Category Archives: Writers’ Conferences

“That” Google+ Hangout – How I Got To Interview The President Of The United States

President Obama waves to my children on the first, live-streaming Google+ Presidential Hangout.

On Monday, January 30, 2012, I was one of 5 Americans chosen to participate in the first ever, all-virtual interview with The President Of The United States.

Several people have asked me how I acquired a direct Internet connection from my home to The White House, and, while I may never know the specifics, I can at least offer a glimpse into one whirlwind week of my life that began with a simple question and ended with an answer from Barack Hussein Obama in my dining room.

Monday, 1/23/12

Three days before I was scheduled to fly to New York City for a writers’ conference, I sat in my home office making the last of the edits on a children’s novel I’ve written called MY LIFE AFLOAT.  I dread revising, so when my smartphone lit up with a new email, I gladly opened it. Here’s part of what the email said:

What would you ask President Obama?

Tomorrow, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address at 9:00 p.m. ET. During that speech, he’ll lay out his vision for an America where hard work and responsibility are rewarded, where everyone does their fair share, and where everyone is held accountable for what they do.

There is a range of ways to get involved with this year’s State of the Union address.

Immediately following the President’s speech on Tuesday, be sure to stay tuned to WhiteHouse.gov/SOTU for a live panel featuring senior White House advisors answering your questions about the speech. Then, on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, a group of policy experts and advisors to the President will sit down for Office Hours on Twitter — discussing the issues that matter to you and your community.

Finally, on Monday, January 30, President Obama will join the conversation in a special Google+ Hangout, a live multi-person video chat, from the White House.

Participating in the Hangout is easy — just visit the White House YouTube channel to submit your questions and vote for your favorites between now and January 28. A few participants will be chosen to join the President in the Google+ Hangout to ask their questions of the President live!

I really liked the opening of that last paragraph. “Participating in the Hangout is easy”.

Why not? I thought.

I opened a new window on my computer and filled in the required information to submit my question to The President. My novel’s protagonist, 12-year-old Maeve, was still on my mind.

What do I want to ask The President of The United States of America?

I could ask what it was like growing up in Hawaii. What was it like at Harvard? What’s the hardest part about being a parent? Does your mother-in-law still live with you…and how’s that working out? What’s your favorite food? Do you ever feel overwhelmed? How do you manage all the issues flying at you (seriously…how do you do it, because I find it difficult to cram in ONE load of laundry and a dinner plan for my family, let alone make time to get my hair cut and my dog’s nails trimmed. And, oh, God, the rabbit’s out of food…again. And while I’m at it, why does your field trip cost $4? Who’s got four singles lying around at nine o’clock at night? Just make it $5 for crying out loud).

Nah, I thought. I can probably find the answers to most of those questions somewhere

I looked at my minimized screen…and saw Maeve waiting for me. I had to get back to her. The guilt was beginning to eat at me, especially since the edits were nearly done. I couldn’t wait to get to New York to share my manuscript with prospective agents and editors. Last year’s conference was less than successful, and as my mother keeps insisting, “2012 will be your year!” MY LIFE AFLOAT’s target is kids 8-12 years old, about one girl’s life becoming unanchored when both of her parents lose their jobs.

Just write something to The President, I thought. Nothing came.

This is a waste of time, I thought. And so classic of me. I’m avoiding doing what I ought to be doing. I really just need to get back to Maeve.

And then, thanks to Maeve, my question became crystal clear.

In my novel, she writes to The President, asking for his help to find her parents new jobs.

Now I know my question.

As the life she once knew drifts away from her, Maeve tells The President she’s scared, especially when she sees her parents fight and especially when she sees her father cry. And so, I channeled a fictitious, 12-year-old girl I’d made up three years ago to help me craft an interview question for The President of the United States of America. It sounds corny, but I cannot stress this enough: Maeve’s words literally flowed through my fingers and onto my keyboard. I didn’t even think as I typed. I wasn’t worried about my question being picked, and I didn’t need to know how many people voted on it. All I knew was that I spoke for a child in America silently struggling in our economy, a child who needed to be heard.

Here is the question I submitted:

What can you say to children whose parents are struggling financially? What hope and encouragement can you offer children when they see their folks…

…worry about health coverage?

…struggle emotionally?

…search for work?

…show signs of giving up hope?

tinywolf1 [My YouTube channel name]

Evanston, Illinois

That was probably plenty. It was time to get back to my own writing. But…wait. What’s this? An option to add video to my question? Well, you know, visuals always help tell a story, right? At least, that’s what I told myself.

As I turned on my webcam, I realized I hadn’t even brushed my hair or changed out of the sweatshirt I’d slept in, but I was hell-bent on avoiding those revisions.  Plus, who really even looks at these things, right?

Thursday, 1/26/12, 12:36pm

What happened: I was an hour away from leaving for the airport for my conference in New York. Still making edits on my manuscript. Still packing. My smartphone lit up again, and this time, the email was from Google:

Hi,

Thank you for submitting a question for th YouTube Interview with President Obama on Monday, January 30th! As part of the interview, we are incorporating live questions asked from Americans directly to President Obama via Google+ Hangout.

We’re interested in speaking with you to gauge your interest and availability for speaking with the President live on Monday at 5:30EST/2:30PST. Please call me at xxxxxxxxxx at your earliest convenience. We are planning to select participants by tonight, Thursday, January 26th. Please let us know the best phone number to contact you to discuss the opportunity further! Thanks again!

Best,

Ria

Google Marketing Team

What I did: I called Ria and left a voicemail with my mobile number… and felt my heart begin to race.  I emailed my husband with the news. He’s an attorney who constantly jokes that he can’t wait to retire once my book is published (and for the record, he actually enjoys his job). His response to me was, “Very cool. We’ll keep our fingers crossed. Could be a great tie-in with the book.”

What I thought: Even if they don’t pick me – which they probably won’t – it’s nice to know someone actually reads these things. Oh great! This means they saw the video of me in my pajamas.

Thursday, 1/26/12, 1:00pm CST

What happened: Three minutes after I leave the voicemail, my cell phone rings. It’s Ria. “Tell me more about your question,” she says. Did she say she was from The White House? YouTube? Google? Is this for real? I also wonder how many thousands of people are also receiving this same phonecall. As a former advertising exec, I think, “What a brilliant direct marketing plan they’re executing, creating excitement about this Google+ platform they’re rolling out!” Ria asks how I came up with my question. I tell her about my novel, and how my main character’s world turns upside down when her parents lose their jobs. The parents use words and phrases that make no sense to my main character, like foreclosure and layoffs and crisis. She’s confused and scared, wondering when her life will go back to normal.

We talk for 10 minutes, then Ria asks if I’d be willing to participate in a live event with some other Americans — and The President — on Monday, 1/30/12. “Absolutely,” I say. “I’ll be back from my conference by then.” “Oh,” she says, “we’d also need someone at your home on Sunday, 1/29, just so we can make sure your Internet connection works. Do you know what sort of bandwith you have?” “Well,” I said, “I think it’s a pretty fast speed, but…” “Not to worry about that just yet,” she says. “We’re still considering candidates, but we’d like to make a decision within the next 48 hours. Is this the best number to reach you when you’re in New York?”

What I did: I think I sounded calm on the phonecall, but when I hung up, I immediately called my husband at work. He was in a meeting so I left a message. I then called my parents, told them what was happening, then burst into tears. “I told you,” my mother said. “This is going to be your year.”

What I thought: It’s very flattering, but let’s be real. They’re not going to pick me.

Thursday, 1/26/12, 2:45 CST

What happened: I was so frazzled from the phonecall that I told my taxi driver to drop me at American instead of the United terminal at O’Hare. When I tried to print my boarding pass at the American self-serve kiosk, the agent told me I needed to go to United.

Are you kidding me?

As I took off running toward the tram, my cell rang again. “Good news,” the nice Google lady said, “and congratulations! We’d like to include you in the group of interviewers. If you’d like to do it, I’ll have someone else call you with all the details, but let me give you his number, just in case.”  I knelt down on the floor to write the details…probably a good thing because I hadn’t stopped to eat all day and I was suddenly feeling dizzy. “Oh,” she added, “please keep this confidential. You can tell your immediate family, of course, but no one else.”

According to The White House YouTube channel, when the question submission period was over, 228,100 people had submitted 133,158 questions and cast 1,630,112 votes

What I did: If I was frazzled before, now I was out of my head. I’m going to talk to The President. I stepped onto the next tram without even checking where it was headed, and instead of speeding toward United, we went in the opposite direction to the International Terminal.  I got off, switched trams, and quickly spoke with my husband who was as shocked as me.

What I thought: This isn’t happening.

Thursday, 1/26/12, 4:15pm CST

What happened: My phone rang again as I stepped off the tram. I noticed I had 25% battery life on my phone and – oh no, I don’t think I remembered to pack my charger! Andrew from Google Product Marketing introduced himself with some serious details. “I’ll be emailing you a confidentiality agreement. I need you to fax it back with your signature.” “Okay, but I’m about to get on a plane,” I said. “Oh,” he said, sounding disappointed. Just as I suspected, I thought. They need a live person with a signed commitment NOW. Here’s where he’ll say THANKS BUT NO THANKS. “That’s okay,” he says. “When you get to New York, can you fax it to me?” “Absolutely! Thank you so much,” I say, adding, “This just feels like it’s all a dream.” “I understand,” he says. “It’s incredibly exciting. Another woman I just spoke to calls this a chance of a lifetime,” he says, and I couldn’t agree more. I hang up the phone shaking.

What I did: Went through security, looking at every person with an entirely different perspective.  I want to tell someone. I want to pull the stingy-looking guard aside and say, “Guess who I might talk to in 4 days?”

What I thought: Is this really happening? I think this might actually happen.

Thursday, 1/26/12, 5:00pm CST

What happened: I crawl through security, only to realize I have 5 minutes left until takeoff and that I need to get all the way over to Terminal C. I skip the escalator and hit the stairs running. Once I get to the bottom, I skip the moving sidewalk and run the length of the hall. I haven’t run in months; after a sprained ankle last summer, I’ve had nagging pain ever since, but now, I don’t care. I feel like I have unlimited energy and, as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue plays in the terminal, the colorful, Chihuly-inspired neon lights flicker above my head. I think back to when I used to work in advertising at Leo Burnett, in the 1990s, when the agency unveiled the Rhapsody in Blue campaign for United and how excited everyone was. It had been an incredible accomplishment to buy the rights to a Gershwin song for TV and radio spots…yet I was the one who was blue. I’d been miserable and depressed, hating my job because I wasn’t fulfilled creatively (and because I truly sucked at it. No joke.). Now, here I am, running down the very terminal featured in those ads, fueled by amazement and gratitude that I’m running toward a plane to get me to a writers’ conference, all while carrying the secret that something I wrote is worthy of a Presidential interview.

What I did: I bolted up the stairs (skipped the escalator again…too many people) and dodged rolling suitcases and strollers…only to arrive at Gate C26 to see the monitor read: FLIGHT DELAYED.

What I thought: Thank God. At least now I can eat.

Thursday, 1/26/12, 10:40pm EST

What happened: After United switched my departure gate 2 more times, I finally flew to New York. Arriving at my hotel after 10pm local time, I dumped my bags in my room then headed to the Business Center to print and fax the confidentiality document that Mr. Google emailed earlier.

What I did: Got to the Business Center and realized I’d need my credit card to use the printer. Went back up to my room, cursing under my breath.

What I thought: It’s so late…they’ve probably given up on me at Google and picked someone else who already faxed in their agreement. I’ve taken too long, and they’ve picked someone else.

Thursday, 1/26/12, 11:03pm EST

What happened: After printing, signing and faxing the document, I went back to my room, hoping to order room service and finalize my manuscript — but room service ended 3 minutes ago.

What I did: I grabbed a roast beef sandwich from the lobby, got back to my room and received an email from Mr. Google saying he’d received my fax. I was now officially one of “the 5”. I put on my pajamas and finished my edits, typing the words THE END at 4:25 a.m. I emailed copies to my family and a copy to an agent I’ve been crossing my fingers about, then climbed into bed.

What I thought: I’ll be lucky to get 3 full hours of sleep tonight… but in 3 days I’ll be talking to The President.

Friday, 1/27/12, 9:00am EST

What happened: I attended conference meetings all day, then took my friend and former Evanstonian Alison Cherry to dinner to celebrate her debut novel’s contract, then stayed up till 2:30am reading about and thinking of Barack Obama.

What I did: Began to freak out quite a little bit.

What I thought: This is actually going to happen.

Saturday, 1/28/12, 1:00pm EST

What happened: More conference meetings, including listening to Henry “The Fonz” Winkler (who’s now a children’s author) speak brilliantly about being yourself and writing what you know. Met the 2012 Newberry winner, Clare Vanderpool, in a breakout session led by an editor I’ve admired for a few years now. During the session, I sent the editor an email query, hoping she’ll want to see my manuscript. I took a lunch break and walked around Grand Central Terminal. I swear I felt the pulse of New York and America at that time. I sampled some cambanzola cheese with honey drizzled on top (wanted more but didn’t dare beg) and stood in the terminal wishing I could scream that I’d be speaking to The President in 48 hours. Went back to my hotel room to pack.  Received a call from the moderator of the Google+ Hangout, Steve Grove, YouTube’s head of community partnerships. He asked me to say my question, and I did, making sure to add the backstory that the other Google folks wanted to know. “That’s a great question,” Steve said, “and it took you about 3 minutes to say it. We’ll need you to shorten that to about 30 seconds on Monday.”

What I thought: I talk too much. They’re going to fire me.

Saturday, 1/28/12, 4:00pm EST

What happened: Said goodbye to some conference friends and made a point to thank Lin Oliver, the Executive Director of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) for giving the event such a warm, familial vibe every year. She noticed I was leaving early and said, “You’re heading home? Everything okay?” I wanted to tell her why I was heading back. Instead I just said, “Yeah, I think everything’s going to be okay.” I would have loved to whisper to her, “I get to talk to The President, and my protagonist made it happen!”

Later, I received an email with the contact names of two women scheduled to arrive at my house on Sunday morning to set up for the technical setup: Whitney from Google (to help me understand Google+ and answer any questions/concerns) and Carolyn from Pixelcorps (to set up the equipment necessary to link directly to The White House). On my way back to Chicago I had a layover in Washington  D.C.  As pathetic as this sounds, I spent an hour in the airport gift shop buying ridiculous and overpriced White House souvenirs, including Obama t-shirts for my kids and a $9.00 roll of toilet paper with the White House logo printed on every sheet.

What I did: Tried to keep my sense of humor at any cost so I wouldn’t lose my mind.

What I thought: This is really going to happen.

Sunday, 1/29/12, 10:00am CST

What happened: Whitney from Google showed up at our house an hour early, direct from Iowa and just as excited as me. Carolyn from Pixelcorps arrived soon thereafter, having flown in from either San Francisco or Toronto (I honestly can’t recall) with a 70 pound rolling case of equipment (monitors, modems, microphones, headphones…). I practiced and edited my question with Whitney so I might fit it into the 30-second window Steve Grove mentioned earlier. I found myself alternately shaking, laughing, crying and feeling completely exhausted and out of control. Carolyn set up her equipment quietly, no doubt wondering to herself how she drew the short straw for this assignment at Wackadoodle Central.

I’d already set up a Google+ account while I was in New York (just to try and understand what the platform was). Whitney gave me a quick Google+ primer as to how it works (easy) and how it differs from Facebook (even though it looks very similar, its capabilities strike me as further-reaching). We even joined a live Hangout, just so I could see what it might feel like with The President. Sometime around 1pm CST, all the participants (minus The President) then had a live technical run-through to understand how to ask questions with microphones snaked up our shirts and earpieces jammed into our ears. The 4 other people who’d been chosen seemed as nervous and excited as I was.  After our “tech check”, we all came to learn that lots of Google folks had also tuned in for our live technical runthrough…and that they were happy with how the Hangout worked.  It must have felt fantastic for the Google folks who’d created the platform to see it in action for such a unique event, and I’ll confess that it felt fantastic to receive the Google folks’ thumbs up, especially since none of the 5 of us had ever done something like this.  After the tech check, someone in P.R. from Google HQ called my house to say she’d watched the tech check and loved it…then asked if I’d be willing to talk to the press at some point. “Of course!” I said. I’ll admit I felt like a P.R. whore of sorts (yup, I said it), but I’m not gonna lie: I’m a taxpaying citizen in a capitalist society and I have a book to bring to market — a valuable story that only I can promote until someone agrees to help me do it. After the P.R. phonecall ended and the equipment was packed up, I drove Whitney and Carolyn to the Hilton Orrington Hotel in Evanston and looked forward to tomorrow.

What I did: Wondered how I’d gotten here, with a dining room full of (lovely) strangers and equipment and nervous energy and excitement. When the tech check was over, my body was physically exhausted. I’d been tense the entire time (45 minutes). My husband had taken the kids out for the day, and when they came back, I loved how “normal” things felt.

What I thought: Tomorrow’s the day.

Monday, January 30, 2012, 9:00am CST

What happened: Took my youngest son to school and, as I said goodbye, I whispered, “Later today, when you get home, The President of The United States will be talking to us in our dining room. He’ll be on a monitor…but still.  You’re the luckiest 3rd grader in America today. You know that, right?” He walked into the classroom with a proud smile on his face (later he confessed that he’d whispered the news to two little girls in his class, which doesn’t surprise me in the least). The team showed up at my house while I was at a school meeting and while they set up, I searched all over downtown Evanston for a buttoned-down shirt. I finally found a black one at The Gap and a white one at Anne Taylor Loft. I stopped by Panera Bread to get bagels for the team, then drove around my neighborhood for 30 more minutes, practicing my question for The President aloud in my car. “Hello, Mr. President.” “Good afternoon, Mr. President.” “It’s a pleasure, Mr. President.” “This is crazy, Mr. President.” “’S’up, Mr. President?” When I got back home, Command Central was fully up and running in my dining room. After checking to see how my newly-purchased shirts looked on camera (unfortunately, neither one worked with the microphone, lighting in my house, etc), I settled on a pink top I already had in my closet.

What I did: I practiced and tweaked my question, then went over it, and over it, and over it. At 1pm, I walked to the middle school to pick up my older son. It was a gorgeous, warm, sunny January day, and I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I needed to walk off some stress. I signed my son out of school and we walked home.

What I thought: Only 2 ½ more hours to go.

Monday, January 30, 2012, 3:15pm CST

What happened: I had no idea how “ready” we all needed to be for a meeting with The President. The Google+ Hangout was scheduled to begin at 4:30 CST, but I was sitting in my chair in front of the monitor, dressed and ready with my microphone on and earpiece in by 3:15pm CST.  We did rounds of sound checks to make sure all systems were go, then had a 10 minute bathroom break , as they call it in the biz, a “bio break”) before settling into my chair for good. Thank God for my parents. They came over to help corral kids and watch from the sidelines. They were on my left, just off camera. My kids were off camera to my right, lined up like little ducklings. What I hadn’t realized was that none of them would be able to hear the Hangout. While I had an earpiece in one ear and Whitney & Carolyn shared a set of headphones, my parents and my kids had to remain completely silent. I give all of them, especially my kids, all the credit in the world for sitting for 45 minutes before the interview AND for the full 50 minutes of the Hangout in statue-like silence. Aside from a few moments of uncontrolled giggles and a few elbows in the ribs, they sat at attention without a sound. Every telephone in the house was unplugged. We’d also taken the doorbell button off the side of the house so no one — including any unexpected UPS drivers or neighbors — would ring the bell and interrupt the interview. We closed all the shades so the news crews wouldn’t peek in. Please, I thought to myself, do not let Comcast High Speed Internet fail during this interview. If it does, I don’t care what the commercials say: I’ll switch to a dish in a heartbeat. I should also mention that our 100-pound yellow lab spent the day at a local daycare called Rex’s Place where the owner’s dog, Rex, happens to be a Portuguese Water Dog, just like the Obama’s dog, Bo.

What I did: The Hangout with The President began at precisely 4:30pm CST, and for the 20 or so minutes leading up to that time, the 4 other interviewers and I sat in our chairs, our senses heightened by equipment and anticipation. There was a woman from Texas, a med student from Chicago, an entrepreneur from New Jersey and a high school student and his classmates from California. I was shaking like a leaf, and thank goodness the high schoolers served up welcome comic relief. They made faces, teased each other, churned imaginary butter in their chairs and got us all laughing. We asked each other questions about when we’d each learned we’d been picked, which was within a 24 hour period. Once The President came on camera, however, the 5 of us fell silent.

What I thought: As we were about to begin, I looked at The President and thought to myself, Just remember. He’s a regular guy from Chicago who’s got kids and a job to do. I get that. I also wondered if he might be a little nervous, too. After all, this had never been done before…

January 30, 2012, 4:15pm CST

What happened: Steve Grove, our moderator, kicked things off, and from the beginning, The President seemed happy to be there. As I looked into the monitor, I could see the 7 small boxes across the bottom of the screen…and I realized that my small box was directly next to Barack Obama’s. Unbelievable. After brief introductions, the questions began. I thought The President answered them thoughtfully, though not always succinctly (I can totally relate; refer to Steve Grove’s comment earlier, suggesting I shorten my question to 30 seconds from three minutes). I also couldn’t imagine being put on the hot seat like that, especially since the five of us had the opportunity to respond to The President’s answers.

What I did: With my parents to my left and my kids on my right, my husband at the office watching on his computer and Whitney & Carolyn across my dining room table staring at their own monitor and sharing a set of headphones, I tried focus only on the interview itself. Since my family didn’t have any way to hear the goings-on, they sat patiently, watching the entire Hangout in complete silence. I give them all – especially my children – a tremendous amount of credit; they hardly moved a muscle and kept perfectly quiet throughout the nearly hourlong conference, hearing only occasional bursts of my voice as I introduced myself, asked my questions, and said goodbye at the end.

What I thought: Was I nervous? Absolutely. Was I shaking? Like a leaf. Was I scared? Not as much as I thought I’d be. I think a face-to-face interview would have been far more intimidating. I think an interview without 4 other Americans and a moderator would have sent me into cardiac arrest. The controlled distance I felt with a monitor between us helped calm my nerves. I also reminded myself he’s a human being, just like me. During the interview, I tried something I did during my wedding reception: taking mental pictures throughout the experience. Even though chances were good I’d get to see the whole Hangout on YouTube after we wrapped up, I just wanted to remember what it felt like, being face-to-face with Barack Obama. I knew today’s experience, like my wedding day, would pass in the blink of an eye, so I wanted to make sure to stop every now and then to take a mental snapshot of what I saw, felt and heard.

What I saw: I never once took my eyes off my monitor during the entire Hangout. My eyes zeroed in on either the screen itself , or on my one-page, typed question which I clutched (just in case I forgot it). I saw The President look directly at me through a webcam. I watched my children wave to The President as he waved to them.

What I felt: I told myself not to be overwhelmed by it all, and I somehow managed not to let myself think of the things my mind wanted to consider, like, “Is George Clooney watching this?” “Why did I pick this pink shirt?” “How on earth did my question make it?” “What about all the other questions submitted? Will anyone address those?” I felt grateful to have my mom and dad at my side and my kids witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I knew my husband was watching at work and I wondered if he felt as humbled by all of this as I did.

January 30, 2012, 5:30pm CST

What happened: The minute the interview was over, our friends stopped by to congratulate the kids and me on the interview. I was so happy with the way everything turned out, especially having the opportunity to let the kids say hello to The President, but it was such a relief being finished.

Or, at least I thought I was finished.

The knocks at the door and the telephone ringing didn’t cease until close to 10pm.   Family, friends and local media wanted to hear about the experience, and I was more than happy to oblige them. My husband had posted the Hangout details on Facebook the minute the event began, and when I went to check out my page, I couldn’t believe all the traffic. I hadn’t appreciated how many people would tune into something so unique, but I quickly realized it was a lot.

What I did: Once the interview ended, I brought out a bottle of wine to toast the team for surviving the experience intact. Earlier, Carolyn had pointed out that our team (interviewer/Google representative/producer) was the only all-female group…even more reason to be proud!

As the first glass was poured, the ABC affiliate showed up, then CBS, asking for interviews about my takeaway from the experience.

What I thought: I thought the live stream interview format worked without a hitch. Seven of us (including the moderator and The President) got a chance to talk about a wide range of topics with Barack Obama. I’d anticipated he’d extol an attitude of continued hope, but I liked the tangible examples he used to make many of his points (for instance, when I asked about how we can create a new financial narrative for today’s children, he mentioned an initiative for financial literacy already in the works. I just hope it comes out as soon as possible). One regret I have is not following up after my question. I’d wanted to ask The President why The White House doesn’t have something actionable for children, like a button on the The White House website for kids, or, at the very least, a list of resources for parents and caregivers to help facilitate tough discussions about finances and economic struggle. I was happy to hear about the financial literacy initiative, so I didn’t want to take up any more of his time, but why must I always be so accommodating???

Post Interview…

For anyone who writes, you know how your characters can inhabit you in powerful ways. In the case of Maeve Sarah Winters, the protagonist of my children’s book, I can say without a doubt that she spoke to The President on Monday as much as I did.

The phonecalls and requests for interviews about the Presidential Hangout have continued, as well as the joking comments from friends and family that I’m now famous. The truth is, all of the media attention will go away. I’ll still need to schedule oil changes, pick up after my dog and remember to buy hay for the rabbit. The experience was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for my family and for me, but I hope it will always serve as a reminder that even the smallest voices need to be heard.

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What Really Happens at A Writers’ Conference?

If there’s any advice I might offer aspiring authors, it’s to focus on the work — and not too much on your feelings.  Sound impossible?  Yup, it did to me too, especially when my heart broke a little at the beginning of this year’s SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Annual Conference in New York City.  Things definitely got better…but here’s a recap of what a writing conference can do for us, and how important it is to keep going, even when it gets so hard that you want to give up.

——————————————

How I Felt Inside While Editors Read My First 500 Words

My head told me to keep my expectations low, but I just couldn’t do it.

I brought my complete manuscript to the conference this year.  On Friday, the day before the actual conference began,  I attended the SCBWI Pre-Conference Writers’ Intensive, in which two “rounds” of meetings were conducted, pairing writers up with an agent or editor to read and critique the first 500 words of their work.

I attended the Writers’ Intensive portion of the conference last year with a much less polished and much less “finished” manuscript, and yet even back then, I’d hoped an industry professional could see exactly what I see, could feel exactly what I feel, after reading those first 500 words.  I left last year’s conference knowing I had a lot of revising to do, and I spent a year doing it. This time, my hopes were even higher than last year.  At last year’s conference, a woman sitting next to me was asked for her manuscript:  an editor took it on the spot!  I wanted to be that woman; I wanted my manuscript to find a home.  The same editor asked me if my manuscript was finished. D’oh! It wasn’t completely finished, but I had it all in my head! If it had been finished, I just know she would have taken it and presented it to her team and handed me a book contract, right? Well, with that kind of attitude, I went into this year’s conference with all the confidence in the world. I wanted the professionals to feel the love for my characters as I do, and to ask me for my full manuscript so they’d come to know, like I do, how worthwhile this story will be for young readers everywhere.

I. I. I. Wrong attitude.  Bad attitude.

No one asked for my manuscript this year.  I had two copies in my bag, and that is where they stayed. I was crushed.

Oh baby…that’s not even the worst part.

One of the editors commented that I should really start my novel in the kitchen, where my main character learns some important news.  Problem is, that’s where the novel began last year; the editor’s comments then were that I ought to start the book with ACTION!  So, for this year’s conference, the book starts on the boat.  I began to feel a little bit of motion sickness myself with all the differing opinions.

I’m such a pleaser, and I’ve never worked so hard on a project as I have on this.  After the afternoon editors left the ballroom, I fought back tears.  The room was filled with hundreds of other writers who’d gone through their own critiques.  I was too embarrassed to look around to check if anyone else was crying.  Just the act of suppressing tears made it that much harder to keep them hidden.  Suddenly, my face was completely soaked with tears, but I couldn’t get up to leave, because then I’d have to walk through an entire room of people staring at the loser (me) who’d actually thought she’d get a book contract at a Writer’s Conference.

As if!

Lin Oliver, the SCBWI President, spoke to us at the beginning of the day about not taking things personally.  About listening to criticism, taking it in and working with it.  She reminded us of a line from the movie A League of Their Own:  “There’s no crying in baseball.”

Well, this isn’t baseball.  This is three years of critique groups, revisions, time away from my kids and my husband and my friends.

My. My. My.  Wrong attitude.  Bad attitude.  Especially bad (and wrong and misguided) was my belief that I could hit a home run at the Writers’ Intensive.  It’s nearly unheard of.

So, there I sat, blotchy-faced and sweating, ducking my head into my conference agenda and praying for the tears to stop (and for another tissue as I sniveled all over my first 500 words…though at this point, who cares?).  A woman across the table noticed my distress and whispered, “How long have you been working on yours?” She’d also been given some not-so encouraging feedback about her submission from the 20-something editor at our table, though she wasn’t devastated like me.

I said, “I think I’ve been working on it for 3 or 4 years now.”

“If it makes you feel any better,” she said, “this is my 10th year.”

Now, if that isn’t perspective, I don’t know what is.  She wasn’t crying.  She wasn’t giving up.  She had just as much passion for her story as I do.

Another woman, this time to my right, also noticed my tears.  She said, “Hand me your submission,” then proceeded to make detailed comments all over it, suggesting new ways to look at things, circling the strong parts, and offering her email if I wanted to talk further.

My most painful day ended with a huge amount of compassion from fellow writers who’ve been there, who know how personal it is, no matter what, and how essential it is to keep on going.

Hotel Ice Bucket

What I love about ice buckets is their versatility.  Some might keep a bottle of wine chilled.  Some might cool down a caffeinated, diet beverage for an after-workout treat.  I, myself, like to keep it by my bedside for easy access to the ice I use for reducing eye puffiness from crying.

The Do’s and Don’ts for treating red, puffy eyes while staying in a hotel:

Do NOT walk across the street to the Duane Reade pharmacy looking for a cosmetic solution for red, puffy eyes.  The pharmacy staff will stare at you, then ask if everything’s okay (which it is not, especially in a crowded pharmacy at 5pm in New York City).  You will begin to cry again.

Do NOT purchase a product called Eau Thermale Avene, even if the bottle says, “Redness relief soothing cream”.  It will be very expensive.  It will not work.  You will not be able to pronounce it.  And, your purchase will be accompanied by a free gift at the checkout counter, which the clerk will have trouble finding the barcode for, delaying your egress from the busy pharmacy at 5pm on a busy New York City night.

Do NOT take the free “gift” from the clerk, even though it comes in a cute white cosmetic bag with orange trim because you will go back up to your hotel room and open it up (whispering to yourself, “Well, at least SOMETHING good happened today”), only to discover the free gift is a bag of cosmetics for the aging woman.     You will begin to cry even harder.

DO glob on tons of concealer, even though it pools in the creases of your swollen eyes.  Any attention you get will remain focused on the horrific makeup rather than on your sadness.

DO turn down the lights. Do avoid the mirror.

DO go to dinner with a college friend who’ll make you laugh immediately with his honesty. “Wow,” he’ll say. “You weren’t kidding.  You really WERE crying hard.”

DO put your pride aside and share your sob story with your friend.  It’s guaranteed to make you both laugh until you begin crying again.

DO reconnect with another old friend with whom you haven’t seen in 20 years!  Melissa (Carey) Shanker and I started at Leo Burnett on the same day (I believe it was June 22, 1990).  We’ve both since ditched our advertising careers to become happy moms and aspiring children’s writers, and it was fantastic spending the weekend with her.  Here we are, just after we’ve seen each other for the first time in two decades (note my puffy eyes):

Christine and Melissa (Carey) Shanker. It happened to be Melissa's 43rd birthday. She might be taller than me, but she's a LOT OLDER (by 70 days).

DO go back to your room and fill your ice bucket.

DO get a wet washcloth and lay a row of icecubes on the washcloth.

DO roll the ice cubes into the washcloth.

DO grab the plastic bag provided in the ice bucket and wrap it around the washcloth.

DO lay down on the bed, turn on your favorite TV show, and lay the ice-roll on your eyes.

DO replace the ice every fifteen minutes.

DO feel like you’re doing something pro-active, even though the swelling doesn’t really go down at all.

———

The Official Conference Begins…

How could I forget all the important reasons I came in the first place?

In my insane effort to hit a home run during the Writer’s Intensive, I’d let myself forget the primary purposes of attending a Writers’ Conference:

–Camaraderie

–Motivation

–Empathy

–EDITORS’ and AGENTS’ CONTACT INFORMATION

While my conference experience focuses on children’s writers and illustrators, I’m confident there are parallels across many genres.

Writing can be a lonely sport. But when you’re gathered with 1100 other peers who want the same thing you’re working toward, it’s a sign you’re doing something worthwhile.

Despite the emotional breakdown I felt on Friday, Saturday and Sunday were packed with useful, inspiring messages. By Sunday afternoon, I left the conference feeling ready to take on the world.  I was fortified with understanding and new friends and energy.  I left with contacts to send my manuscript to and a greater sense of where the children’s publishing industry stands.  Here are the highlights I took away from the conference:

Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry — an exquisite writer and presenter.  Demonstrated in her speech that even the tiniest comment can turn into a novel if you let it sink deep enough into your psyche.  Sees the innocence of children and the power of their wonder. Appreciates their questions, even when those questions focus incessantly on dogs.

During Lois Lowry’s presentation, I happened to be sitting next to an Evanston native, Alison Cherry, who’s working on a Young Adult novel.  We laughed and shared our manuscripts with each other.  I’m so grateful to have connected with her.  Even though she now lives in New York, she’s an example of a woman raised in Evanston, who attended ETHS, then Harvard, and went on to lead a fabulous independent life in NYC.  I can only hope to raise children as wonderful as Alison.

Christine and Alison Cherry, current and former Evanstonians. Stay tuned for her debut novel, RED, coming out in 2013...

I attended three breakout sessions with editors from various publishing companies.  When you register for a conference, you’re allowed to select from a list of speakers whose discussions fit the needs you have.  For some just starting out, it’s important to learn the difference between an agent and an editor.  For the seasoned writers who’ve got their manuscripts ready (or close to ready), it’s important to hook up with editors representing the publishers you admire and hope to work with.  I selected three editors looking for middle-grade novels and listened to their opinions on the state of the industry.  Everyone seems to offer similar messages:  no more vampire stories needed; electronic books are real and here to stay; voice is key — it must be honest and believable; middle-grade novels are selling big right now; it’s hard to get boys to read Young Adult novels; middle-grade boys are still interested in reading; it’s easier to get girls to read boy books than the reverse; Borders Books is near collapse, which poses an interesting situation — everyone hated the Barnes & Noble and Borders for stealing sales from independent bookstores, but now that Borders is drying up, we’re bummed our books are losing another home.  As much as editors have asked for series in the past, a good novel must stand on its own two feet; having a literary agent is key.

But WHY do I need an agent?

Jerry McGuire, the sports agent. Good literary agents are out for more than the coin. Their mission is to handle the business end of things so you can focus on your writing; the exceptional ones provide editorial feedback to make your work the best it can be.

An agent will be your advocate throughout the process of selling your book.  (S)he will guide your manuscript to its finest form before submitting to editors, then navigate the business dealings throughout a sale so you can focus on the work of writing your next great book.  Many editors won’t look at unagented submissions; their time is stretched so thin with this economy that a manuscript better come ready to go if it’s worthy of even opening.

One editor confessed she doesn’t do any manuscript reading during her workday.  She reads after work hours, because her day is filled with the business end of being an editor (she didn’t elaborate, but I assume that means meetings, paperwork, phonecalls and discussions with peers and agents, etc.).  She said she’ll generally read 50 pages of a manuscript (and know much earlier if it’s a keeper), because even if a story starts slow, it might take 50 pages to convince her to put it down.  If she gets through 3-4 manuscripts a week, she’s thrilled.

R.L. Stine

Author R.L. Stine gave the luncheon keynote, and was he amazing.  The modesty and humor this man has astounds me.  I’d expected a creepy, slightly dorky guy, but he’s actually witty, silly, and a confessed humorist-turned-accidental-horror-novelist-for-kids.  I loved how honest he was about stumbling into writing horror for kids.  “Never say no.  Always say yes to opportunities,” was his primary message.  “You never know where an opportunity may take you.”

When the day was over, I met with members of the Illinois chapter of SCBWI for dinner at Grand Central Station.  What a refreshing evening.  We shared opinions about the bad experience I’d had at the Writer’s Intensive (because I just couldn’t let it go) and how to keep going when it feels hopeless.  We laughed and traded stories that only writers can appreciate about avoidance, perseverance and hope.

Sara Zarr

Sunday morning’s keynote speaker was Sara Zaar.  I’d never read her work, because she’s a YA novelist, but I was moved to tears (are you sensing a theme?) by her speech.  Here are my notes from her 45 minute talk:

At the 2001 conference, she’d been writing about 5 years.  She was a bit “angry” then.  Wondered why no one took her writing seriously.

At the 2005 conference, she’d been writing about 9 years.  She was beyond frustrated.  And, she lost her purse in the hotel.  Figured it was a sign.

They say you write the book you want to read.  She wants to give us the speech we want to hear [how did she know how I was feeling?].

Her agent says the time between when you’re no longer a beginner — yet not officially in the business — is the longest and hardest.  No one knows how long that time is.  That’s why it’s important to attend to the rest of your life during that time.  Rejection can’t take that away from you.  Keep creating.  That may be the only thing that’s completely yours during this time.  Crafting a creative life is essential — but let it also be quiet and normal and growing…a life you can center yourself within…calmly…in order to let yourself grow.

Here are the characteristics of a creative life, according to Sara Zarr:

1. It must be sustainable. You’re doing this for life.

2. It must be engaging.  It must move you.

3. You must invite company.  Seek a mentor, even if it’s a dead mentor.  Be a mentor to someone, and be as open as possible.

4. Know when to send company away.  Recognize when you need privacy with your work, your characters, your time.

5. Your work must be faith-based.  Not the religious faith, per se, but HOPE.  Especially before you’re published [my hand’s raised], people with hope are the people who write novels [she quoted someone “Flannery” about this…].

6. It’s a life that gives back.  Do what you’re meant to be doing, but then give back to those who are meant to do it, too [for instance, that’s why I’m blogging].

Here are the obstacles of a creative life, according to Sara Zarr:

1. Unsustainable habits — not taking care of yourself.  Many of us joke about being stressed, under deadline.  Most of us need to stop doing half of what we’re doing and do the other half well.  Figure out what sorts of habits and routines facilitate your creativity.  She recommended a book called The War of Art (eliminating drama in life).

2. Obsession with process vs. craft.  It’s so important to finish…not just to think, tweet, talk, workshop, analyze.  If you only see your work as commodification of a market, you’ll lose your creativity.  Yes, it’s important to understand the marketplace and your value in it, but don’t judge yourself against others’.

3. Being in the wrong company.  Agents, critique groups, support networks…it’s so important to have writing soulmates [I feel like I do have that…my critique group, my husband and children, my parents, the subscribers to this blog, my friends who check in and ask how I’m doing.  I appreciate them all.]

4. Self obsession.  Living inside our own heads can make us forget our lives and how to engage.  Make sure to do things for others.

5. Lack of faith.  Don’t let doubts of hopelessness override belief in self.

6. Disenchantment.  This is the opposite of engagement.  Cultivate and care for your creative self.  The answer is in the work.

Sara received a standing ovation after her speech.  Her acknowledgement of how hard this calling can be was met with appreciation and support by everyone in the room.  Hers was a speech that exemplifies why we go to these conferences.

A panel discussion about HUMOR followed, including three authors:  Mo Willems (www.mowillems.com), Marvin Terben and Lenore Look.  My stomach hurt from watching the men exchange witticisms and ad-libbed humor.

Linda Sue Park

The closing keynote was given by Linda Sue Park, who wrote the Newberry Award winning A Single Shard. Her website is http://www.lsparkreader.livejournal.com.  She was wonderful and inspiring and everything you’d hope from a closing speaker.  The best message she left for me was to focus on the work — and not how I (as a writer) compare to anyone else out there.  She was asked to write book #9 in the Scholastic series “39 Clues”:

Park said she’d been completely intimidated when her editor asked her to write book #9 — after all, big-time authors had written other books in the series, including Rick Riordan (The world of Percy Jackson ) and Margaret Peterson Haddix (what excitement hasn’t she written?).  What she learned, however, was not to compare herself to the other writers and their bodies of work…but rather focus on the project in front of her.  “I stopped making it about myself…and then I was able to write.”  Sounds simple, but if you’ve played the comparison game (to other writers, to colleagues at work, to other parents, friends, neighbors), you know how paralyzing it can be.  I loved her advice.

______________

So, after the closing keynote, did I check out of the hotel and hightail it to LaGuardia?

Absolutely not.  I left my bags with the bellman and walked…and walked…and walked.  I’d always wanted to visit Ground Zero, but so many friends and family members had said, “Why?  There’s nothing there to see these days except construction.”  Well, I walked from the Grand Hyatt to Ground Zero (stopping three times: once for a New York City pretzel; once for a New York City hot dog; and once for a new pair of boots.

Note the bootstraps. Helpful after a Writer's Intensive like the one I attended.

The boots I’d brought for the trip had holes in the soles. The new ones actually have “bootstraps”…a fitting accessory that I plan on using after my experience at the Writer’s Intensive.

Ground Zero

Here’s the video I shot of my visit:


When I finally reached Ground Zero, I didn’t expect much.  I followed a loud gentleman who appeared, well, delusional, spouting facts and figures about the events of 9/11.  He stopped at the corner of Liberty St. and Greenwich St., right in front of NYFD Ladder Co. 10’s station, and opened a binder filled with photos and maps.  A small crowd gathered around him as he spoke of the disaster with emotion.  He stood in front of the Firefighters’ Memorial (on the side of the fire department, overlooking fences surrounding the site.  The space that was once The World Trade Center now appears to be a massive construction site.  Still, there’s a feeling of solemnity when standing near such a place.  People walk slowly past the fences, trying to peer inside.  Twisted metal juts from some spots in the ground, leaving us wonder, “Is that left over?  Is it new?”  The snow has buried all the dust around the site, but if I could see it, I’d wonder, “Are there victims in this?”

Though I was told not to expect much, I felt more connected to the events of 9/11 than ever.  When I watched the scene unfold on television nearly 10 years ago, I couldn’t believe it was happening in my own country.  New York City seemed so far away…so unreachable…so much a part of other people’s lives.  Standing here at the corner of Liberty and Trinity Streets, I gained a greater sense of just how massive — both physically and emotionally — this event was.

I videotaped the man on the corner, who said his name is Harry John Roland, a.k.a. Ground Zero Man or The World Trade Center Man.  He said he’s on Youtube, and that he’s there every day, rain or shine, to let visitors know what happened on 9/11.  He said he worked in one of the 7 buildings destroyed on that day.  When I got back to Evanston, I found a Youtube video someone else posted, and the comments under the footage ranged from grateful to disgusted.  Some people find his facts and details enlightening.  Others criticize him for making a profit off others’ misery.  I can only say I appreciated his reverence and his dedication to the memory of the place.  So many do not know what happened, and whether his facts are 100% accurate or not, I felt his heart was in the right place.

I couldn’t stop researching him…trying to find some more details on this man.  Then, I ran across an NPR story on him (I’d been misspelling his name).  I realized he’s not a homeless man.  That he has a family.  That he’s not doing this for money.  That he’s out here, every day, to heal himself.

And as I write this, I realize Harry John Roland and I share a bit the same attitude.  We’ve both felt pain, and we both keep going. We’re not sharing our messages for staggering sums of money, but we both have important messages to share.  Some people think we’re crazy. Some criticize us for not presenting our messages in just the right way.  But our messages are our messages, and we have the right to share them as we know them.

And so, to writers out there, I say: attending a writing conference is exactly what you make of it.  You can choose to listen, to engage, to search for meaning, to find a single nugget that moves you forward…or not.  It’s up to you.

Ground Zero. January 30, 2011.

As one editor said to me during the Writer’s Intensive, “Listen, you don’t have to do what I’m suggesting.  It’s just an idea, and it’s your book.”

How very true that is.

New York SCBWI Conference

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:

Overview

Target Audience

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

Marketing Suggestions

Publicity Exposure/Media Contacts

Brief Conclusion

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.

Saturday evening, I had a wonderful dinner with three very nice women, two of whom were named Jennifer (one Jennifer brought her New York friend along, too).

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.

Can you see the Statue of Liberty, in the center of the photo?

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.