SCBWI OK Spring Conference Recap – Part One

Last weekend there was a convergence of the sublime in Oklahoma City as the SCBWI Oklahoma chapter held its annual Spring conference. Great company, great speakers, great weather. Ah! I had so much fun and my brain was crammed with so many good ideas, it took me all week to process everything. And as two of my manuscripts were chosen for top speaker picks at the very beginning of the day, I did have to struggle at times to stay focused on being present, to listen and take notes, instead of sprinting down the revision tunnel express.

First speaker of the day was the lovely Tricia Lawrence, an associate agent with the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Tricia LawrenceI do apologize for missing out on most of Tricia’s talk as my face-to-face critiques were scheduled during this time. I did get to speak with Tricia during the weekend and I gleaned information about her talk from those who were able to hear her talk. First of all, I loved Tricia right from the start as we both share Pacific Northwest roots. I spent some of my formative years in her neck of the woods and I still hold a special place in my heart for that part of the country. (A friend of mine swears this is why I don’t sound like I’m from around here, even though I’ve lived in Oklahoma almost without interruption since I was about four.) Tricia talked at length about how her career path was guided by the need to stay on the West Coast. She spent years working as a freelance editor among other things before breaking into the agenting side of the business. Lucky for us, her stars aligned at the right moment when she came to the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

During her talk, Tricia discussed how important it was to really get to know your characters before you start writing, to sit down and have therapy sessions with them. Put them on the couch and get them to spill their guts. She said they may not want to open up at first, they may much rather run outside and ride bikes or go play video games, so you have to keep digging. Ask them about their biggest fears, their most hidden secrets, what they want more than anything. Keep asking until they crack; until you know your characters inside and out. Hey, therapy isn’t easy, folks.

It was a very stimulating talk that got several writers thinking of ideas all weekend. At least, I’ve never heard so many people eager to go into therapy. As a big proponent of self-exploration, I love this idea. I plan on putting my main character through some serious couch time starting this week.

Tricia, like all of the speakers, mentioned some books that showed great examples of the ideas she wished to convey. All of the speakers mentioned how important reading was to the craft of being a writer. I know I say it all the time, but it never hurts to remind you guys that the professionals say it as well. You gotta READ!!!

Tricia’s book recommendations: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green, GRAVE MERCY by Robin LaFevers

Follow Tricia on Twitter.

Next to present was the spunky and adorable Colleen AF Venable, Art and Design Editor at MacMillan’s First Second Books and author in her own right with her fabulous GUINEA PIG, PET SHOP Colleen AF VenablePRIVATE EYE graphic novel series. When she made the conscious decision to have her main character – a female guinea pig named Sasspants – NOT be drawn with over exaggerated eyelashes or a big bow to show her gender, “Because guinea pigs don’t have giant eye lashes or wear bows in nature”, I wanted to bow down at her feet or jump up and scream, “YES!” (I’m a huge believer in realistic role models for girls, obviously.)

Colleen took us all to school on graphic novels and taught us about what they were and were not. Simply put, graphic novels are defined thusly:

Visual story-telling using sequential images.

Well, gee, that could be anything, you might say. I mean, I’ve seen some picture books that might even qualify by that definition. And you would be correct. Still, they are NOT all about tightly-clad radiated people with superpowers. (Not that there is anything wrong with those kinds of graphic novels.) Here are some examples of graphics novels that may surprise you:


Monster EndPigeon


The Arrival






Friends with Boys

RapunzelLaikaTo DanceLone Wolf







bk_floraLewis and clarkSmileGiants BewareHereville






It was such an enlightening talk and I must say, it made converts out of many of the participants. What struck me most was how many non-artists have written graphic novels: Shannon Hale, Neil Gaiman, Kate DiCamillo, Jane Yolen, Cecil Castellucci, Holly Black, and don’t forget Stan Lee, (totally not an artist!). Rainbow Rowell, author of ELEANOR & PARK, has a graphic novel series in the works with First Second Books right now. How exciting is that?

Colleen discussed how you can add an extra layers of depth to your story with the visuals in graphic novels. Even by just manipulating the layout of the panels and how you use the spacing between the panels – the gutters – you can create completely different pacing styles to the story, similar to how traditional writers use sentence and paragraph structure. Fascinating. She suggested that if you were interested getting started in graphics novels, as a writer, you should read lots of plays and comics to help you get the flow of graphic novels. Script writing especially can aid in learning to think more visually about how you tell your story.

Colleen gave us a comprehensive reading list hand out (another perk of coming to such a fabulous conference), broken down by age groups, so I won’t list all of her recommendations here. Some of them are pictured above. I will list others she mentioned by name.

Colleen’s book recommendations: AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang, BENNY AND PENNY by Geoffrey Hayes, SMILE by Raina Telgemeier, SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD by Bryan Lee O’Malley, THE PLAIN JANES by Cecil Castellucci, OWLY by Andy Runton, BABY MOUSE by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm, ROBOT DREAMS by Sara Varon, ZITA THE SPACEGIRL by Ben Hatke

Learn more about Colleen here.

Follow Colleen on Twitter.

Andrew HarwellAndrew Harwell, Editor with HarperCollins came back to Oklahoma for a second time after doing such an amazing job for us at our Novel Revision Retreat back in 2012, and was christened an honorary Oklahoman. (That’s just how it goes, if you come back, we claim you as one of our own. Our list of these lucky conference alumni is steadily growing – Laurent Linn, Krista Moreno, Alexandra Penfold, all honorary Oklahomans.)

Andrew wanted to talk about something new this go around, so he delved into how the family dynamics in Middle Grade and Young Adult writing help to create richer characters. Strong central families are common in all the stories he is drawn to. He said that when he gives an elevator pitch for a book, he realized that he always begins by discussing the relationships first. No matter what kind of story you’re writing, whether it’s a fantasy, mystery, paranormal or whatever, you have to get the reader to care about the characters first, right? In order to do that that we have to get to know the character, and what better way to do that than by using the family. After all, Andrew asked us to think about this:

You are most yourself around your family.

Who else sees us at our most vulnerable? When we are exhausted, pushed to the limits, cramped in a minivan for hours on a road trip to Aunt Bonnies’s with nothing to do but listen to each other breathe and your brothers won’t stop farting or touching your side of the seat? Oh yeah. You really get to know a person in those circumstances.

There are all kinds of families. You have to ask yourself what your character’s family history is before you begin your story. This is your character’s beginning, after all. No matter how much of this history you decide to show, YOU as the writer need to know it. Knowing whether or not your MC is friends with everyone in his family (or not) or whether your MC is supported or misunderstood at home will determine how s/he interacts with the world at large. It will also add more emotional depth to your story.

Andrew showed examples from many different books to highlight the different ways that family dynamics can create amazing stories. Whether you use these dynamics to create empathy, as in THE HUNGER GAMES (whose heart didn’t break when Katniss volunteered to go into the death match in her sister’s place?) or to create conflict as in FANGIRL (what does it mean when your twin sister doesn’t want to be your roommate?) or to create a villain in the family as in THE GOLDEN COMPASS (Does Lyra’s mother love her or is she evil through and through?) bringing family dynamics into play can be the best thing for your character and your story.

Andrew’s book recommendations: PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King, THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, PANIC by Lauren Oliver, IF I STAY by Gayle Foreman, CASE FILE 13 by J. Scott Savage, WONDER by R.J. Palacio, SEA OF SHADOWS by Kelley Armstrong, ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE by Benjamin Alire Saenz, FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell, THE JUPITER PIRATES HUNT FOR THE HYDRA by Jason Fry, REALITY BOY by A.S. King, THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman, ASYLUM by Madeleine Roux, ALMOST SUPER by Marion Jensen, UNDER THE NEVER SKY by Veronica Rossi, THE HARRY POTTER SERIES by J.K. Rowling, MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryne Erskine, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith, TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan, ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell, PENNY DREADFUL by Laurel Snyder, ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia

Follow Andrew on Twitter.

Can you believe how much sage wisdom was imparted in this morning session alone?

It knocked my socks off.

After an entertaining lunch where I hosted a table with Tricia Lawrence, who was ever so gracious with her precious time and insights. I met some new writers, one was attending her very first SCBWI conference and was so enthusiastic about everything, it was delightful to see. There were so many writers there with teaching backgrounds at my table; I may have been the only one without a teaching degree. After lunch, and a brief (and humorous) commercial for our Fall Retreat, we returned for our remaining three speakers.

Stay tuned for PART TWO to hear what they had to bestow on our eager minds…

Where I Talk About the Excitement of Winning Books – First is Dan Krall’s Latest!

I can no longer say that I never win anything. With all the great new releases that have come out recently, there have been a ton of book giveaway contests on some of my favorite blogs. I entered a few of them – not getting my hopes up – to support my fellow writers and let them know I looked forward to reading their books. Still, there was a small part of me that crossed my fingers and made a wish, hoping I’d win.

And win I did.

June 2013 Download 577I’ve won four books over the past week! Outstanding!

The first one has already arrived and I couldn’t have been happier. I won a signed copy of Dan Krall’s new book, The Great Lollipop Caper. Dan wrote AND illustrated this witty book. And I won it simply by reading and commenting on a blog post by Jama Rattigan. She has a fantabulous blog, Jama’s Alphabet Soup, where all things delicious and picture book -related are destined to appear.

This was so exciting to me, and not only because Dan’s book concept sounded intriguing, but also because he did the illustrations for Oh, Nuts! by Tammi Oh NutsSauer – a fellow Oklahoma native and friend with ten published picture books (and more on the way).

It was most exciting because I rarely ever win anything!

Dan went above and beyond in the giveaway department. I received the following in my goodie package:

A personalized note.
A personalized note.
Two - count them - TWO!!! actual lollipops.
Two – count them – TWO!!! actual lollipops.
...complete with instructions.
…complete with instructions.
AAAAaaand of course, a signed copy of his book, with a postcard and several bookmarks thrown in for a little more icing on the cake.
AAAAaaand of course, a signed copy of his book, with a postcard and several bookmarks thrown in for a little more icing on the cake.

After sweating over which lollipop I’d eat first, I indulged in the story of Mr. Caper and Lollipop. I laughed out loud at least four times. That to me is a sign of a great story – especially one that’s supposed to be funny.

Here’s a brief story synopsis from the author’s website:

One cranky caper is about to learn that being salty might be just as good as being sweet.

Having adults love his acidic taste is not enough for Mr. Caper. He wants more. He wants the children of the world to love him—just as much as they love the sweet, saccharine Lollipop.

And thus a plot is hatched: Caper-flavored lollipops are dispatched throughout the world…and everything goes horribly wrong. Will Mr. Caper find a way to repair the havoc he’s wreaked by over-reaching? Maybe, if Lollipop helps save the day!

This quirky tale, illustrated with humor and heart, contains sweet and salty delights for both adults and children.

The Great Lollipop Caper even has it’s own designated website where you can find a book trailer, activities, and much more.

Thank you, Dan. I adored the book and the lovely literary package immensely!

And thank you, Jama for holding the contest! It’s so nice to feel like a winner every once in awhile.

To Learn more about Dan Krall, visit his website here.

Follow Dan on Twitter here.


I’ll keep you updated on my other wins when they arrive. (Finally, a reason to be excited about checking the mail!)

Read, Read, READ!!! A Writer Gets Back on her Soapbox…but this time she’s called in some backup.

For those all of those aspiring children’s writers out there who still think they can write an authentic manuscript that kids will enjoy reading without ever cracking open a single middle grade or YA book themselves, think again. Consider reading as your new homework. Some books are master classes on the art of writing all by themselves. For those of us really obsessed nerdy types who actually enjoy reading, this is one of the best parts of our job. The rest of you need to trudge through it and do the work, even if you don’t like it.

You don’t  have to take my word for it; the importance of reading was another resounding theme during the SCBWI LA Summer Conference.  The overall message? If you want to be a writer, you have to read. Period. It was stated over and over throughout the weekend. READ! Read everything!

Karen Cushman, author of the Newbery Award winner The Midwife’s Apprentice, gave a wonderful keynote address about courting surprise. It was all about how we can find inspiration; the magic that turns words and pictures into a story.

Be curious, be aware, be open.

This applies to so many aspects of the writer’s life – look for accidental repetitions, images in your drafts, go for a walk, daydream. As it applies to reading, Cushman said it was important not only to read many, many books – “Read 100 books, read 1000 books, like what you want to write” – but also to read diverse topics. She said she reads as many books about writing as she does about dieting.  If you really enjoy a book, ask yourself why you love it.

I would also add read diverse genres. Although you should definitely read the most books in the genre for which you want to write, you should read outside of your area as well. The more diverse the creative influences, the bigger the pool to draw from for inspiration.

Clare Vanderpool, author of the Newbery Award winner Moon Over Manifest, discussed how universal the need for stories is in her keynote speech. She said, “We learn more not by dissecting books but by immersing ourselves in stories. We all have this need for a connection to story. It is through stories that we find our bearings.”

I loved this. Story immersion? Sign me up. Emotional connection? Ah, I’m yours for life.

As a writer, I find I don’t always have to analyze every story I enjoy to see why it works, what plot devices were used to move it along at the right pace. The more I read, the more I intuitively absorb how a good story should ebb and flow. My writing reflects this for the most part. If something’s not right with a manuscript – mine or a critic partner’s – it usually starts with a gut reaction of something feeling off.

Ari Lewin, editor at GP Putnam’s Sons, discussed during a breakout session that she could detect a writer’s level of skill and competency from a query as well as how much they read.“All of you should be reading so much! Sometimes I read things and can tell that you’re not reading.”

That just blew me away. My writing could show that I’m not reading enough? Like a writer’s DNA map spelling out all my faults? Yikes. I felt naked just sitting in the room with her. I wanted to cover up with a big fat copy of Anna Karenina.

Jill Corcoran, agent with the Herman Agency, when answering a question during the Agent Panel about the path she would recommend for a new, unskilled writer said, “You have to learn your craft. If you read a lot of books, you will discover your own voice.”

What a concept, eh? Read enough books and you’ll find your own voice? I love it! Are you a writer who struggles with voice? Ask yourself if you’re reading enough. (I know, I know, I talked about voice ad nauseum in the last post, but if you’re one who’s struggling with voice, maybe this is something that could help.)

Eugene Yelchin, illustrator and author of the Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose, expanded on this point a bit during the Picture Book Panel. When discussing the issue of trends in picture books, he said,“When you read tons of books, research them and say, ‘Can I be a part of that?’ It’s still you.”

I thought that was an interesting point. Even if you read tons of books, research them and figure out what makes them tick, when you go to write your own books, what comes out will be all your own; your own story told in your own voice, filtered through your own unique experiences. It all goes back to:

Be curious, be aware, be open …and read!

Okay, okay, so I’ve brow-beaten you into wanting to read – have I got any suggestions?

Of course! I have a whole page all about the books I’ve read so far this year.

There were also several book suggestions that I managed to scribble down furiously during the conference:

  • Editor Farrin Jacobs was discussing characteristics of enduring stories and she recommended The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall and The Giver by Lois Lowry as stories with emotional truths of life.
  • Editor Neal Porter gave First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger as an example of an enduring story.
  • Three books that influenced author/illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi were The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum, Peter Pan and Wendy by James M Barrie, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
  • Editor Krista Marino recommended The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan as having one of the most captivating first pages she’s ever read. She also recommended Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn as an adult novel with great tension, a real page turner.
  • Agent Linda Pratt touted Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby as YA version of Water for Elephants. She gave it as an example of the type of realistic fiction she is looking for.
  • Clare Vanderpool recommended Mystery & Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor – an essay collection on writing.
  • Editor Ari Lewin recommended Chime by Franny Billingsley as an example of what she’s looking for. She also mentioned the following as pleasure reads: The Passage by Justin Cronin, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles, The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, and The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart.

What about you? Do you have any reading suggestions?