SCBWI LA Summer Conference Impressions

Artwork by Liz Wong
Artwork by Liz Wong

 

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.

 

Biltmore Hotel Gallery Bar

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

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Our Oklahoma SCBWI gang is ready for the conference to start!

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

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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.” crayonsquit

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

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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!

 

LUNCH!!!

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!

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Never-ending line for the café. Blerg.

 

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Food trucks to saved the day!

 

 

 

 

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Me squinting in the ever-so-bright California sunshine while trying to capture the constantly moving reflective sculpture/canopy thingy behind me. (NOT a professional photographer.)

 

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Over head shot of the full floaty art sculpture canopy. Looks like a school of shiny minnows. You can peek through it and see the high rise buildings above.

 

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More floaty sculpture and lunch date, my daughter. Notice the enormous shadows this thing casts on the ground.

 

Sara Sargent Cuts to the Edge of YA Fiction

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Sara Sargent speaking in the very intimidating Crystal Ballroom
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The room was packed and I felt way under-dressed for the décor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a fascinating lunch time diversion, and a few more interesting talks,  came a brilliant workshop by HarperCollins Executive Editor Sara Sargent. I just love her – and not because she remembered me from our Spring 2016 SCBWI OK conference and gave me a hug while we were in a crowded elevator together. I’ve never had an editor do that!

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.

Excellent point.

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.

DINNER!!!

Only way to top the first day of great speakers was with dessert…

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Chocolate with chocolate sauce and more chocolate inside? Heaven!
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Me and one of my writer friends from our Oklahoma group, Ginny. (Yes, of the infamous spooky photo.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

DAY TWO

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

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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.” la-scbwi-16-jon-klassen-quote

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

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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 la-scbwi-16-me-and-marie-ludelight! (And I can’t wait to start reading this next series!)

LUNCH!!!

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.

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Neal Shusterman Struggles with Chaos

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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.me-and-neal-shusterman

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.

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OFF TO THE BALL!!!

Saturday night means party time!

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(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!

 

#TBT Post – Why Sensory Detail is Important

I wrote this #ThrowBackThursday post for The Great Noveling Adventure blog and it was originally published on April 21, 2014. 


 

Oriental Poppies by Georgia O'Keefe

Oriental Poppies by Georgia O’Keefe

 

If you’ve ever been told that your story was boring that it lacked excitement or depth or maybe that your dialogue felt like floating heads talking in an empty room, it might have been because you neglected the sensory details.

Tapping into what your characters see, smell, touch, taste, and hear can allow readers to experience the characters’ world on a deeper level. Adding sensory details can anchor your readers in your world, and make your story breathe with believability.

The key is to do this without overwhelming your writing with too many details. Page-long descriptions of what your character looks like can slow the pacing and lose your reader’s attention, sometimes forever. How do you strike that balance between talking heads in empty rooms and info dumps that put your readers to sleep?

I find studying poetry helps.

As this is National Poetry Month, it’s also a nice segue into the importance of reading more poetry for its own sake. What the poets can teach us, aside from paying attention to the rhythm and flow of words, is one thing many of us struggle with – economy of words. Poets also pay close attention to how words sound and feel when they come off the tongue. And more importantly, the emotions words evoke.

This can be the heart of sensory imagery. Word choices that trigger deep memories connected to our senses and can help paint pictures and allow readers to fill in the visual background themselves without you needing to describe every detail for them.

I reviewed a book of poetry this week on my blog that was a collection of poems about my home state. I was amazed at how some of the poems put me in touch with long-forgotten memories. Just the mention of ice old bottles of orange Fanta pulled from a lay-down cooler in one poem took me back to Oklahoma summertime and riding bikes with my friends to the town pool. It was an awakening of the senses from a few stanzas.

With the barest of words, poets can evoke scenes in your mind. “Brushstrokes” as one of my writing friends calls it. This is what you want in your own story.

Just in case you’re not familiar with sensory detail, I thought I’d show a quick example from a writer who does this so well. Here’s what a scene would look like without its sensory details from OUT OF THE EASY by Ruta Sepetys (and then I’ll show you the scene as it originally appears in her book).

 “Hello, Louise.”

“I said, ‘Hello, Louise.’”

“Hello, Willie,” said. Mother. “Willie, this is Josie.”

“So…you’ve returned.”

“Well, it’s been a long time,  Willie. I’m sure you can understand.”

“You look good.”

“I’m keeping to myself,” said Mother.

“Keeping yourself…yes. I heard you had a greenhorn from Tuscaloosa last night.”

“You heard about Tuscaloosa? Oh, he wasn’t a trick, Willie,” said Mother. “He was just a nice fella.”

“A nice fella who bought you those pearls, I guess,” said Willie.

“I’ve got good business,” said Willie. “Men think we’re headed to war. If that’s true, everyone will want their last jollies. We’d work well together, Louise, but…”

“Oh, she’s a good girl, Willie and she’s crazy smart. Even taught herself to read.”

“I don’t like kids.”

“I don’t like ’em much, either.”

“Really? So what do you do…if you don’t like kids?”

“Well, I go to school. I read. I cook, clean, and I make martinis for Mother.”

“You clean and make martinis? Your bow is crooked, girl. Have you always been that skinny?”

“I wasn’t feeling well for a few years,” said Mother quickly. “Josie is very resourceful, and-”

“I see that,” said Willie.

“I skipped first grade altogether and started second grade. Mother lost track I was supposed to be in school-but it didn’t matter much. She told the school we had transferred from another town, and I just started aright in second grade.”

“You skipped the first grade?”

“Yes, ma’am, and I don’t figure I missed anything at all.”

“Don’t ma’am me, girl. You’ll call me Willie. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mrs. Willie,” I replied.

“Not Mrs. Willie. Just Willie.”

“Actually, Willie, I prefer Jo, and honestly, I don’t care much for bows.”

“I didn’t ask for a light,” said Willie.

“No, but you’ve tapped your cigarette fifty-three times…now fifty-four, so I thought you might like to smoke it.”

“Fine Jo, light my cigarette and pour me a Scotch.”

“Neat or on the rocks?” I asked.

“Neat.”

This is what “talking heads” dialogue looks like.

Although, the writing isn’t bad, as is, you have no sense of where they are in time or place, how they are reacting to what’s being said, etc. Let’s see how the scene changes when we add all of the sensory details back in:

 

 “Hello, Louise.”

The voice was thick and had mileage on it. Her platinum-blonde hair was pulled tight in a clasp engraved with the initials W.W. The woman’s eyes, lined in charcoal, had wrinkles fringing out from the corners. Her lips were scarlet, but not bloody. She was pretty once.

The woman stared at me, then finally spoke. “I said, ‘Hello, Louise.’”

“Hello, Willie,” said. Mother. She dragged me in front of the chair. “Willie, this is Josie.”

I smiled and bent my scabby legs into my best curtsy. The arm with the red nails quickly waved me away to the settee across from her. Her bracelet jangled a discordant tune.

“So…you’ve returned.” Willie lifted a cigarette from a mother-of-pearl case and tapped it softly against the lid.

“Well, it’s been a long time,  Willie. I’m sure you can understand.”

Willie said nothing. A clock on the wall swung a ticktock rhythm. “You look good,” Willie finally said, still tapping the cigarette against its case.

“I’m keeping to myself,” said Mother, leaning back against the settee.

“Keeping yourself…yes. I heard you had a greenhorn from Tuscaloosa last night.”

Mother’s back stiffened. “You heard about Tuscaloosa?”

“Oh, he wasn’t a trick, Willie,” said Mother, looking into her lap. “He was just a nice fella.”

“A nice fella who bought you those pearls, I guess,” said Willie, tapping her cigarette harder and harder against the case.

Mother’s hand reached up to her neck, fingering the pearls.

“I’ve got good business,” said Willie. “Men think we’re headed to war. If that’s true, everyone will want their last jollies. We’d work well together, Louise, but…” She nodded in my direction.

“Oh, she’s a good girl, Willie and she’s crazy smart. Even taught herself to read.”

“I don’t like kids,” she spat, her eyes boring a hole through me.

I shrugged. “I don’t like ’em much, either.”

Mother pinched my arm, hard. I felt the skin snap. I bit my lip and tried not to wince. Mother became angry when I complained.

“Really?” Willie continued to stare. “So what do you do…if you don’t like kids?”

“Well, I go to school. I read. I cook, clean, and I make martinis for Mother.” I smiled at Mother and rubbed my arm.

“You clean and make martinis?” Willie raised a pointy eyebrow. Her sneer suddenly faded. “Your bow is crooked, girl. Have you always been that skinny?”

“I wasn’t feeling well for a few years,” said Mother quickly. “Josie is very resourceful, and-”

“I see that,” said Willie flatly, still tapping her cigarette.

I moved closer to Mother. “I skipped first grade altogether and started second grade. Mother lost track I was supposed to be in school-” Mother’s toe dug into my ankle. “But it didn’t matter much. She told the school we had transferred from another town, and I just started aright in second grade.”

“You skipped the first grade?” said Willie.

“Yes, ma’am, and I don’t figure I missed anything at all.”

“Don’t ma’am me, girl. You’ll call me Willie. Do you understand?” She shifted in her chair. I spied what looked like the butt of a gun stuffed down the side of the seat cushion.

“Yes, Mrs. Willie,” I replied.

“Not Mrs. Willie. Just Willie.”

I stared at her. “Actually, Willie, I prefer Jo, and honestly, I don’t care much for bows.” I pulled the ribbons from my thick brown bob and reached for the lighter on the table.

“I didn’t ask for a light,” said Willie.

“No, but you’ve tapped your cigarette fifty-three times…now fifty-four, so I thought you might like to smoke it.”

Willie sighed. “Fine Jo, light my cigarette and pour me a Scotch.”

“Neat or on the rocks?” I asked.

Her mouth opened in surprise, then snapped shut. “Neat.” She eyed me as I lit her cigarette.

 

See the difference? You get sight, sound, and even touch. These sensory details connect you in the world and let you feel what the characters are going through. They paint the scene. So, ready to get started?

If you think you could use a little more poetry in your life to help you get in touch with your sensory details or even to work on your rhythm and pacing and you need some reading suggestions, our state Poet Laureate had a few recommended poets to get you on your way:

Stephen Dunn

Ted Kooser

Billy Collins

Sharons Olds

Tony Hoagland

Mary Oliver

Martin Espada

Charles Bukowski

George Bilgere

Wendell Berry


 

Our Oklahoma Poet Laureate at the time of this post was the dynamic Nathan Brown. I highly recommend his poetry (and maybe even his singing.)

#TBT Post – Tackling the Elevator Pitch

I wrote this #ThrowBackThursday post for The Great Noveling Adventure blog and it was originally published on May 18, 2014. 


 

Big City

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.

Bored by Raul Lieberwirth via flickr cc

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?

Jodell Sadler – Agent Interview

 

JodellSadlerI’m excited to welcome another one of our conference speakers to the blog. Jodell Sadler with Sadler Children’s Literary and Kidtlit College will be part of our faculty for 2016 SCBWI OK Spring Conference on April 16th in Oklahoma City.

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.”

About Jodell

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.

 

The Interview

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 Day by 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 Barnes MG 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! 

Learn more about Jodell and her agency here.

Learn more about Kidlit College here or on Facebook.

Follow Jodell on Twitter here.

**Jodell 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 and our other fantastic faculty members speak at our conference in Oklahoma City on April 16th!

 

SCBWI OK Banner

To register for our 2016 SCBWI OK Spring Conference CLICK HERE.

I hope to see you there!

 

 

Sara Sargent – Editor Interview

Sara Sargent headshot

I’m delighted that Sara Sargent, Executive Editor from HarperCollins Children’s Books, will be speaking at our 2016 SCBWI OK Spring Conference this April.

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.

About Sara

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.

 

The Interview

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!

 

SCBWI OK Banner

For more details on our 2016 SCBWI OK Spring Conference or to register online, CLICK HERE.

I hope to see you there!

 

 

#TBT Post – Variations on the Mona Lisa

I wrote this #ThrowBackThursday post for The Great Noveling Adventure blog and it was originally published on October 22, 2014. 

 

WHY STUDYING THE MASTERS IS NOT AN EXERCISE IN FUTILITY

I consider myself to be a fairly open-minded individual. I understand that mine is not the only opinion on any given subject and that each person brings a different perspective to a discussion, shaped by their own unique life experiences. I’ve never met anyone that didn’t have something to teach me or that didn’t have an interesting story to tell.

That being said, there are some hot button topics that will put my strong sense of open-mindedness to its ultimate test. One of those issues is whether or not a writer needs to read books (and read a LOT of books) in order to be a good writer. Want to see me bend over backwards to restrain myself from mentally body-checking someone? Let me hear any writer say, “I’m afraid I’ll take on another author’s style if I read too much” or “I get discouraged when I read books by writers more talented than I am” or “I don’t have time to read.”

Flames. Flames will shoot out of my eyes.

To demonstrate why these and other asinine arguments just don’t cut it, I thought I’d turn to another art form to demonstrate how studying your craft by studying the masters of your medium can not only lead to you mastering your craft, but it can also lead to you discovering your own artistic voice.

Let’s set up our easels, smear some daubs of paint on our palette, and enter the world of the visual arts medium for a moment. Our task for today? Study one of the most interpreted paintings of all time. The Mona Lisa.

 

The original by Da Vinci

Mona Lisa by Da Vinci (She's smaller because she IS small.)

Mona Lisa by Da Vinci (She’s smaller because she IS small.)

 

 

Different interpretations of the Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa as seen by artist Bembol de la Cruz - This painting was part of The Mona Lisa Project sponsored by the Cultural Center of the Philipines

The Mona Lisa as seen by artist Bembol de la Cruz – This painting was part of The Mona Lisa Project sponsored by the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

 

 

Iya Consorio also contributed her version of Mona Lisa to The Mona Lisa Project.

Iya Consorio also contributed her version of Mona Lisa to The Mona Lisa Project.

 

Artist Vik Muniz created this version of the Mona Lisa using peanut butter and jelly from his "Portraits of Garbage" series.

Artist Vik Muniz created this version of the Mona Lisa, emulating Warhol’s style of the Mona Lisa while using peanut butter and jelly as his medium, for his “Portraits of Garbage” photographic series. He took one artist’s interpretation and then created his own interpretation of THAT interpretation. The mind boggles.

 

 

 

 Mona Lisa interpreted by Graffiti artist Banksy

 

 

Amazing, right?

And these are just the tiniest sample of what’s out there. These interpretations of the original Mona Lisa create new dialogue and add to the conversation of what art is. They are all original art.

When artists expose themselves to the influence of other artists, you can clearly see that it doesn’t make their work the same. None of these interpretations is an exact copy of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Instead, what comes through in each painting is the artist’s own artistic voice. Yes, VOICE! By studying the masters, you not only don’t create carbon copies or their work, you can discover your own true voice!

Think about it. Each person viewed the same original. Why didn’t they create the same painting or the same interpretation? In part, because their artistic talents vary and in part because they all bring completely different perspectives, those unique life histories, to their creative process.

We filter our work through our life experiences, through ourselves. What comes out is our voice. Our own unique voice. That’s why no matter how many versions are written of the Cinderella story, if you have one inside you to tell, it will be unique from all the others that have come before it, no matter if you read every single version.

And let’s say an artist set out to purposely duplicate Da Vinci’s style, what would the artist learn from that exercise? Would that be wasted effort? No. He or she would learn how a brilliant painting works – how the composition fits, the lighting, the shadows, the perspectives – how all the pieces come together. The artist would have learned something valuable about CRAFT.

The same is true of writers who read and study great books. All of these lessons can be applied to our own medium of writing. Our medium uses stories as its easel, the blank page as the palette, and words as the daubs of paint; what better place to study the masters of writing than in books?

What will your Mona Lisa look like?

Get to reading and find out!

#TBT Post – Take Your Imagination and Play with It

I wrote this #ThrowBackThursday post for The Great Noveling Adventure blog and it was originally published on October 7, 2014. 

tgnahead


 

For this Travel Tuesday, I’ve decided to send you on a journey with your imagination. Story ideas come from many different places. Everyone has their own process and sometimes that process needs a little nudge.

It never hurts to practice. To stretch. To limber up the imagination and prep it to receive THE BIG IDEA. I mean, not every great idea falls fully formed out of the sky and smacks us on the head. Sometimes, the great ideas are cultivated. Grown. Here are a few sites that can help you find the seed to begin your next great idea.

Have some fun and play with your imagination. After all, that’s what it’s for.

Oneword

If you work better when given a scary, looming deadline, how about sixty seconds? Oneword is a prompt site that gives you just that. One minute to write a story.

You click GO and your prompt word appears. You then have one minute to write about it. You are encouraged to, “Don’t think. Just write.”

This is a great exercise for warming up or for getting unstuck. Maybe even sparking a new idea.

The site stops your cursor when time is up, so you can’t cheat. You can then share your work if you like and even read what others have created. Here’s one I did with the word “underdog”.

He always liked the show. You know, the cartoon, but he never thought he’d be categorized like that. Underdog. Not him. He wanted to be the hero. The one to get the girl. But it was always his best friend. The rugged athlete.

The time goes really fast! Although I probably wouldn’t use this actual passage in a manuscript, I could see this kindling the idea for a character or storyline. Who is this person? Why does he secretly feel like the underdog in his own story? I wanted to know more about him.

So tempting to keep clicking for new words.

WRITEWORLD

This Tumblr site has all the bases covered – it gives you three different rabbit holes to choose from

  • Image Blocks – “A picture is worth a thousand words. Find the words.” From fantastical landscapes to expressive faces  – shown in varying mediums, from original artwork to intriguing photographs – you’ll always find an image that arouses your imagination.
  • Sentence Blocks – “In one sentence is the spark of a story. Ignite.” Some start with a quote, some start with a question that begs to be answered, some give a hint of a situation that could lead to anywhere.
  • Music Blocks – “Music is love in search of a word. Find the words.” Think of it as the most eclectic playlist you’ve ever heard. Pick a track and listen. What mood does it evoke? What story springs to mind? Let it out on the page.

The infinite possibilities will help stir up those plot bunnies in no time.

I hope you enjoy these sites. Feel free to share your favorite idea-prompting sites with us. We love hearing from you!

Happy Writing, Adventurers!