WOW! If you’ve ever considered attending a writers’ conference through the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators, DO IT. It’s packed with opportunities to:
**Meet other writers and illustrators (The Writers’ Intensive Workshop involved about 200 participants, and I believe the conference itself hosted over 1,000 attendees).
**Hear from industry professionals (including editors, agents, and hugely successful authors/illustrators) about the state of the marketplace. Here’s the list of who was there: http://www.scbwi.org/Conference.aspx?Con=5&page=Faculty
**Ask questions fearlessly about how to do things, including creating blogs, networking, overcoming writer’s block, etc.
**Step out of your own comfort zone to look at everything with fresh eyes.
This year’s annual conference was held in NYC. Here’s a summary of my experience. Hope there’s a little something for every reader in here —
Thursday, Jan 28: Flew from Chicago to LaGuardia in a ferocious windstorm. Thought the plane was going down a few different times. So did the gentleman behind me who screamed an obscenity after a particularly sudden drop in altitude; as did the folks up front asking for bibles; as did the gentleman next to me (who got up to text goodbye to his family from the restroom).
Checked in to the Hyatt Grand Central (connected to Grand Central Station) around 1am and ordered a VERY late room service (pizza) dinner for only $96.00. WHAT??? Also received 3 coupons for breakfast — the hotel’s way of apologizing for sticking me in a smoking room. When my room service breakfast arrived Friday morning, the $50.00 tab was not waived — apparently my coupons were only good for dining in the restaurant. Lesson learned: Dropping $150 within 12 hours in NYC is very, very easy to do.
Spent the entire day Friday at the SCBWI Writer’s Intensive, which gave 200 of us the chance to have the first 500 words of a project critiqued by an editor or literary agent. The feedback was helpful, particularly from the editor I met in my morning session. During our lunch break, I ran to my room and made changes to my manuscript, hoping my afternoon tablemates could comment on my most recent draft. Unfortunately, the afternoon session was an overall downer. I think everyone was tired, including some of the editors and agents. The closing panel discussion wasn’t the rousing, uplifting sendoff many of us had been hoping for, particularly after we’d all bared our literary souls, hoping for an editor to say, “Why, this is outstanding work…do you happen to have a copy that I can take back to the office with me?” On the bright side, a woman sitting next to me in the morning session was asked for her picture book manuscript by the editor at our table — and while I couldn’t help being green with envy on the inside, I was so inspired by how a really solid piece of work can be grabbed ON THE SPOT if you’re willing to put yourself in front of professionals. So, the experience was an overall thumbs-up.
Nuggets of Knowledge:
1. Editors today are looking for attention grabbing sentences and characters worthy of following — all within the first 500 pages.
2. Sometimes the work that’s the closest to being perfect is the work that’s criticized the heaviest…that’s because editors know your work is close, and they want to bring it to its greatest potential.
3. A good critique from an editor/agent/colleague is like a friend who might love your smile but will tell you there’s spinach in your teeth.
4. Short sentences pack a LOT of punch.
5. When you’re trying to write your character “through” a situation, and you want to surprise your reader, the best way to do it is to write the scenario three entirely different ways: the first one will be the most obvious, the second one less obvious, and the third version will be the one your reader will least expect.
Humorous Highlight: Heres’ what some editors answered to the question, “What are the red light/warning phrases editors use when they’re not in love with a writer’s work?”:
**”Now, who is this written for?” (this should ALWAYS be obvious)
**”Is there anything else you’re working on?” (could be a good thing, but not likely)
**”I’d suggest putting this piece in the drawer for a while…”
**”Tell me about your writing career.” (it does a great job of filling time)
Friday night, I met with a long-lost college friend who’s been a literary agent for years. I took a taxi through Chelsea and couldn’t get over how the cab had a TV built into the back seat: it had local news, People Magazine TV and ESPN. Instead of staying in my room at the Hyatt, I could have just taken up space here — it was even smoke free. David and I had a delicious dinner at Cafe Cluny and I picked his brain about life as a New York agent. What I hadn’t realized is how 24/7 their jobs are, how deeply they nurture the work they represent, and how passionate they are about it before it’s even forwarded to publishers. He loves his job, loves New York, and is as funny as he ever was at the University of Illinois twenty years ago (YIKES). We capped the night off at the famous Magnolia Bakery and split a box of cupcakes. I’m not even a dessert person — I am now!
Saturday was one incredible day of interesting speakers and breakout groups. Here are my summaries of each one I attended:
Libba Bray (author of Going Bovine): The work we do is hard work. It’s messy work. But you’ve never seen a first draft on a bookstore shelf, so keep revising, revising, revising.
BREAKOUT SESSION 1: VIRAL MARKETING and PROMOTION with Jenn Bailey, Graphic Designer/Professional Blogger www.thesociallites.com
According to Jenn:
1. Blogs should be 80% about the reader, and 20% about the blogger. No one will follow you if you don’t reward them with knowledge, insight, or inspiration.
2. Respond to online communication: if someone comments on your postings, make sure you reply.
3. Building your network of followers takes patience. Be a friend to get a friend. Know your audience. Be aware of TMI (too much information). Be yourself and show your passion. Listen to those around you.
4. Twitter is her favorite mode of online communication. Apparently, at 9pm Eastern time, there’s a Twitter Kid Lit chat.
5. Create a Facebook Fan page so your followers can see you without having access to the photos of you with a lampshade on your head at the last family holiday party.
Examples of stellar bloggers are: Cynthea Liu www.cynthealiu.com/, John Green www.sparksflyup.com/, Neil Gaiman www.neilgaiman.com/, and Tammi Sauer www.tammisauer.com/. Jenn also recommends The Zen of Blogging (e-book) www.zenofblogging.com by Lee Wind. According to Jenn, “You want passion? He’s got it.”
BREAKOUT SESSION 2: VISUAL STORYTELLING with Laurent Linn, Art Director, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers www.laurentlinn.com
Best Advice: Whether you’re doing the writing or the illustrations, LET THE READER FILL IN THE BLANKS. In other words, don’t over describe or over-detail your work. Give your reader credit (and room) to bring his/her own perspective to your story.
Laurent related a story in which every student in one of his art classes in college was asked to draw a tree. Each student complied, and the professor told them they’d each failed. Why? Because even though each artist drew a different looking “tree”, they’d all failed to draw the STORY of the tree, as well. Whether it’s a tall maple with long branches that tap on the window of your childhood bedroom and scare you at night, or the short scraggly pine you pass every day en route to work, the one surrounded by lush, colorful maples, every tree (and every object) has a story. Make sure that comes through in your work.
LUNCHEON KEYNOTE: LOCKING THE DOOR UPON OURSELVES: THE IMPORTANCE OF WRITING IN TODAY’S WORLD with Jacqueline Woodson www.jacquelinewoodson.com.
To be inspired by someone who writes, just visit her website. To be moved to tears by the power of words, listen to Jacqueline reading her work aloud. My biggest takeaways from her keynote address:
Don’t be afraid to close the door and shut out the world when you’re writing…sometimes doing so is necessary work to get the important words of our world on paper! She also recommended reading Becoming A Novelist by John Gardner.
During lunch, I met some lovely people, and I particularly enjoyed sharing learning with Monique Duncan, a first grade teacher and self-published author (www.sweetpeachildrensbooks.com). I hope we cross paths again. The fact that she finds time to teach AND write is truly inspiring to me.
BREAKOUT SESSION 3: THE REAL DEAL ABOUT NONFICTION with Brenda Murray, Editor, Scholastic
Brenda passed dozens of titles around, demonstrating the breadth of Scholastic’s topics for young readers. For those looking to submit nonfiction proposals to Scholastic, Brenda offered the following list of items to include in your query:
Description of Book
Specs (length, trim size, design, etc.)
Author/Illustrator’s Credentials and what (s)he will provide (including scrap images, connections with notable persons willing to write introductions, etc.).
Survey of Competition
Publicity Exposure/Media Contacts
FINAL PRESENTATION: MAKING SENSE OF LIFE THROUGH BOOKS with Peter Sis www.petersis.com/index2.html
This presentation couldn’t have been more aptly timed: Funny, irreverent and engaging, it was just what the crowd needed after a day packed with info. Peter was one of my favorite speakers of the weekend.
We ate dinner at Grand Central Station and talked about writing, New York, Chicago, September 11, making new friends, and staying upbeat. Finished up the evening with a nightcap in the hotel bar, and went to bed (a king sized bed, all to myself!) surrounded by all the new books I’d purchased at the SCBWI conference bookstore. I was in heaven. However, I was missing my family, and REALLY looking forward to getting home to them.
Sunday morning’s highlight was listening to Jim Benton’s keynote on being Compulsive Creators. You might have heard about Jim: He’s written the Dear Dumb Diary series (currently in film development); he’s written the Franny K. Stein series; he’s also the creator of the wildly successful Happy Bunny cartoon figure that is everywhere these days. Jim’s prolific, funny, engaging, and an excellent source of knowledge on the world of licensing.
One of Jim Benton’s earliest jobs was to draw cartoons for Writer’s Digest Magazine; as such, he read 1,000s of articles before putting pencil to paper. In his keynote address, he summarized his learnings from these articles in the following way:
1. Rewrite everything
2. You are NOT your work: therefore, if someone hates your manuscript, it doesn’t mean that hate you OR something else you present. Conversely, if someone loves your work, they may not automatically be your biggest advocate. Remember the distinction between who you are and what you write.
Jim’s other advice:
–Listen to editors: they really do try to make your work its very best, even if you might think they’ve got it all wrong.
–Don’t be paralyzed by all your incoming ideas. You know they’re coming, even when you’re in the middle of another project. Don’t deny or suppress them. Just jot them down and come back to them, because you never know when a great idea will strike. After all, we’re all creators, and we’ve got to let the creation flow….
My favorite line from his speech was: “This job beats the hell out of real work. I tried ‘real’ work; it did not agree with me.”
Finally, an informative panel of literary agents spoke to our group:
George Nicholson of Sterling & Lord Literistic (a dead-ringer for the late Dominick Dunne)
Rosemary Stimola of Stimola Literary Studio (says being an agent is a 24/7 job)
Tina Wexler, ICM (believes her job relies on us as writers/illustrators. Passionate about being around books. Loves new writers)
Left the conference with fresh ideas, business cards of writers I’d met, books I’d bought, notes and suggestions to myself (including some very helpful revisions to make on my manuscript), and a brain loaded with knowledge.
I jumped into a taxi, knowing I could head straight to the airport and kill an extra two hours before my flight, or take in a sight in NYC first. I asked the cabbie, a very kind Pakistani man named Bobby, if he’d drop me off at the Empire State Building.
“Mrs. Lady,” Bobby said. “You will be dropped here, and I will return for you at 2:30 sharp for your drive to the airport. Right in front of the Mack Donald.”
“Really?” I said, incredulous. It’s a bustling Sunday afternoon — why would he want to come back for me?
“Okay, Bobby. I’ll look for you at 2:30,” knowing I’d be looking for another cab at 2:30.
I bought a $20.00 ticket to the top of the Empire State Building and was stunned.
The day was crisp and blue and freezing cold, but the viewing deck on the 86th floor was full of tourists.
Oh, and those pigeons!
When I rode down the elevator, I couldn’t believe what an amazing trip it had been. I squeezed my rolling suitcase through a revolving door whipping tourists in and out of the art deco lobby. As I shielded my eyes from the glare of the sun, I searched 34th Avenue for an available taxi, then heard a honk. There, across the street, parked in front of the McDonald’s with his trunk door open, was Bobby.