okay until Ramona realizes she’s falling for a friend, who happens to be a boy. It’s a story about sisters and friendship and sexuality and the labels we assign to ourselves. I’m still drafting, so I’m sure it will end up being about more things. My publisher is referring to it is a YA Chasing Amy, which seems like a fair assessment.
VL: Ohh! Both sound exciting! Can’t wait to read more from you ladies!
Thank you both for sharing with us, today. It has been an honor and a great pleasure having you here on the blog.
To entice you further to try out Madcap Retreats, we are giving away $100 off the cost of Jennifer & Julie’s upcoming workshop, “More Than A Beach Read“!
This year our Oklahoma SCBWI Spring Conference was outstanding. The theme “Ignite the Spark” set the stage for all of the discussions, as each speaker delivered a truly motivating talk. I’m surprised we didn’t set the place on fire with the collective creativity bouncing around in that ballroom.
The first speaker of the day was a familiar face to readers of this blog as she had just given a wonderful interview right before the conference.
Laura Biagi, Literary Agent with the Jean V. Nagger Literary Agency gave a talk entitled, “The Spark an Agent Brings to the Table”. She discussed how an agent works and what an agent can add to the manuscript process. She also shared some of her red flags that would send a manuscript straight to the reject pile.
One observation she made about when she finds herself searching for quality manuscripts, deep in the slush pile, is that the discovery process can feel “a bit like archaeology”.
And not in the glamorous, Indiana Jones way.
Unlike the adventurous whip-yielding Jones who finds priceless treasure in every place he falls, most great archaeological finds have already been discovered, and it takes a great amount of pain-staking digging before you carefully unearth something truly unique.
She may sift through over 400 queries in a month before finding a manuscript that piques her interest. But the story has to do more than that; she has to absolutely love it. She needs a story she can’t help telling everyone about.
RED FLAGS – Query/Manuscript Level
If the characters or plot sound stereotypical
If adjectives or adverbs get in the way of a clear message
If the story is all about plot – maybe your characters aren’t significant enough
If there isn’t a strong plot – your story has to go somewhere
Once a manuscript has risen above the rest and shown promise that it can be polished into a treasure, then she may make THE PHONE CALL! This is a very important step in the process. An agent can gauge personality compatibilities, discuss the revision process and discover how open the author is to making changes and to taking advice. Creating a book is a very collaborative process. You have to be open to suggestions, and be willing to make changes.
Once both agent and author decide the phone call went well and they want to work together, the next step is taking that rare find and cleaning it up with some editing. Laura makes line edits and brainstorms with her authors. She may even bring other agents from her agency in to help – more eyes on the project to get more ideas.
One of the most important things to remember about making a book, “It’s so much more a collaborative process” and it’s important to respect the expertise of everyone involved, from the art director to the editor, to the copy editor, to the marketing department, etc.
Our second speaker of the day kept the momentum going with her discussion about picture books.
Kristine Brogno, Design Director for Chronicle Books, delighted us with her talk, “Words+Pictures or Pictures+Words: The Difference That Creates Spark!”
Kristine began by stating that in a picture book, there’s not a lot of real estate to tell a story.
Every word must count.
“Picture books are the perfect marriage between text and art; one couldn’t exist without the other.” They are more than the sum of their parts.
Words+Pictures versus Pictures+Words – what’s the difference? Here are the different types of picture books to help us get a better idea:
TYPES OF PICTURE BOOKS:
1) BORING – the illustrations say exactly what the text says. This is the biggest mistake you can make when creating a picture book. (Although many examples of this types existed, she kindly chose not to share any titles.)
2) TIGHTLY WOVEN NARRATIVE TEXT – Longer, character-driven picture books that can hold an entire world on a single page.
A RIVER OF WORDS: THE STORY OF WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS by Jen Bryant, Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
THE BIG WISH by Carolyn Conahan
SAN FRANCISCO BABY! by Ward Jenkins
3) WORDS THAT SET THE STAGE – These books say just enough to set the action in motion. The text on the page has a very thoughtful and intentional place to be.
In Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, for example, the illustrations begin to take up more and more of the space until the words disappear altogether.
But then Sendak reverses this at the end when he has only text on the final page:
“and it was still hot.”
Why was there no image?
Because Sendak was bringing us back to a warm, safe place. No image was needed. If there had been an image of Max, it would have been all about him. Again, the choice was very deliberate.
A SICK DAY FOR AMOS MCGEE by Philip C Stead, illustrated by Erin E Stead
THE GREAT PAPER CAPER by Oliver Jeffers
THE BERENSTAIN BEARS OLD HAT NEW HAT by Stan and Jan Berenstain
4) WORDS AS A COUNTERPOINT – Here, what you see doesn’t match what you read. There are many ways to use this form. For example, you can let the text play the straight man while the picture is the comic relief.
Children love this; they like to be in on the joke.
THIS IS NOT MY HAT by Jon Klassen is a great example of a very unreliable narrator. The illustrations are very simple, yet incredibly expressive.
ROSIE’S WALK by Pat Hutchins
NO! by Marta Altes
Kristine closed with these words of wisdom. No matter which style you choose, remember to “leave just enough space between the words and pictures for magic to happen”.
Our third speaker educated us on the different categories in the marketplace and cautioned us about common errors that may send our manuscript to the rejection pile.
Erica Finkel, Associate Editor with Amulet/Abrams Books gave a talk entitled “Put a Spark in Your Submission by Knowing the Market”.
She began by comparing manuscript submissions to dating. “You’ll have lots of experiences, and not many will work out.” Each side also comes in with a set of expectations.
Some common errors may sour that experience from the onset – and they have nothing to do with writing skills. Here are a few of them:
House Mis-match – Don’t send your NF biography to a house that doesn’t sell non-fiction or biographies. It’s a waste of your time and theirs.
Format – If your chapter book is written at the wrong reading level, your target audience won’t be able to understand it.
Comp Titles – This is only helpful if the titles used are current (published within the past five years). It also needs to be helpful and realistic. If you claim your story is the next HUNGER GAMES meets TWILIGHT meets HARRY POTTER, that is not only confusing, it’s not very helpful.
Know your marketplace, from board books to YA! Do this by reading! You have to know what’s out there.
Age Range: 0 to 5 years-old
Length: 10 to 32 pages
Novelty, concept, repurposed bestsellers (Goodnight Moon, Babar, etc), and some few original narratives. All have short sentences.
Examples: Sandra Boynton, Leslie Patricelli
Age Range: 2-8 years-old
Length: Anywhere from 24 to 48 pages with 32 pages being the standard.
Language Level: Adult reading to child
Examples: Chris Raschka, Peter H. Reynolds, Big series like Don’t Let the Pigeon… series, and Fancy Nancy.
I CAN READS (Early Readers):
Age Range: 5-8 years-old
Length: 32-64 pages, limited trim 6×6, often paperback with more illustrations.
Language Level: Meant to instruct, clear and simple.
Age Range: 6-9 years-old
Length: 80-176 pages.
More text than illustrations. Series dominate. Most put out two books per year and take up a lot of shelf space in bookstores. It is very hard to do a one-off title or publish an unknown author in this category.
*Language: Simple for new independent readers. *This is tough for authors to nail.
Examples: Series like Captain Underpants, Judy Moody, My Weird School, Junie B. Jones
Age Range: 8-13 years-old
Length: 200-400 pages.
Usually released in hardcover first, then as a paperback a year later. Some have illustrations, but most do not. Protagonist is often the same age as the reader. They are attracted to characters going through same issues they are.
Language: Fully independent; level is simple and age-appropriate.
Stand Alones – LIAR & SPY, WONDER, OKAY FOR NOW
Series – Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Origami Yoda, Percy Jackson
Age Range: 13+, 14+
Length: 300-500 pages.
Hardcover release, then paperback one year later. Most are unillustrated, except for graphic novels. Protagonist is often the same age as the reader.
Language: Comparable to adult
Stand Alones – ELEANOR & PARK, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, THE SCORPIO RACES
Series – Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games
Age Range: 18-25 years-old
This is a new category. The protagonist is out of high school and dealing with “new adult” issues – college, first jobs, emerging sexuality. Many authors began as self-published.
I’m so excited that Laura Biagi, literary agent with the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, will be speaking this weekend at our 2015 SCBWI OK Spring Conference. This year’s theme is “Ignite the Spark”. In Laura’s talk, entitled “The Spark an Agent Brings to the Table”, she will be discussing “insights from the front line about what literary agents do and what they offer clients”. She’ll also discuss what red flags may make an agent pass on a manuscript, among other issues.
Laura graciously consented to giving an interview here on the blog to entice us with a little preview.
Valerie Lawson: What advice would you give to querying writers?
Laura Biagi: One of the more obvious pieces of advice is to do your research on agents so you’re not querying agents who wouldn’t be likely to represent the type of book you’ve written. But there are many other pieces of advice that writers too often take for granted: Be persistent–not only in submitting to many agents or reworking your query letter to make it the strongest possible, but also in writing new material.
Your writing will keep growing and become stronger the more you write, and sometimes it’s the next book right around the corner that will be your breakthrough. Prior to querying, make sure your manuscript is as polished as you can possibly make it. Show your work to your writer friends or anyone else you trust and get their feedback, then incorporate it organically. Don’t skimp on the time you devote to revisions. Revisions are usually THE most important part of a successful writer’s process! Be sure to read very widely in your genre, not only so you know whether your book is unique enough to stand out in the crowded marketplace, but also–and more importantly–so you can learn better how to write with authority and grace and build tension.
VL: Do your research, don’t skimp on revising, and read a wide variety of books. Great advice!
What makes you stop reading a query?
LB: This varies widely depending on the book. I make sure to consider each query on its own terms. However, some examples of things that might convince me to pass include stereotypical characters or plots, too many adjectives and adverbs that get in the way of conveying a clear image, too few details about the characters and their relationships with one another (this makes me worry the characters aren’t developed enough in the manuscript), too few details about the plot (this makes me worry the pacing isn’t strong enough and the stakes and conflict aren’t developed enough).
I’ll be discussing more red flags in my talk at the conference–so for more info, please come!
VL: Yes! You definitely don’t want to miss out on this conference!
What’s one major aspect of a manuscript that hooks you? What doesn’t?
LB: What hooks me right away is an immediate voice that cleverly and organically reveals details (even better if they’re unexpected details!) about the characters, setting, situation, etc.
What doesn’t hook me is a tepid opening that feels too familiar or unintriguing or takes too long to reveal its purpose.
VL: What type of manuscript would you love to find in your inbox?
LB: I’d love to find more magical realism YA novels with literary bents. I’m very interested in books set in the South or Kentucky, as that’s where I’m originally from. I’d also love to find a literary YA with Romani characters. I’m searching for more middle grade, too, but the voice, characters, and plot must be stand out; quiet middle grade novels can be very challenging. I’m also always glad to find more humorous picture books in the vein of Jon Klassen or with heartwarming, big-voiced characters, and early chapter books.
VL: Oh, those are are intriguing ideas – a Romani character in Kentucky. Hmm. Thoughts are churning here…
Tell us what happens after an author signs with you; what’s the next step?
LB: It’s always so exciting after an author signs with me!
If I think the manuscript needs some revision before I submit it out to editors, I’ll send detailed feedback and discuss it all with the author and we’ll work on revising the manuscript until it’s ready. Then I’ll create a list of the best editors to go to for submissions and get them excited about the book. There are many more steps afterwards, including negotiating the deal and contract, selling subrights, working with editors on getting my authors the best publicity and marketing possible for their books, and more.
To learn more behind-the-scenes details about what an agent does for her clients, please come to my talk at the conference!
VL: I for one, cannot wait to learn more.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Laura.
ONLY A FEW 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!
And for those who’d like more enticements, another one of our speakers for the conference this up-coming weekend, Editor Erica Finkel of Abrams Books for Young Readers will be our special guest this evening on our 2nd official OK SCBWI Twitter chat! Join us from 7-8pm CST and use the hashtag #okscbwichat. Follow Erica on Twitter here.
***If you missed the chat, CLICK HERE to view the recap on Storify. Enjoy!